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Billy Joel Songs: The Inside Stories Behind the Piano Man’s 10 Greatest Hits

Plus, what you need to know about "Turn the Lights Back On," his first new song in over 30 years!

For anyone who has enjoyed all of those Billy Joel songs between the 1971 album Cold Spring Harbor and 1993’s River of Dreams, there’s great news with the debut of the Piano Man’s first new track in more than 20 years, “Turn the Lights Back On.”

As the singer/songwriter/pianist’s official site describes it, “The six-time Grammy Award-winning Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee and Kennedy Center honoree initially alluded to the song on TikTok, following his debut on the platform. Now he delivers a classic Billy Joel-style tune, embodying the hallmarks of his signature sound and ushering in the next chapter of his story. In the lyrics, he asks, ‘Did I wait too long … to turn the lights back on?'” Given the excitement already generated, it would seem the answer is no.

Fans of Billy Joel songs have wondered why he stepped away from recording new songs — while triumphantly continuing to tour — all those years ago. In the pages of Billy Joel: The Definitive Biography, author Fred Schruers sheds some light on the situation.

“Part of the reason there’s been almost no new pop music from Billy since 1993,” he writes, “is that after 11 albums of thorough self-revelation, he felt a barrier building, preventing him from writing much about his personal life. He’d given a great deal away in his lyrics over the years, revealed a lot emotionally, and he just plain didn’t want to do that anymore.”

There was also an appearance on The Howard Stern Show where Stern asked Billy why he’d stopped writing music. He offered some insight into his creative process, saying, “I’ve never stopped writing music. I write music every day. I just don’t write lyrics. Putting lyrics on music is like drawing graffiti on a freshly-painted wall.”

Where the new track will fit within the annals of Billy Joel songs is anyone’s guess (check it out above), but “Turn the Lights Back On” is going to prove itself to be a one-shot, or a whole new beginning for his bringing further music into the world. In the meantime, below is a ranked guide to 10 of the most classic Billy Joel songs — we bet you can’t help but sing along!

10. “‘Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)”

ALBUM: The Stranger (1977)

HIGHEST BILLBOARD CHART POSITION: Number 14 on the Hot 100, number 40 on Adult Contemporary. In Canada it reached number 11 and number 35 in the UK.

BILLY JOEL SONGS – BEHIND THE SCENES: In the pages of Billy Joel: The Ultimate Biography, it’s noted that the songwriter couldn’t recall why he subtitled this track “Anthony’s Song.” Says Joel, “At the time, I just pictured some lady yelling out of a house, ‘Anthony, Anthony!’ and I was thinking about a kid who’s been living at home and getting a lot of pressure from his family to do what they want him to do. And this is a guy who wants to go his own way. He isn’t buying into the upward mobility thing.”

9. “Goodnight Saigon”

ALBUM: The Nylon Curtain (1982)

HIGHEST BILLBOARD CHART POSITION: Number 56 on the Hot 100. It reached number 1 in Belgium and the Netherlands and 29 in England

BILLY JOEL SONGS – BEHIND THE SCENES: Joel got political on this song, reflecting, “At the time of the Vietnam War, my favorite line you’d hear was, ‘Vietnam is sending the black man to kill the yellow man for the white man who stole the land from the red man.’ For a young and rebellious kid like me, it was pretty simple. ‘Why do I want to go shoot somebody over in Vietnam? I don’t feel any threat.'”

Billy Joel in 1982
Billy Joel performs a New Years Eve Concert at New York’s Madison Square Garden on December 31, 1982 Larry Busacca/Getty

“But a lot of my friends went,” he continues, “and of course I respected them and what they endured. And over the years, they would say to me, ‘Why don’t you do a song about it?’ And I repeatedly told them that I just didn’t feel knowledgeable enough. This led to a series of late-night sessions, some of them very boozy and frank and moving, and I finally felt I could take a stab at inhabiting that world they’d been in, which was how I came to write ‘Goodnight, Saigon.'”

8. “She’s Always a Woman”

ALBUM: The Stranger (1977)

HIGHEST BILLBOARD CHART POSITION: Number 2 on Easy Listening, number 17 on the Hot 100. It also reached number 7 in Canada and number 28 in Belgian.

BILLY JOEL SONGS – BEHIND THE SCENES: From 1973 to 1982, Billy was married to Elizabeth Weber, who also became his manager, and this song is definitely about her. He offers, “It reflects how she took a lot of heat, because there weren’t a lot of women in positions of power in the business at the time. You can say she’s a tough business-woman, but that isn’t my problem, that’s your problem. She’s always a woman to me.”

7. “Only the Good Die Young”

ALBUM: The Stranger (1977; what can we say, it’s a great album)

HIGHEST BILLBOARD CHART POSITION: Number 24 on the Hot 100, 25 on the U.S. Cash Box Top 100.

BILLY JOEL SONGS – BEHIND THE SCENES: When this song was released, the Catholic Church did not take well to the lyric, “Catholic girls start much too late,” but that was okay with Billy, who wryly noted, “I’m sure it sold me quite a few records.. [But] the point of the song wasn’t so much anti-Catholic as pro-lust. I guess I do like to let the air out of things… There were more than a few ruffled feathers over that song.”

6. ‘My Life’

ALBUM: 52nd Street (1978)

HIGHEST BILLBOARD CHART POSITION: Number 2 on Adult Contemporary and number 3 on the Hot 100. It was number two in Canada and number 12 in the UK.

BILLY JOEL SONGS – BEHIND THE SCENES: Billy drew on someone he knew in real life to write this song, saying, “The song ‘My Life’ is based on Tony Lawrence, a guy I knew who had a job on the East Coast but decided to be a comic and move out West to live out his dream. ‘Now he gives them a stand-up routine in L.A.’ It’s essentially about people who are making a transition in their life, who are moving out of a particular rut that they think they’re in.”

5. “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me”

ALBUM: Glass Houses (1980)

HIGHEST BILLBOARD CHART POSITION: Number 1 on the Hot 100, number 45 on Adult Contemporary. It also scored number one in Canada and number 14 in the UK.

BILLY JOEL SONGS – BEHIND THE SCENES: This track, which became Billy’s first chart-topping hit, also got a lot of criticism. As he explains it, “They were saying, ‘Oh, he’s making fun of the fans.’ This was a misinterpretation of the lytic ‘aimed at your average teen.’ As if I were putting kids down. In fact, I was just pointing out that this supposedly new genre [New Wave music] was actually quite familiar, despite the hype in the media.”

4. “A Matter of Trust”

ALBUM: The Bridge (1986)

HIGHEST BILLBOARD CHART POSITION: Number 10 on the Hot 100, number 14 on Mainstream Rock and number 17 on Hot Adult Contemporary. It was number 3 in Australia, number 15 in Canada and number 52 in the UK.

BILLY JOEL SONGS – BEHIND THE SCENES: For this one, Billy moves away from the piano to the guitar (not for the first time, obviously), giving the track a heavier rock sound. In an interview with Sirius XM radio back in 2016, he pointed out that the lyrics were definitely influenced by “Addicted to Love” by Robert Palmer.

3. “We Didn’t Start the Fire”

ALBUM: Storm Front (1989)

HIGHEST BILLBOARD CHART POSITION: Number 1 on the Hot 100, number 5 on Adult Contemporary, number 6 on Mainstream Rock, number 17 on Rock Digital Song Sales and number 18 on Rock Streaming Songs.

BILLY JOEL SONGS – BEHIND THE SCENES: Around the time he wrote this song, Billy had turned 40 and was in the studio being visited by John Lennon‘s son, Sean, and a friend who was 21-years-old. They got to talking about the past and Sean’s friend commented, “It was different for you, because you were a kid in the ’50s and everybody knows that nothing happened in the ’50s.” Well, that certainly generated an internal response on the songwriter’s part.

Billy Joel
Billy Joel performs at Nassau Coliseum in support of his album Storm Front on December 21, 1989 Larry Busacca/Getty

“I thought, ‘Wait a minute — didn’t you ever hear of the Korean War? The Suez Canal crisis?’ And I started to write these things out, almost like an exercise, and I started to get this idea for a song. I didn’t know how to end it, but these hypodermic needles had washed up on the shore in New York, then China cracked down on protestors and went under martial law. And then I thought, ‘What’s the stupidest thing going on right at the moment? Rock and roll cola wars!’ They had just signed some other silly rockstar to say, ‘Drink our soda and rot your teeth!’ And I said, ‘Thank you very much: Rock and roll and Cola Wars’ — and that was it.”

2. “Uptown Girl”

ALBUM: An Innocent Man (1983)

HIGHEST BILLBOARD CHART POSITION: Number 2 on Adult Contemporary, number 3 on the Hot 100, number 22 on Mainstream Rock. It was number 1 in the UK, New Zealand, Ireland and Canada.

BILLY JOEL SONGS – BEHIND THE SCENES: When Joel first wrote this song, it had the title “Uptown Girls,” inspired by Billy’s dating life prior to his meeting and falling in love with supermodel Christie Brinkley. The resulting music video and title change made it clear exactly who the song was about, and the track itself was done in homage to Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. Says Billy, “I loved Frankie Valli, but, to me, ‘Uptown Girl’ was the inverse of ‘Rag Doll,’ in which the singer was the rich guy, she the poor girl.”

1. “Piano Man”

ALBUM: Piano Man (1973)

HIGHEST BILLBOARD CHART POSITION: Number 4 on Easy Listening, number 25 on the Hot 100.

BILLY JOEL SONGS – BEHIND THE SCENES: Although “Piano Man” is undeniably one of his most beloved songs, Billy Joel himself is not really a fan. “It always amazes me how popular that song is,” he admits. “It’s musically the same melody over and over and over again. I don’t think it’s that great a melody. It’s a good enough sing-along melody, It tells a good story, I’ll give you that, but it’s not really a lyric as much as a limerick.”

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