Billy Joel, Piano Culture, and Rock’s Road Not Taken

Here is the paper I gave on October 8, 2016 at the wonderful Billy Joel conference organized at Colorado College by Ryan Bañagale and Josh Duchan, an exercise in Public Musicology that was a huge success by any measure.  One of the culminating events was an hour-long phone conversation with Billy Joel (currently in NY, recovering from sinus surgery); he spoke very self-deprecatingly about his own pianistic ability.  With respect, Mr. Joel, I strongly disagree, and this paper will reflect that.

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Please bear with me while I acknowledge a debt.

Billy Joel’s Piano Man came out in my junior year of high school, followed by Streetlife Serenade when I was a senior.  Now, I loved the pop-gospel-influenced playing on the first seven or eight Elton John albums, and enjoyed Leon Russell’s meaty honky-tonk, and (naturally, as a piano guy myself) had an ear out for piano guys in general.  But this Billy Joel—whoever he was—could really play.  No doubt about the classical training—you could hear it in the ease of his technique, the way blues and rock licks were extrapolated all over the keyboard, at warp speed—and there was no relying on stiff-armed right-hand chords, as was characteristic of so many other players.  This guy had chops, and I obsessively listened to his album, and then to the next one.  And ultimately, I realized that whatever would happen later, I had to study music; I had to be a better pianist than I was, period.  And I ended up at a university where I could make up for a lot of lost time, and I also encountered a musicologist or two, and things went on down the lane, pretty much—I suspect—as would most have delighted my parents, who liked piano fine but really endorsed and understood academics.  So, Jonnie wants to study music.  Good; the operative word for us was “study,” so since I wanted to study something, all was in order.

But I state publically: had it not been for Billy Joel’s early albums, I would probably not have been impelled to become a music major, and I don’t want to think of what my life would have looked like had I not risked it.
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Now: I have had decades to think about this, and the question I’d like to ask is why GUItar slingin’—both the playing and the pose—is somehow culturally definitive of Rock’n’Roll, while the piano is not.  Rock did not begin that way; New Orleans ivory-ticklers like Huey “Piano” Smith and Fats Domino presided from the keyboard, and “greatest show on earth” shaman Jerry Lee Lewis burned audiences down with his playing and wild-man antics.  Of course, Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly played guitar, but in those early days there was a balance: you had your guitar people and your piano people, both with origins deep in American vernacular musics that antedated Rock, and both completely legitimate.  What happened, and how was the piano “Betamaxed” out of its initial position?  The reasons are both cultural and musical and Billy Joel’s early solo career provides an apt illustration of the how, and why.

The Pianist as Cultural Icon has a particular flavor in the U.S.  It is easy to imagine Leon Russell and Fats Domino—to choose two random examples—pounding their American-roots-music hearts out (Russell in Oklahoma, Domino in New Orleans) on thrashed upright pianos, probably in church.  The roots of their respective piano styles include boogie-woogie, novelty rag, gospel, and blues—and whether the result is New Orleans style, Texas barrelhouse, or honkytonk depends more on the proportions of these cocktail ingredients than any essential difference.  Regardless, there’s a revelatin’ authenticity to the sound: it may be technically unfinished, yet it is cosmically true.  Repeated chords, rhythm-and-percussion left hand, grace-note rolls fattening the right-hand figures, blues-scale spice throughout…somehow it all happened in the absence of proper classical lessons.

Inevitably, the situation with a Billy Joel from Levittown, Long Island, NY would be different.  His German-Jewish father had been classically trained at the piano, So piano-playing was high-stakes in the Joel household. By his own account, Billy got the one real parental beating of his life for a musical infraction: “The only time I ever got beat up,” he recalled, “I had a Beethoven piece, one of the sonatas, and I started boogie-woogieing to it. And my old man came downstairs and smacked the hell outta me. It was the only time I ever remember getting beat up as a kid.”[1]  And unquestionably, the Rock mythology of primitive/vernacular roots, whether rural or city, would not have attached to a nimble-fingered, classically trained, first-generation American, last name Joel, who looked as Billy Joel did.  (An aside:  There is a point to this somewhat politically incorrect remark: while Billy Joel grew up in legitimately straitened and stressed financial circumstances, by the first solo albums he wasn’t looking like it at all; he was looking like the sort of talented, intelligent son of whom any mother could be proud.  Such a gifted boy!)  It was hard to hear someone who played as he did on the early albums, before different hand injuries took their toll, as a rebel, whether or not he actually behaved as one or thought of himself that way.  To the American mind, the kid who can play like that is the kid who did practice the piano, as opposed to sneaking out to play baseball.  Such a young person was in the living room, practicing dutifully, not withdrawing into some kind of fearsome, newfangled Rock’n’Roll consciousness.  In popular culture, the pianist is far less of a rebel then the guitar-player, anyway; the discipline required is great, and as a rule parents don’t complain about that awful noise—quite the contrary.  So in sum, a New York boy taking classical piano lessons is hardly the stuff of the Rock’n’Roll origin myth.

By the 1950s, after all, the piano had accrued more than two centuries of history, repertoire, and cultural associations: Beethoven’s heaven-storming sonatas, Chopin’s melancholy apotheoses of song and dance, Liszt’s virtuosic barn-burners, Debussy’s dreamlike soundscapes, and much, much more.  Up to that point, the electric guitar was a relatively recent American invention, associated with Jazz, country, and swing musics, often as a rhythm instrument, so Rock playing was a natural outgrowth of that.   Consider: a besotted young guitarist, having discovered guitar either from Chuck Berry and the 50s rockers or the Beatles and the other British Invasion bands, could either lock himself away to get better—incidentally, rejecting all civil conversation with the family—or go out and play in technically basic rock bands that both entertained and attracted curious females.  The phallic symbolism of the guitar, as exploited by the Detroit band MC5, Jimmy Page and many others, was pretty much unavailable to the person camped out behind the piano. All this is to illustrate the point that choice of instrument, particularly for a young Billy Joel, establishes much about the artist’s reception and cultural profile from the outset.

So what does such a pianist do with the instrument?  First off, our hero does not consider himself to be all that great a piano player, though the aforementioned series of hand injuries may have colored his view:

Because of the damage to my hand, there’s no subtlety to my playing, no real nuance at all.  For Rock and Roll, I can hold my own, but in classical or Jazz terms, I stink.  I mostly use two fingers on my left hand; I play octaves.  Most people are right-handed, like me, so to be able to manipulate the fingers in your left hand, to do the stuff that greats like Bill Evans could do, is a real gift.  Bach teaches you that both hands are equally important, because they’re both playing melody.  I never really studied enough to emulate that.[2]

Still, he could still tear off blues-rock piano solos to challenge all comers.  The solos from “Traveling Prayer” (off Piano Man, 1973; the solo begins at 2:10) and “The Entertainer” (off Streetlife Serenade, 1974, but this is a Karaoke version in which the solo is much easier to hear; it starts at 1:57).  Aside from brute speed itself, there is a relaxed sound, a smoothness caused by economy of physical motion (a hallmark of classical training), as opposed to the showmanship-first aesthetic of a Jerry Lee Lewis.  Note: economy of motion and relaxed ease of performance is almost anti-Rock; that which does not exude sweat, hormones, effort, and display is apt to excite an audience less than a performance that leaves much of one’s body chemistry on the stage.

And for another angle, here is Nocturne (off Cold Spring Harbor, 1971, but this is a live recording made in 1976), an instrumental that started life as a song—an early demo or working tape with lyrics can be heard here—in which a controlled, classical legato and careful pedaling are both evident.  Again, this doesn’t come without lots of lessons and practice.  Finally, here’s the opening to “Prelude” (off Turnstiles, 1976), the toccata-like opener to the song “Angry Young Man.”  The technique required here—an advanced hand-coordination combined with sufficient relaxation so as not to overtax the pianist’s stamina—is beyond the usual ability of of a functional pianist-songwriter.  It is reported that “When performing live, Joel plays the fast-paced prelude himself, but performs the song early in the setlist, largely because the prelude section was easiest to manage during the adrenaline moments of starting a show, as opposed to being attempted after he had already expended much of his energy for other songs.”[3]

Cultural aspects of the piano notwithstanding, Joel was quite aware of his classical upbringing—but acknowledged its influence more in his songwriting: “I grew up playing classical piano,” he said, “so I have tension and release philosophy from that training. I hate boogie for the sake of boogie; it’s got to be tension and release. I hate to beat an idea to death.”  To this, critic Dave Marsh commented, “Which is probably why rock remains an easily hidden aspect of his songs: rock & roll feeds on excesses, not discipline—it is the idea beaten to death.”[4]

And here, I think, is where the piano itself defines Billy Joel, and also moves him out of the pure Rock frame of reference (however much that irks Rock purists and taste-shamers).  The piano has had many incarnations: Everyman’s Orchestra, Composer’s personal workstation, convivial living-room entertainment, musical accompaniment for houses of ill repute, virtuoso vehicle, and exponent of the Popular Song.  It is probably impossible for someone from New York to have been unaware of this last role, or not to have been seduced by it; this was the instrument of choice for George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Carole King, and numerous others.  And Joel acknowledged precisely that, in a 1982 Rolling Stone interview: “When I did Cold Spring Harbor, I didn’t want to be a rock & roll star so much anymore. I kinda got that out of my system… I wanted to be a songwriter.”  A songwriter he already was, obviously, and—despite the stardom, world tours, rock-solid band, performances in Russia and Cuba and so on—it was his songwriter incarnation to which he remained truest.  Billy Joel’s songs distinguish themselves with self-examination, narrative, and nostalgia; what is virtually absent is the staple Rock’n’Roll format of let’s-get-it-on in a twelve-bar-blues.  Ultimately, his songs incline toward people who can allow a good story to unfold, whose lives to date have consisted of more than typical adolescent fantasy, and that—much like his choice of instrument—will always affect the purity of his Rock’n’Roll status.  As his disposition and career arc have demonstrated, in other words, the piano leads its players in too many directions to be as essential a Rock’n’Roll instrument as the guitar, hence its secondary role.

The coda to my reflection on Billy Joel and the piano is the 2001 album of piano solos of his own composition, Fantasies and Delusions. He has described how he composes incrementally, one theme or a section at a time, and the album— clearly a love-letter to the piano and the study of it—shows it; there is a pastiche character to a lot of the pieces, a block-by-block construction that enables us to identify the composers he was probably thinking of.  Taking “Waltz No. 1 (Nunley’s Carousel)” as an example, the sections run from a Schumannesque introduction, through Schubert, Brahms, and Chopin textures, all colored with a certain thoroughly American, sophisticated Jazz-Impressionism.  The spirit of Bill Evans is stronger in some of the other numbers.  But all of these styles are the natural inheritance of a musician from New York, where classical piano, Jazz piano, and popular song are all pervasive.

And piano culture is what, at the end of his recording career, Billy Joel saw fit to return to.  Here is his own account, from a 2011 NPR interview:

I wanted it to be recognized as, “Oh, he’s trying to write classical piano pieces…like, for students.”  I wanted a piano teacher to be able to go, “You want to play Billy Joel?  Here, take this book home”…and there is a music book, with the notes in it…“and learn Opus 1 or Opus 2 or Opus 3,” and these kids’d be “This…this is hard, y’know?” and cursing me out, but the piano teacher would have something they could learn with.  That’s what the point of this was.[5]

The lesson here, I believe, is that Billy Joel has piano roots first and foremost, and as a rocker—even given a straight-up Fats Domino tribute like his song “Josephine,” which was never released—he doesn’t seem particularly concerned about a mythical delta or slum upbringing, as rockers are more or less assumed to have.  Piano is a great blues instrument, certainly, but it can also imitate other instruments, transition into a solo role, and serve as an entire musical world at the fingertips of the imaginative composer.  This is where Billy Joel firmly situates himself: not only as hot player and writer, but essentially as narrative artist with a cinematic imagination.  The film noir soundtrack gestures of “Prelude” or the Coplandesque Americana of “The Ballad of Billy the Kid”—pieces that avail themselves of the film vocabulary in order to evoke film-like images and sequences—these musical strategies, every bit as much as his lyrics, enable him to tell his stories.  And this approach goes back centuries: as eighteenth-century composers evoked an idea with a familiar musical gesture like horn fifths or the drone of a musette, so Joel uses the film-music vocabulary.

Ultimately, despite piano technique far in excess of almost all other Rock pianists, Billy Joel’s piano serves his songs, and he is a songwriter above all.  And my suspicion is that the multifaceted history of the piano and its manifold capabilities are what led it to second place (at best, if not lower) as a Rock instrument.  Anyone in love with the piano is immediately led to classical music, to Rag, to boogie, to Jazz, to a variety of different musics, each with its own peculiar groove—often, one that somewhat contradicts the Rock foundation.  Rock evolved early in the electric guitar’s history, and they developed in tandem; the piano’s heyday, in contrast, was already a couple of centuries old when Fats Domino appeared on the scene.  And when Billy Joel exited, stage right, from his recording career with Fantasies and Delusions, Rock was nowhere to be found: just Preludes, Nocturnes, Fantasies, and the Baby Grand.

[1] Quoted in Dave Marsh, “Billy Joel: The Miracle of 52nd Street,” Rolling Stone (14 December 1978), <http://www.rollingstone.com/music/features/billy-joel-19781214> (accessed 21 August 2016).

[2] Fred Schruers, Billy Joel: The Definitive Biography (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2014), 161–62.

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prelude/Angry_Young_Man

[4] Quoted in Marsh, “Billy Joel: The Miracle of 52nd Street.”

[5] NPR Interview from 2011, <http://www.npr.org/programs/morning/features/2001/dec/joel/011210.joel.html>, accessed 2 October 2016.

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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2 Responses to Billy Joel, Piano Culture, and Rock’s Road Not Taken

  1. Steve Smith says:

    Jonathan, thanks for your enlightening discussion of Billy Joel, who has so far been completely neglected on the Hooks site – I wish you would spin off a Hooks post from this paper, centering perhaps on “Prelude,” or at least let me link to this post.
    Beyond the compulsory points of reference like Fats Domino et al., there are, sort of out to the side, various distinctive piano presences in rock that deserve study. I’ve been thinking lately about Jay Ferguson, whose pianism is important in Spirit’s early music (despite Spirit’s keyboard texture often being dominated by the jazz-oriented John Locke in an unusual rivalry), and who then comes all the way out with great piano rock hooks but ultimately catastrophic vulgarity in his Jo Jo Gunne phase.
    Steve Smith

  2. Pingback: Chops (Piano Edition): Billy Joel, “Prelude” (1976) |

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