It may seem appropriate Billy Joel grew up in Hicksville (Long Island, NY). William Martin Joel made a name for himself as a pop balladeer - an American Elton John. For a change, Joel produced retro-Rockers that were often pretty good. So they guy had it in him to do it.
Joel was a rebellious teen who vented his angry energies into boxing - twenty-two amateur bouts and one broken nose. Yeah, but you should have seen the other guy. Concurrently, Joel was practicing piano. Seeing The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show convinced him a music career was the way to go. Joel dropped boxing and dropped out of school. Working in groups like The Echoes and Lost Souls, led to some New York session work including piano on the Shangri-Las' epic "Leader of the Pack." Most people would have been ecstatic to have been part of such a cultural milestone at such an early age but not Joel. Moving toward Hard Rock he joined the Hassle for two albums and four singles, all stiffs. Attila was next and it didn't do any better.
Joel then returned to session and production work. Only this time around he went through severe depression resulting in a suicide attempt. After some time in a psychiatric hospital Joel re-entered the music biz as a solo. First, he signed a "lifetime" agreement with his new manager that ultimately proved costly. Joel later claimed he was unaware of the clause but he should have read the fine print a little more closely.
Joel's debut record was poorly mastered, sounded terrible and served as a major embarrassment. Joel bailed for the west coast with his girlfriend, Liz, who had been married to Attila's drummer. Liz continued her education in L.A. and eventually became Joel's wife and manager. While Liz was working on her education, Joel plied his craft in a piano bar.
A live recording of "Captain Jack" got radio airplay and soon Joel was signed to Columbia Records. "Piano Man" released in '73 contained the hit title track ballad based on Joel's previous lounge experience. Putting together a group, he opened for the Doobie Brothers and the J. Geils Band.
Joel's next two albums, "Streetlife Serenade" and "Turnstiles" were commercially disappointing, though the former had the rollicking "Say Goodbye To Hollywood." Down to his last shot, he delivered "The Stranger." It had a couple good Rockers in "Only The Good Die Young" and "Movin' Out" but the album was best known for the wimpy ballad "Just The Way You Are," one of the most wretchedly sappy pieces of pop schlock to roll down the pipe. Naturally, it was a huge hit. The song was written about wife, Liz. How sweet. They ended up getting divorced anyway.
For his next effort, "52nd Street," Joel followed the same pattern by creating a couple of Rockers ("My Life" and "Big Shot") but getting the most mileage out of a ballad ("Honesty)."
Largely in response to his critics, Joel attempted to toughen up his sound on his '80 release, "Glass Houses." Delivering his all-time best Rocker, "It's Still Rock 'n' Roll To Me" and the lesser "You May Be Right," Joel nailed a Grammy for Best Vocal Performance.
"Songs In The Attic" featured live versions of songs written and recorded while Joel was still trying to establish himself. In '82 "Nylon Curtain" was released to generally favorable reviews despite it being a weak album. "Pressure" was a hit but the far more relevant "Allentown" was the highlight. A mellower and more contented "Innocent Man" with the Christie Brinkley inspired retro-Rock (think Dion & The Belmonts) of "Uptown Girl" and "Tell Her About It" proved to be a huge commercial success. It also paid to have Brinkley in his videos. They were married shortly thereafter.
A "Greatest Hits" double album hit in the mid-80s with a couple of adult-radio friendly tunes tacked on. "The Bridge" had "Modern Woman" which also appeared on the "Ruthless People" soundtrack. There was yet another live set, this one recorded in Leningrad while Joel was touring the USSR.
Joel spent the late '80s in litigation - every manager he ever had ripped him off, or so it seemed. "Storm Front" rolled out in '91. It's only worth mentioning for the mega-hit "We Didn't Start The Fire." This catalog of people and events from the last half of the 20th century was presented in chronological order without any context. Amazingly, Joel rhymed his way through the song, though some lines were less than inspired:
"JFK blown away, What else do I have to say?"
Huh? Whatever. The song's underlining message was the world was already screwed up by the time the boomers got their shot.
Joel picked up another Grammy for being a Living Legend. Wow! How did he miss getting a Grammy for being the Ex-Boxer with Most Hits?
"River of Dreams" was a surprisingly good pop album but nothing Rocked, not even his tribute to Brinkley, "All About Soul." They got divorced anyway. Yet another live set "2000 Years: The Millennium Concert" came out before Joel announced he was giving up pop and Rock for "serious" music.
Apparently, Joel's mood changed. He later embarked on the Face 2 Face tours with Elton John. It was a perfect pairing - two superstars who individually might struggle to sell-out a large venue drew SRO audiences all the way. And why not? Half the mushy ballads people remember from the '70s were composed by these two. In addition, they could Rock when the spirit moved them.
The tour took an extended break in '10 when Joel decided to take some time off. "Billy just wants to take a year off," John told NBC. "I had made up my mind a long time ago that I wasn't going to work this year," added Joel.
Joel performed at the 12-12-12 concert to raise money for Hurricane Sandy victims. That charity appearance sparked talk of a Joel comeback. But he later stated that a tour was not in the cards - at least in the near term - due to double replacement hip surgery. "At one point I couldn't even walk and I thought, 'OK, that's it for me'," said Joel. "I'm just too old to do this."
If you listed Billy Joel's hits, and there are a lot of them, most people would at least recognize the titles, if not the actual songs. Joel's career, ranging from "Piano Man" to concert tours with Elton John has covered a lot of ground. Over time, even the critics' loathing dissipated. Joel is a competent Rocker capable of producing some good, if not great stuff, who passes himself off as a chronicler of his generation - the beloved boomers. "Allentown," "Pressure," "My Life" and "We Didn't Start The Fire" demonstrate that tendency.
Another Joel trait is to fill his albums with journeyman Rock 'n' Roll and mind numbing ballads. That fact suggests the best place to start is with Joel's "Greatest Hits Vol. 1 & 2." This set covers his career to '85, which is good enough. Be prepared to skip over numerous ballads to get to the fun stuff - the Rockers. But they are there.
For some reason Joel has released three live albums:
1. "Songs In The Attic"
2. "Kohupet" (recorded in the USSR - the title means "concert" in Russian - or so they claim)
3. "The Millennium Concert"
These performances don't significantly vary from the studio versions so why bother?
Some might argue that "Innocent Man" is Joel's signature album but the fresher and less calculated "Glass Houses" is the one to get. It also has the best collection of Rockers ("It's Still Rock 'n' Roll To Me," "You May Be Right" and "Sometimes a Fantasy") and no cloying ballads.