30 Years Ago, Billy Joel Had a Meltdown in Moscow

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In 1987, the piano man tried to bridge the gap between the US and the Soviet Union, and threw an onstage tantrum in the process.

By the time Billy Joel arrived in the Soviet Union for a string of six concerts, he was visibly worn down from 11 straight months of touring. The 38-year-old singer was wrangling a traveling crew of 130 people, including his wife and their one-and-a-half-year-old daughter, and it was costing him two and a half million dollars of his own money to be there, money he knew he’d never earn back. His throat was sore and he feared his voice would blow at any second. On top of all that, the whole world was watching. Being one of the first major American artists to perform in the USSR since the construction of the Berlin Wall put him under a microscope, and he was expected to be a stellar ambassador for the United States during what looked to be a thaw in the Cold War. But, the fate of international politics aside, he was still a guy from the streets of Long Island—a once amateur boxer, high school dropout, and a reputably pugnacious pop star with a short fuse. It had been a long year for Billy Joel and something was bound to give. Then on the night of July 27, 1987, in front of 22,000 people, it did.

Dan’s Papers

Joel’s Soviet trip was two years in the making. When Mikhail Gorbachev took over as leader of the Communist Party there in 1985, he steered the Soviet Union onto a drastically new course, promoting policies of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) in an effort to end the political and economic rivalry between the Soviets and the US that arose after World War II. Western culture had previously been explicitly banned under the nation’s old totalitarian rule, though rock and roll, a distinctly American export, had managed to seep in via the black market. Bootleggers would smuggle records from the West and etch makeshift copies of them on discarded X-Ray emulsion sheets fished out of hospital dumpsters. These were sold in secret on street corners and alleys, and the practice gained popularity during Beatlemania in the 60s. It was entirely possible to illegally purchase a copy of A Hard Day’s Night on the streets of Leningrad printed on an X-Ray of some poor bastard’s broken hand.

vinyl records/discarded x-ray emulsion sheets. Image via The Verge


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