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A Review: Billy Joel – My Lives, Disc 1

By Brian | March 1, 2006 | Share on Facebook

My posts about Billy Joel have been getting hundreds of hits (helped along, I’m sure, by Google and the fact that he’s touring), but people are clicking through, so who am I to not respond with more content?

First of all, a backhanded compliment to buy.com. I ordered My Lives on Saturday night, and chose Budget Shipping (5-7 days), which is free, as opposed to Standard Shipping (3-5 days), which would have cost me a few bucks. The discs arrived at my door Monday afternoon. So, first, wow – that’s incredibly fast service, especially given there was a weekend involved. But then, hey – good thing I didn’t pay money to have it delivered faster, since I got it within one day anyway.

That aside, on to the music (I’ve only listened to Disc 1 so far (1960′s – 1980), so I’ll post more as I go). Bottom line: this material is for the real Billy Joel fan. The ones who know all the songs, not just Greatest Hits 1 through 3. As one of those fans, I thoroughly enjoyed it. If I weren’t one of those fans, though, I think I would have hated it. Passionately.

The first two tracks are from The Lost Souls, Joel’s first band. I’ve heard him say on his college lecture tours that My Journey’s End was the first song he ever wrote, so here’s your chance to hear studio version of the first ever Billy Joel song. That said, the recording quality is awful (so much so, that I originally thought something was wrong with the CD). The quality improves as we move toward the 1970s, with a couple of tracks from The Hassles and one from Attila (a Jazz Ensemble and Heavy Metal band that Joel experimented with before going solo). The insert warns that the Attila tune, Amplifier Fire is loud enough to be scary, but I didn’t mind it in the least. There’s even a rather clever mixing technique in the middle, where the keyboard is vamping in the left channel and the drums are in the right, and then they gradually switch, then switch back, then switch again, etc. At the time, that was probably high technology. Today it’s so easy to do that folks don’t bother doing it, making it unique once again.

After that, we get back to what we all know as Billy Joel music. Piano-centric, melodically interesting tunes ranging from ballads to full-blown rock & roll. Basically, the songs can be broken down into three groups: album versions of lesser known songs, unreleased studio and/or live versions of popular songs, and unreleased demos.

For the rabid fan, the album versions are nice, but nothing new. For the more casual fan, I think they’d probably highlight why these songs were never hits (with the possible exception of She’s Got a Way, which is a gorgeous ballad no matter how you slice it).

The unreleased versions of popular songs will probably sound exactly the same to the casual fan, but to the rabid fan, they’re fantastic bits of musical trivia. The highlight for me was the unfaded version of Zanzibar, where you get to hear a whole lot more of that fantastic trumpet solo at the end. The reggae version of Only The Good Die Young is fun as well, although I’ve heard it before elsewhere.

The rest of the tracks (seven in all) are demos. These were never released and, in many cases, not even finished (he hums his way through verses he hasn’t written yet.) The best of these tracks are songs that were eventually released under different titles or with different lyrics. For example, Piano Man is there with an extended harmonica part, an extremely annoying echo effect on Joel’s voice, slightly different lyrics, and a different melody for the bridge (the “La Da Dah” part). There’s also These Rhinestone Days, which became I’ve Loved These Days, New Mexico, which became Worse Comes to Worst, and a version of Miami 2017 that remains a ballad all the way through. I thoroughly enjoyed these tracks for two reasons: first, the sparse arrangements show off Joel’s piano playing more than the final cuts, and second, because they give a fantastic insight into his writing process – how the music gets set first, and the words come gradually, often getting rejected and rewritten (sometimes scrapped entirely, sometimes tweaked only slightly). The other demos on the disc are songs that were never released under any title, including Only a Man, Oyster Bay and Cross To Bear. The rabid fan would be interested in these because they are, to most people, new Billy Joel songs, which is something we haven’t been treated to in a very, very long time. The casual fan will likely think of them as bad Billy Joel songs, lending no weight to the fact that the artist went on to do much more interesting things.

So, overall, I’m very pleased with Disc 1. Your mileage, as they say, may vary.

My other reviews:
Disc 1
Disc 2
Disc 3
Disc 4

Topics: ISBS Reviews, Words about Music | 1 Comment »

One Response to “A Review: Billy Joel – My Lives, Disc 1”

  1. Jeff Porten says at March 2nd, 2006 at 12:57 pm :
    For some reason, I’m reminded of the people who sat through all three extended versions of Lord of the Rings, back to back.


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