After releasing his first album, Cold Spring Harbor, in 1971, Billy Joel decided he wanted to hideout, so “he headed out to California.” Los Angeles to be exact. The album was mastered at the wrong speed making Joel sound like a chipmunk. Needless to say, it was a disaster. Desperate to get out of his record contract with Family Productions to sign with Columbia Records, he hid out in a bar playing under the name Bill Martin while his lawyers worked behind the scenes. From that six month experience came the song “Piano Man,” a song as much about the characters he ran into in the bar as it was about his own failings. Some 38 years after it’s intial release, Joel has released the “Legacy Edition” of the Piano Man album and it’s outstanding.
I always liked this album. The songs were carefully crafted, the lyrics were thoughtful and, unlike many songs in the early 70s, the drums were full and in your face. Highlights include the funky “Worst Comes to Worst,” the classics “The Ballad of Billy the Kid,” “You’re My Home,” and “Captain Jack,” a seven-minute plus tune that includes the epic line “your sister’s gone out on a date, you just sit at home and masturbate.” “Stop in Nevada” sets a nice western mood, the nasty “Ain’t No Crime” sounds full and the country-esque ‘Travelin’ Prayer” has been recorded by a bevy of country artists including Dolly Parton. Then, of course, there’s “Piano Man” in all its beautiful remastered glory.
This collection also includes a second disc of a show recorded in 1972 for WMMR-FM in Philadelphia. Legendary DJ Ed Sciaky (instrumental in Bruce Springsteen’s career) introduces Joel and he rips through a number of tunes off Cold Spring Harbor and a couple of “new” songs, the aforementioned “The Ballad of Billy the Kid” and “Captain Jack.” There are also a few songs that have never seen the light of day including the excellent “Josephine.” This extra disc is excellent and really enhances the package. Joel’s speaking voice is more New York, his singing voice is much higher, and it shows a future superstar working the room and working his craft.
This re-release of Piano Man has wet my appetite for more of these special Joel collections. How about skipping a few years ahead and just releasing the Legacy Edition of The Nylon Curtain? Just a suggestion.
- George Kovacik