The Piano Man won the heart of a nation starved for western rock

It was August 1987, just after the dawn of glasnost. The Soviet Union was letting its citizens sample the once-forbidden fruits of Western pop culture. The time was right for some enterprising pop star to assume the role of rock & roll ambassador to Russia. Enter Billy Joel, whose Soviet shows — three in Moscow, three in Leningrad — inspired rock rapture. The peak of the mania hit on Aug. 2, when 17,500 Leningrad fans jumped up and down on their seats, breaking some 200 chairs, then lifted Joel over their heads and passed him around on a sea of hands.

Egged on by Joel, fans boogied in the aisles and even rushed the stage. After decades of black-market rock, ”these people were starved for the real thing,” Joel says. ”I’m not even sure how familiar they were with my material. I think they were just thrilled to have a rock star from the West — with a big PA system. I mean, they applauded the equipment.”

Indeed, the crowds were so excited that after the first Moscow show, alarmed Soviet officials threatened to cancel the remaining dates. Off stage, bureaucrats imposed strict crowd control and threw red tape around Joel’s efforts to donate instruments to Soviet musicians.

The concerts would later be hyped as ”the first time an American pop music star had brought a fully staged rock show to the Soviet Union.” Joel’s entourage included more than 100 people and two film crews. In truth, though, Joel wasn’t quite a pioneer. Elton John had gone to Russia in 1979, and Bonnie Raitt, James Taylor, Santana, and the Doobie Brothers had headlined the joint Soviet-American ”Summit” concert in Moscow earlier in the summer of ’87. Still, Joel’s shows, coming at the end of an exhausting 11-month world tour, made history not for what they brought to the Russians, but for what the Russians brought to them: two generations deprived of rock & roll, ready to be fed.

Joel, who personally footed the $2.5 million bill to stage the six shows, never did make all his money back, despite a live album, an HBO special, and a documentary (both later released on video). But there were other compensations. He helped inspire the cultural exchange that enabled Russian rockers like Boris Grebenshchikov and Gorky Park to release albums in America. ”We really felt like our music had a power that transcended what we were aware of before,” Joel reflects. ”Ever since we played Russia, everything has been kind of anticlimactic. We felt like we’d hit a pinnacle.”

Time Capsule: August 2, 1987

Bond was back on the big screen in The Living Daylights; Bob Seger’s ”Shakedown” shook up music fans; readers were opening The Closing of the American Mind, by Allan Bloom; and The Cosby Show kept families in front of the TV.