RIFFS / Pop folk singer Martyn Joseph on popular appeal in Billy Joel's 'Piano Man'

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The Independent Culture
THIS SONG is a real songwriters' song: it has a terrific melody, tells a good story and takes you to a place where everybody's been - loneliness. The scene is a smoky piano bar, where the piano player is observing the staff and clientele. They're all in there for different reasons: the bartender drops his smile and dreams of becoming a movie star, if only he could get out, while the waitress has to be nice to all these obnoxious types: 'The waitress is practising politics/While the businessmen slowly get stoned/ They're sharing a drink called loneliness/But it's better than drinking alone.'

It's a medium-paced ballad, and the melody is incredibly hooky, the sort of infectious thing milkmen whistle. There's the full band: bass, drums, mandolin, rhythm guitar, plus Billy Joel playing the piano and the lead melody on harmonica just before he sings each verse. On the video version I've got from Wembley Arena eight years ago, his voice sounds much thinner than today, but the song triumphs over the production. It'd be the same if you brought 'Maggie May' to a record company now, they'd say 'Oh the drums sound awful, where's the digital reverb on the drums?' et cetera. But that roughness makes it for me.

It has power because everyone can sympathise with the words. The last lines are 'The piano sounds like a carnival/And the microphone smells like a beer/And they sit at the bar and put bread in my jar/And say 'Man what are you doing here?' '. The suggestion, which I think leaves the song open, is that they look up to him, but he feels he's in the same predicament.

'Piano Man' is on Billy Joel's Greatest Hits (CBS CD88666)

(Photograph omitted)

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