“We were so loud. You could see blood coming out of people’s ears”: the true story of Attila, Billy Joel's pre-fame metal band, and 'the worst album ever made'

Billy Joel and Attila
(Image credit: Attila - Epic Records / Billy Joel - Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

“It’s all about thrash, kill, metal, slash, burn, pillage, repeat.”

Metallica's James Hetfield? Slayer's Tom Araya? Slipknot's Shawn 'The Clown' Crahan? 

No, friends, the words of Billy Joel, New York City's esteemed Piano Man and failed heavy metal superstar.

Look, hard rock and heavy metal is not for everyone, we all know that. Rolling Stone told us that Led Zeppelin’s debut album was “dull”, “redundant” and “prissy”, and Black Sabbath’s first album was “inane”, “wooden” and “plodding”. The boomer bible was even more savage when reviewing Uriah Heep’s debut, 1970’s Very ’Eavy, Very ’Umble: “If this group makes it,” wrote one Melissa Mills, “I’ll have to commit suicide.”

But even these notices pale alongside the kickings administered by critics to the self-titled debut album by Attila, the heavy psych / heavy metal duo formed in 1969 by Billy Joel and his drummer pal Jon Small, both former members of The Hassles

Joel and Small formed their new enterprise - named after the infamously bloodthirsty Attila The Hun - in the image of Led Zeppelin, Iron Butterfly and Blue Cheer: their unique spin on the hard rock format was that they planned to operate without a guitarist, with Joel feeding his Hammond organ through a wall of amplifiers. 

“We wanted to be a heavy band and we decided we were going to get heavy…somehow,” he told biographer Fred Schruers in 2014. 

“We were going to destroy the world with amplification,” he had informed DJ Dan Neer in 1985. “We had about a dozen gigs and nobody could stay in the room when we were playing. It was too loud. We drove people literally out of clubs.”

“We were so loud. You could see blood coming out of people’s ears. It was just horrible.”

Despite, or perhaps because of, this sonic slaughter, Attila secured a record deal with Epic Records. The eight-track album boasted song titles such as Brain Invasion, Tear This Castle Down and the epic two part Amplifier Fire (Part I: Godzilla / Part II: March of the Huns). The band shot the cover photo in a meat locker, dressed in armour, chainmail, and fur, flanked by animal carcasses.

The world was not ready.

Attila undoubtedly is the worst album released in the history of rock & roll - hell, the history of recorded music itself,” wrote a reviewer for the AllMusic site. “There have been many bad ideas in rock, but none match the colossal stupidity of Attila.”


Perhaps Attila might have come into fashion had they stuck around a little longer, but that possibility was scuppered by Joel having an affair with Small's wife, Elizabeth, who he later married. 

Looking back, the singer/songwriter dubbed the project “a colossal failure.” Subsequently selling 160 million records as a solo artist probably took the sting away, we imagine.

Win some, lose some. Personally, we're kinda into it. No accounting for taste.

Billy Joel will play the American Express presents BST Hyde Park festival on July 7.

Paul Brannigan
Contributing Editor, Louder

A music writer since 1993, formerly Editor of Kerrang! and Planet Rock magazine (RIP), Paul Brannigan is a Contributing Editor to Louder. Having previously written books on Lemmy, Dave Grohl (the Sunday Times best-seller This Is A Call) and Metallica (Birth School Metallica Death, co-authored with Ian Winwood), his Eddie Van Halen biography (Eruption in the UK, Unchained in the US) emerged in 2021. He has written for Rolling Stone, Mojo and Q, hung out with Fugazi at Dischord House, flown on Ozzy Osbourne's private jet, played Angus Young's Gibson SG, and interviewed everyone from Aerosmith and Beastie Boys to Young Gods and ZZ Top. Born in the North of Ireland, Brannigan lives in North London and supports The Arsenal.