From 1977 to 1980, piano man Billy Joel released three larger-than-life pop albums, The Stranger, 52nd Street, and Glass Houses. The guy could write a radio hit in his sleep, it seemed, and even the album cuts were mostly excellent.
And then came 1982’s The Nylon Curtain, where the songs were a little more serious and a little less … well, enjoyable. The hooks were still there, sure—“Allentown” and “Pressure” showed that the man was still a one-man hit parade—but there was just something about The Nylon Curtain that made it stand out less, and I think it’s aged a little worse than its predecessors.
But The Nylon Curtain gave us “Goodnight Saigon,” so all is forgiven. And let me be clear: “Goodnight Saigon” is a goddamn masterpiece.
The opening sound effects could have been lame, sure, but the song is so strong that they work perfectly. And the song’s opening minutes are lovely, with Joel’s slow, simple piano working together with an understated acoustic guitar part. I also love how the song’s tension builds and builds until the chorus of voices joins in and you suddenly have all soldiers united, singing together about this harsh reality they’re experiencing while the rest of the world carries on back home like nothing has changed. Out of context, sure, all those voices might sound like a little too much. But it’s earned by the way Joel structures his song, with the soldiers going from Bob Hope and Doors tapes to coming home in body bags.
Speaking of those soldiers’ voices—I appreciate that “Goodnight Saigon” has a powerful, sincere message about soldiers’ lives without being some grand statement about war. As Joel often does, he gives voice to the working-class people who did what had to be done. It’s a beautiful sentiment, and I’d much rather hear that perspective than some pseudo-patriotic modern country nonsense.
There’s one other thing about this song I wanted to call out: the way Joel seems to switch up the way he sings. As “Goodnight Saigon” begins, he sounds younger than normal, maybe even more hopeful than the real-life Billy Joel sounded in 1982. And then there’s that dramatic shift, as if Joel is on stage performing a play. And it was dark, he shouts, so dark at night! Just great stuff all around here … he’s not just singing a song about something; he’s performing it.
I do feel people often poke fun at “Goodnight Saigon,” along with other 80s Joel songs such as “Allentown,” “Pressure,” and “The Longest Time.” I get it, I get it—you could say it’s a little too overwrought or Joel takes things way too seriously, and I’d understand where you are coming from. Maybe you just think all ballads in this style are bad, or maybe you just hate music and you are a horrible person.
But “Goodnight Saigon” is no joke. Heck, replace Joel’s singing with Roger Waters and it would fit right in on Pink Floyd’s The Wall. Slot it in between “Vera” and “Bring the Boys Back Home” if you like. It’s a wonderful song, even if The Nylon Curtain represented the end of Joel’s absolute peak.
My name is Michael, and I love “Goodnight Saigon.”