The past couple of years have been a very good time for Billy Joel fans. Not only did the Piano Man return from a long hiatus with a series of tours and a monthly gig at Madison Square Garden, but he's also been breaking out super rarities from his catalog. Fans have heard everything from "Running On Ice" to "Sleeping With the Television On" and "No Man's Land" at recent gigs. It's a great reminder that he's so much more than his huge catalog of hits. We asked our readers to select their favorite Billy Joel deep cuts. Here are the results.
Billy Joel was working on his 1978 LP 52nd Street with producer Phil Ramone when a tiny bit of a song came into his head. "I just had this word," Joel told Rolling Stone in 2013. "'Na na na na na na na na, Zanzibar.' And Phil's listening to my piano part and he goes, 'Yeah, I can picture that bar!' And I says, 'What bar?' He goes, 'It's a sports bar right? Zanzibar.' I went, 'That's a great idea!' I'm gonna write a song about a barfly at a sports bar who's hitting on the waitress, and that's where that came from."
The song was never a single and was rarely played live, but in 2006 Joel put it into heavy rotation in his set list and it's been there ever since. The trumpet solo gets a huge round of applause every single time. It's become as much a part of the show as the "New York State of Mind" sax solo.
After the huge breakthrough success of The Stranger in 1977, Joel decided to go in a different direction with his follow-up LP. Named after the street in midtown Manhattan that used to be littered with jazz clubs, 52nd Street is a jazzy album full of horns. Side two kicks off with "Stiletto," the tale of a man infatuated with a poisonous woman whose sharp shoes begin to seem like a knife. "You've been slashed in the face," Joel sings. "You've been left there to bleed/You want to run away/But you know you're gonna stay." He played it a ton in the 1980s and on his 2006 tour it came out nearly every night, but he hasn't performed it a single time since 2009.
Christie Brinkley gets all the credit for inspiring "Uptown Girl," but he actually wrote it about Elle MacPherson. They dated briefly in the early 1980s when she was just 19, and when things fell apart she inspired the far more downbeat "And So It Goes." The sad ballad didn't surface until 1989 when it became the final track on Storm Front. It's a bummer of a song, but it's hard to feel bad for a guy mourning a breakup with Elle MacPherson when he bounces right back with Christie Brinkley.
The song was the sixth and final single from Storm Front. It reached Number 37 on the Hot 100 and one might argue it's therefore not a deep cut, but today it's really only known by the Billy Joel faithful. Joel has often said this is one of his best songs, and it makes the occasional appearance in his live show.
The first side of 1982's The Nylon Curtain is so packed with hits ("Allentown," "Pressure" and "Goodnight Saigon") that "Laura" is often overlooked. Joel says the extremely bitter tune wasn't inspired be a single person. "Let's put it this way," he said in 1996. "It's not about anybody in particular like a lover. It's whoever the one person is that knows how to push your buttons. It can be someone in your family. It can be a lover, a wife, a husband, a child. I'm sure everyone knows what I'm talking about. It was that one person in my life who knew how to push my buttons." He didn't play the song a single time until 2006, and since then he's only touched it four other times.
When Billy Joel moved back to New York City in 1976 after a stint in Los Angeles he returned to a city in complete decay. Crime was way up, homeless people were everywhere and there was a general sense of growing chaos. It was quite easy for Joel to imagine that by 2017 the city would literally lie in ruins, and that vision inspired him to write the practically science fiction song "Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway.)" The narrator is writing many years after the downfall, in an odd time where the mafia rule Mexico, the New York survivors are living in Florida and only a handful can even recall an era when lights were shining on Broadway.
The song wrapped up Turnstiles and wasn't a single, but it really popped onstage. Joel basically retired the song in the 1980s, but it made a big comeback in the 1990s and in the 2000s he started featuring it all the time. Most recently, it's opened up most of his shows at Madison Square Garden.
Billy Joel kicked off the 1980s on a very strong note with the release of Glass Houses in March of 1980. After experimenting with jazz on 52nd Street, this was his return to rock with singles like "You May Be Right" and his anti-New Wave rant "It's Still Rock and Roll to Me." The first side concludes with "All for Leyna," the story of a sad sack who fixates on a girl named Leyna after a one-night stand. "I'm failing in school," he sings. "Losing my friends/Making my family lose their minds/I don't want to eat/I don't want to sleep/I only want Leyna one more time."
He played the song a handful of times around the time that it came out, and in 2006 it came back into rotation after a very long break. It's still somewhat of a rarity, though he did play it at Wrigley Field, Fenway Park and Bonnaroo this summer.
Five years before he released an entire album that evoked the music he loved as a teenager, Billy Joel cut this Righteous Brothers–inspired song for 52nd Street. Two years later, Righteous Brother Bill Medley released his own version of the song. It's a real rarity at Billy Joel concerts these days, but he did play it at the Nassau Coliseum's final show last month.
Billy Joel is not be a huge fan of "Captain Jack," but the 1973 tune played a huge part in shaping his career. He played the sad song at an in-studio concert at the Philadelphia station WMMR in April of 1972 while promoting his debut album, Cold Spring Harbor. The song wasn't available commercially then, but listeners fell in love with it and demanded that the station play the live version again and again. This got the attention of Clive Davis, who signed Joel to Columbia and released his breakthrough album Piano Man. He never had to sign to another label.
He dropped it from his set list by the early 1980s, but he always broke it out in Philadelphia to thank the city that changed his life. It's only been played a handful of times in recent years. "Dreary, dreary, dreary,” he told the New Yorker last year. “It just goes on and on. I’m sick of the thing. It didn’t age well. It’s been busted down to 'Private Jack.'"
Billy Joel's father Howard left his family in 1957 and moved to Vienna. For many years Billy thought he was dead, but they reconnected when he toured Europe in the 1970s. While they were walking the streets of Vienna they came across a very old woman sweeping the streets. "I said, 'Dad, it's kind of sad that that poor old woman has to do that kind of work,'" he said in 2008. "He said, 'No, she has a job, she feels useful, she has a place in our society.' I realized they don't throw old people away like we tend to do here in the States."
The realization that life was very different in Vienna inspired this song. It kicks off the second side of The Stranger, though today many people recognize it for appearing in the 2004 Jennifer Garner movie 13 Going On 30. It was a live rarity until about 2006 when he began playing it regularly.
Billy Joel was more than a little depressed when he moved back to New York in 1976, and he poured all of his sadness into the lyrics to "Summer, Highland Falls." "The lyric is about manic depression," he told Howard Stern in 2010. "And I wanted music to reflect that. Generally, I'm up, I'm down. I don't think I'm manic depressive. I just know a mood won't last the rest of my life."
It's one of the standout tracks on 1976's Turnstiles, but Joel was unhappy with the sound of his albums before he began working with Phil Ramone the following year. For the definitive version of "Summer, Highland Falls" check out the 1981 live album Songs In the Attic. Joel has consistently cited this as one of the greatest tunes he ever wrote.