It was 30 years ago today (October 17th, 1989) that Billy Joel released his 11th studio album, the chart-topping Storm Front. The album marked the “Piano Man's” first album since 1977 not to be produced by the legendary Phil Ramone, with Billy tapping Foreigner leader Mick Jones to sit behind the boards for his final album of the decade. Billy had originally approached Eddie Van Halen to produce the set, but due to Van Halen duties passed on the offer — but suggested Jones, who had recently helmed the band's 1986 5150 album.
Storm Front, which was the first Billy Joel album since 1976's Turnstiles collection to not feature bassist Doug Stegmeyer — the inagural member of the famed Billy Joel Band — hit Number One on December 16th, 1989, displacing Milli Vanilli's 1989 three-week chart-topper, Girl You Know It's True.
The album's lead single, “We Didn't Start The Fire,” hit Number One on the Billboard Hot 100 for two weeks starting on December 9th, 1989. Storm Front spawned four other singles, “I Go To Extremes,” which hit Number Six; “The Downeaster Alexa,” which stalled at Number 57 — but peaked at Number 18 on Billboard Hot Adult Contemporary Tracks chart; “That's Not Her Style,” which only got as far as Number 70 on the Billboard Hot 100 — but made its way up to a respectable Number 18 on the magazine's Mainstream Rock chart.
The album's final single, “And So It Goes” — a tune first tracked during the sessions for 1983's An Innocent Man — squeaked into the Top 40 at Number 37 — but proved to have real legs on the Adult Contemporary Chart, where it peaked at Number Five. Garth Brooks covered the Storm Front sleeper “Shameless” on his 1991 Ropin' The Wind album and brought the song to Number One on Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart.
Back in the day, Billy Joel revealed that it was a long process to get the Storm Front material up to snuff: “I started writing the album at the beginning of 1988, after I'd been on the road for a year-and-a-half. And I wasn't really happy with what I was comin' up with. But, just the seeds for the ideas weren't there yet. It was too soon for me to start writing and that was a tough time — I just put it away. I said, 'let's put the pencils, and the pens, and the crayon boxes away, and I'll take 'em out later in the year.' Which was a good idea, because sometimes you have to let the field lie fallow.”
Billy Joel was inspired to write 'We Didn't Start The Fire' after a long conversation with Sean Lennon, who believed that current events were spinning out of control for his generation: “'We Didn't Start The Fire' was written without the music — it was written lyrics first. It was written as a rap song, as a matter of fact. (I) did set it to some music — although, it's not very musical, that song, it's kind of a drone. We finished the recording of 'We Didn't Start The Fire' just as the incident Tiananmen Square happened in Beijing with the Chinese students. And them, sure enough as the album came out, everything burst wide open in Eastern Europe. What I've done is really chronicle the cold war from the beginning to the end.”
Three decades on, we asked the great Mick Jones what stands out about the sessions for 1989's Storm Front: “Billy was looking to toughen up in certain areas. (I was) pushing him quite a lot about the writing. It was sometimes quite intense, but I sort of stood my ground and put my ideas forward, and even if they weren't used, they were accepted by Billy. And I think he had the respect of working with another songwriter. I really do think that we toughened it up a bit — especially with tracks like 'We Didn't Start The Fire' — I think he headed into some new ground. We did a pretty rocking album.”