Billy Joel had already released four albums – three with groups, and one solo disaster that was mastered at the wrong speed – before Columbia picked him up in 1972 and released this, the album that gave him his first solo breakthrough. For those more familiar with Joel's 80s MOR staples, it's a rum old do, with banjos and dobros every bit as prominent as Joel's piano – as if, in the wake of Elton John's Tumbleweed Connection, every singer-pianist had to somehow pretend to be a cowboy (the west is addressed directly in The Ballad of Billy the Kid). The centrepieces are the two extended narratives that made his name. Piano Man itself presents a sentimentalised view of Joel's time as a lounge pianist, though if it was that great, one wonders why Joel chose to pursue international stardom instead. Captain Jack – the song that got him signed after a Philadelphia radio station playlisted a live version from a promo show – attempted to capture the ennui of a generation by means of a clunky lyric – "You're sister's gone out, she's on a date/ You just sit home and masturbate" – about a listless loser who buys drugs from the titular dealer. Both, though, show off Joel's undeniable knack for a melody that simply brushes objections away, and his skill at combining Broadway, singer-songwriter and soft rock techniques. The real fascination here, though, is the second disc, a brushed-up version of the promo show that brought Captain Jack to attention. It reveals Joel as nervy, but fully formed.
Billy Joel: Piano Man (Legacy Edition) – review
Michael Hann is a freelance writer, and former music editor of the Guardian