Earmageddon: Attila, "Attila" aka Joelageddon!

In which Dave Lifton emerges from rock writing retirement to battle the scourge of Billy Joel's metal band

Earmageddon: Attila, "Attila" aka Joelageddon!
Meat Attila

OK, Jeff. Now we're even.

I had planned to never write about music again. But Jeff asked me to do this.

The original Jefitoblog stood out from the other music sites that were popping up in the mid-'00s. He didn't copy-and-paste press releases, nor did he cop the knee-jerk, hipper-than-thou pose on which Pitchfork made its bones. He wasn't above snark—quite the contrary—but it was combined with trenchant insight and a heavy, hysterical dose of the self-loathing of someone who's nostalgically indebted to music that hadn't aged well.

I became an occasional commenter and I based my own blog, in part, around what he and Jason Hare (whom I discovered through Jeff) were doing. Our friendship in earnest started in early 2008 when I invited both of them to be on my podcast shortly after Popdose's launch. I eventually moved to Popdose because it had a bigger reach, and Jeff's write-whatever-you-want-whenever-you-want approach allowed me to find my voice.

Later, he hooked me up with an actual writing/editing job at a website where he was working. During this time, I was trying to figure out why I wasn't connecting with a lot of new music recommended from trusted sources. Various conversations with Jeff, usually conducted on Twitter between bouts of mom jokes, helped give me a greater understanding of the music of New Orleans, which connected all those dots and answered those questions. I took a deep dive into that city's bottomless music history from which I've happily never resurfaced.

Coincidentally, I refer to Jeff's mom as "The Big Easy."

I left that site in 2021 because the requirements of the job negatively affected my writing. Afterwards, I thought about starting a subscription-based site so that I could go deeper into those topics that were now occupying my mind and enjoy writing again, but didn't want to deal with the hassle of self-promotion, at which I'm terrible. Also, given how so much music-based media is a circle jerk of outrage, the last thing I wanted was to go viral because something I wrote got taken out of context.

So I decided to give up writing about music, and moved on to different things. It took about 18 months, but my voice came back. Then Jeff finally posted his response to an Earmageddon challenge I sent him in 2016 and asked if I was interested in reciprocating. I felt like I owed it to someone who's been such a positive force in my life, having influenced my writing, my ability to make a living and made me a better music fan. I owe him more than I can ever repay. If I ever have a first-born son, I would consider naming him Jeff. Thankfully, that's never going to happen.

And the main reason why I'm saying all this is to embarrass him, because he's a fucking prick.

You see, his Earmageddon challenge is the lone, self-titled 1970 album by Attila, a metal duo comprised of Jon Small (drums) and Billy Joel (organ/vocals). My relationship to Joel's music is similar to Jeff's. It was more or less the soundtrack of my musical upbringing and provided a gateway drug to so many of Billy's influences, with the added bonus of having grown up on his home turf of Long Island. Over the years, I've come to see why he was reviled in some circles, and I don't overlook some of the lyrical shortcomings.

But I'll still defend him any day of the week. I genuinely don't see how his genre-hopping was any different from what critical darlings David Bowie and Neil Young were doing at the time, except that they sold far more (as a tribute to the music of their youth, I'll take An Innocent Man over Everybody's Rockin' every time). The difference is that those guys were seen as charismatic, talismanic artists following their muse, while Joel never claimed to be anything more than a schlubby craftsman trying to find a place where all the styles of music he loved could coexist. Maybe he didn't quite handle the criticism with dignity and grace, but he eventually triumphed above it, and it gives me no small thrill to see his naysayers go crazy every time he sells out a stadium.

Despite a 47-year relationship with Joel's music, I've steered clear of Attila and his other pre-solo career effort, the Hassles. Growing up, I heard about both, but also that they were godawful, so the fear that it would bring him down many pegs caused me to skim past it in the discount bins of seemingly every record store on the South Shore. Two songs by the Hassles and one from Attila were on the My Lives box set, and according to my iTunes count, have each been played once. As I recall, I didn't think the Hassles' cover of "You Got Me Hummin'" was that bad, but I'd rather listen to Sam & Dave's original. But Attila's "Amplifier Fire, Part 1 (Godzilla)"? I'm sure I drank that out of my head later that night.

So now, per the rules of Earmageddon, I have to listen to something I've deliberately avoided for all but 3:40 of my life and promptly forgot about? Fuck you and your gray beard, Jeff.

Attila is one of those things that his haters often point to, because it's apparently impossible that a guy who made his name with love songs recorded a metal album. That's not entirely unfair, because I've often wondered how metal bands could write ballads (my theory: they're all apologies for getting caught). But it also makes sense for anybody who knows about his background. He's often talked about his love of Steve Winwood and how those Spencer Davis Group hits made it seem possible for a white teenager to sound like his idol, Ray Charles, while adding some British Invasion frenzy. Winwood then goes off to form Traffic at roughly the same time that Vanilla Fudge gets going on Long Island. So he's not only got one of his heroes moving to this jammy, psychedelic soul fusion, there are people near him doing the same thing! Then Deep Purple comes along with Jon Lord, an organist who, like Joel, is classically trained. Now it makes a lot more sense, doesn't it?

But it's not like Joel has ever remotely defended Attila other than saying that he and Small were young and dumb. So using it against him doesn't really stick. Still, more than any other Earmageddon challenge, and that includes Rappy McRapperson, I was scared shitless to listen to Attila, just as I was 40+ years ago.

All of this leads up to the ultimate question: Was Attila everything I feared? Not at all, but that doesn't mean I want to hear it again. I think a lot of its negative reputation comes from the cover, because the pelt-clad duo amid slabs of meat would lead one to believe that it's sludgy. But it's basically a proggy power trio (Joel covers bass with his left hand) rooted heavily in the triumvirate of Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, and Jimi Hendrix (Joel relies a lot on the I7#9, the same chord that leads "Purple Haze" and "Hush"), with the Hammond B3 often run through distortion and wah-wah pedals.

Sure, it's all over the place and self-indulgent, but what hard rock wasn't in 1970? Fortunately, he's got the chops for it, particularly on the instrumental closer, "Brain Invasion," where Joel starts with a fanfare stolen from Leonard Bernstein's perfect overture to Candide and uses it as a springboard for a jazz/classical workout. Freed from the confines of the pop song, Attila has probably some of the best technical playing he's ever recorded. Small's drumming is equal to the task, matching Joel's keyboard virtuosity with his own versatility and power.

Sadly, though, most of these songs have words. The two side openers, "Wonder Woman" and "Rollin' Home," work both sides of the Zeppelin catalog, with the former seeing him heap praise on the object of his affections to try to get laid, and the latter is of the when-I-get-home-I'm-gonna-bone-ya-but-good variety. "Revenge Is Sweet" proves that the chip on Joel's shoulder has always been there ("People laughed at me and said I'd never win / Now I turn around and kick your faces in," he sings in the bridge), and "Tear This Castle Down" is a metaphor-strewn attempt at social commentary. At least "California Flash," about a singer who gets busted mid-gig for stripping, has a bit of humor to it. But only just a bit.

Still, the lyrics aren't that much dumber than their influences, and probably better than anything Kiss or Motley Crue ever recorded. Vocally, he's copping Robert Plant's phrasing, but without the falsetto yelping. It's a young, confident voice hitting high notes with relative ease and, honestly, I wish he still sounded like this.

As for "Amplifier Fire, Part 1 (Godzilla)," it's a jazzy instrumental similar to "Brain Invasion," although maybe not as over the top and not nearly as bad as I though. Part 2, however, titled "March of the Huns," is a tuneless, shapeless mess, and probably largely responsible for Attila's reputation.

Had the members of Attila disappeared after their only album, it would be seen as merely a third-rate attempt at glomming on to a current trend—not much different from, say, Warrant or Candlebox—but relished in obscurity. It might even have some credibility among crate-diggers. But because one of them, within a decade, was in the midst of his imperial phase on the charts, Attila gets even less love than "Christmas in Fallujah." It's not good, but it's hardly, as Steven Thomas Erlewine wrote, "undoubtedly ... the worst album released in the history of rock & roll – hell, the history of recorded music itself."

The talent is all there; Joel would just need to figure it out. If his time at the Executive Lounge gave him anything besides his signature tune, it was that playing standards night after night taught him about not just about how those songs work, but, more importantly, why. If, like me, you've had the same fears, give it a shot. It's only 40 minutes long, and you'll probably forget about it quickly enough.

Before I sign off, I want to thank Jeff for being the biggest fan of my writing that I'm not related to, and for getting me out of my self-imposed exile. It's been a blast doing this, and hope that we'll continue with Earmageddon. But that's also because I already know what I want Jeff to review next. Hell, I've been waiting eight years to send it to him, because it hits the sweet spot of so many things he hates.

Your move, fuckface.*

*Copyright 2009, Jason Hare