This song is about people who peaked too early: the popular jocks in class who went nowhere in life. Like most of Joel's songs, he composed the music first, which in this case was inspired by The Beatles, specifically the suite of songs on their Abbey Road album where a few unfinished tunes were put together to create one coherent piece.
On an A&E special, Joel said he came up with the "Bottle of white bottle of red" line while he was dining at a restaurant and a waiter actually came up to him and said, "Bottle of white... bottle of red... perhaps a bottle of rosé instead?"
The "Things are okay with me these days..." part was an old piece of music he had written a long time before The Stranger album - he just changed the words around to update them. The third part of the song is an old song he had written called "The Ballad of Brenda and Eddie."
Many towns on Joel's stomping grounds of Long Island have a spot or field surrounded by trees called "The village green," similar to the one he sings about here. Joel was in a gang (not a very rough one) in Levittown, Long Island called "The Parkway Green Gang."
The restaurant which inspired this song, since closed, was the Fontana di Trevi at 151 West 57th Street in New York City, right across from Carnegie Hall. Joel recalled in USA Today July 9, 2008: "It was for the opera crowd, but the Italian food was really good. They didn't really know who I was, which was fine with me, but sometimes you would have a hard time getting a table. Well, I went there when the tickets had gone on sale for (my dates at) Carnegie Hall, and the owner looks at me and he goes (in an Italian accent), 'Heyyy, youra that guy!' And from then on, I was always able to get a good spot."
Joel outlined to USA Today how the Beatles inspired this song: "I had always admired the B-side of Abbey Road, which was essentially a bunch of songs strung together by (producer) George Martin. What happened was The Beatles didn't have completely finished songs or wholly fleshed-out ideas, and George said, 'What have you got?' John said, 'Well I got this,' and Paul said, 'I got that.' They all sat around and went, 'Hmm, we can put this together and that'll fit in there.' And that's pretty much what I did."
In a 2017 appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert
, Joel ranked this #1 on his list of the top Billy Joel songs. He has also cited "New York State Of Mind
" as his favorite.
After adding Mike DelGuidice to his touring band in 2013, Joel began leading into this song in concerts with DelGuidice singing Puccini's "Nessun Dorma." DelGuidice formed a popular Billy Joel tribute band called Big Shot, which get the attention of the real deal, who offered him a gig.