Billy Joel, it is fair to say, is not the most threatening rock star in the world. Although he probably has some New York street smarts about him, his intimidation factor isn’t exactly off the charts. Instead, he seems like a guy you’d sit down and have a nice meal at a restaurant with (preferably Italian).
That’s most likely why Joel was among the first wave of Western artists to perform in the Soviet Union during the late 1980s. The Cold War was burning its last embers, and the notoriously strict Russian government began to loosen its grip on the culture that they allowed to filter into the country. Of course, rock and roll had been massively popular, but it was kept underground. A figure like Joel was a symbol of rebellion, as strange as it may seem now, but he was also the safest option among the biggest names of the time.
However, the reality was that when Joel agreed to take his stage show over to the USSR, he was completely fried. The past year was spent touring behind 1986’s The Bridge, and hundreds of concerts and interviews took their toll on Joel’s voice. By the time he hit the stage, the singer could barely sing. Even worse, the lighting crew kept focusing high powered spotlights on audience members. “People like their privacy,” Joel explained in 2014. “They go to a concert to get that, to be in the dark and do their own thing.” Joel had sunk $2 million of his own money into the production, and he could feel his show going to shit, so he let off some steam.
During ‘Sometimes a Fantasy’, Joel continuously yelled at the backstage crew to “stop lighting the audience?” and “let me do my show, for Christ sake”. Joel reached boiling point when his words were ignored, and he proceeded to flip his electric piano completely over. Joel then rushes to the front of the stage and grabs his microphone stand to re-enter without missing a beat.
But that outburst didn’t change anything, and Joel was still steaming. It didn’t take long for the microphone stand to be the next victim. A good whack on the floor was enough to put a pretty big dent in the stand, and it was bent at an odd angle before Joel really snapped. After bouncing off his baby grand piano, Joel took a full swing with the stand at the piano, snapping the stand in half.
Joel took the now-halved stand and kept singing without ever falling out of time. Even though contemporary reports would call it a “tantrum” or a “meltdown”, the rest of the concert was Joel doing everything he could to give the Russian audience a memorable show. Crowd surfing, jumps, kicks, and running directly through the audience made it a triumphant string of shows, even if the most memorable event was the destruction of his piano.
See the footage, below.