By his own account, Billy Joel stumbled into the singing part of the singer-songwriter equation. He explained of his 1971 debut Cold Spring Harbor, "I wrote this album not as a singer-songwriter, but as a songwriter. I was thinking of other people doing the material on this album. But the advice I got from people in the music business was, 'Well, if you want people to hear your songs, make an album. And then you go out on the road and you do shows and you promote your album. I thought, 'This is a strange way to be a songwriter.'" He concluded, "I didn't really want to be a rock star when I was doing this. I wanted to be a writer." Of course, he became one of the most successful singer-songwriters of all time, still packing stadiums almost 30 years after the release of his last studio album. To mark 50 years of Billy Joel the solo artist, Columbia Records and Legacy Recordings have just released The Vinyl Collection Vol. 1. Over nine LPs spanning ten years, six studio albums, and two live sets (one previously unreleased), it traces the evolution of Bronx-born, Long Island-raised William Martin Joel from budding songwriter to chart-topping titan.
Joel made his solo debut after recording with the band The Hassles and the heavy power duo Attila. The sound of 1971's Cold Spring Harbor was raw and embryonic, with relatively uncluttered arrangements placing Joel's voice front and center. Unfortunately, that was the problem. The album was mastered at too fast a speed, leading the young artist's vocals to sound higher than intended. Its saving grace was the material, imbued with a McCartney-esque lilt and a sensitivity attuned to the era.
The opening ballad "She's Got a Way" established Joel's everyman persona ("She's got a way about her/I don't know what it is/But I know that I can't live without her") as well as his vulnerability ("She comes to me when I'm feelin' down/Inspires me without a sound/She touches me and I get turned around"). In the manner of a good demo tape, the songs showcased Joel's various sides. "Everybody Loves You Now" was as biting as "She's Got a Way" was sincere. The uptempo piano pounder describes a haughty but successful hometown girl who feels she's above returning to Cold Spring Harbor, but the narrator reveals that he secretly desires her, too. Cold Spring Harbor revealed Joel's ambitions as it touched on classical (the instrumental "Nocturne") and austere faux gospel ("Tomorrow Is Today"). In the final song, he offered, "I've got to begin again/Though I don't know how to start." He would make that new start with 1973's Piano Man.
But the Cold Spring Harbor saga wasn't over. In 1983, without Joel's consent, producer Artie Ripp (on whose Family Productions label the LP was initially released) remixed the album ostensibly to restore his original vocal speed. But Ripp didn't stop there; he lopped almost five minutes off "You Can Make Me Free," muted Jimmie Haskell's orchestra on "Tomorrow Is Today," and added new instrumental overdubs to "Everybody Loves You Now" and "Turn Around," the latter's being particularly egregious. He even altered the cover photo. The problematic remix is the version included here while the original, superior mix of Cold Spring Harbor has never been speed-corrected.
The shaggy, mustached Joel of Cold Spring Harbor was replaced by a more beatific-looking fellow on the cover of his Columbia Records debut and first top 40 album, Piano Man. The songwriting had become much more muscular, confident, and varied, taking in character studies rather than limiting itself to first-person narratives. (Every song on Cold Spring Harbor other than the instrumental "Nocturne" employed "I" at least once.) Produced by Michael Stewart, much of Piano Man bore a distinct country-and-western influence that's one part Laurel Canyon and one part Tumbleweed Connection. With a stirring string chart by the returning Jimmie Haskell, the factually spurious but altogether catchy "The Ballad of Billy the Kid" was a mock western epic; "Travelin' Prayer" was straight-ahead bluegrass. Joel also turned a country convention on its head ("Stop in Nevada," about a woman leaving her man). It wasn't all C&W, though: Piano Man famously yielded not only the atmospheric title track and ultimate sing-along anthem - Joel's first top 40 single - but the scathing "Captain Jack," an indictment of disaffected suburban teens turning to drugs. "Ain't No Crime" reprised the rootsy gospel flourishes of "Tomorrow Is Today" but with a more assured edge, while "Worse Comes to Worst" oozed swagger with a Latin tinge. The tender, effortlessly melodic "You're My Home" also returned to the milieu of Cold Spring Harbor but with an idiosyncratic touch ("You're my castle, you're my cabin, and my instant pleasure dome"). Joel's own voice was coming to the fore.
One step forward, two steps back. 1975's Streetlife Serenade, again produced by Michael Stewart, did crack the top 40 in the U.S. but didn't fare as well as its predecessor. In his liner notes for the box, Joel attributes this to his lack of time to write new material due to a grueling tour schedule: "This album was written in a hurry. This is not the best album I've ever done." The song that's endured the most is "The Entertainer," reflecting the artist's mindset about the transient nature of the pop stardom he was first tasting: "Today I am your champion, I may have won your hearts/But I know the game, you'll forget my name/I won't be here in another year/If I don't stay on the charts..."
Still based in Los Angeles and not exactly loving it, the native New Yorker's vision on Streetlife encompasses various slices of American life, from a wry look at "Los Angelenos" ("All come from somewhere/To live in sunshine") to the wistful tale of coming home and dreading it, "The Great Suburban Showdown" ("I'm only comin' home to say goodbye/Then I'm gone with the wind and/I won't be seen again"). Much of the LP is well-crafted if of modest charm, including the ode to the hooker named "Roberta" ("I'd ask you over but I can't afford you"), the short, stately "Souvenir," and two instrumentals (the jaunty "Root Beer Rag" and cinematic "The Mexican Connection"), but Joel's next album would be his most inspired to that point - and one loaded with future standards.
Turnstiles (1976) initially wasn't met with much success, but it marked a turning point for the singer-songwriter. Recorded in Hempstead, New York and produced by Joel, was the first album to feature his own band including Richie Cannata, Liberty DeVitto, Russell Javors, Howie Emerson, and Doug Stegmeyer. Just in case it wasn't fully clear where his heart was, Joel opened Turnstiles with the Spector-esque thunder of "Say Goodbye to Hollywood" which none other than Ronnie Spector would cover with The E Street Band in tow.
Among its eight compositions were deeply-felt ruminations on the New York home to which Billy had recently returned, such as the elegiac, apocalyptic vision of "Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Down on Broadway)" and the anthemic "New York State of Mind." Columbia labelmate Barbra Streisand was quick to see the potential of the latter, recording it on her 1977 album Superman. Indeed, "New York State of Mind" crystallized Joel's role as perhaps the quintessential singer-songwriter to bridge the gap between the Great American Songbook and the rock era. "It's either sadness or euphoria," Joel sings in the sad yet beautifully resigned "Summer, Highland Falls." Those two conflicting emotions manifest themselves elsewhere on Turnstiles, from the ironic "I've Loved These Days" - a purely gorgeous melody set to a somewhat cynical lyric ("We drown our doubts in dry champagne/And sooth our souls with fine cocaine/I don't know why I even care...") - to the portrayal of an "Angry Young Man" with whom the singer is simultaneously appalled and sympathetic.
With his band in place and an ever-growing repertoire of timeless songs, Billy Joel was on the verge of superstardom. Enter veteran producer-engineer Phil Ramone. 1977's The Stranger, helmed by Ramone at his own A&R Studio in New York, proved to be the artist's breakthrough. Joel the lyricist conjured the working-class New York milieu with the tough "Movin' Out (Anthony's Song)" and the theatrical, multi-part suite "Songs from an Italian Restaurant" while as a composer, he delivered soaring melodies worthy of his Tin Pan Alley heroes with the romantic "Just the Way You Are" (the Grammys' Record and Song of the Year) and layered, sometimes-misunderstood "She's Always a Woman." Sinatra even cut the former.
The lusty, just-so-slightly-naughty "Only the Good Die Young" rewarded Joel with his first ban from radio and his best outright rocker to that point; "Vienna" got less attention but rewarded listeners with its rich admonition to stop and smell the roses. The title track was another leap forward in Joel's songwriting, too, with its reflective, inward look at the faces we "hide away forever and we take them out and show ourselves when everyone has gone." The Stranger was impossible to ignore, and became one of the decade's most defining albums. Top-notch songs, powerful playing from the band (plus guests including Steve Khan, Ralph MacDonald, Hugh McCracken, and Phil Woods), orchestration from Patrick Williams, and perfectly-suited production led The Stranger to the No. 2 spot on the Billboard 200 where it remained for six weeks; four singles went to the top 40.
Ramone and Joel continued their winning streak one year later with 52nd Street. Named after Manhattan's famed jazz thoroughfare where it was recorded, the album nodded to the genre with the irresistible, Steely Dan-esque "Zanzibar" (featuring the great Freddie Hubbard on trumpet) and slinky title track. 52nd Street retained the originality and spirit of The Stranger but upped the ante and the drama. "Big Shot" was rock, but theatrical rock; "Honesty" was the record equivalent of a musical's eleven o'clock number in which a character pours his heart out in a cathartic moment. "My Life" (featuring Chicago's Peter Cetera and Donnie Dacus on background vocals) offered urgent, driving, and relatable pop, and romance wasn't ignored, either, with the joyous, Latin-tinged, and altogether lovely "Rosalinda's Eyes" as well as the soaring, Righteous Brothers-influenced "Until the Night."
Once again, Joel's band was at the heart of 52nd Street, but the presence of Hubbard, Steve Khan, Mike Mainieri, The Brecker Brothers, Eric Gale, Ralph MacDonald, David Spinozza, and Hugh McCracken added new colors to the singer's palette. 52nd Street spun off three hit singles and earned two Grammys including Album of the Year. How to follow it? The answer was to stylistically shift once again, the result being the new wave-influenced Glass Houses. The Vinyl Collection Vol. 1 skips over that record - Joel's first of the new decade - in favor of the live album Songs in the Attic.
The switch makes for a solid listening experience. The LP was intended to introduce listeners who had recently discovered Joel via The Stranger and 52nd Street to his earliest works and also for the artist to reclaim them. "These are songs that were done with session players," he explains in the liner notes, "and now we had the opportunity to show, 'This is how I really think they should have sounded." The Ramone-helmed album featured fresh live takes of choice material from Cold Spring Harbor ("She's Got a Way," "Everybody Loves You Now"), Piano Man ("Captain Jack," "You're My Home," "The Ballad of Billy the Kid"), Streetlife Serenade ("Streetlife Serenader," "Los Angelenos"), and Turnstiles ("Miami 2017," "Summer, Highland Falls," "Say Goodbye to Hollywood," "I've Loved These Days"). The intimate, warm reading of the previously-overlooked "She's Got a Way" became a top 5 AC hit and top 30 Pop entry. Here, Songs in the Attic plays like a coda to Joel's first decade of song.
But there's more. The Vinyl Collection Vol. 1 concludes with its only previously unreleased material: the 2-LP concert album Live at the Great American Music Hall, 1975. Recorded for Columbia by Ron Malo and Michael Stewart and mixed by Frank Filipetti, it presents a "pre-fame" set from Joel including the earliest available recordings of "New York State of Mind" and "James," both almost-but-not-quite-the-versions-we-know. His amusing and spot-on snippets of Elton John ("Bennie and the Jets"), Leon Russell ("Delta Lady"), and Joe Cocker ("You Are So Beautiful") are also preserved alongside renditions of favorites including "You're My Home," "Everybody Loves You Now," and "The Entertainer."
Billy and the crack band (Don Evans on guitars, Rhys Clark on drums, Doug Stegmeyer on bass, and Johnny Almond on horns and keyboards) are in top form for this show, bringing an energy that's not always present on the studio recordings. The tiny venue of just 470 seats eliminates any distance between performer and audience, and there's a real frisson to the likes of "Roberta" and even the instrumentals "Root Beer Rag" and "The Mexican Connection" that's absent from their studio counterparts. The band gives the arrangements room to breathe, and Joel is humorously off-the-cuff throughout, relaxed but completely engaged in his music. (He also shares some choice words for anyone who dares compare him to Elton John.) This portrait of the artist as a young man is compelling from start to finish and one of the best Joel archival items to escape the vaults. It warrants a wider CD and digital release, as well. (It has been reported that at least one song has been cut from the concert, "Everybody Has a Dream," perhaps for vinyl timing reasons.)
The albums are housed in a sturdy slipcase adorned with a rather nondescript cover. Each is packaged in a standard replica jacket (the albums are not individually sealed, nor in protective poly sleeves, so caution is necessary when pulling them out of the box), and if the original issue had a unique inner sleeve, it's been reprinted, too. (Unfortunately, the 2-LP Live at the Great American Music Hall isn't presented in a gatefold but has two LPs in a single-pocket jacket.) A squarebound 60-page booklet designed by Edward ODowd is an impressive part of the set, with album-by-album commentary from Billy as well as an introductory essay by Anthony DeCurtis. The booklet is happily loaded with photos, lyrics, and memorabilia.
Vinyl sources have been created from original tapes by Ted Jensen at Sterling Sound, New York per the credits, and sound is solid throughout. Jensen previously mastered Joel's entire albums discography for 2011's limited edition, impossible-to-find CD release The Complete Albums Collection. Note that this release has been beset by some widely-reported pressing problems which (typically for vinyl) vary; occasional clicks, pops, and distortion could all be heard on the earliest LPs in the set. Some may experience audio flaws, and others may not at all.
Seen the lights go out on Broadway...the words of "Miami 2017" have once again rung true in recent months, and Joel used them on November 5 to open his first concert back at Madison Square Garden since COVID-19 made itself known to the world. With his return, New York had one more encouraging sign that normalcy might again be in the wings. His songs have become a part of the cultural tapestry of the city and a representation to the world at large of its energy, feel, and attitude. The Vinyl Collection Vol. 1 takes Billy Joel from the hungry years to his first taste of international fame as he introduces some of the most beloved songs of our time. In times like these, we're all in the mood for a melody, and he's got us feelin' alright.