In interviews Billy Joel always cites “Vienna”, among all the songs he’s written, as one of his favourites. It’s one of my favourites too.
“Vienna” is the lead track on the second side of Billy Joel’s 1977 album “The Stranger” which I still have on vinyl.
The track begins with a slightly “wonky” piano intro…I’m sure there’s a proper musical term for it, but as I don’t know what that is, “wonky” will have to do for now…
Whatever its correct description, the intro grabs your attention. Most records don’t include deliberately discordant notes, but if Billy Joel’s objective was to capture listeners’ attention for what was to follow, he certainly succeeded.
Then the lyrics come along, with an important message for everyone in our busy modern world…a world which has got even busier since 1977…
Slow down, you crazy child
You’re so ambitious for a juvenile
But then if you’re so smart, then tell me
Why are you still so afraid?
I was one of those juveniles in a hurry back in 1977. Ambitious and hard-working. Determined to make a success of myself…(and to think, the plan so nearly worked…).
Billy Joel was telling us to take some time out to smell the flowers and enjoy life, rather than hurtling through it at breakneck speed.
It’s good advice. Most people don’t take it.
Slow down, you’re doing fine
You can’t be everything you want to be
Before your time
Although it’s so romantic on the borderline tonight
“Vienna” was written in 1977. It could easily have been written by a hippie a decade earlier, telling us all to chill out a bit more.
But I suspect if a song with the same broad theme had come a decade earlier or had been written by an artist with less of a musical background than Billy Joel, it wouldn’t have had quite such a poignant musical accompaniment.
Whilst at university in the early 1980s I spent a couple of university summer holidays in Vienna, trying to learn German. Vienna holds some fond memories for me, back before I had mortgages to pay and families to worry about. And it’s a city full of history from its place at the heart of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and, many years later, at crossroads between East and West during the Cold War.
Partly due to my trips there, I became a fan of the classic film noir “The Third Man”, the haunting way the city of Vienna was portrayed in that film, and the other-worldly “Third Man Theme” by Anton Karas.
Billy Joel’s intro for “Vienna” sums up all that for me and takes me back to a time and a place in a beautiful city jam-packed with history, palaces and parks, and ideal for quiet contemplation and reflection.
My own time in Vienna was what really sold me on Billy Joel’s song. “The Stranger” is jam-packed with great tracks. But if I had to scratch off every track but one from the piece of vinyl that lives in my attic, leaving just one song to enjoy for eternity, “Vienna” is the track I’d leave unscathed.
Not the exquisite “Always A Woman”, not “Moving Out (Anthony’s Song)”, not “Just The Way You Are”, not “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant”, not “Only The Good Die Young”.
Despite “The Stranger” being chock-full of amazing songs that have been hits around the world, “Vienna” is the track I’d keep if I had to make a choice. All the other tracks are brilliant. “Vienna” is the song that takes me into an almost spiritual space.
Writing these words now, 40-odd years after “The Stranger” hit the record shops, I only wish I’d paid more attention to the message in the lyrics of “Vienna” in the intervening years.
Billy Joel makes the point that just because you’re ambitious and just because you work hard for something, it doesn’t mean you’re going to reach your goal. And maybe that’s the way it’s meant to be. Maybe there’s somewhere else you’re destined to be instead…
You’ve got your passion, you’ve got your pride
But don’t you know that only fools are satisfied
Dream on, but don’t imagine they’ll all come true
When will you realise, Vienna waits for you
In the song, I think Vienna symbolises a constant in your life, someone who’s always there for you, like a close family member or the friend you always turn to when things aren’t going your way.
Vienna is a place, a city packed full of stories, events and buildings from throughout history, but it’s also a state of mind. It’s somewhere you’re always welcome. It’s somewhere everybody knows your name. It’s somewhere a kind word and a hug is always waiting. It’s there whenever you need it…
And you know that when the truth is told
That you can get what you want, or you can just get old
You’re gonna kick off before you even get half-way through
When will you realise, Vienna waits for you
Win, lose or draw, your old friend is always there — a place, an activity or a person. Someone or something we can depend on when we need to recharge our batteries and rediscover our souls.
That’s what the city of Vienna means to me. And that feeling of being somewhere I can depend on to remain constant even as the world is changing all around me is what I’m reminded of every time I hear Billy Joel’s thoughtful and reflective song.
Maybe one day, I’ll make it back there.
From his multi-platinum album “The Stranger”, here’s Billy Joel with “Vienna”…