Billy Joel has never been a favorite of music critics, but he still emerged as one of the most memorable artists from the late 70’s and 80’s. While I’m sure no one knew how successful Joel would come to be when he quit high school to pursue music full-time, his lyrics are legendary in their own time. While Joel has many fan favorites, there are ten songs that are the most notable from his career.
“Piano Man”, released in 1973, only made it to 25 on the U.S. charts, but the song would pretty much become Joel’s nickname over the rest of his career. The lyrics are inspired by experiences he had playing in a piano bar called The Executive Room in Los Angeles. Joel worked there for a while during his 4 year stint in L.A. after his solo album did poorly.
The 1976 “Turnstiles” record produced one song that is a favorite among Joel fans. “New York State of Mind” was written after Joel moved back to New York after his time in California. He missed his home state so much, it inspired the song. The song has been requested more on the radio and in Joel’s concerts especially since the World Trade Center towers falling. Joel has sung it in several fundraisers benefiting the victims of that tragedy.
Joel’s 1977 “The Stranger” album produced two top 40 hits, including the tune “Only the Good Die Young”. The song didn’t do well until church leaders all over the nation heard its message and tried to ban it. With music, there is no such thing as bad publicity, so the controversy moved this song up the charts to number 24.
The second hit from that album was “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)”. Originally, the song was written as a soft ballad, but when Joel performed it for his band they informed him the tune was identical to a Neil Sakada song called “Laughter in the Rain”. Billy Joel recomposed the tune to a faster rock song. It reached 17 on the U.S. charts.
The “Piano Man’s” first number 1 hit in the U.S. was “It’s Still Rock and Roll To Me”. Released in 1980 on the “Glass Houses” record, the song mentions something called the “miracle mile.” The “miracle mile” reference is actually a real stretch of road in a commercial district of Manhasset, Long Island near where Joel grew up.
Reaching 17 on the U.S. charts was Joel’s song “Allentown”. The 1982 song from his album “The Nylon Curtain” is about a Northeastern Pennsylvania town that had deteriorated when the once-booming steel factories shut their doors. The song was widely popular with many blue collar workers whose jobs moved south to Mexico or overseas.
Two top ten hits were on Billy’s “An Innocent Man” record that was put out in 1983 and led to the album’s multi-platinum status. Going to number one was “Tell Her About It”. The song was nominated for an American Music Award for Favorite Pop/Rock Video.
The other hit song from “An Innocent Man” that became as big of a signature for Joel as his “Piano Man” release was “Uptown Girl”. Joel wrote the song for model Christie Brinkley, who married him two years after it was released. Even the music video starred Brinkley as a high class woman and Joel as her auto mechanic. The couple was married for nine years.
Mentioning over 50 celebrities and historical figures, Joel’s 1989 release “We Didn’t Start the Fire” hit number one. This is one of the few songs that Joel wrote the lyrics to first and then the music. Joel claims writing the lyrics first is the reason that this song has no melody. Regardless, the sheer history that the song rehashes made it an instant classic.
Joel’s most recent number one hit came with the 1993 “River of Dreams” that was put out on the album of the same title. The song is about a dream and finding the importance of your life. The cover of the album features a painting by Joel’s now ex-wife model Christie Brinkley.
Joel is still being recognized for his work. In 1999, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 2003, Joel, along with Stuart Malina, won a Tony Award for the Broadway play “Movin’ Out” that is based on his lyrics. His recent happenings include an extensive concert tour of Europe in 2006, so I am sure the “Piano Man” is not ready to hang up his metronome quite yet.