NOTE: This is a pre-production transcript and may not match the final show precisely.
Oh, HI! And welcome to the next episode of How Good It Is, a weekly podcast that takes a closer look at songs from the rock and roll era, and we check out some of the stories behind those songs, and the artists who made them famous.
My name is Claude Call, and teachers everywhere are just counting down, now.
Hey, don’t forget to check out the website, How Good It Is Dot Com, and the Twitter, and the Instagram, and of course the Facebook page, which can be found over at Facebook dot com, slash, (ow) How Good It Is Pod.
Have I got a trivia question for ye today!
Tell me, what rock band from the British Invasion did a commercial for Rice Krispies cereal in 1964? To be fair, I don’t think the ad aired in the US but rather in England. But this was a band that had a couple of hits in the UK, and had already scored their first Top Ten hit in the US by the time the spot aired. What band was it?
I’ll have that answer at the end of the program.
“Scenes From an Italian Restaurant” is supposed to be one of Billy Joel’s favorites among his own work, and it’s certainly a favorite of the fans, even though it was never released as a single.
Those of you who pay attention know that this podcast originates from Baltimore, Maryland, but if you know me personally then you know I’m originally from Long Island, New York. And we on the Island take a little bit of extra pride in Billy Joel, especially since we often know about the landmarks he mentions in his songs, when he does mention them. For instance, in 1980’s “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me” he talks about cruising the Miracle Mile, which is a specific strip of high-end stores in the town of Manhasset. “Billy the Kid,” from 1974, brings up the town of Oyster Bay. And, of course, his debut studio album is titled Cold Spring Harbor, which is a hamlet in the town of Huntington. But there’s been a little controversy about the location of the restaurant he describes in “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant,” but we’ll dive a little deeper into that shortly.
Up until the time that Billy Joel released his album The Stranger, he was a known artist in the rock and roll world, but he still hadn’t really made his breakout. In an interview with USA Today, Joel said that he was inspired to write the song by the Beatles, specifically side two of the Abbey Road album. Those of you who aren’t living in a cave know that the last half of that album side is composed of a bunch of songs that the Beatles hadn’t completely finished, or where they hadn’t really fleshed out the entire idea. Producer George Martin asked them what they had, and John Lennon would say, “well I’ve got this”, and Paul McCartney would say “well I’ve got that”. So they all sat around and said “Hmm. We can put this together, and I will fit in there.”
So Joel said that’s pretty much what he did with “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant.” He had a few different songs that weren’t really finished, and he, inspired by Abbey Road, stitched them together into a reasonably coherent suite.
The different pieces would be the opening, which is called “Italian Restaurant”, and it’s mostly just piano with a little accordion thrown in for atmosphere. It describes a couple of old friends seeing each other for the first time in awhile, in a restaurant which they presumably used to spend time together.
From there it moves into an instrumental bit featuring mostly saxophone and drums, which I think in this case is the musical version of when your TV screen gets all wavy right before a character starts telling a flashback story.
The next section is often described as one big segment, but it’s really two different bits, since they do have slightly different styles going on. The first part is called “Things Are OK in Oyster Bay”, even though he doesn’t mention that town, and it’s the same couple catching up with each other. “Things are OK” was a piece that Joel had written several years earlier but hadn’t done anything with yet, so he updated the lyrics to fit this track. It’s quick, it’s a little frenetic, and the combination of the drums plus Billy Joel banging hard on the piano chords suggests that they’re really kind of running through the checklist of topics of conversation. I’m married, check. I’ employed, check. Got kids, check. Hey, you look good, check. OK, now let’s reminisce.
At this point he talks about hanging out at the Village Green. A lot of towns on Long Island seem to have some area like this, just a park-like spot with walking paths, surrounded by trees, and it’s usually called the Village Green. And of course, that’s a common area where the kids would hang out. In Billy Joel’s case it’s most likely the West Village Green in Hicksville, where he grew up. My town didn’t really have a village green as such, which is probably why so many of them hung out in front of the 7-Eleven store.
The music changes again, which is why I think “Things are OK” gets to be its own section. Now we’ve got more horns and a lot of clarinet. And now we move into the couple gossiping about another couple from high school, named Brenda and Eddie, in a segment that’s called “The Ballad of Brenda and Eddie.” Now, in the story Brenda and Eddie were the power couple in high school who basically peaked too soon and wound up going nowhere, both as a couple but also in their lives.
This part of the song mentions the Parkway Diner. Now, the Parkway Diner is a real place located somewhere in that fuzzy zone where the town of Mineola turns into the town of Westbury. The location was close to the intersection of two different parkways, the Northern State Parkway, and the Meadowbrook Parkway, and in the 1960s and 70s if you were making the change from the Northern State to the Meadowbrook, the Parkway Diner would be a great place to stop off and pick something up before continuing your trip, because it was very easy to get off the Northern State, pop into the diner and jump back on the Meadowbrook. Going the other way was a little more complicated. In the 1980s the entire interchange was rebuilt, so that arrangement didn’t really hold anymore. Now, the Parkway Diner was NOT a victim of that rebuild, but unfortunately it doesn’t exist anymore. If you go to that area, all you’ll see is a Mobil gas station. Coincidentally, there IS a diner next door, but it’s not the same place.
Now, the one element that doesn’t really make sense to me is some of the activity in this segment. Brenda and Eddie decide they’re going to get married, people try to talk them out of it to no avail, so he sings “There we were wavin’ Brenda and Eddie goodbye.”. That’s the lyric. They get married, get an apartment—and yes, deep-pile carpet was one of those unfortunate décor elements in the mid-70s—and so on, and in the next verse they divorce, and they learn that they’re not the big shots anymore, so they have to gather up the shattered remains of their lives and move on somehow. But then our narrator jumps out of the story to wrap it up and finishes “And here we are wavin’ Brenda and Eddie goodbye.” OK, so what happened there? Why are they waving goodbye to them again?
Here’s my theory, and I’m totally pulling this one out of my butt, just trying to make some sense of the lyric. If you’ve got something better, by all means hit me up. What I think happened is that Brenda and Eddie, realizing just how badly they’ve jacked up their lives, are actually taking a shot at reconciling. And that’s why our narrator and his friend are at the restaurant in the first place, and that’s why they’re waving Brenda and Eddie goodbye, because they’ve just gotten re-married. It’s not the best explanation, but it’s an explanation.
Finally, just as you think the song is over, it transitions yet again, with a much richer sound involving some soaring strings before settling into the piano-and-accordion music that opened up the song, with some drumming thrown in. It’s really just a reprise of the opening verse, but it starts to move into the transition again before finally coming to an end, and to me—and again, this is just my opinion—that suggests that this is kind of a cyclical thing. It’s all going to happen again. It’s not so much a coda as it is what musicians refer to as a da capa, a return to the beginning. Maybe it’s not all going to happen again to these characters, but to someone else, somewhere else. Incidentally, Joel has said that the song’s line “A bottle of red, a bottle of white, whatever kind of mood you’re in tonight” literally came from a waiter in an Italian restaurant he’d been in.
The track overall comes in at just over seven-and-a-half minutes, which makes it the longest of his studio tracks. And despite that length, it still managed to get plenty of airplay.
So what is the restaurant that inspired the song, and why is there controversy around it? Several restaurants in the New York metro area have laid claim to this title, but there are really only two serious contenders. When Billy Joel debuted this song for an audience, he was performing at Long Island University’s C.W. Post campus, which is in the town of Greenvale. CW Post, in fact, is a couple of miles due east, on the same road as the Miracle Mile I mentioned earlier. Before he sang the song, he gave a little shout-out to a restaurant in the nearby town of Syosset, called Christiano’s. Let me tell you, Christiano’s was coincidentally my go-to place when I was a young adult working in the area at the time. You could not beat their baked clams dish, and everything else was terrific. Oddly enough, the only thing I didn’t like of theirs was the pizza. It wasn’t bad pizza, but you could definitely do better. And Christiano’s was one of those places you could definitely picture in your head, with the checkered tablecloths, the curved wooden bar and the chianti bottles everywhere, and everyone’s just glad to see you. So because of that comment, Christiano’s has the first, and probably the best, claim to being the restaurant named in the song.
However…Billy Joel has said a couple of times in interviews that he was talking about another place, called Fontana di Trevi, which used to be across the street from Carnegie Hall in Manhattan. When they were starting to put The Stranger album together, Joel used to meet with producer Phil Ramone there a lot, so he’s said that THAT was the inspiration for the song, suggesting that mentioning Christiano’s was kind of like shouting “Yankees!” at a Manhattan concert.
So which one gets the prize? I don’t really know. Frankly I’m leaning more toward Christiano’s if only because he’s referenced so many other specific places on Long Island in his songs, and Christiano’s isn’t otherwise a famous place to eat. It was tucked away on a side street, and you had to know where you were going to find it. That he might be referencing something a little more accessible to the public at large feels a little disingenuous at this point.
OK, I guess I should mention that Brenda and Eddie did get a second life, as the major characters in the Broadway show Movin’ Out, a jukebox musical based on Billy Joel’s catalog of songs. The show ran on Broadway for about three years, and in addition to Brenda and Eddie, we also get to meet Anthony from the song “Movin’ Out”, and the characters James and Judy from the songs that bear those names. The setting is moved to the mid 60s from the 70s, and it’s not so much a traditional musical so much as a series of dances which are linked by the plot that stitches the songs together. None of the dancers do any singing; that’s instead done by a band on a platform above the stage. So what you have is more like a jukebox ballet, I guess.
And now it’s time to answer today’s trivia question. Back on Page Two I asked you about the British Invasion group that made a commercial for Rice Krispies in 1964. Believe it or not, that group was the Rolling Stones. They were approached by the J. Walter Thompson ad agency to write a jingle for a commercial that aired on British television, so Brian Jones paired up with one of their ad executives and wrote a 25-second song. For a cereal ad, it’s kind of a rocker. Check it out:
I actually like it a little better than the Monkees’ jingles for the same product, though they did appear personally in the ads, where the Stones…did not.
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Next time around, we’re going to find out How Good It Is, even though You Never Called Me By My Name.
Thanks for listening and I’ll talk to you next time.