Billy Joel – Allentown

A great single by Billy Joel with a song off of the Nylon Curtain album.

Allentown is a town in Northeast Pennsylvania about 45 minutes away from the Pocono mountains. An industrial town, many of the once-thriving factories and mills had fallen on hard times when Joel wrote the song, and unemployment in the area was at an all-time high of 12%.

Also mentioned in the song is nearby Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, whose main employer, Bethlehem Steel, had been closing operations. Joel sings about the unemployed workers in the line, “Out in Bethlehem they’re killing time, filling out forms, standing in line.”

When the album and single were released in 1982, the Mayor of Allentown PA was Joe Dadonna, who had the difficult job of promoting the image of his city during the worst economic crisis of its history. While many locals viewed “Allentown” as a put-down of their declining city, Mayor Dadonna saw it as an opportunity for some publicity and promotion.

The song was on the Nylon Curtin released in 1982.

The song peaked at #17 in the Billboard 100 and #21 in Canada, and #1 in New Zealand in 1982.

The steel mill this song is written about is now a casino.

From Songfacts

Billy Joel did not grow up in Allentown – he grew up in Levittown, on Long Island. In an interview with James Lipton on Inside the Actors Studio, he compared Allentown with his hometown while he was growing up, noting the similarities. Joel stated that the original title was “Levittown,” and the original lyrics seemed kind of bland, and he felt that they would possibly be considered boring to the listeners.

Some of the original lyrics included lines like, “Well we’re living here in Levittown. And there’s really not much going down. I don’t see much when I look around. The grass is green, the trees are brown. And we’re living here in Levittown.” So, during the time of the upcoming studio sessions for The Nylon Curtain, Billy took a trip to Pennsylvania. It was here that he came up with the idea for new lyrics. At that time, he had Bethlehem in mind, but was worried people would suddenly get the impression that the song was religious (the birth of Christ was said to have happened was Bethlehem, Israel). It is worth noting that Bethlehem and Allentown are right next to each other. So, he started writing down some lyrics for what later became the song “Allentown.”

The distinctive chord at the beginning was originally a mistake, but Joel decided he liked the way it sounded and left it in.

The song starts with the blowing of a steam whistle in a factory. This was common in the days of steel mills and lumber companies. Usually, whistles were blown at the beginning of a work day, to summon workers to their duties, to announce shift changes, to call them to their lunch hour at noon, and at the end of a work day, to let them know that it was 5:00 and it was time to go home. Also, when listened to carefully, in the background with the music, one can hear the rhythmic pounding of a pile driver, a machine for delivering repeated blows to the top of a pile for driving it into the ground. The machine consists of a frame which supports and guides a hammer weight, together with a mechanism for raising and dropping the hammer or for driving the hammer by air or steam. 

Joel played a benefit concert in Allentown, Pennsylvania on December 27, 1982 as this song was climbing the charts.

The video was directed by Russell Mulcahy, whose work was all over MTV in their early years, with many videos to his credit by Fleetwood Mac, Elton John and Duran Duran. Billy Joel had little interest in music videos, so he let the directors control them. The “Allentown” video stays true to the song in the sense that we see young men coming back from the war and struggling to find work, but these men are far more shirtless and muscular than you would expect. In I Want My MTV by Craig Marks, Joel said: “It’s really gay. There’s a shower scene with all these good-looking, muscular young steel workers who are completely bare assed. And then they’re all oiled up and twisting valves and knobs. I’d missed this completely when I was doing the video. I just thought it was like The Deer Hunter.”

This is the biggest hit to mention the state of Pennsylvania in the lyric (“for the Pennsylvania we never found”). Darryl Worley’s “Have You Forgotten?,” a 2003 song about the September 11 attacks, was the next hit to mention the state.

Allentown

Well we’re living here in Allentown
And they’re closing all the factories down
Out in Bethlehem they’re killing time
Filling out forms
Standing in line
Well our fathers fought the Second World War
Spent their weekends on the Jersey Shore
Met our mothers in the USO
Asked them to dance
Danced with them slow
And we’re living here in Allentown

But the restlessness was handed down
And it’s getting very hard to stay

Well we’re waiting here in Allentown
For the Pennsylvania we never found
For the promises our teachers gave
If we worked hard
If we behaved
So the graduations hang on the wall
But they never really helped us at all
No they never taught us what was real
Iron and coke
And chromium steel
And we’re waiting here in Allentown

But they’ve taken all the coal from the ground
And the union people crawled away

Every child had a pretty good shot
To get at least as far as their old man got
But something happened on the way to that place
They threw an American flag in our face

Well I’m living here in Allentown
And it’s hard to keep a good man down
But I won’t be getting up today

And it’s getting very hard to stay
And we’re living here in Allentown

Author: badfinger20 (Max)

Power Pop fan, Baseball fan, old movie and tv show fan... and a songwriter, bass and guitar player.

59 thoughts on “Billy Joel – Allentown”

  1. Great song, I’ve always loved it and think it’s possibly the most under-rated of his singles (not necessarily the best, but getting far less attention than most of his others). I think I read once that the mayor gave him the Key to the City at a show he did in allentown.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. It’s a very good song. Interesting backstory about the changing in lyrics etc. I saw Billy in 1991. My friend was a huge fan and dragged me, kinda. but it was great. You see, we would have fisty-cuffs sometimes about who was the better singer-songwriter Billy or Elton. He would always taunt me with ‘I want to kiss the Bride—–GROOM’!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That is a good one…I have to hand it to him.

      I would have loved to see them both together when they toured…that would have been a special show.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That is cool that you have that show. I saw Ringo in 2012 at the Ryman and come to find out there was a dvd out on that show…I got it this year.
        I saw the Stones in 06 and when I got home from the concert I searched and found a bootleg of the show I was at…that was special at the time.

        Like

    1. Glass Houses was mine also and it remains probably my favorite album by him. Glass Houses and The Game by Queen were around the same time I remember.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That’s right. Both of those albums are still two of my fav albums.
        Going Live Streaming tomorrow at 7pm EST which is 6pm your time. Hope u can join along if not it will be posted to Youtube.
        Cheers,

        Liked by 1 person

      2. If at all possible I will be. Thanks for telling me 6 my time dude…getting old sucks….I see 7 and it stays in my damn head lol.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Good song. Given the subject matter, I always thought “it’s hard to keep a good man down, but I won’t be getting up today” was one of his more poignant lines.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. I feel this was his last really good studio album that has aged well. An Innocent Man was big, but a bit too poppy/MTV for me these days. I’m glad he changed the lyrics. The sample you shared reminds me of the mundanity of Joe Walsh’s Ordinary Average Guy. I wonder if Joel was channeling his inner Bruce on this one.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes it would fit today…
      I read where it was big in New Zealand…” In New Zealand it Hit Number 1 for four weeks and was one of the country’s anthems of the year.”

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I’ve always loved that song, and I live relatively close to the sights Joel mentions. Allentown and especially Bethlehem, which successfully reinvented itself as cultural hub and has lots of music events, are only a 1.5 hour drive from my house. I’ve been to both places numerous times over the past 12 years or so since I’ve lived in Central New Jersey.

    For example, I saw Jackson Browne at Sands in Bethlehem in April 2018. I also saw Santana (with the classic Santana band!) at the PPL Center in Allentown in April 2016, and Hall & Oats at Allentown Fairgrounds in September 2019.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That is really cool that you live that near it.

      I read where Joel played in Bethlehem not much longer after the song came out.

      That must have been a terrible time for the town. From what I read those jobs didn’t come back.
      It reminds me of a Springsteen type song…not sounding but content.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yep, it’s a pretty dramatic history these two towns have. But at least Bethlehem reinvented itself, though I doubt it benefitted all those steelworkers who lost their jobs.

        In terms of the lyrics, I feel it’s one of Joel’s most compelling songs. “The Nylon Curtain” has another tune that’s a lyrical standout, in my view: “Goodnight Saigon”.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. It’s may be one of the best-written songs he ever composed.

        My favorite song by him is Scenes from an Italian Resturant. I love the changes in that one.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Not used to Billy Joel writing socially conscious tunes. My favorite album of his is The Stranger. The one after that is pretty good also. You’re right, Allentown was timely. I remember it was tough times for the rust belt that we have yet to recover from…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The small towns were being eaten alive and vanishing…our little town almost didn’t survive. We lost our dime store and other businesses.
      Glass Houses was pretty good…I believe that is the one after the Stranger.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks so much for the kind words.
        No secret. I love music trivia… and have read a lot. Many though obviously I don’t know much about. I just google “Billy Joel – Allentown history” and go through pages and pages….songfacts.com is where I get a lot and that is why I copy and paste some of that info at the bottom that is labeled “From Songfacts”….that is a good source….

        If it’s a Beatles or Who post I probably knew most of the info as I’ve read about them so much.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Your blog is deep…deep. Great deep. I love how you show how things relate to certain Bible verses. I can’t imagine how much research you do.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. I dunno – something needs to be said about how Billy enveloped the entire song during the composition process, and, in most cases, the music in his head influenced the lyrics. Either way, I’ve always admired the entirety of his work as legitimately “his.” Elton is an icon, no doubt, but Bernie played a huge part in his fame. Billy was and always will be a self-made man. At 70 years old, he knocked it out of the park (pun) at a live performance at Coors Field last year. I thought for sure he’d transpose “Piano Man” to a lower key. Nope. It was stellar.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I was hoping Bernie you would see this…I thought…I hope he doesn’t miss this one! I was going to email you….I will be doing more in the future. This one got more views than any other post I got this week.

      I love this song and the purpose behind it. It was a bad time…I remember as kid I kept hearing about small towns vanishing.

      He was smart to change it to Allentown…that was brilliant.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. A great song, and he did have a connection to the “working man” both as listeners and musicians (and war heroes). “William” Joel is aces to me, imperfections and all! Can’t wait to read about more of his songs through your blog! Gosh, I hope I can see him live again 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I would like to see him live also. I hope I did him justice for you. When other people review the Bealtes…I’m like a hawk. I That was only my second Joel song…

        I have a great idea…why don’t you guest host my site one day? You write the review and I’ll link to your site…

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Ha! Nah, your knack for song/lyric analysis is spot on. As a piano player and composer, I just had to put in a few words of respect for Billy as I think he will forever be the underdog when compared to Elton, and there’s a good portion of the world that doesn’t know he wrote it ALL.

        I appreciate the offer, Max. We’ll see… School is looking to start online again, so I’ve been swamped with prep.

        I’m seeing my dad tomorrow. I’ll be sure to ask him about obscure bands/songs to ask you about. He dug your knowledge on Bad Finger and reminded me about how Breaking Bad ended…

        Liked by 1 person

      4. Cool tell your dad hi. Yea that show helped Baby Blue alot.
        If you ever want to do it just let me know… it would be fun.

        Well Elton was so huge in the early seventies…that is part of the reason

        Liked by 1 person

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