Many times, songwriting is the work of a team of musicians and producers. Sometimes, though, all that songwriting talent condenses in an individual, and you get someone who can play an instrument (or many instruments), and sing, and write music, and write great lyrics. Billy Joel is a fine example of that kind of talent. The guy can do everything.
His songs are both simple and complex. His chords patterns are not your typical I, IV, V turn-arounds that make up most rock and roll. Nuanced movements from major to minor, and accents like 7ths and 9ths find their way easily into his melodies.
What I like most about Bill Joel’s songs are the lyrics. He is a fantastic story-teller, and his music has rich characters. Think of the patrons at the Piano Man’s bar…from the waitress and her politics to the bartender, John, they have feelings and ambitions; they are real.
And his social commentary is not without is sharp edges. In “Only the Good Die Young” he asks Virginia (fitting, symbolic name, don’t you think?):
Your mother never cared for me
But did she ever say a prayer for me?
A little biting sarcasm to the religious establishment, but a valid point.
In “The Stranger” we join him in confronting our darker sides.
Some are satin, some are steel
Some are silk and come are leather
They’re the faces of a stranger
But we love to try them on
And when his lover’s stranger kicks him right between the eyes, he has the self-awareness to ask
Did you ever let your lover
See the stranger in yourself?
And then there’s the old fashioned fun of “Still Rock and Roll to Me.” The determination to live as he pleases in “My Life” (Go ahead with your own life / Leave me alone). The rock and roll excesses found in “Big Shot.” The simple expression of love in “Just the Way You Are.”
Yeah, this guy’s got it all. Except the business sense. He let his brother-in-law manage his finances, and that idiot lost tens of millions of dollars of poor Billy’s money. I guess you can’t have everything.