Songs You May Have Missed #576


Billy Joel: “Running on Ice” (1986)

Budding songwriters and fledgling lyricists, look on the work of William Martin Joel and despair.

The average Billy Joel composition is a compact master class in lyric writing. This guy just gets so many things right, most of which escape a typical listener as he hums “Just the Way You Are”, or rocks out to “Big Shot”, or sings along with any number of dozens of Joel’s classic entries in our collective cultural hymnal.

By the way, I’ve long held the opinion Billy Joel was the best pop lyricist of his era. And I’m pretty sure “Only the Good Die Young” is the best pop rock lyric of the past 40 years. But since everyone knows that song and dozens of other pop masterpieces in Joel’s oeuvre, the focus of this particular series of posts forces me to delve into what passes for “deep cut” territory to talk about the man’s talents.

A deep cut this may be, but certainly not of lesser quality than the singles chosen from 1986’s The Bridge album. “Modern Woman”, “This is the Time” and “A Matter of Trust” are fine songs–but the twitchy lyrical joyride that is “Running on Ice” would itself have made a great single.

One thing about Joel’s writing that has always stood out to me is that he never seems content to simply observe pop music norm in repeating a chorus; Joel raises his game by varying the lyric with each. Frequently you could even say he customizes each chorus to suit its accompanying verse.

The first chorus here begins with “Sometimes I feel as though I’m running on ice…” which not only sums up what came before in verse one, but makes a good introduction, so to speak, to the song’s hook line and concept.

When the second chorus rolls around, preceded as it is by the flood of multisyllabic elocution that it verse two, it almost serves as a punchline when he says “And all that means is that I’m running on ice…” Brilliant.

The song is lavishly littered with alliteration, assonance and internal rhyme. What’s more, since the same torrent of verbiage that makes this a great lyric also tends to make it a bit of a challenge to sing along to, Joel supplies a well-placed bridge (You’ve got to run…) to momentarily relieve the tension and give the listener something to belt out. Genius.

This is no typical song. It’s a great one. Though that makes it a typical Billy Joel song.

There’s a lot of tension in this town
I know it’s building up inside of me
I’ve got all the symptoms and the side effects
Of city life anxiety

I could never understand why the urban attitude
Is so superior
In a world of high rise ambition
Most people’s motives are ulterior

Sometimes I feel as though I’m running on ice
Paying the price too long
Kind of get the feeling that I’m running on ice
Where did my life go wrong

I’m a cosmopolitan sophisticate
Of culture and intelligence
The culmination of technology
And civilized experience

But I’m carrying the weight of all the useless junk
A modern man accumulates
I’m a statistic in a system
That a civil servant dominates

And all that means is that I’m running on ice
Caught in the vise so strong
I’m slipping and sliding, cause I’m running on ice
Where did my life go wrong

You’ve got to run
You’ve got to run

As fast as I can climb
A new disaster every time I turn around
As soon as I get one fire put out
There’s another building burning down

They say this highway’s going my way
But I don’t know where it’s taking me
It’s a bad waste, a sad case, a rat race
It’s breaking me

I get no traction cause I’m running on ice
It’s taking me twice as long
I get a bad reaction cause I’m running on ice
Where did my life go wrong

You’ve got to run
You’ve got to run

Running on ice
Running on ice
Running on ice
Running on ice

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