Song of the Day #3,332: ‘Elvis Presley Blvd.’ – Billy Joel vs. Elvis Costello

And now, four months of Montauk Madness voting comes down to one last decision as we crown a grand champion. Our contestants face off across the pond, with Billy Joel repping New York and Elvis Costello hailing from merry England.

Two singer-songwriters in their 60s, each with a healthy catalog of original material. Joel has enjoyed far more commercial success, while Costello is the critics’ darling.

Both men slayed giants to get here. Costello defeated Carly Rae Jepsen, John Mayer, Michael Jackson, Taylor Swift and (wait for it) The Beatles. Joel had an even more difficult path, topping Michael Penn, Frank Sinatra, Van Morrison, Paul Simon and Bob Freaking Dylan.

I never set any ground rules about how we should vote. Should we take into account things like cultural impact and historical significance? Or is it just a question of who you like better? This final matchup suggests most voters took the latter approach. Otherwise, we would have ended up with the inevitable Bob Dylan vs. The Beatles showdown. This pairing is less traditional, sure, but more fun.

This showdown is also a product of my blog’s very specific, and limited, readership. My small group of loyal readers happen to be big Billy Joel fans. And I am part of an Elvis Costello Facebook group that chimed in on a few of these votes.

So that’s how we got here; now let’s vote.

For me, this is a choice between depth and breadth. Costello has a much more robust and varied discography. He has released 30 studio albums and dabbled in genres from country to classical. Joel has put out fewer than half as many records, almost all of them in the same piano pop ballpark.

On the other hand, I can’t name an Elvis Costello song that moves me as deeply as Joel’s ‘Vienna’ or lifts me out of my seat in singalong ecstasy as effectively as ‘Only the Good Die Young.’

Joel has more weak spots in his catalog, to be sure. Generic rockers, syrupy ballads. Costello’s misses are more interesting, never a product of laziness.

When I first saw this matchup, I was a bit bummed that the final vote wouldn’t be a hair-puller. An easy call for Elvis Costello, no sweat.

But I keep coming back to ‘Vienna,’ which is not just a song, but balm for a weary soul.

And the beautiful loneliness of ‘Summer, Highland Falls,’ which I’ve gotten lost in too many times to count.

And the majestic ‘New York State of Mind,’ a song as grandly romantic as the city it celebrates.

And ‘You’re My Home,’ a love song worthy of my lovely wife, which I played for her once in the driveway of her parent’s house, watching her tear up as she heard it for the first time.

Elvis Costello has captured my mind in a way few artists ever have. But Billy Joel has captured my heart, more than I even realized before I sat down to make this choice, and he has captured my vote as well.

Once long ago all the faithful held a show
Down at Elvis Presley Blvd. on Memphis radio
Where the hopeless held a vigil and the nameless made the charts
Where the losers lost their sorrow and the lonely left their hearts

Step on these shoes and I’ll see you in hell
Love me so tender, I cried
Save me a room at the Heartbreak Hotel
I’m so alone I could die

I took a ride with my baby by my side
Down to Elvis Presley Blvd. where all the faithful cried
And I saw that silent mansion and I knew that I was lost
They were selling plastic souvenirs of Elvis on the cross

Step on these shoes and I’ll see you in hell
Love me so tender, I cried
Save me a room at the heartbreak Hotel
I’m so alone I could die

Drive down that road tonight
Everyone has gone
Nobody’s home but the light’s
Always on

Man I was beat I was driven by the heat
Down to Elvis Presley Blvd., a one-way dead-end street
And I smashed my car to pieces and I said goodbye to youth
I heard all the ugly rumors but I could not face the truth

Save me a room at the Heartbreak Hotel
I’m so alone I could die

Drive down that road tonight
Everyone has gone
Nobody’s home but the light’s
Always on

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13 thoughts on “Song of the Day #3,332: ‘Elvis Presley Blvd.’ – Billy Joel vs. Elvis Costello

  1. Madison says:

    This is a classic Dana match up if I’ve ever seen one. I suspect he’ll vote Costello, though he should also pick Joel here. Just be asking which artist he has played (both on piano and through speakers) and shared with his family most should make this a clear decision.

    P.S. We all know you used your little Costello fervent fan club to unfairly take down Taylor Swift when she should have been bested by The Beatles. Let’s not play games here. 💅🏽

  2. Dana says:

    Well, I must say that I’m surprised by this final matchup, perhaps a bit less surprised that Joel took down Dylan than that Costello took down the Beatles. Clearly, that Costello fan page group is a powerful influence!

    I’m similarly surprised by Clay’s vote here, though I understand and appreciate his rationale. And if I were to apply that same analysis to my consideration – personal impact and influence on my life and the emotional resonance of certain incredible Joel songs – Joel might have my vote as well.

    But here’s the thing. Costello commanded my attention and fandom later than Joel – when I was in college – and has held that grip ever since. At various times, Clay has cited the powerful impact certain artists such as The Beatles, Dylan, R.E.M., etc., have had during those musically formative high school and college years. Maybe it’s the abundance of free time coupled with the ability for the first time to control what you buy and listen to that makes those years particularly influential. So, while Joel was clearly the greater influence and was more impactful on my life from about 10 years old through high school, he started to take a backseat to Costello at some point in my sophomore year in college and has held my designation as favorite artist ever since.

    Of course, it doesn’t help Joel that stopped recording new music (other than some classical albums) decades ago, while Costello has continued to be prolific. Now, admittedly, none of Costello’s albums in the past twenty years have impacted me as much as his earlier work, in particular King of America and Imperial Bedroom, but his later albums have continued to be interesting and of high quality…not really a dud in the mix.

    And, finally, while I agree that, by and large, Joel’s best songs connect on an emotional level more than Costello’s, which aim more for the head than the heart, Costello certainly has his share of songs that connect emotionally – at least to me – such as Alison, Almost Blue, Shipbuilding and I’ll Wear it Proudly.

    But the truth is, at some point, my musical taste changed such that artist aiming for the head rather than the heart seemed to take the lead in my fandom. Costello probably spearheaded that transition, though, around that same time, I began to gravitate to similar artists like Joe Jackson, Randy Newman, the Talking Heads and so on, all of whom have certainly penned songs that resonate emotionally, but more frequently capture my interest on an intellectual and musical diverse complexity level.

    So, while this is by no means an easy vote, my final vote goes to Mr. Costello.

    • Clay says:

      I think I’ve had the opposite evolution, and I find myself more drawn to “heart” than “head” music as I’ve gotten older.
      That explains my openness to county music, a genre I previously shunned. And it explains why, to the astonishment of my wife, I ask Alexa to play The Eagles on a regular basis now!

      • Dana says:

        This was definitely not an easy vote for me and I have been receiving considerable grief from the family over the vote.

        As to the heart vs. head factor–I must confess that I too may be swinging back more toward the “heart” as I get older. There is no question that I preferred the “head” music (not sure that sounds right!) through college and continuing into my 20’s and perhaps 30’s. The truth is, though, with the exception of Costello, I have not followed or listened to the other artists I cited (Joe Jackson, Talking Heads, etc…) all that much.

        To illustrate the shift from head to heart, the other day while driving back from the Dolphins game with Maddie, I suggested that we play the new Randy Newman album. I then added that we should play the second half of the album, which we both agreed was the better “side” because the songs were more heartfelt and less political. When the vote came up on Friday, together with my rationale for voting for Costello, Maddie was quick to remind me of my opinion on Newman’s album.

        Then, just to press the point, the family played a number of Billy Joel songs on the way home from dinner last night (where Peg had suggested that perhaps I didn’t vote for Joel because he stood me up at MSG on my birthday–which I had to admit may have played a factor, as, had I gone, that might have tipped me the other way). As we pulled up into the driveway, we let “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” play out to its conclusion (that had been preceded by “Vienna” and “She’s Always a Woman”) By the end of the night, I was ready to cast 2 votes for Joel to override the Costello vote–but I think I’ll stay true to my initial vote. However, I will certainly not be disappointed if Joel takes this contest.

      • Clay says:

        I’ve had the same reaction to Newman’s album.

  3. Peg says:

    Can’t believe the Beatles didn’t make it to the end but this Is an easy choice for me–Billy Joel. I have loved him since I discovered The Stranger album all those years ago. He definitely deserves the win!

  4. Peg says:

    Thank you Clay for this wonderful contest!

  5. Maddie says:

    Can I do a write-in vote for Taylor Swift who is about to drop a fire album?

  6. Amy says:

    Your post today actually made me tear up and absolutely swayed me to vote for Billy Joel. Either will be a deserving winner of Montauk Madness, but the title should be Joel’s.

  7. The Cool Guy (Daniel) says:

    This wasn’t an extremely difficult final decision for me. It was hard in that sense that both of these artists are two of my dad’s favorites and I have grown up loving them through the eyes of my dad and wanting to appreciate every single one of their songs with the same adoration that my dad does. I know this decision couldn’t have been easy for him and I know he’s still wondering if he went with the right call.

    That being said as much as I vicariously love the way my Dad pours over every lyric and chord progression from Elvis Costello, I have never taken to his discography as much as I have that of Billy Joel. I still consider him one of the best artists of all time, but not one of my favorites. I can easily listen to “Glass Houses” and “Innocent Man” again and again (my two favorites) along with many songs from his other albums. As far as the emotional aspect goes, I do think that Elvis Costello has the capacity to evoke emotions from his listeners. In that same area I also think that Billy Joel also varies in genres expertly. Before any of the rock with awesome songs like “Pressure”, he had a far more fellow approach and he carried his quality through his forays into different genres.

    Therefore, in the final pairing off I have to go with Billy Joel. A choice that I’m proud of and though I would be happy to see either of these artists win, I’d be lying if I didn’t say I had a special place in my heart for the piano man. It’s been fun.

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