In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well. This week, we’re talking about songs we loved from our first favorite bands.
My taste for Billy Joel is part musical, part hereditary. My parents were early adopters of The Piano Man, first catching him live in the years between his mid-’70s L.A. washout and his arena-conquering mega stardom in the ’80s. Joel’s music was a constant of my childhood: For years, a Storm Front cassette lived in the tape deck of the family minivan, eventually relieved of its duty when River Of Dreams arrived in 1993. Before I had my own concept of what a rock star was, the cover of Live At Yankee Stadium helped form one for me: Wayfarers, perma-scowl, enough self-importance that the artist could pose as a member of the most storied franchise in the history of Major League Baseball. When I finally saw Joel play at a baseball stadium in person—last summer at Wrigley Field—it was the fulfillment of a life-long fandom and a genetic imperative.
There’s also the matter of a cartoon dog named Dodger: Alongside Bette Midler, Cheech Marin, and future recording sensation Joey Lawrence, Joel starred in Walt Disney Pictures’ big release for the 1988 holiday season, Oliver & Company. An animated adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, Oliver & Company recasts its Dickensian orphans as stray animals scraping by in a pre-Giuliani New York City. In this version of the story, the title character is an adorable puff of orange feline fluff, and his reluctant mentor is a pooch with “street savoir faire”—a phrase no one would ever use outside the confines of a Billy Joel song. Fortunately for the character (and the film), Dodger is voiced by Billy Joel, in what Wikipedia charitably describes as “Joel’s only foray into acting.”
But his merits as a thespian are of secondary concern to the reason he booked the Oliver & Company gig: To sing the hell out of Dodger’s spotlight number, “Why Should I Worry?” Preparing its first musical since 1981’s The Fox And The Hound and still stinging from the box-office failure of The Black Cauldron, Disney couldn’t afford to take any chances with Oliver & Company, and the credits of the film’s soundtrack are an insane pileup of names from the worlds of Top 40 radio, Broadway, and movie music. Huey Lewis sings the theme song (co-written by an eventual Disney fixture, the late Howard Ashman), the lead songwriting credit on Midler’s number goes to Barry Manilow, and Ruth Pointer shows as the singing voice for the lone female member of Dodger’s gang. The fractured nature of the film itself may explain why most of the star-wattage in The Little Mermaid, Beauty And The Beast, and Aladdin belongs to behind-the-scenes types like Ashman and his collaborator on those films, Alan Menken. When the “Disney Renaissance” came, no name could stand taller than the studio’s. (With the exception of the late Robin Williams’, though that’s a whole other story.)
When Dodger breaks into “Why Should I Worry?”, the sequence may as well be a Billy Joel video. Penned by the super-’80s songwriting team of Dan Hartman and Charlie Midnight, the Motown-aping chorus of “Why Should I Worry?” would’ve fit right in on Joel’s doo-wop-and-soul pastiche An Innocent Man—and it certainly features enough references to New York City landmarks to pass the Billy Joel smell test. The song’s slicked-down strut is 100 percent Joel circa 1988, boasting the sort of falsetto highs and growling lows he has to eschew in live performances circa 2015. The singer-songwriter’s persona hangs so heavy over the song that Dodger eventually picks up some knockoff Ray-Bans from a street vendor, adopting Joel’s signature look from the era. It’s an image that once said “rock star” to a kid whose definition of the term began and ended with a VHS tape, The California Raisins, the cover of Michael Jackson’s Bad, and a dog in sunglasses playing a grand piano with his tail.