It's no surprise that Legacy's intention to reissue the Billy Joel catalogue in 2011 has been met with a lot of enthusiasm and expectation. For better or worse, Joel has been one of the most intriguing artists in the American rock canon: he found success writing deceptively traditional pop songs in an AOR era, he performed them from behind a piano, he used that talent to springboard a relationship with one of the hottest supermodels in recorded history and - unlike nearly all of his contemporaries - knew when to quit while he was ahead.
Indeed, with only a few "new" projects to satiate fans over the years (a classical album in 2001, the jukebox musical Movin' Out in 2002, a stunning run of concerts in 2006 and a bunch of compilations in between), making the new year all about Billy is an unexpected treat, even to this longtime fan and not-terribly-distant neighbor to the places he grew up. Of course, that begs a lot of questions about what Legacy Recordings - which has done a pretty respectable job of maintaining the Piano Man's catalogue over the years - is going to do in this new batch of product.
We already know The Hits, a no-frills, single-disc compilation, is due out next month. We've already heard about Joel's music coming to the new Rock Band 3 video game as well as the upcoming live package taken from those Shea Stadium shows in 2008. And, of course, the initial press release hinted at a lot of product without explicitly revealing much. So that begs the question: what's next?
Join us after the jump for a bit of rumination on the ins and outs of the Billy Joel catalogue, and sound off in the comments below.
What Do You Mean "Complete"?
The press release is quite interestingly worded from the get-go: to kick off 40 years since the release of Billy's first album, 1971's Cold Spring Harbor, Legacy plans "a definitive reissue project" that includes, among other things "newly restored and expanded Legacy editions of the complete Billy Joel catalog."
You've got to wonder what this means, exactly. The Stranger was given Legacy Edition status for its 30th anniversary in 2008 (although the celebration was a year off); it was paired with part of a Carnegie Hall show from earlier in 1977, when Joel was road-testing the material for his soon-to-be-released album. Otherwise, none of Joel's albums have been similarly expanded. Would all of them be worthy candidates? Perhaps more importantly, would all of them make sense to be released in one year? Billy Joel's great, but he's no Hendrix or The Beatles, where more than a dozen albums could be released at once and still be lucrative. That model would fail spectacularly for Joel, especially if they're all expanded to double-disc sets at $30 price points.
It is possible that Legacy has loftier plans than even this writer can imagine, though, and may tier the releases throughout the year. That, of course, raises a whole other set of questions.
The next question is what would make up bonus material on such expanded editions. Fans have let their minds wander recently, and a lot of studio material has been discussed. (This post over at the Steve Hoffman Music Forum sums up some of the best unreleased stuff that most fans know about.) It's my guess that most of these new reissues will draw heavily from live material; the already-confirmed Legacy Edition of Piano Man, one can safely assume, will contain all or part of the famed live show recorded by Philadelphia's WMMR-FM in 1972 (which helped catapult Joel to fame, particularly with then-unreleased songs like "Captain Jack").
Of course, would pairing a live concert with every album be enough consumer incentive? Probably not. While Billy Joel's classic band was a killer live outfit (refer to 1981's Songs in the Attic if you've somehow never noticed this), the set lists only changed with each tour. Certainly historical or top-notch shows deserve inclusion - sets like the Havana Jam in 1979 or the Long Island show from the end of 1982 - and an expanded version of Songs in the Attic would be manna from heaven. But live takes can't be the be-all, end-all.
Pay Attention to What's in Front of You
Hardcore Joel completists and readers of The Second Disc know that there's a small but significant amount of Joel material that's never seen a proper CD release. The original mix of Cold Spring Harbor presented at its corrected speed (the 1984 Columbia reissue, and all subsequent CDs, were remixed and edited); Joel's so-ridiculous-it's-hilarious Attila project with drummer Jon Small; various single edits and remixes (most notably "Tell Her About It" and "Keeping the Faith" and the much-coveted extended version of "Sometimes a Fantasy") and even a handful of other things (that alternate-sax-solo the original version of "New York State of Mind" replaced by a take with an alternate sax solo on the Greatest Hits Volume I & Volume II set, the super-rare live cut of "You've Got Me Hummin'" - a Sam & Dave track Billy recorded with The Hassles in the '60s - from the "Tell Her About It" 12" single). Fans can't wait to see what's still lurking in the vault for release, but it'd be as nice to get this hidden-in-plain-sight material as well.
Don't Box Us In
The most potentially dangerous set given a passing mention in the press release is "a Complete Albums Collection featuring 14 of Billy's original albums with a bonus disc collecting 16 non-album tracks and more." That's a minefield in itself because it's bound to ignore something. By my count, all of Billy's proper studio albums plus the two live sets released while he was still making records (Songs in the Attic and the flabby Концерт from 1987) makes up 14 albums. That skips over the Fantasies and Delusions classical set and two additional double live albums (2000 Years: The Millennium Concert and 12 Gardens Live). No matter how skippable those sets might be, it's not "complete" without them. And what will those 16 non-album tracks be? Joel has five tunes from greatest-hits sets, a fistful of single edits, four or five non-LP B-sides and over a half-dozen soundtrack appearances. Again, you're running the risk of missing something. (And let's not forget that a good bit of those B-sides and soundtrack songs are available on the 2005 box set My Lives, potentially waking the monster they call double-dipping.)
Granted, it's just one line in a press release, a place where vague writing thrives. But Billy Joel fans have a history of being told not to take any shit from anybody. You can bet they won't if they feel the new pass through his catalogue isn't up to snuff.