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.
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
This is the biggest hit to mention the state of Pennsylvania in the lyric ("for the Pennsylvania we never found"). Darryl Worley's "Have You Forgotten?
," a 2003 song about the September 11 attacks, was the next hit to mention the state.
Producer Phil Ramone and engineer Jim Boyer searched high and low for the steam whistle and industrial sounds that open the track. After listening to stock sound effects and searching real factories and industrial sites to no avail, they finally found the right sounds in their own backyard. Ramone recalled in his 2007 book, Making Records: The Scenes Behind The Music, "We finally found a steam shovel working on a skyscraper near the studio; the natural echoes of the buildings surrounding the construction zone are what gave us the huge sound you hear on the record."
The pile driver effect also took some creative engineering. According to drummer Liberty DeVitto, they found a stock sound effect that was too thin and needed bulking up, so he brought out his box of tricks.
"Near my drums was a box of small percussion instruments that came from Studio Instrument Rental: cowbells, maracas, triangles, and such," he explained in Making Records. "The box was always in the way, and I had noticed that whenever I picked it up, the instruments tipped to one side. All of them banging together made an elongated 'Shhhheeeooow' sound - it was very sibilant. When Phil was talking about the pile driver effect, I ran over to the box and tipped it on its side. 'How's this?' I asked.
Phil liked it, and when you hear the pile driver effect on 'Allentown,' the weird sloping sound is me, jumping up and down so that all of the percussion instruments in the box would crash together on the beat. When we later opened the box, we found that all of the stuff inside had been smashed to bits."
With his previous album, Glass Houses, Joel had a specific idea to make a rock-and-roll record that would sound great live. With The Nylon Curtain, he wanted to use the studio as an instrument and create unusual sounds and textures to bring the songs to life. He told his producer, "I want to make a good 'headphones album,' and use exotic instrumentation and layering the way the Beatles did."
Ramone was up to the task. He explained: "To help create the rich aural experience that Billy had dreamed of we used vocal treatments and sound effects liberally on The Nylon Curtain, and imbued it with an abundance of odd instrumental textures. We broke our own mold with The Nylon Curtain; it was our form of musical expressionism, and the closest we came to approaching a concept album."
This was parodied as "Alantown" in the 2011 comedy The Hangover Part II as Stu (Ed Helms) details all the ways that Alan (Zach Galifianakis) has gotten their friend group into trouble. He sings:
We're living here in Alantown
And he's driven our lives into the ground.
When we woke up we were wasted and drunk
Phil got shot, we got beaten by a monk
This was used in the 2017 documentary Billboard Boys.