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Published: 2012/01/10
by Ron Hart

Billy Joel
Piano Man: Legacy Edition, The Complete Albums Collection

Piano Man: Legacy Edition (Columbia-Legacy)
The Complete Albums Collection (Columbia-Legacy)

Remember the days when pop stars broke out not on reality shows like The X-Factor and American Idol but rather on FM radio’s freeform AOR format, where guys like Scott Muni on WNEW-FM in New York City, Rodney Bingenheimer from KROQ in Los Angeles and Kid Leo on Cleveland’s WMMS were the movers and shakers of the music industry and welded the power to play whatever they wanted without some corporate suit pretending to be program director panting down their neck.

Billy Joel certainly remembers, for he was one of the the guys whose rampant success on radio and the Billboard charts was directly attributed to the FM DJs who kept his songs in steady rotations during their on-air shifts. And no other album in the Long Islander’s career serves as a testament to his AOR roots quite like his 1973 sophomore breakthrough Piano Man, which was also his first LP for longtime imprint Columbia Records.

“I was just writing songs for me,” explains Joel in the liner notes to the new deluxe edition of Piano Man from Columbia’s Legacy Recordings division. “It’s music that I wanted to hear. If I didn’t hear a certain kind of music on the radio I realized, ‘Well, if I write and record this it’ll probably be on the radio and that’s what I’ll hear.’”

When you look through the track list of this record’s original 10 tracks, there are no less than four hit songs amidst the ranks of this lush California canyon-flavored LP. Of course there is the unforgettable title cut that recounts Joel’s brief tenure moonlighting at a Hollywood piano bar under the name Bill Martin. Then you have “You’re My Home,” a mid-tempo ballad that’s appeared on more lovelorn mixtapes than one can imagine. “The Ballad of Billy the Kid” finds the singer drawing parallels to his own rogue career in pop with the notorious bankrobber who shares his first name atop orchestral melodies worthy of the Los Angeles Wrecking Crew. And of course, there is closing number “Captain Jack,” the studio rendition of the song whose bootlegged live version became an underground smash on AOR radio thanks to its controversial lyrical arc about a heroin dealer who did business outside a housing project across the street from Joel’s apartment in Oyster Bay. And in between the obvious selections you have some of Joel’s tastiest deep nuggets, including the Leon Russell-esque opening track “Travelin’ Prayer”, the Jimmy Cliff-inflected “Worse Comes to Worst” and tunes like “Ain’t No Crime” and “Stop in Nevada”, songs that further punctuated the Western motif Joel wove throughout this record, significantly inspired by his future touring partner Elton John’s 1970 masterpiece Tumbleweed Connection.

This outstanding Legacy Edition of Piano contains a second disc comprised of the highly sought-after complete performance of the 1972 live-in-the-studio session Joel recorded at Sigma Sound in Philadelphia for the city’s WMMR-FM station where the live edition of “Jack” derived. The hour-long concert also features a trio of tunes that were never recorded for a proper Billy Joel LP—-“Long, Long Time”, “Josephine” and “Rosalinda”—-peppered across material culled from both Piano Man and the artist’s 1971 debut Cold Spring Harbor. And while it has been long available on multi-generational bootlegs of the original broadcast, the resounding clarity by which this show is presented by Legacy, coupled with its historical importance, makes you wonder why this Sigma session was never released as a live album back in the 70s. Nevertheless, it is available now and the most convicing reason why this Legacy Edition of Piano Man is a must get for any fan.

Released in tandem with the Piano reissue is Billy Joel — The Complete Albums Collection, a gorgeously packaged box set that brings together 14 of Joel’s albums during his solid 30 years of active duty in the studio. Each title, from the aforementioned Cold Spring Harbor to 2001’s classical effort Fantasies and Delusions, have been remastered and housed in these killer cardboard replicas of the original vinyl releases, replete with inner sleeves and everything. They are so cool. Sadly, there’s a slim-to-none chance we’re going to see Legacy Editions of such unheralded 80s titles as An Innocent Man or The Bridge or even Storm Front for that matter. And if you are the type of fan who holds these works in as high regard as The Stranger and Glass Houses, this Collection is undoubtedly a must own, for it is most likely the only time they will be revamped in our lifetime (although I hold out hope for a deluxe take on The Nylon Curtain, but that’s just me).

One odd aspect of this set, however, is that while the 1982 live album Songs from the Attic is present and accounted for on here, Joel’s other concert documents—1987 Russian souvenir Kohuept, 2000’s 2000 Years: The Millennium Concert, 2005’s 12 Gardens compilation of the Piano Man’s two-week stand at Madison Square Garden and the recently released Live at Shea Stadium —were omitted from inclusion, giving this set’s boast as the “complete” album collection a bit of a misnomer. On the other hand, there is a 15th CD entitled Collected Additional Masters 1985-2007 ) that brings together 17 b-sides, rarities, soundtrack cuts, compilation tracks and cover tunes, namely the “Allentown” flip “Elvis Presley Boulevard”, the one-off hit “You’re Only Human (Second Wind)” that was originally added to Joel’s two-volume Greatest Hits release from 1985, “Nobody Knows But Me”, which is a long lost 1982 original featured on the out-of-print Children’s Television Workshop benefit album In Harmony II and the gorgeous 2007 single “All My Life”, the singer’s first proper pop song since his lackluster 1993 effort River of Dreams.

Few musicians represent the vitality of the AOR era quite like Billy Joel. And this pair of archival essentials is a keen testament to the importance of Mr. Long Island’s unflappable place in the rafters of rock ‘n’ roll history, warts and all.

Comments

There are 5 comments associated with this post

DH January 10, 2012, 23:37:27

For the most part, I agree with this review. A couple of points worth noting however: Songs In The Attic, one of the best live albums I’ve heard (songs recorded at various venues) was recorded on the initiative of Phil Ramone, producer, and Joel. The album brought energy to songs that was lacking on the original recordings. The other live albums that are not included in this remastered box set were, I suspect, brought to market by Columbia Records because Joel had not recorded new vocal material since ’93’s River of Dreams, which is a phenomenal CD. All My Life, by comparison, must be considered one of the less successful recordings – critical and financial – of Joel’s career.

Shaun January 12, 2012, 19:53:56

I too agree with MOST of this review, but calling the River of Dreams album “lackluster”?? No way… Not only does that album boast some of the strongest lyrics of Joel’s deep catalogue, but it’s also one of the most musically diverse albums he ever made. The album isn’t so much a departure for Joel as it is a summation of his lengthy career. He touches on just about every style of music he ever recorded, from hard rock (“No Man’s Land,” which should’ve been a single, and “Shades of Grey”) to Beatlesque trippiness (“The Great Wall of China”), blues rock (“A Minor Variation”), old school doo-wop/R&B (the album’s irresistible title song), and classically-infused ballads (“Lullabye” and “Two Thousand Years”). If you listen closely, you’ll realize the album is something of a loose concept album. Billy works through his bitterness and finds a place of peace and contentment by the end. This is reflected in both the lyrics and the music itself as the album moves forward. River of Dreams is one of the best albums of the 90s, and it’s on the short list of Billy Joel’s best- ever albums. I love it every bit as much as The Stranger, 52nd Street, or The Nylon Curtain. It’s a shame he hasn’t made a studio album since then, but at least he went out on top of his game.

Shaun January 12, 2012, 20:05:52

Also, I gotta agree with DH that “All My Life” was a really weak effort. It was a one-shot attempt at recording a Sinatra-like ballad for his (then) wife. He didn’t even want to release it, so it was just made available as a download originally. Anyhow, the live album from the 1987 tour of Russia (“KOHUEPT,” which is Russian for “concert”) was released between The Bridge and Storm Front, so it certainly should’ve been included in the “Complete Albums Collection.” The other live albums came after River of Dreams, so I kind of understand why those weren’t included. Thank you for the review, Ron! Pleasant surprise to find this reviewed on jambands.com!

DH January 13, 2012, 00:44:44

I agree with Shaun’s comments on River of Dreams. Well said (or written). The key reason for including Songs in the Attic in the boxed set, in my opinion, is because most, if not all, of the songs on this album are superior to their original versions. Most songs on Joel’s more recent live material, however, are inferior to the original versions. I recall Joel’s vocals, in concert, being most impressive on The Bridge tour (I first heard him perform in concert in ’79, and most recently, a couple of years ago in Toronto). Perhaps one reason he has not recorded a complete CD of vocal music since ’93 is because his singing ability isn’t up to the standard he would demand (compare the power of I’ve Loved These Days from Songs in the Attic to his more recent live recording of this number as evidence).

Leandro April 23, 2012, 23:41:43

- Oh bestill my heart I didn’t know you were a Noah fan!!!!! I just adore them! Do you know the back hiorsty with Charlie and Laura Marling? Sounding like a superfan here, but I’m a big fan of hers, so to know that the entire second album is an ode to Charlie and Laura’s break-up WOW. One of the most beautiful break-up albums ever, fo sho. Nother great pick Dustin! PS Stranger is one of my faves of that album. So much heartache in one song.

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