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Deep Cuts: Billy Joel

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When I was five years old in 1977, my older brother brought home Billy Joel’s The Stranger LP. Something about that album got me all excited, and it is thanks to that experience that I became the music fan I am to this day. It seems a lot of people tend to deride Billy for whatever reasons, which has never really made much sense. The man has hit upon so many different styles of music in his career, that it seems nearly impossible to not like at least one of his songs.

In 2005, Joel released My Lives, a box set that concentrated mostly on album tracks instead of hit singles. Billy has often said that his own singles hardly tell the whole story about who he is as an artist and musician. Indeed, many of his best tunes are ones that were never released as singles. Therefore, coming up with a Deep Cuts by Billy Joel is pretty much a no-brainer. If nothing else, it can easily serve as a guide to those earlier albums that didn’t yield many hits, but had plenty of treasure hidden within nonetheless.

What follows then is a chronological album-by-album survey of the cream of Billy’s album cuts. Some you may be familiar with, others you may have no knowledge of whatsoever if you’re a casual fan. Hopefully, you’ll be able to explore Billy’s music further if you’re one of those folks who only owns his greatest hits collections. Those hits, great as they are, are truly only the tip of the iceberg. Billy’s best work has often been those “other” songs surrounding the hits. So without further ado, here are Billy Joel’s Deep Cuts.

All of the following were written by Billy Joel.

“Brain Invasion” – Attila
The Attila album is a hilarious, bombastic and failed exercise in the power duo genre (if such a thing exists). If you have to hear only one Attila song, then this is it. It’s a wild instrumental, showing off Billy’s knack for classical and jazz-infused themes as he blasts them out from his super-distorted organ. Drummer Jon Small bashes out the beats in a similarly-crazed fashion. It’s no wonder this band was a failure.

“You Can Make Me Free” – Cold Spring Harbor
When Billy’s botched debut was corrected and re-issued in 1983, some of the songs on the album had been changed. Some, like “Everybody Loves You Now,” had instruments added to them, while others were shortened. This song falls into the latter category (the original was over five minutes) and shows Billy giving it his best McCartney sounding style. The lyrics are all fluff, but Joel’s piano playing is powerful and his then-young voice quite soulful as well.

“Worse Comes To Worst” – Piano Man
I’m not even a great fan of this album, and neither is Billy himself. Though it does sport a few classics, the studio hacks assembled to play on the tunes really don’t have much substance. This is the best of the lesser-knowns from the album, sporting a funky wah-wah guitar, some groovy accordion and a locked down groove that seems missing from the rest of the album. It’s as if a real band came in to lay one down and then abruptly left.

“Roberta” – Streetlife Serenade
Billy’s overlooked third album is a treasure trove of deep cuts. In fact, aside from the single “The Entertainer,” the whole album is one Deep Cut. “Roberta” is a deceptive song. At first, it sounds like any run of the mill love song, but closer inspection reveals it to be an ode to a prostitute. The song’s coda is otherworldly and a fine example of what Joel could do with studio musicians that were feeling the songs a bit more.

“Last of the Big Time Spenders” – Streetlife Serenade
Another fantastic cut from Billy’s third album, this one is soulful and funny at the same time. There’s even a hint of a country feel to it (the same thing infused a lot of the Piano Man album, causing it to sound silly), but here Billy throws on his deep voice at the bridges and offers a glimpse of the sounds he was going to mine in the coming years.

“Summer, Highland Falls” – Turnstiles
My vote for best song from this album. Has a better song about relationships going into a predictable groove ever been written? The piano work on this track is some of Billy’s best ever, as is his vocal phrasing. A live favorite.

“All You Wanna Do Is Dance” – Turnstiles
In which Billy chastises some chick for being too naïve and only wanting to shake her ass. It also poses the question, “Why don’t the Beatles get back together?” 1976 was still a year in which such a thing could be pondered.

“Vienna” – The Stranger
Billy once again seems to be singing down to someone on this classic track, informing them they need to just slow down and let life sink in from time to time. “Vienna” as escapist fantasy and also where Billy’s estranged father went off to reside, apparently. So perhaps Joel is actually singing to himself.

“Get It Right the First Time” – The Stranger
The nervous willies one gets from trying to get up the nerve and talk to a pretty girl has never sounded better in song. The inventive theme of the song played on flutes is a highlight. Shall we credit Phil Ramone or Billy for that idea?

“Until the Night” – 52nd Street
Billy’s grandest epic ever. Undoubtedly the most erotic song he’s ever written as well. This is one of those cinematic tracks Joel is known for from time to time, but perhaps he never hit the theatricality as well as he does here. The longing and tension built up in the words and melodies is palpable. The whole thing explodes at the end in one giant orgasmic crescendo. What more could you want?

“Sleeping with the Television On” – Glass Houses
Another track that explores what happens when you can’t get the nerve to speak to that certain someone and get the ball rolling. Probably the most “new wave” sounding track on this album, it still has that patented Billy Joel style all over it.

“Close to the Borderline” – Glass Houses
It’s sort of easy to see how the critics might have blasted Billy for not actually being a hard rocker on this song, Glass Houses’ “toughest track,” but at the same time it’s still got a good groove to it, and changed dramatically from the sweet piano pop that it was originally recorded as in demo form. And my, how times haven’t changed. Witness, “A buck three-eighty won’t buy you much lately on the street these days / But when you can get gas, you know you can’t drive fast any more on the parkways.”

“Streetlife Serenader” – Songs in the Attic
This album is nothing but 11 Deep Cuts presented in live form. It was a chance to showcase Billy’s band cranking out songs from his first four LPs in tighter form. “Streetlife Serenader” benefits a lot from the makeover. It was a great song on Streetlife Serenade, but here its impressionistic vibe is allowed to breathe and grow as the song is performed. One of Billy’s best overlooked tracks.

“Surprises” – The Nylon Curtain
Undoubtedly the weirdest song (to me, anyway) that Joel has ever penned. Its abstract sensibility grows creepier as the warm, minor-key synths swirl up and over, breaking like a doomed wave at key points in the song. Is Joel criticizing himself here, or someone else? One of these days I’ll find out.

“Laura” – The Nylon Curtain
It would be easy for me to just list every track from this great album that wasn’t a single, but if you want the best Beatles-infused track Billy’s ever written, then here it is. It’s nasty, it’s spiteful, and it cuts to the bone. It was also the first song I ever had on an album that contained the word “fucking.” Here, Billy spits out that word with complete disgust. The instrumental break on this track kills.

“Careless Talk” – An Innocent Man
People are talking behind Billy and his gal’s backs, but he doesn’t care. Their love will last forever! Well, if he was singing to Christie Brinkley, we all know how that story ends. Still, this is a nice slab of greasy ‘50s rock and doo wop that would have made Sha-Na-Na proud.

“Big Man on Mulberry Street” – The Bridge
In which Billy does Broadway at long last. Years before Twyla Tharp came along, Billy created his own theme for The Great White Way. It’s the coolest song from this album, and even featured in an episode of “Moonlighting” at the time. Super ginchy.

“Getting Closer” – The Bridge
Billy discovers he’s been getting ripped off by the associates handling his monies for years and sings about it. Steve Winwood keeps his mouth shut and delivers a groovy solo in the middle on his Hammond B-3. The alternate take of this track on My Lives is even funkier. Can you dig it?

“Honesty” – Kohuept
Yeah, I know this was officially a single from 52nd Street and therefore is not technically a deep cut, but this live and much more intimate version smokes the original as it’s just Billy and his piano and none of those goofy lush strings and all that glopped up the single. You definitely need to thrill to this take if you’ve never heard it.

“Storm Front” – Storm Front
To be honest, both this album and River of Dreams are not my fave Billy Joel albums by a long shot. And since the guy apparently released the one song I was going to pick as a Deep Cut here, I’ll have to go with the title track. Ecch. It’s neither here nor there, and the best song on the album is the beautiful “And So It Goes,” but it’s ineligible. And so it goes.

“The Great Wall of China” – River of Dreams
Billy really should come back and rectify the mess that he ended his pop career on. A lot of people like this album, but honestly I just find it boring and impenetrable. Jesus, even the critics liked it. Ah well, this sole track is like a great leftover tune from The Nylon Curtain. It seems to be speaking of more of those financial woes that dog poor Billy whereever he goes. It’s grandiose and dramatic and features some weird-ass unintelligible mumbling at the fade. Weird and easily the black sheep of the album.

So there you have it. A buttload of Billy Joel Deep Cuts to explore and enjoy. I don’t own Fantasies and Delusions, so we have no selections from it. However, I really don’t see myself ever buying that album, not even as the freaky completist that I am. However, I will accept free copies, so if you have one and hate it, feel free to chuck it my way.