Since the dawn of the new millennium, most of the archival material that catalogue enthusiasts want come to us in the form of the dreaded deluxe edition: a bonus disc of rarities or outtakes appended to a long-released, newly-remastered album. With the record industry at a crossroads unlike anything it’s ever had to deal with, it’s astounding that most treats for die-hard music aficionados come at a higher price tag, filled sometimes in large part with material one already owns in at least one capacity.
But there’s another way at looking at these packages other than a quick way to turn out a few bucks: the argument that these sets are bolstering the context of a particular artist or artistic statement. It’s a view, crazy as it may be, that The Second Disc has often tried to espouse. Thinking of the old saw that journalism is the first draft of history, it’s sometimes comforting to look at deluxe editions as the history book as well as its first draft.
That viewpoint proves a major problem for the new Legacy Edition of Piano Man (Columbia/Legacy 88697 61901-2), Billy Joel’s acclaimed debut for the label that’s kept him a major artist for nearly four decades. The bonus content captures a fleeting moment of greatness before the captivating legend of Joel – the sensitive balladeer with a wicked and often public dark side – grabs the world by the collar and refuses to let go. And, as bonus discs go, it’s one that really raises the value of the package.
There’s just one problem: the bonus disc is absolutely in the wrong context.
Piano Man is one of the oddest Billy Joel records, and that’s not just because of its glassy-eyed picture of the singer on the album sleeve. The songwriting style that’s unmistakable Joel – confessional and intimate on tracks like “Piano Man” and “You’re My Home,” theatrically broad on tunes like “Captain Jack” and “The Ballad of Billy the Kid,” and sometimes both (take “Ain’t No Crime,” which sounds like it should score an orange juice commercial) – is still there. But it’s couched in strange gospel and country arrangements (by, of all people, Mellow Gold champion Michael Omartian). The instrumental power of Billy Joel’s road-tested, semi-legendary backing band is sort of there, but the band itself is not; instead, the bulk of Piano Man is handled by California session players (notably Motown stalwarts Dean Parks and Wilton Felder). So it’s a Billy Joel record, but it’s not a Billy Joel record – arguably, that wouldn’t come until 1976’s Turnstiles, which Joel self-produced with his live band.
But it’s certainly more of a Billy Joel record than his debut, 1971’s Cold Spring Harbor. Released on the crashing Family Productions label and stricken with a terrible mastering job that raised the pitch of the entire record, Billy only started finding his voice in the studio when he was signed to Columbia and began recording Piano Man. That said, his voice was first discovered on the road: Joel became something of a journeyman in the post-Harbor period, taking a gig playing a piano bar on the West Coast (gaining enough material to write Piano Man‘s titular hit) but still touring in certain markets with the intent of getting into a real contract instead of his failed one with Family.
One such gig, a performance at Philadelphia’s Sigma Sound Studios in the spring of 1972, was recorded by local free-form station WMMR-FM, and was one of the catalysts for Joel’s eventual first step to success on Columbia. While Joel played more than half of Cold Spring Harbor in the 12-song set, the standouts were then-new tracks that would eventually become stalwarts on Piano Man. Specifically, the carnival-like anti-drug screed “Captain Jack” became a staple of the station’s playlist then and there, giving Joel enough momentum on the Northeast to secure that prized record deal. (In retrospect, it’s also worth noting three great songs that have never appeared on any studio album – the rollicking “Josephine,” the dreamy ballad “Long, Long Time” and the excellent “Rosalinda,” which must have been a last-minute contender for Cold Spring Harbor.)
That set receives its long-awaited official release on this new package, newly remixed from the original 16-track elements (more on that in a bit). But did it really belong as a sweetener to the worthwhile but ultimately not all that remarkable Piano Man? Sure, three of the songs from that concert ended up on the record, and they’re certainly embryonic enough to provide a fun look into the songs we all sing along to now. But much of the concert – chiefly its song selection and the way the songs are delivered – match the airy sensitivity of Cold Spring Harbor enough to make a compelling argument that this show should be the bonus disc of a Legacy Edition for that record instead.
It would make enough sense: all the press behind recent Billy Joel catalogue titles try to tie into the 40-year mark of Harbor, and it would have been a perfect opportunity to finally put the original, speed-corrected, un-remixed version of the album on CD instead of the commonplace remix released by Columbia in 1983 (as opposed to an album that didn’t need to be remastered twice in 12 years). Plus, there are a lot of great clues toward the Billy Joel we all know and love, from the self-deprecating asides and between-song piano noodling to the ominous sips of beer he takes between tunes. (Also hilariously telling: his spoken intro to “Captain Jack” decries hipsters who only know what they read in Rolling Stone – not quite ripping reviews up onstage, but close!)
Had the Sigma show been a part of a Cold Spring Harbor reissue, it might have been more appropriate to complement an uneven, strange-edged record with a less fresh-sounding mix of the album. The liner notes by Jonathan Takiff (a Philadelphia journalist and former weekend DJ for WMMR) paint a pretty vivid picture of the recording of the studio session and the flubs by a backing band (guitarist Al Hertzberg, bassist Larry “La Rue” Russell, drummer Rhys Clark) that could not always keep up with Joel. Those errors are scrubbed clean on the new mix (which, by and large, sounds pretty great), and even Joel acknowledges in the notes that it may not sit well with those so accustomed to the flaws on the bootlegged versions of the show. Honestly, it’s really in the ear of the beholder – but at least they came clean about their vaguely revisionist methods.
The bottom line? This Sigma Sound show is great, an absolute treasure in the Billy Joel discography and a fascinating all-too-rare portrait of an artist before he was a modern-day legend. It’s just unfortunate that it was put in the frame that it’s in.