Allentown is a town in Northeast Pennsylvania about 45 minutes away from the Pocono mountains. An industrial town, many of the once-thriving factories and mills had fallen on hard times when Joel wrote the song, and unemployment in the area was at an all-time high of 12%.
Also mentioned in the song is nearby Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, whose main employer, Bethlehem Steel, had been closing operations. Joel sings about the unemployed workers in the line, "Out in Bethlehem they're killing time, filling out forms, standing in line."
Billy Joel did not grow up in Allentown - he grew up in Levittown, on Long Island. In an interview with James Lipton on Inside the Actors Studio, he compared Allentown with his hometown while he was growing up, noting the similarities. Joel stated that the original title was "Levittown," and the original lyrics seemed kind of bland, and he felt that they would possibly be considered boring to the listeners.
Some of the original lyrics included lines like, "Well we're living here in Levittown. And there's really not much going down. I don't see much when I look around. The grass is green, the trees are brown. And we're living here in Levittown." So, during the time of the upcoming studio sessions for The Nylon Curtain, Billy took a trip to Pennsylvania. It was here that he came up with the idea for new lyrics. At that time, he had Bethlehem in mind, but was worried people would suddenly get the impression that the song was religious (the birth of Christ was said to have happened was Bethlehem, Israel). It is worth noting that Bethlehem and Allentown are right next to each other. So, he started writing down some lyrics for what later became the song "Allentown."
The distinctive chord at the beginning was originally a mistake, but Joel decided he liked the way it sounded and left it in.
The song starts with the blowing of a steam whistle in a factory. This was common in the days of steel mills and lumber companies. Usually, whistles were blown at the beginning of a work day, to summon workers to their duties, to announce shift changes, to call them to their lunch hour at noon, and at the end of a work day, to let them know that it was 5:00 and it was time to go home. Also, when listened to carefully, in the background with the music, one can hear the rhythmic pounding of a pile driver, a machine for delivering repeated blows to the top of a pile for driving it into the ground. The machine consists of a frame which supports and guides a hammer weight, together with a mechanism for raising and dropping the hammer or for driving the hammer by air or steam. (thanks, Annabelle - Eugene, OR)
Joel played a benefit concert in Allentown, Pennsylvania on December 27, 1982 as this song was climbing the charts.
The video was directed by Russell Mulcahy, whose work was all over MTV in their early years, with many videos to his credit by Fleetwood Mac, Elton John and Duran Duran. Billy Joel had little interest in music videos, so he let the directors control them. The "Allentown" video stays true to the song in the sense that we see young men coming back from the war and struggling to find work, but these men are far more shirtless and muscular than you would expect. In I Want My MTV
by Craig Marks, Joel said: "It's really
gay. There's a shower scene with all these good-looking, muscular young steel workers who are completely bare assed. And then they're all oiled up and twisting valves and knobs. I'd missed this completely when I was doing the video. I just thought it was like The Deer Hunter