Billy Joel’s Columbia Records debut (his second album overall) Piano Man has recently been remastered and reissued as a two-disc Legacy Edition. The 1973 album is kind of an odd one, made before Joel really arrived at his polished, mainstream Adult Contemporary pop style. The title track is his signature tune and gave him his first hit single. But the rest of the album is a mishmash of styles, ranging from melodramatic country and western (“The Ballad of Billy the Kid”) to awkward funk-lite (“Worse Comes to Worst”).
It’s not a great album, even by Joel’s standards, and I say that as a fan. He just hadn’t hit his stride yet. This album would never have received a deluxe reissue had it not been for Joel’s massive success that would soon follow. “Captain Jack,” which closes the album, is easily the second most popular song after the title track. But even it really doesn’t deserve its “classic” status, as it’s more or less a bombastic, pretentious wannabe epic. Aside from the deservedly celebrated title track, the up-tempo shuffle “Travelin’ Prayer” is about the most distinctive tune this album has to offer.
The real bait for fans is the second disc, a live show recorded in front of a small audience for radio broadcast in 1972. Recorded for WMMR FM in Philadelphia, this is a fun glimpse of Joel very early in his career. Piano Man hadn’t come out yet; in fact, he hadn’t even signed with Columbia at this point. Joel played a few songs that would wind up on the album, including “Captain Jack,” which achieved great popularity on the basis of this recording. Most of the material comes from his debut album Cold Spring Harbor, the best known by far being the ballad “She’s Got a Way.” It’s cool to hear Joel delivering laid back introductions to his songs before anyone really knew who he was. The atmosphere is so casual, he even does the station ID himself at one point.
Even though I’m not that enamored of this early Billy Joel material, I highly recommend this reissue for fans due to the live disc. The audio quality of the radio broadcast is excellent, by the way, so no worries about it sounding like a bootleg. The liner notes, while laughably over the top in lavishing praise on this album (which is a snapshot of an artist still very much developing), include some interesting information about the WMMR FM broadcast and its importance for Joel’s career.