And I know just where I stand."
William Martin "Billy" Joel (born May 9, 1949) is an American singer, pianist, songwriter, and classical composer. Originally from the Bronx, New York, he is the third-best-selling solo artist in the United States, with 33 Top 40 hits and six Grammy Awards to his name. As his 1973 breakout hit "Piano Man" implies, he is a skilled piano player, and many of his most famous songs have strong keyboard elements.
His discography has a wide range of styles, including schmaltzy soft-rock love songs that perhaps reveal Too Much Information about his relationships (especially that with ex-wife Christie Brinkley), tributes to 1950s artists and stylings, attempts at working class rock comparable to Bruce Springsteen, jazzy ruminations on fame, religion, substance abuse (something he has experience in), or his hometown of New York City, bluesy piano numbers, and pure classical compositions. Said range contributed to the formation of Movin Out, one of the first and best known examples of the Jukebox Musical. He is also known for voicing Dodger in the Disney animated film Oliver & Company.
Joel has mostly retired from pop songwriting and recording, but he still tours occasionally, sometimes with close friend Elton John. He is currently the "artist-in-residence" at Madison Square Garden.
References to his songs come up in pop culture quite a bit: among them a second season episode of American Idol had the contestants singing songs from his catalog, he's been the musical guest on four episodes of Saturday Night Live, an entire episode of Freaks and Geeks was dedicated to his music (and surprisingly, kept all of it for the DVD), and a classic Sesame Street skit has him serenading Oscar the Grouch along with Marlee Matlin.
As part of other bands
- With The Hassles
- The Hassles (1967)
- Hour of the Wolf (1969)
- Attila, an early 1970s Psychedelic Rock album, whose first and only album is often called "one of the worst albums ever recorded".
- Attila (1970)
- Cold Spring Harbor (1971)
- Piano Man (1973)
- Streetlife Serenade (1974)
- Turnstiles (1976)
- The Stranger (1977)
- 52nd Street (1978)
- Glass Houses (1980)
- Songs In The Atticnote (1981)
- The Nylon Curtain (1982)
- An Innocent Man (1983)
- The Bridge (1986)
- Storm Front (1989)
- River of Dreams (1993)
- Fantasies & Delusions (2001)
"Sing us a trope, you're the piano man, sing us a trope tonight":
- A Cappella: "The Longest Time". Slight aversion in that, while it's become an a cappella standard, the original version on An Innocent Man included a bass guitar.
- Album Title Drop: Cold Spring Harbor comes from a line in "Everybody Loves You Now".
- Amicable Exes: Despite rumors to the contrary, Joel and Christie Brinkley remained friends after their divorce, and supposed animosity for her was not the reason he stopped performing "Uptown Girl" live.note
- Apocalypse How: "Miami 2017 (Seen The Lights Go Out On Broadway)", seems to be an example of Class 0.
- Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking: "We Didn't Start the Fire" is full of these, with a Rant-Inducing Slight that pushes him over the edge:Rock and roller cola wars
I CAN'T TAKE IT ANYMORE!!!
I was stranded in the combat zone,
- In "You May Be Right" there was this bit:
I walked through Bedford Stuy alone,
Even rode my motorcycle in the rain.''note
- And this from "Blonde Over Blue":
- Audience Participation Song: Joel's performances of "Piano Man" these days tend to consist of him pointing the microphone at the crowd and letting them sing the entire song.
- Author Avatar: Averted in "The Ballad of Billy the Kid." According to Joel, the Billy from Oyster Bay was a bartender named Billy he knew from his Long Island days.
- Award-Bait Song: "The Ballad Of Billy The Kid" is made to sound like one of these. Joel had always wanted to write a movie theme song, but never got the offer.
- Ballad of X: "The Ballad Of Billy The Kid".
- Berserk Button:
- Infamously, "STOP LIGHTING THE AUDIENCE!" For context, this was during a show that he was playing behind the Iron Curtain in the former Soviet Union. During the show, the Secret Police used the lighting to pick out rowdy audience members, essentially making them afraid to show any hint of having fun. Quoth Billy later of the incident, "I didn't throw a tantrum, I threw a piano."
- In a sense, his irritation with having been compared with fellow piano-based singer-songwriter (and future touring partner) Elton John in The '70s may also count, as he felt he had his own sound and style, and record executives tried to push him towards an Elton-like sound early in his career. Early, unsuccessful attempts to record Turnstiles saw Columbia Records set him up to record with Elton's "classic" band (Davey Johnstone, Dee Murray, and Nigel Olsson). Then he did a concert with Elton in Yankee Stadium in 1989.
- A mild one that he eventually got over: according to Joel himself, many people thought that "Piano Man" was actually a Harry Chapin song that Joel would perform in his concerts; Chapin was well known for his story songs, and Joel admitted that "Piano Man" did fit the mold. For a time, Joel was miffed when people would make the comment, but he eventually took it as a compliment, as he felt that Chapin, "wrote the best story songs."
- Big Applesauce: In addition to being from Long Island, his songs are sprinkled with geography references from New York City and the surrounding Tri-State Area metropolis.
- Book-Ends: The fade-out of "Where's the Orchestra?", the final song on The Nylon Curtain, contains an instrumental snippet of the main melody of "Allentown", the album's first song.
- Similarly, the ending of The Stranger is entitled "Everybody Has A Dream/The Stranger (Reprise)" because that song ends with a repeat of the opening strains of "The Stranger".
- Briefer Than They Think: Joel has been in the music business for over 40 years, yet has produced only 12 studio albums as a solo artist, although they were in the span of 15 years.
- Brutal Honesty/"The Reason You Suck" Speech: "Big Shot", "Pressure" and "Everybody Loves You Now".
- By the Eyes of the Blind: Referenced word-for-word in "River of Dreams".
- Calling Your Attacks: In the song "A Room of Our Own" off The Nylon Curtain, following the second chorus, Billy calls out "Bridge!" just before the bridge begins.
- The Cameo:
- Catholic Schoolgirls Rule: "Only The Good Die Young".
- Concept Album: An Innocent Man consists entirely of pastiches of the music Joel grew up listening to. The most notable singles are the Ben E. King-flavored title track, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons-esque "Uptown Girl", the Marley-influenced "Keeping The Faith", the Motown-style "Tell Her About It", and the a cappella doo-wop "The Longest Time".
- Cool Shades: He wears a pair in the music video for We Didn't Start The Fire, in addition his character from the movie Oliver & Company Dodger wears a pair as well during the song Why Should I Worry.
- Darker and Edgier: Both Glass Houses and especially The Nylon Curtain are this compared to Joel's other albums. Storm Front and especially River Of Dreams are this compared to An Innocent Man and The Bridge. It didn't help that Joel's financial issues and eventual divorce from Christie Brinkley happened during this time period, and it's reflected in many of the songs from this time.
- A Date with Rosie Palms:
- Dead Air: Billy Joel invoked a live-performance version of this trope during the 1994 Grammy Award Show. The director of the show cut short Frank Sinatra's acceptance speech for receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award, and this pissed Joel off to the point that he stopped his performance of "The River of Dreams" in the middle. He sat there, grinning at the audience, while pretending to check his watch, and quipped, "Valuable advertising time going by." After wasting around 30 seconds, he resumed playing the song.Billy: Valuable advertising time going by. . .
Billy: Valuable advertising time going by. . .
Billy: Dollars, dollars, dollars. . .
Billy: shit-eating grin at the audience
Billy: In the middle of the night. . .
- In concert, he still tends to extend the middle of the song (which had a natural pause in the first place) as a reminder of the stunt. In fact, during his live concert in Shea Stadium, he played "A Hard Day's Night" during that "pause".
- Deadpan Snarker: Billy is this in many songs.
- That side of him comes out in recent live performances, and in spades during his songwriting seminars, if the Q+A videos posted on his website are any indication. Also comes with a fair amount of Self-Deprecation.
- Do Not Call Me "Paul": Billy is not fond of being called "William,"note and actually prefers "Bill" to "Billy".
- Last Play at Shea, which used his July 16th and 18th, 2008 concerts at the New York Mets' Shea Stadium, the last ones ever performed there before the building was demolished, as a launchpad for covering his career, the history of American suburbia on Long Island and of the Mets.
- There are also The Bridge to Russia and A Matter of Trust, both TV documentaries about his historic tour in the USSR, released decades apart.
- Dying Town: "Allentown".
- Early Installment Weirdness: His short-lived heavy metal band Attila and their one self-titled album from 1970. Often listed as one of the worst LP's of all time and disowned by Joel.
- Echoing Acoustics:
- "Miami 2017 (Seen the Light Go Out on Broadway)" has a weird reverb effect added to it.
- As he mentions in his live album Songs in the Attic, the song "demands the gothic reverberation of a vast railroad terminus, such as Madison Square Garden." Apparently this is what they were aiming for on the original, and landed in the aural Uncanny Valley instead.
- Epic Rocking: "Goodnight Saigon" (7:04), "Captain Jack" (7:15), and "Scenes from an Italian Restaurant" (7:37), which feature an opening of helicopters, a building crescendo, and an interlude across three distinct sections, respectively.
- The "Prelude" section of "Angry Young Man" is about two minutes going back and forth between five different tempos, including some of the fastest piano-playing you've ever heard.
- Lampshaded in "The Entertainer" when he complains "It was a beautiful song / But it ran too long / If you'e gonna have a hit / You gotta make it fit / So they cut it down to 3:05".
- The Everyman: According to Joel, "Anthony's Song" (or "Movin' Out) is not about someone named Anthony; the name is supposed to represent "every Irish, Polish, and Italian kid trying to make a living in the U.S."
- Exactly What It Says on the Tin: Joel is continually exasperated by fans and music critics alike who try to delve into his lyrics for deep symbolic meanings. He has repeatedly said that, while he occasionally uses innuendo, he's never hidden the meaning of his song by using confusing or obfuscatory lyrics.Billy Joel: "Why is there a line about being on a Greyhound in New York State of Mind? Because I was literally riding on a bus moving back to New York City when I was writing it."
- Fake-Out Fade-Out: "You Picked a Real Bad Time"
- Famous Last Words: "Famous Last Words". Bonus points for being the last song on his last album that had lyrics (he did release an instrumental album a few years later)
- Fingore: When Joel crashed his motorcycle in 1982, his left thumb was crushed and his right wrist was almost pulled out of his socket. Since then, Joel has no bone in his left thumb.
- Flipping the Table: Joel does this at the end of the climactic verse in the video for "We Didn't Start The Fire".
- He also once flipped a piano (albeit a small, lightweight one), see Berserk Button for the full story.
- Genre Buster:
- If you had to classify it, you'd probably call it "piano-based rock and roll," but Joel's music has an extremely wide range of styles.
- Genre Roulette: He's gone from pop to Southwestern funk to soul to Aaron Copland-like ballads to a classical music album in a late Romantic style somewhat reminiscent of Claude Debussy or Charles Gounod. He even emulated The Beatles — John Lennon in particular — in the B side of the Nylon Curtain album. He also stated that "We Didn't Start the Fire" was going to be a rap song, but thought better of it.
- The "Prelude" to "Angry Young Man" veers around several music styles before heading into the main song.
- Glass-Shattering Sound: He hit a lot of very high notes on An Innocent Man, recorded when he was arguably at the peak of his vocal powers. He later explained that he felt he'd never be able to get that high again, so he decided to go all out on this album. Indeed, by his next album, The Bridge, his voice was noticeably deeper.
- Of course there is also a literal one of these to begin the album Glass Houses.
- Greatest Hits Album: Several. The first, a two-disc set titled Greatest Hits Volume I & Volume II and originally released in 1985, has been certified at the 23x Platinum level.
- Heavy Meta: "It's Still Rock and Roll To Me", "The Entertainer"
- Homage: All the songs on An Innocent Man are In the Style of... songs from the '50s and '60s. "Uptown Girl" was Frankie Valli, "The Longest Time" was a quickened doo-wop style, "Easy Money" was Stax/Volt, "Tell Her About It" was Motown, and "An Innocent Man" was Ben E. King and the Drifters.
- Several other songs on other albums are also homages: "Until the Night" to The Righteous Brothers, "Say Goodbye to Hollywood" to the Ronettes, and "Running on Ice" borrows heavily from The Police.
- The entire B side of The Nylon Curtain is one to The Beatles.
- "I Want" Song: "Easy Money".
- Identical Stranger: Bore a surprising resemblance to Lou◊ Reed◊ in The '70s.
- Intercourse with You:
- "Only the Good Die Young", though subverted - the singer fails to seduce Virginia.
- "Sometimes a Fantasy", over the phone
- Job Song:
- "Piano Man" is about a piano player at a bar whose playing makes the patrons forget about their troubles.
- "The Entertainer" is about a rock singer and the compromises he's had to make in order to stay on the charts.
- Just the Way You Are: Trope Namer
- Karma Houdini: "Surprises". Joel tells the listener not to worry - whatever horrible thing they just did (which is never revealed) won't be a problem, with the help of a little destruction of the evidence.
- Let's Duet: Cyndi Lauper in "Code of Silence", Ray Charles in "Baby Grand".
- Life of the Party: "Big Shot" is based on the darker version of this trope.
- Lighter and Softer: An Innocent Man compared to the two albums that preceded it.
- List Song: "We Didn't Start The Fire"
- Lonely at the Top: ''Everybody Loves You Now."Oh loneliness will get to you somehow
but everybody loves you now
- Lonely Together: "Piano Man" provides that page's quote.
- Lyrical Dissonance: Extremely frequent. Notable examples include "Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway)", "You're Only Human (Second Wind)", "The Entertainer", and "Allentown".
- Manipulative Bitch: "Laura" (with a healthy dollop of Passive-Aggressive Kombat) and "She's Always a Woman". "Stiletto" is the rare case in which the protagonist knows she's one, but enjoys it. Word of God said it was about any female performer who has the audience in their hands.
- Meaningful Name: Virginia from "Only the Good Die Young"
- Mohs Scale of Rock and Metal Hardness: Rarely (if ever) goes beyond 4. We Didn't Start the Fire would be one of the few songs bordering on a 5, with its fast guitar-, bass- and drums-driven instrumental backdrop, rapid-fire lyric delivery and some harsher vocals just before every chorus. Joel himself described the song as a "novelty song" though.
- "Close to the Borderline" would classify as a definite 5, and contains one of the few guitar solos in a Billy Joel song.
- Money Song: "Easy Money", from the Rodney Dangerfield movie of the same name.
- My God, What Have I Done?: Played with in "Surprises".
- Nice Girl: The subject of "Tell Her About It".
- Non-Appearing Title: "Summer Highland Falls," "Goodnight Saigon," "Scenes From An Italian Restaurant," "Travelin' Prayer." "Famous Last Words" is close, as the line is "These are the last words I have to say" (which was true, as it was the last song on his last studio album that had lyrics.)
- Nostalgia Filter:
- The entire reason behind "We Didn't Start the Fire". According to Joel, he was tired of younger people talking about how what a mess the present was, and how idyllic it was in the 50's and 60's, and his having to mention, "Well, this happened and that happened..."
- Averted in "The Great Suburban Showdown", in which he points out the mild hypocrisy of family reunions, and how some family members desperately cling to the past.
- Odd Couple: Joel and his former wife Christie Brinkley
- Power of Trust: "Honesty" is practically the musical Trope Codifier.
- Precision F-Strike: Billy swears quite a bit in interviews and concerts, but his songwriting is mostly clean. An exception is "Laura" from the album The Nylon Curtain, the only song in Joel's entire oeuvre to contain an F-bomb.
And when you wake up in the morning with your head on fire
- He gets a lot of mileage out of milder curses in his lyrics, precisely because they're so rare. A prime example is in "Big Shot":
And your eyes too bloody to see
Go on and cry in your coffee but don't come bitching to me.
- "Psycho" Strings: Featured in "We Didn't Start the Fire" when the Trope Namer is mentioned.
- Rapid-Fire "No!": In "Big Shot":No, no, no, no, no, no, you have to be a big shot, didn't you?
- Real Life Writes the Plot:
- "Piano Man" is very biographic. He was supporting himself by playing in a piano bar while waiting out a bad record deal and thought no one would believe his story, so he wrote a song about it. Everyone in the song is based on a real person.
- An Innocent Man, an upbeat and nostalgic album reflected Billy's bachelorhood and newfound romances with Christie Brinkley and Elle MacPherson. River Of Dreams reflected Billy and Christie's marital woes and eventual divorce, along with Billy's legal issues (his ex-brother-in-law, who managed Billy's finances, was found to have cheated him for millions of dollars).
- My Life: The "old friend" who calls Billy to tell them they "couldn't go on the American way" and started doing standup comedy in Los Angeles was Richard Lewis.
- Real Song Theme Tune: "My Life" for Bosom Buddies and "You May Be Right" for Dave's World
- Really Gets Around: "The Entertainer" mentions this:''I am the entertainer, I've been all around the world.''I've played all kinds of palaces and laid all kinds of girls.
- "The Reason You Suck" Speech: A few, but highlighted by "Big Shot".
- Refrain from Assuming:
- It's "River of Dreams" not "In The Middle Of The Night".
- Similarly, it's "Summer, Highland Falls" not "Sadness or Euphoria".
- "Goodnight Saigon" is not called "We Will All Go Down Together".
- Several of his songs have subtitles by which they're more commonly known. "You're Only Human (Second Wind)" and "Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Down on Broadway)" are the most famous.
- Renaissance Man: Well, only in a musical sense, but Billy Joel's songs do span a wide range of genres and sounds.
- Rock Me, Amadeus!: "This Night" is based on the second movement of Ludwig van Beethoven's "Pathetique". Makes sense, since he has cited Beethoven as one of his biggest influences.
- Rock Star Song: "The Entertainer", "Everybody Loves You Now".
- Sad Clown:
- A quite literal example in "Leningrad", about a Russian who used to be a soldier but took up a decidedly apolitical job as a clown because it made children laugh.
- During a live performance in 2008 of "She's Always A Woman", a man in the audience proposed to his girlfriend. Billy noticed this and congratulated the couple, before jokingly adding "Get a prenup!". At the time, Billy's own marriage was starting to fall apart and he realised that, in a stadium full of people, he was the only one not laughing at the joke.
- Seduction Lyric: Only the Good Die Young is a famous (or notorious) example. (Come out Virginia, Don't make me wait.) Its cynicism about conventional morality (You Catholic Girls start much too late, But sooner or later it comes down to fate) made it somewhat controversial when it was first released.
- Self-Backing Vocalist: "The Longest Time", "Through the Long Night", "Until the Night".
- Silly Rabbit, Idealism Is for Kids!: Pressure.What does it mean?
- Single Stanza Song: "Souvenir".
- Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism: Nearly all of his songs are on the cynicism side ("Pressure" being the most cynical), which makes his idealistic songs, such as "New York State of Mind" and "Scenes From an Italian Restaurant", stand out.
- Society Marches On: "Piano Man", written and recorded in the early 1970s in Los Angeles and released in 1973 has lyrics about smoking in bars and both the original 1973 video and the 1985 version features many scenes of smoking. California banned smoking in public bars in 1995.
- Something Something Leonard Bernstein: "We Didn't Start The Fire," which has often been accused of being a rip-off of the Trope Namer, R.E.M.'s "It's the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)," as a result.note
- The Something Song: "Weekend Song"
- The Stoner: "Captain Jack", perhaps the most accurate deconstruction of the life of a college stoner.
- Stop and Go: "River of Dreams"
- Surreal Music Video: "Pressure", an early example from 1982 directed by Russell Mulcahy.
- Take That!:
- "Getting Closer" from The Bridge is one to his first manager Artie Ripp. "The Great Wall Oof China" from River of Dreams is one to Frank Weber, his ex-brother in law who replaced Ripp as his manager. Both were caught swindling Billy of his money at various times in his career.
- "Big Shot" mocks a woman with a severe hangover for her intoxicated escapades around town. It is known that it's based on real-life woman, but Joel refuses to say just who the song is about. There are popular theories, however.
- "Only The Good Die Young" doesn't paint a very flattering picture of Catholicism. The Catholic parents in the song are accused of repressing Virginia and denying her life experiences. Her mother is also called out for having never said a prayer for the protagonist. Before he played a concert in St. Louis on the Stranger tour, Billy received a death threat from a Catholic group regarding the content of the song. He responded by playing it five times that night.
- Take That, Critics!:
- Early in his career, Billy had a habit of tearing up newspapers that had given him bad reviews during his live concerts.
- Billy called out a critic who had been polite when they met, yet went on to bash the artist's work in his article, believing it would not actually be read by Joel. Billy still invited the critic to attend his show, yet suggested he wear a hockey mask for his own protection.
- "It's Still Rock and Roll To Me" takes a jab at how music critics try to tell people who's worth listening to: "There's a new band in town, but you can't get the sound from a story in a magazine aimed at your average teen." Soon afterwards, Rolling Stone readers, believing that the lyric was bashing their favorite critics, voted it "the worst song about rock 'n roll ever".
- Glass Houses, both in its title and album art depicting Billy literally about to throw a rock at a glass house, were his way of "casting the first stone" (i.e., calling out the caustic critics before they even listened to the album to judge it).
- Tempting Fate: In "Modern Woman", the protagonist asks, "And after 1986, what else could be new?" three years before the start of The Great Politics Mess-Up. Then Billy penned "We Didn't Start the Fire" which, by his own description, was pretty much a chronicle of the Cold War (and included the line, "What else do I have to say?", albeit not meant literally). The imminent political upheavals in 1989 made Billy want to hurry up and release Storm Front (the album that contained "We Didn't Start the Fire") ASAP.
- That's All, Folks!: River of Dreams.
- Title-Only Chorus: PRESSURE
- Title Theme Tune: Easy Money.
- Title Track: Piano Man, The Stranger, 52nd Street, An Innocent Man, and Storm Front all have songs which share their exact titles with the album on which they are found. Two others, Streetlife Serenadenote and River of Dreamsnote aren't exact matches, but come close enough for most to consider them title tracks anyway.
- Trash the Set: At the end of the "She's Right On Time" video.
- 20 Minutes into the Future: "Miami 2017 (Seen The Lights Go Out On Broadway)", recorded in 1976.
- Ugly Guy, Hot Wife: A mild example, but during his marriage with Christie Brinkley, he was somewhat self conscious about being married to a beautiful supermodel and wondered why she would be interested in someone like him. It's the genesis of "Uptown Girl", about being a "low class guy" who somehow snagged a beautiful, rich woman.
- Uptown Girl: Trope Namer. Joel began to write the song for his then-girlfriend Elle McPherson, but it ended up becoming a tribute to Christie Brinkley, who married Joel after starring in the song's video.
- Very Loosely Based on a True Story: "The Ballad of Billy the Kid" doesn't let history get in the way of a good story. About the only thing it gets right is that he was an outlaw. Although Joel admits he was never going for accuracy and wrote the song as "an experiment with an impressionist type of lyric".
- The real Billy the Kid was from New York, not West Virginia.
- He is not known to have robbed any banks. Rather, he gained notoriety as a cattle rustler and participant in the Lincoln County War.
- No records ever place him in Colorado, Utah, or Oklahoma. His most famous activities were pretty much all in the New Mexico territory.
- The song claims he always rode alone, but he actually rode with the Lincoln County Regulators for much of his criminal career.
- He was shot to death, not hanged.
- Vocal Evolution: An enforced one: his performance at The Concert For New York City, which he did against doctor's orders, caused a blood vesicle to burst in his throat which drastically deepened his voice and forced him to transpose all of his songs a half-step lower to accommodate this.
- We Didn't Start the Billy Joel Parodies: A list of the innumerable parodies of Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start the Fire".
- What You Are in the Dark: "The Stranger"
- Wide-Eyed Idealist: The lyrics of "Pressure" are addressed to this kind of person.
- You Are Better Than You Think You Are: "You're Only Human (Second Wind)" is possibly the musical Trope Codifier.
- And these are the last words I have to say.
It's always hard to say goodbye.
But now it's time to put this book away.
Ain't that the story of my life?— "Famous Last Words", River of Dreams, 1993