The Second Disc

Expanded and Remastered Music News

Review: Billy Joel, “Piano Man: Legacy Edition”

with 8 comments

Since the dawn of the new millennium, most of the archival material that catalogue enthusiasts want come to us in the form of the dreaded deluxe edition: a bonus disc of rarities or outtakes appended to a long-released, newly-remastered album. With the record industry at a crossroads unlike anything it’s ever had to deal with, it’s astounding that most treats for die-hard music aficionados come at a higher price tag, filled sometimes in large part with material one already owns in at least one capacity.

But there’s another way at looking at these packages other than a quick way to turn out a few bucks: the argument that these sets are bolstering the context of a particular artist or artistic statement. It’s a view, crazy as it may be, that The Second Disc has often tried to espouse. Thinking of the old saw that journalism is the first draft of history, it’s sometimes comforting to look at deluxe editions as the history book as well as its first draft.

That viewpoint proves a major problem for the new Legacy Edition of Piano Man (Columbia/Legacy 88697 61901-2), Billy Joel’s acclaimed debut for the label that’s kept him a major artist for nearly four decades. The bonus content captures a fleeting moment of greatness before the captivating legend of Joel – the sensitive balladeer with a wicked and often public dark side – grabs the world by the collar and refuses to let go. And, as bonus discs go, it’s one that really raises the value of the package.

There’s just one problem: the bonus disc is absolutely in the wrong context.

Piano Man is one of the oddest Billy Joel records, and that’s not just because of its glassy-eyed picture of the singer on the album sleeve. The songwriting style that’s unmistakable Joel – confessional and intimate on tracks like “Piano Man” and “You’re My Home,” theatrically broad on tunes like “Captain Jack” and “The Ballad of Billy the Kid,” and sometimes both (take “Ain’t No Crime,” which sounds like it should score an orange juice commercial) – is still there. But it’s couched in strange gospel and country arrangements (by, of all people, Mellow Gold champion Michael Omartian). The instrumental power of Billy Joel’s road-tested, semi-legendary backing band is sort of there, but the band itself is not; instead, the bulk of Piano Man is handled by California session players (notably Motown stalwarts Dean Parks and Wilton Felder). So it’s a Billy Joel record, but it’s not a Billy Joel record – arguably, that wouldn’t come until 1976’s Turnstiles, which Joel self-produced with his live band.

But it’s certainly more of a Billy Joel record than his debut, 1971’s Cold Spring Harbor. Released on the crashing Family Productions label and stricken with a terrible mastering job that raised the pitch of the entire record, Billy only started finding his voice in the studio when he was signed to Columbia and began recording Piano Man. That said, his voice was first discovered on the road: Joel became something of a journeyman in the post-Harbor period, taking a gig playing a piano bar on the West Coast (gaining enough material to write Piano Man‘s titular hit) but still touring in certain markets with the intent of getting into a real contract instead of his failed one with Family.

One such gig, a performance at Philadelphia’s Sigma Sound Studios in the spring of 1972, was recorded by local free-form station WMMR-FM, and was one of the catalysts for Joel’s eventual first step to success on Columbia. While Joel played more than half of Cold Spring Harbor in the 12-song set, the standouts were then-new tracks that would eventually become stalwarts on Piano Man. Specifically, the carnival-like anti-drug screed “Captain Jack” became a staple of the station’s playlist then and there, giving Joel enough momentum on the Northeast to secure that prized record deal. (In retrospect, it’s also worth noting three great songs that have never appeared on any studio album – the rollicking “Josephine,” the dreamy ballad “Long, Long Time” and the excellent “Rosalinda,” which must have been a last-minute contender for Cold Spring Harbor.)

That set receives its long-awaited official release on this new package, newly remixed from the original 16-track elements (more on that in a bit). But did it really belong as a sweetener to the worthwhile but ultimately not all that remarkable Piano Man? Sure, three of the songs from that concert ended up on the record, and they’re certainly embryonic enough to provide a fun look into the songs we all sing along to now. But much of the concert – chiefly its song selection and the way the songs are delivered – match the airy sensitivity of Cold Spring Harbor enough to make a compelling argument that this show should be the bonus disc of a Legacy Edition for that record instead.

It would make enough sense: all the press behind recent Billy Joel catalogue titles try to tie into the 40-year mark of Harbor, and it would have been a perfect opportunity to finally put the original, speed-corrected, un-remixed version of the album on CD instead of the commonplace remix released by Columbia in 1983 (as opposed to an album that didn’t need to be remastered twice in 12 years). Plus, there are a lot of great clues toward the Billy Joel we all know and love, from the self-deprecating asides and between-song piano noodling to the ominous sips of beer he takes between tunes. (Also hilariously telling: his spoken intro to “Captain Jack” decries hipsters who only know what they read in Rolling Stone – not quite ripping reviews up onstage, but close!)

Had the Sigma show been a part of a Cold Spring Harbor reissue, it might have been more appropriate to complement an uneven, strange-edged record with a less fresh-sounding mix of the album. The liner notes by Jonathan Takiff (a Philadelphia journalist and former weekend DJ for WMMR) paint a pretty vivid picture of the recording of the studio session and the flubs by a backing band (guitarist Al Hertzberg, bassist Larry “La Rue” Russell, drummer Rhys Clark) that could not always keep up with Joel. Those errors are scrubbed clean on the new mix (which, by and large, sounds pretty great), and even Joel acknowledges in the notes that it may not sit well with those so accustomed to the flaws on the bootlegged versions of the show. Honestly, it’s really in the ear of the beholder – but at least they came clean about their vaguely revisionist methods.

The bottom line? This Sigma Sound show is great, an absolute treasure in the Billy Joel discography and a fascinating all-too-rare portrait of an artist before he was a modern-day legend. It’s just unfortunate that it was put in the frame that it’s in.

Written by Mike Duquette

November 7, 2011 at 12:59

Posted in Billy Joel, Reissues, Reviews

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8 Responses

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  1. I’ll get to the rest of the review in a minute, but… “Ain’t No Crime” sounds like an orange juice commerical?? What are you basing that on? To me, it’s always been a great little barrelhouse rocker. Some sweet licks being played on both the piano and the Hammond. The gospel-like backing vocals give it a great sound too. I’ve always imagined that Aretha Franklin or Ray Charles might’ve done a cool cover version of his/her own.

    Also, I don’t know of any OJ commercials that contain the word “ass” in the jingle.


    November 7, 2011 at 18:58

  2. OK… Now it’s time to gripe. The original radio concert has been tinkered with? Godammit… Why do artists feel the need to do this?

    It was bad enough when Billy let the NYE 1999 show get butchered up in the studio, now it’s happened to a historic concert, one that a lot of fans have in bootleg form already but I would’ve loved a pristine, official release. Now I’m on the fence.

    I’m going to get this one from my local library when they get it, and give it a listen to see what I think. I just don’t understand the need to tamper with history. The show was great it as it was, and I want to hear it as it was. Otherwise, what’s the point of this? It’s not really the actual concert anymore (just as the 2000 Years release is also a sham).


    November 7, 2011 at 19:06

  3. One last comment (for now)… Releasing the Sigma concert (or an approximation of it, at least) with the Piano Man album makes far more sense, commerically, than releasing it with Cold Spring Harbor.

    Bottom line, which album’s more likely to sell: An album that pretty much only the Joel die-hards even know about, or the album with Billy’s first hit single, which is also his signature tune, and (arguably) his most beloved song ever? It also has “Captain Jack,” another of his most beloved songs and a long time AOR/classic rock radio staple.

    I’d welcome an official release of the original CSH (so long as it’s mastered at the right speed this time) as much as anyone, but it’s been almost 30 years since the Sony remix (yet another butcher job), so I’m not holding my breath. It just doesn’t have the commercial appeal that Piano Man does.

    Given that there a few songs from the Piano Man album on the Sigma concert, it’s not that bad of a pairing. I don’t need to purchase Piano Man again, no, but I understand Sony’s reasoning. This is really no different than the 30th anniversary box set of The Stranger, where a (partial) 1976 concert was included. The concert came about a year before The Stranger’s release, and the only songs that would actually turn up on The Stranger were “Just the Way You Are” and “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant.” The DVD that came with it was also a pre-Stranger performance. Shouldn’t that have been a Legacy Edition of Turnstiles instead? But again… Which one’s going to sell better?

    Piano Man’s a great album either way. It would’ve been better with Billy’s own band, yes, but it captures the California singer/songwriter sound that Billy (who was hiding out in CA at the time) was being lumped in with. The more country-ish or gospel-esque sounds on the album wouldn’t sound that out of place on an early James Taylor or Jackson Browne album.


    November 7, 2011 at 19:21

  4. This album (along with Streetlife Serenade and Turnstiles) was mixed into quadraphonic back in the day. It’s a shame that this is the second time this year that Piano Man has been reissued (the other being Mobile Fidelity’s SACD) and that nobody has thought to include the quad mix in any of these new versions. The old quad mixes have been a nice component to recent Jethro Tull and Pink Floyd reissues.


    November 8, 2011 at 02:42

    • I couldn’t agree more, Rob. I’m a major proponent of surround releases in general, but those quad mixes are quite nice, indeed.

      Joe Marchese

      November 8, 2011 at 09:50

  5. This CD both abridges and changes the running order of the Sigma Sound concert. That is not cool and makes the CD very undesirable to me. THIS is full, proper running order of the concert:


    8. SHE’S GOT A WAY
    12. NOCTURNE

    Barry Gutman

    November 8, 2011 at 11:38

  6. MEA CULPA! The Legacy Editiion DOES feature the full, properly sequenced Sigma Sound concert. My error was due to the fact that the AOL Listening Post is for some reason streaming only an abridged version! So, shame on them but good for Legacy.

    Barry Gutman

    November 8, 2011 at 16:46

  7. There is a lot of pointless griping here about insignificant details regarding the Legacy Edition of Piano Man. From a sound mix and mastering point of few, fans should be relieved to find that the original LP tracks have not been destroyed with endless compression and limiting like a lot of Legacy and Deluxe Edition remasters/reissues. The sound quality is quite nice on the digital transfer and remaster of the original album. I can understand folks who already have digital versions of Piano Man and didn’t really want to buy it again but if you don’t already have it, this is a nice version to get. The Sigma concert was recorded in ’72 and Piano Man was released in ’73. Big deal. To say that it’s wrong to include this concert because of that fact is ridiculous, especially considering songs from Piano Man were written in ’72 and are played at this concert. Furthermore, to my knowledge the Sigma show is the best sounding complete Billy Joel performance available from this time period. If you know of another one, please let me know! Again, the official version of this recording presented here trumps all the bootleg versions of the performance. I can understand complaining about an anticipated reissue when the sound quality is abhorrent and/or there are unnecessary edits or omissions. This has happened with a lot of “deluxe” and “legacy” editions. Fortunately, this is a great release all around that doesn’t warrant a whole lot of criticism.

    Steve Parsons

    August 17, 2014 at 11:54

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