Captain Jack (song)

Captain Jack (song)

Name = Captain Jack

SorA =
Artist = Billy Joel
Album = Piano Man
Released = November 1973
track_no = 10
Recorded = 1973, North Hollywood, California
Genre = Rock and roll
Length = 7:15
Writer = Billy Joel
Composer =
Label = Columbia
Producer = Michael Stewart
[ Chart position = ]
prev = "Somewhere Along the Line"
prev_no = 9
next =
next_no =

"Captain Jack" is a song by Billy Joel, featured on his 1973 album "Piano Man". Arguably, it is the most important of his early compositions, because his performance of the song at a live radio concert on WMMR in Philadelphia, and the subsequent airplay it received, brought him to the attention of major record labels, including Columbia, with which he would sign a recording contract in 1973.


Joel wrote "Captain Jack" in late 1971. cite book |last=Bego |first=Mark |title=Billy Joel: The Biography |year=2007 |pages=67 |publisher=Thunder's Mouth Press |location=New York |isbn=978-1-56025-989-3] cite album-notes |title=Songs in the Attic |bandname=Billy Joel |year=1981 |first=Billy |last=Joel |format=LP|publisher=Columbia Records |publisherid=TC 37461 |location=New York] He was sitting in his apartment in Oyster Bay, Long Island, looking out the window, trying to find inspiration for a song. Across the street was a housing project, and he observed suburban teenagers going into the project and scoring heroin from a dealer known as "Captain Jack".cite book |last=Bego |first=Mark |title=Billy Joel: The Biography |year=2007 |pages=71]

"It's about coming out of the New York suburbs," Joel told John Kalodner in 1974. "But in my travels I have seen a lot of the same suburb all over the country. The song is sort of brutal, but sometimes it is good to be brutal and offend people -- it keeps them on their toes."cite news |last=Kalodner |first=John |title=Billy Joel: From Barroom to Big Time |publisher=Concert |date=April 1974 |url= |accessdate=2007-07-09]

The song, according to Joel, is an anti-drug song: "What's so horrible about an affluent young white teenager's life that he's got to shoot heroin? It's really a song about what I consider to be a pathetic loser kind of lifestyle. I've been accused of, 'Oh, this song promotes drug use and masturbation.' No, no, no. Listen to the song. This guy is a loser." In writing about the song in the liner notes of his live "Songs in the Attic" album, Joel emphasized the point: " many friends shoveled under the Long Island dirt. The miracle of modern chemistry killed them if Vietnam didn't."

Author Hank Bordowitz called "Captain Jack" "as bleak a portrait of growing up in the affluent suburbs as anything before L.A. punk hit nearly a decade later".cite book |last=Bordowitz |first=Hank |title=Billy Joel: The Life & Times of an Angry Young Man |year=2006 |pages=62 |publisher=Billboard Books |location=New York |isbn=978-0-8230-8248-3]


To promote his debut album, "Cold Spring Harbor", Joel undertook a tour that lasted through most of the spring of 1972.cite book |last=Bordowitz |first=Hank |title=Billy Joel: The Life & Times of an Angry Young Man |year=2006 |pages=57] One of the people who noticed and liked the mostly ignored LP was the program director of Philadelphia radio station WMMR-FM, Dennis Wyland. He arranged to have Joel perform a concert for radio-station listeners who won tickets.cite news |last=Detweiler |first=Margit |title=Glory Days |publisher=City Paper, Philadelphia, Pa. |date=November 26-December 3, 1998 |url= |accessdate=2007-07-09] On Saturday night, April 15, 1972, Joel performed an hour-long concert in front of these contest winners at Sigma Sound Studios in Philadelphia.cite book |last=Bego |first=Mark |title=Billy Joel: The Biography |year=2007 |pages=61] Joel and his touring band sang 12 songs, seven from "Cold Spring Harbor" and five songs he had not yet recorded. One of these was "Captain Jack". [cite web |url= |title=Setlist, WMMR Sigma Sound Studios concert, April 15, 1972 |accessdate=2007-07-09]

"Captain Jack" was immediately embraced by WMMR's audience. For the next year and a half, the station kept its live version of the song in regular rotation. Listeners called in, wanting to know where they could find the song and on what album it appeared. The song was such a big hit in Philadelphia that several New York radio stations got their own tape copies and began to play it as well. Though Columbia Records' then-president, Clive Davis, first noticed Joel at the Mar Y Sol Festival in Puerto Rico on April 1, 1972,cite book |last=Bego |first=Mark |title=Billy Joel: The Biography |year=2007 |pages=65] the constant airplay of Joel's unreleased song kept the label's attention. After turning down a serious overture from Atlantic Records, Joel signed with Columbia in the spring of 1973.cite book |last=Bordowitz |first=Hank |title=Billy Joel: The Life & Times of an Angry Young Man |year=2006 |pages=71]

Release and reaction

"Captain Jack" was one of the 10 songs recorded in Los Angeles for Joel's Columbia debut, "Piano Man". It quickly became a staple of FM rock stations after the album's release in November 1973, and along with the song "Piano Man", it was one of the two songs for which Joel was best known before the release of "The Stranger" in 1977.

Joel made his first television appearance in the wake of the release of "Piano Man", on the syndicated "Don Kirshner's Rock Concert" program, in a performance recorded live in Chicago in March 1974. "Captain Jack" was one of the three songs that was broadcast.cite web |title=History of Live Performances by Billy Joel |url= |accessdate=2007-07-09] However, in keeping with U.S. broadcast television standards of the time, Joel was forced to alter the lyrics slightly. Instead of singing the line "You just sit at home and masturbate", he sang, "You just sit at home and la la la". Kirshner recalled, "I knew he was going to be a big star, and so did he."cite book |last=Bego |first=Mark |title=Billy Joel: The Biography |year=2007 |pages=76]

By 1980, "Captain Jack" had mostly disappeared from Joel's concert setlists. But he always played it in Philadelphia, because he never forgot the role the song and the city played in his early career. A version recorded at The Spectrum in July 1980 was used on "Songs in the Attic". Joel wrote, "'Captain Jack' plays with much more power and conviction when a roaring Philadelphia audience sets off a kind of internal explosion and the adrenaline screams through our veins ... When we play 'Captain Jack', we are actually committing an act of pure brutality."

The song entered the news again in 2000 when it was mistakenly used during Hillary Clinton's announcement that she would be campaigning for U.S. Senate. Her presumed opponent, Rudolph Giuliani, who ended up not running for the Senate, criticized the song's use because of its alleged glorification of drugs. Joel replied in a statement, "There are a lot of important issues facing the voters in this Senate race. Is a politician's interpretation of a song I wrote nearly 30 years ago an issue to the voters of New York state? I do not think so." [cite web |last=Hiatt |first=Brian |title=Billy Joel Did Start the Fire in N.Y. Senate Campaign |date=2000-02-08 |url= |accessdate=2007-07-09]

According to an NPR report on worst campaign songs, a staffer notes that the playing of Captain Jack was totally a mishap. It was played from the Billy Joel compilation CD "Greatest Hits Volume 1" and the intended song play was "New York State of Mind," which was track five on the CD. The Clinton staffer inadvertently played track two, which was "Captain Jack".


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