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[2020-04-29] What Happened: Billy Joel - THUMBNAIL

What Happened: The Banning of Billy Joel's 'Only the Good Die Young'

04/29/2020 01:00 PM

By Dan Amrich

Death threats? Against Billy Joel? How could the affable, self-deprecating Piano Man who dominated the airwaves in the 70s and 80s have created a scandal that would result in such menacing tactics? Believe it or not, Billy's 1977 single "Only the Good Die Young" led to dire warnings, boycotts, and moral outrage…and subsequently, outrageous fortune.

Billy wrote the song about a real-world high-school crush named Virginia Callahan, cheekily expressing his carnal desires in amorous but not particularly rude lyrics. A snappy strummer with very accessible open chords, the song appeared on The Stranger to no particular fanfare – but when Columbia Records chose it as a single worthy of radio airplay, people listened a bit more closely to lyrics like these:


Come out Virginia, don’t let me wait

You Catholic girls start much too late

Aw, but sooner or later it comes down to fatez

I might as well be the one



They say there’s a heaven for those who will wait

Some say it’s better but I say it ain’t

I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints

The sinners are much more fun


The religious and randy overtones led to the song being banned from the airwaves at a Catholic college in New Jersey; stations in St. Louis and Boston followed soon after. Suddenly, Billy was in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons.

Billy Joel plays guitar at Madison Square Garden in 2006

But, as the artist noted in 2008, there was an upside to all that attention, too. "The minute they banned it, it started shooting up the charts, because nothing sells a record like a ban or a boycott," he recalled. "As soon as the kids found out there was some authority that didn’t want them to hear it, they bought it in droves and it became this big hit.” For his part, Billy said he didn't intend the song to be anti-Catholic so much as "pro-lust."

Billy toured in support of The Stranger in 1978, and that's when some critics objected strongly enough to send death threats. Billy was warned not play the song at his upcoming St. Louis gig, but the artist – who famously ended his concerts by telling the audience "Don't take s--- from anybody" – not only played it, he played it twice and invited the audience to sing along.

Amusingly, the person who was the most upset about "Only the Good Die Young" may have been Billy's drummer, Liberty DiVitto. Originally, the song was recorded with a reggae feel, but fellow New Yorker Liberty strongly objected, reportedly throwing his sticks at Billy and quipping, "The closest you’ve ever been to Jamaica is when you changed trains in Queens." The abandoned reggae version later surfaced on Billy Joel's box set, My Lives.

"Only the Good Die Young" stands as tribute to two truisms of pop culture: Artists can never control how their audiences will react – and nothing sells like controversy.

Dan Amrich started his music journalism career at Guitar World and Country Guitar magazines. He is the co-creator of Princess Leia's Stolen Death Star Plans and the creator, songwriter, and mayor of Hero Falls. He joined the Ubisoft San Francisco team in 2014.

"Billy Joel – Perth 7 November 2006" by Deedar70 is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

"Billy Joel at Madison Square Garden" by slgckgc is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

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