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Why It's a Great Song #4: Piano Man

Heya folkies,

Time for another fan request in this unique, behind-the-curtain #FoxCubs series. This time we'll be getting to grips with the 1973 hit Piano Man by ivory-tinkler himself Billy Joel. I'll be analysing the full album version by the way, no corner cutting with me! Let's get into it.

1) Distinctive intro

A few gentle tinkles tells us this is not just a piano song, it's the piano man's song. Then the harp kicks in over those chords. It's so simple and beautiful.

2) Characters with character

There are numerous everyman protagonists in the lyric - from the old man making love to his tonic and gin, to John at the bar who's quick with a joke to light up your smoke, to navy boy Davy who'll probably be so for life. There are such delicate details added about each of them in turn that keep us interested throughout the whole song.

3) Classic chord progression

It sounds so natural on the ear because of the choice of chords (they are the same in the verse and the chorus). If you think you've heard them before it's because you probably have in some classical recording from your childhood. But Bill disguises it for us just enough to keep up the illusion.

4) Unusual time signature ONE two three, ONE two three, ONE two three. That's right, it's three-four time (or six-eight if you like). This gives the song a gliding, waltz-like quality which is actually pretty rare in modern pop music. It again helps to distinguish the song and make it stand out from the crowd.

5) Descending bass line

Another trick I've used for myself from time to time (cheers Bill!), that C - B - A - G - F - E - D (read it backwards) sequence in the bass line is very effective. It gives a gliding, soothing quality and inevitability to the tune that just works so well, particularly as it ties in well with the general longing, almost sentimental mood of the lyric.

6) (Almost) perfect rhyme

This is not only a great story but from a technical point of view Joel's rhyming is spot on. "In... gin", "goes... clothes", "wife... life". Okay he doesn't quite nail it with "stoned... alone" but the almost silent pronunciation of the "d" in the former gets him out of trouble. This great ability to rhyme and do it naturally is a rare gift amongst songwriters and Billy pulls it off.

7) Key change in the pre-chorus

That's the bit that goes "la, da dee da...". Billy switches us to the natural minor (the song is in C, so we move to A minor). But notice how he still retains the descending bass line in this section (albeit different notes). This is technically genius.

8) Epic video

Before you see it you can picture the scene, but the official video (shown above) really brings it all to life. Billy Joel at the piano being ignored by most of the clientele in some backstreet New York piano saloon as those good folks drift in and out. But our Billy doesn't mind, he keeps on playing - doing it for the love.

9) Signature song

Billy plays the piano. Billy is a man. Henceforth, Billy Joel is the Piano Man. The man and the myth.

10) What does it all mean? Life goes on. People come and people go. The bar is a metaphor for the living realm. Billy is like some kind of benevolent, child-like angel sat at the piano (harp), in the corner providing entertainment whilst we, his fortuitous guests, drink and drift into and then slowly out of existence. And he got us feeling alright.


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