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Billy Joel’s classic rock song “Only the Good Die Young” offended some Roman Catholic religious leaders. During an interview, Joel discussed how bans of the song affected its commercial performance. Notably, listeners in the United States and the United Kingdom reacted to “Only the Good Die Young” differently.

Billy Joel sitting on a couch
Billy Joel | Richard E. Aaron/Redferns

Billy Joel decided not to write a reggae song

During a 2012 interview with Performing Songwriter, Joel discussed the origin of “Only the Good Die Young.” “I wrote it as a reggae song,” Joel recalled. “And Liberty [DeVitto], my drummer, is so sick of reggae that he literally throws his drumsticks at me and says, ‘Ugh, I frigging hate reggae!'”

DeVitto didn’t think Joel had the bona fides to write an authentic reggae song. DeVitto played the opening riff of “Only the Good Die Young” in a different style. This caused Joel to change “Only the Good Die Young” into the song fans know today.

Why some radio stations banned Billy Joel’s ‘Only the Good Die Young’

Joel recalled that the president of Seton Hall College took issue with “Only the Good Die Young” for its lyric which says there is no heaven. “Then it was banned by the archdiocese of St. Louis,” Joel added. “And then it got banned in Boston. All these archdiocese areas started putting pressure on radio stations to ban it.”

These bans had a positive effect on “Only the Good Die Young”‘s commercial performance. “The single had been out a short amount of time and wasn’t doing well,” Joel remembered. “The minute they banned it, it starting shooting up the charts, because nothing sells a record like a ban or a boycott.”

Joel noted the bans made “Only the Good Die Young” much more famous than it would have been otherwise. “This record would have died out,” he recalled. “Nobody would’ve heard it if they hadn’t tried to cut people off from it. As soon as the kids found out there was some authority that didn’t want them to hear it, they bought it in droves and it became this big hit.”


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The way the world reacted to ‘Only the Good Die Young’

“Only the Good Die Young” was popular. The track hit No. 24 on the Billboard Hot 100, staying on the chart for 13 weeks. Joel released the song on his album The Stranger. The Stranger was a chart juggernaut, peaking at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 and remaining on the chart for 137 weeks.

The Official Charts Company reports “Only the Good Die Young” was not a hit in the U.K. Meanwhile, The Stranger reached No. 24 in the U.K. and stayed on the chart for 40 weeks. “Only the Good Die Young” became a hit in the U.S. even if some religious leaders would have preferred otherwise.