No. 63: Billy Joel, ‘Piano Man’ – Top 100 Classic Rock Songs
Somewhere right now, Billy Joel‘s ‘Piano Man’ is playing.
It’s on a jukebox, and it’s on in the produce section at your local grocery store. It’s on your radio; it’s in your head. It’s a key component in the aural wallpaper that surrounds us every day, and it’s on our Top 100 Classic Rock Songs list.
And it’s part of that wallpaper because it’s easy, and it’s kinda soft, and pleasant enough in its own way, at least if you don’t think too hard about the sad-sack loser characters that inhabit its lyrics. But it’s also part of the soundtrack to our lives because it’s a damn great song.
Drawing inspiration from his time spent as a piano player in an L.A. bar between recording contracts, Joel creates an indelible mental portrait of the characters who inhabit a watering hole on a Saturday night, looking to escape and “forget about life for a while.” You can almost see the haze of cigarette smoke and hear the clinking of glasses.
Oddly enough, the song was both butchered, then ignored when first released as a single in 1973. Deemed too long for Top 40 radio, it was edited down into shorter versions and then promptly disappeared into oblivion, topping out at No. 25 on the Billboard charts. After Joel’s breakout album ‘The Stranger’ found success in 1977, the song gained far more traction until the point where it ultimately became synonymous with Joel himself.
After a couple of decades riding the charts with radio-friendly, expertly-crafted piano pop, and a couple decades after that as the punchline to every other bloated drunkard joke on late-night talk shows, it might be easy to dismiss Billy Joel. It’s been almost twenty years since his last studio record, 1993’s ‘River of Dreams,’ dominated the airwaves, and that was by no means his greatest work.
Next time ‘Piano Man’ pops up in the aural wallpaper of your life, give it a real listen. Let it paint a picture for you, and understand the real brilliance of Joel. Great songs tell a story, and whether you’ve spent time in a piano lounge or never set foot in one, ‘Piano Man’ paints a vivid portrait of a specific place and time, every time you hear it. That’s true whether you’re waiting in the dentist’s office or wrapped in the sonic embrace of your headphones.
Watch Billy Joel Perform ‘Piano Man’