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There really was an outlaw called Billy The Kid, but he wasn't from West Virginia, he didn't rob banks and he wasn't hanged. Joel explained in 1975 to ZigZag: "Basically it was an experiment with an impressionist type of lyric. It was historically totally inaccurate as a story, it wasn't supposed to be listened to as a story. I like writing more soundtrack type things, and I wanted to try something musical. I wrote that song all in one day – it was kind of a spoof on the rock-star type of thing."
Joel paid special attention to the arrangement on this song, which helped it capture the Old West vibe. Said Joel: "I wanted it to sound like The Magnificent Seven. Jimmie Haskell wrote it and conducted the string section, but I told him what I wanted. I worked pretty closely with the arrangements on the Cold Spring Harbour album. It was too much on that."