Billy Joel’s stats are impressive.
He’s sold some 80 million records in the United States, which makes him the sixth bestselling artist in the country, right behind the Eagles and a notch above Pink Floyd.
That, however, won’t stop him from hearing the question: “What have you done for us lately?”
The 58-year-old legend certainly hasn’t been writing new pop songs. After dominating the airwaves in the `70s, `80s and early `90s with smash upon smash, Joel has been decidedly quiet in recent years. He hasn’t released a new pop album since 1993’s “River of Dreams,” a disc that hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts, and has instead focused his attention on composing instrumental works.
He has remained active on the road, having toured for the better part of a decade on a co-bill with fellow piano man Elton John. In 2006, he finally ventured out on his first solo tour of the United States in years. That outing proved so popular that Joel is staging a second trek.
Recently, Joel took the time to discuss the new tour and other subjects during a phone interview from his home on Long Island, N.Y.
You’ve been inducted into the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Long Island Music Hall of Fame. Which one means the most to you?
Probably, the songwriter. I’m from Long Island, so that was a lay-down.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Advertisement Fame? You know, rock `n’ roll—that’s what I do. But songwriting is the hardest part of the job, so that’s probably the one I appreciate the most.
After touring with Elton John for so many years, why did you finally decide to mount your own solo trek?
We were touring with Elton for about 10 years. ... I got to do his songs, he got to do my songs, we got do our songs together, he got to play with my band, I got to play with his band—there were whole different combinations of things.
But after 10 years, we were pretty much doing a stock greatest hits show.
Elton was the opening act on the tour, he went on first. So, we’d be sitting backstage and Elton would be playing hit after hit after hit. We’d be sitting there saying, “Oh, my God, we have to follow this?” Well, if you try to go up there and do album tracks or obscurities, the crowd is going to go to the bathroom. So, we were doing greatest hits for 10 years, and that got a little old.
What can fans expect from these set lists?
You have to have a balance. The majority of the audience is there to hear the songs that it’s familiar with, which are the hits. But, on the other hand, if that’s all we played then we’d get bored. ... So, when it was time to consider going on our own, we thought, “Well, this is a good opportunity for us to dig back into the archives and do album tracks and songs we like to do—songs that weren’t hits.”
People obviously liked it. Last year’s tour was a big hit.
A lot of people came. We didn’t really know what kind of business we were going to do. We just figured we’d give it a shot, but the demand was there.
That’s why we are going out again, there seems to be a demand for us dinosaurs. We are kind of running the business these days, which is a sad statement on popular music, I guess.
You recently released your first new pop single in more than a decade—“All My Life.” How did it feel to get back in the singles game after all these years away?
I didn’t intend to put that out as a single. I wrote it for my wife, as a gift, from me to her.
Columbia wanted to put it out as a single, and I said, “Well there’s not even an album and this is never going to get airplay—it’s like a Tony Bennett song.”
Still, could “All My Life” represent the tip of the iceberg in terms of a new batch of pop songs?
Nah. It was a one-off. It was meant to be a personal gift to my wife. Hey, look, if all of a sudden I decide to write a bunch of songs I’m not going to stop myself. But I have no plans to do that.
I don’t want to say that my ability to write has dried up, because I’ve been writing all along—I write instrumental music these days. But I don’t feel compelled to record it, to have it performed. It’s for my own edification.
// Notes from the Road
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