In case you haven’t noticed, Billy Joel is everywhere these days. And if him taking up permanent residence at Madison Square Garden wasn’t enough, the Piano Man is preparing to headline Bonnaroo in June, not to mention closing out Nassau Coliseum on August 4 before its massive renovation project gets under way. Ah yes, and tomorrow he’s back at MSG for another Manhattan soiree. He’s just bein’ Billy.
But perhaps in the all-out Joel assault you’ve found yourself growing more and more disinclined to hear the man himself sing “Zanzibar” for the thousandth time. No worries: Here’s a list of some of best, most unexpected, and straight-up strangest Billy Joel covers recorded over the years, as well as those instances where rappers have given Billy his shine by simply sampling him. From Action Bronson to Amy Poehler, check out some fantastically out-there toasts to Billy Joel.
Action Bronson, “Brand New Car” The bodacious Queens MC has made no secret of his affection for Billy Joel. Perhaps it was only right that dude sampled Joel’s iconic “Zanzibar” lick on “Brand New Car,” the Mark Ronson–produced opening track off this year’s major-label debut LP, Mr. Wonderful. “That sample we took from Billy was that, we just replayed it,” he said recently. “[This song has] one of my favorite piano stabs, the guitar….It’s just incredible.”
Ed Helms, “Allentown” Leave it to a movie like The Hangover 2 to take a (pseudo) patriotic tune like Billy Joel’s “Allentown” and let Ed Helms transform it (brilliantly) into a rumination on Bangkok-fueled escapades that involve being beaten by a monk, getting one’s finger chopped off, and wanting to shoot Zach Galifianakis in the face. Yes, this BJ cover, albeit brief, is one for the ages.
French Montana, “State of Mind” There’s no masking this straight-up tribute to Mr. Joel: French Montana slurs the lyrics to Joel’s “New York State of Mind” in the intro to his own “State of Mind,” the Harry Fraud–produced toast to the Big Apple from his 2012 Mac & Cheese 3 mixtape. Luckily for Joel fans, Frenchie’s lyrical turn here on Billy’s words is easier to understand than his typically incomprehensible dialogue (see the entire last season of Keeping Up With the Kardashians).
Garth Brooks, “Shameless” Billy rarely busts out this gentle ballad from his 1989 album, Storm Front. And maybe it’s because he was shocked and downright disturbed to see country king Garth Brooks take a swipe at it two years later, on his 1991 album Ropin’ the Wind. Brooks is usually at his best in all his pyrotechnic-aided glory, but here his notes ring far too flat, and drone. A worthy attempt; we’ll be keeping our fingers crossed that Billy brings it back sometime soon.
On the next page: Gene Ween, the Beastie Boys, and more take on the music of an Angry Young Man [ Ween, “Piano Man” No, we cannot say we saw this one coming: Best known for goofy, oft-bizarre jam rock, Ween were not high on the list of potential candidates to put a surprisingly delicious spin on the iconic “Piano Man.” But we’ll be damned: Gene Ween flat-out delivers in this brief, schmaltzy live rendition of BJ’s most famous tune. Kudos! (And catch him live at Brooklyn Bowl on May 28 to see him perform his epic Joel covers in person.)
Amy Poehler, “We Didn’t Start the Fire” It seems Billy’s songs are ripe for contemporary comedic interpretation (see above: Ed Helms). To that end, improvisational genius Amy Poehler does her thing with “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” It all goes down during an episode of Parks and Recreation in which her Leslie Knope and Nick Offerman’s Ron Swanson are forcibly locked in the office to hash out their differences. Cue Poehler completely bumbling her way through the song, inventing new lyrics as she goes.
Xzibit, “The Foundation” Before he was the walking punchline behind the (fake?) MTV classic Pimp My Ride, Xzibit was a semi-respected, hard-edged, roughneck rapper making a name for himself with his stellar 1996 debut album, At the Speed of Life. Who would have thought then that X to tha Z (or perhaps Cypress Hill’s DJ Muggs, who produced the album’s standout track, “The Foundation”) had a soft spot for Billy Joel? “The Foundation” rides a twinkling sample of the piano intro to Joel’s “The Stranger,” complete with some heavenly strings to flesh it all out — and it sounds great.
Jay Z, “Marcy to Hollywood” Speaking of soft spots, both Jay and Beyoncé apparently have one for Joel’s “Honesty.” While Mrs. Carter covered the track for the Platinum Edition of I Am…Sasha Fierce (which proves monumentally difficult to locate, even in the internet age), Hov (along with two more of Brooklyn’s finest, Memphis Bleek and Sauce Money) samples the track’s Eighties keyboards to underpin the rags-to-riches cut “Marcy to Hollywood,” off the soundtrack to 1998’s The Players Club.
Beastie Boys, “Big Shot” Proving once again that hip-hop heads have a mad crush on Billy Joel, Beastie Boys delivered a typically raucous, downright maniacal cover of Joel’s “Big Shot” during a live outing that eventually appeared on their 1999 “Alive” single. Mock-dedicating it to Joel upon their receiving the sad news he’d canceled a tour with Elton John, MCA, Ad-Rock, and Mike D proceeded to tear into the already sarcasm-laden cut off Joel’s 1978 52nd Street LP.
Jordan Knight, “She’s Got a Way” OK, so maybe this one isn’t all that surprising. But c’mon: When the lead singer of New Kids on the Block decides to take on what is arguably Billy’s most beautiful ballad, it’s noteworthy. Does Knight, all melisma and a clear sucker for schmaltz, do justice to “She’s Got a Way”? Well, yes and no. Sure, he nails the high notes and can obviously carry a tune. But wow, is Knight missing that all-out longing and ache that Billy exudes so effortlessly.
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