In the late 70s/early 80s Billy Joel’s music was everywhere. Hit singles, huge selling albums, and massive tours all meant that the once struggling artist was a major success. Early in his career, Joel played in various groups around New York City that went nowhere and saw a debut solo album, Cold Spring Harbor, mastered at the wrong speed causing his voice to sound a semitone than it should have. After a failed suicide attempt, Joel moved out to California with his then girlfriend, Elizabeth. While in LA, he got a job playing piano at The Executive Room piano bar. During this time, Joel wrote the songs that would form his second solo album, Piano Man.
It would be easy to look back and say that it is obvious that Joel would be a star based on hearing Piano Man but well, there is some truth to that. The melodies, music, and musicianship are all impeccable. The rumbling bass and banjo picking of “Travelin’ Prayer” (later covered by Dolly Parton) are ridiculously catchy. “You’re My Home” is a pleasant attempt at a Paul Simon like look at America while “The Ballad of Billy the Kid” has the story telling of Marty Robbins. It’s curious that “Stop in Nevada” was not released as a single as it has all the bombast of later Meatloaf productions with a few country touches to hit all the right demographics. This of course leaves the ubiquitous title track. Like many great songs from the past it has been slightly diminished over time having been heard a million times, but listening with fresh ears there is no doubt why the track has been played/covered so much over the last 35+ years.
While Billy Joel lacks the grit of Bruce Springsteen and the expert lyricism of Paul Simon, Piano Man hits a nice stride right into MOR radio. It has all the classic sounds of AM Radio from the 70s and while he would go on to better perfect his sound, there are a few gems here to listen to that would surely be overlooked on most “Best Of” collections.