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Listening Report: Billy Joel’s Vinyl Collection Boxed Set – The Original Albums

Mark Smotroff takes a trip through a legend’s first growth period…

Billy Joel’s music has been a part of the pop music landscape pretty much most of my adult life. I first heard his Piano Man album in 1973 or so when my older brother had a little party and one of his friends brought it over for all to hear for the first time.  That was a time when people hung out and listened to music together — it was “a thing,” as they say.  And it was fun!  I was just lucky that they didn’t mind me hanging around a bit given I was just the little brother.  

I remember that moment vividly and soon we had our own copy of Piano Man in the house which I played a whole lot. Fast forward, by the time I was in high school I’d discovered Turnstiles which I loved and then when The Stranger happened suddenly Billy’s music was everywhere on the radio and at parties. At least in the NY metropolitan area, Billy’s The Stranger and then 52nd Street were as much a part of the soundtrack of the times as Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness On The Edge of Town and Born To Run.

I’ve remained a fan through and through, so it has been fun reviewing Sony Columbia Records’ new Billy Joel: The Vinyl Collection, Vol. 1.  In this set you get pretty much his entire run up to 1980 including his early pre-Piano Man indie label release Cold Spring Harbor bookended with Songs In The Attic (yeah, I know that came out in 1981, more on that later). 

Now some of you out in record collecting land must be wondering why anyone would want a set like this given that Billy’s albums were mostly huge sellers and are abundantly available, especially in the used marketplace. Well, it seems most of the albums haven’t been on vinyl in the US in many years save for boutique editions via publishers such as Music On Vinyl and Mobile Fidelity.  Going back to the used copies, the harsh reality is that the period when Billy was ascending was pretty much in line with the oil crisis, a period when vinyl quality was iffy and pressings often a bit noisy.  So, a sonic upgrade was long overdue for these recordings…

In preparing this review I revisited original promotional editions of most of Billy’s albums — first pressings, usually —  which I have collected over the years including a rare promo of the original version of Cold Spring Harbor. 

The great things about these new pressings are that they are mostly (a) dead quiet and (b) generally well centered — there were a few exceptions which I’ll talk about along the way here.  The reduction of surface noise is significant and noticeable when you are listening to a track like “Just The Way You Are” and that hushed Fender Rhodes opening sequence. 

The new versions sound generally very clean. 

Yet, as nice and clear as these pressings are, they do sound like the originals for the most part. Only 52nd Street sounded a bit brighter than my original copy. In general the volume levels were matched so I didn’t even have to adjust my stereo when switching between albums. 

Streetlife Serenade is a bit of a revelation to hear, sounding much richer and fuller than even my original white label promo copy. The vinyl is much quieter and everything generally sounds excellent. My only nit here is that my copy was just a wee bit off center which in most instances wouldn’t make a difference. However, because the opening title track features several dramatic breaks with solo piano and long held single notes you can sometimes hear the wavering of the note (again, due to the off-centered-ness of the disc, if you will). This is a minor detail for some listeners but for me is one of the things I most appreciate with a quality pressing. Hopefully my edition is the exception and not the rule in this set’s production run. 

One of the albums I enjoyed more than the original is 1981’s Songs In The Attic. A compilation of live recordings of many of Billy’s early classics which many of the then-new fans were not familiar with, the intent of this album was to offer more definitive performances backed by Billy’s by-then-well-oiled band (vs the session musicians who played on the original albums). Not sure why, but I’m enjoying the sound on this new version better than my original pressing, it just feels stronger all around.  On the one hand, it is curious that this album was included in this set given it came out in 1981 but it makes sense to be included here as a bookend to the decade. 1980’s Glass Houses really does belong in the second volume of this collection as it pointed to new vistas for Billy’s music. 

Piano Man sounds like Piano Man should sound, which is a good thing. I really appreciate that there hasn’t been a big effort to modernize this 1973 classic (or any of these albums for that matter).  The pressing is quiet and sounds clear. Again, my copy was a little off center but nothing terrible — hopefully my copy was just an anomaly.  In general the music is quite alive here delivering a nice sense of the studio and the instruments.  A minor detail for most of you but which some will appreciate: the cover design mirrors more of the gloss finish look of some later pressings of the album instead of the more rustic, flat-matte design of the first pressings (see above for an image of what that cover looked like then).  

The only significant problem I came across in Billy Joel: The Vinyl Collection, Vol. 1 was on Cold Spring Harbor which had some “non-fill” issues resulting in some noisy “pfffft” type moments on side one. Again, hopefully my copy is just an anomaly, but you should be aware of this.  

Nonetheless, this was a good exercise in revisiting this album which I admittedly hadn’t spent as much time with when it was finally re-released in the early 1980s in revised form from the original 1971 mix.  

Some of the updated mixes are dramatically different and admittedly more timeless than the troubled 1971 incarnation of the album. For those not in the know, the original LP which was released on a small label had been mastered incorrectly resulting in Billy’s voice sounding significantly higher pitched than normal. Fortunately I have a pitch control on one of my turntables so I can adjust it and enjoy the original arrangements, some of which now sound charmingly dated and innocent.  For example, I always felt that the original orchestral arrangement and production on “Tomorrow Is Today” was completely overdone and over the top to the point where it sounded like a commercial for Pepsi or Coke — it felt like an advertising score! But I still loved it in all its enthusiastic, we-can-do-anything-spirited early ’70s pop production flavor. On the remix, Billy stripped everything back to a pretty much a solo piano and vocal piece that gets more to the heart of the song. 

Still… it would have been nice if they’d included the original mix remastered at the right speed as a two-LP set with the later remix. Maybe that will happen for Record Store Day at some point.

In general this boxed set is very high quality and the album cover art is mostly period accurate. There are some other curious cosmetic differences worth noting. For example, the cover of The Stranger has bolder faced and larger lettering than the 1977 original, closer to the 2008 reissue.  Cold Spring Harbor however restores the original full cover image closer to the original design vs. the slightly cropped 1983 incarnation. Minor details for most but, again, I know that collectors appreciate these sorts of observations.  

Stick around and tune in tomorrow when I’ll explore the previously unreleased live concert included in Billy Joel: The Vinyl Collection, Vol. 1 recorded at San Francisco’s legendary Great American Music Hall in 1975. This is a special gem…

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