This song was inspired by Johnny Marr's experience of going to Northern Soul all-nighters in and around his home city of Manchester. He told Mojo magazine: "Almost all soul records are built around brass and piano. I bunch the brass and piano parts together and hear them as guitar riffs. That's how I first learned to play records on the guitar. (The Smiths') 'Girl Afraid': that was me thinking I was playing a Little Richard song on guitar."
The song is a track from the former Smiths, Modest Mouse and Cribs' guitarist's first solo album, The Messenger. Having returned to England after a stint living in Portland, Marr recorded the LP in Manchester and London, with the songs mastered at Abbey Road studios to enhance its Englishness. "The underlying idea of the record is my experience of living in Britain," he explained. "When you're away from your home city you're more compelled to write about it. Growing up in the city influences you, and as I've grown older I've continued to see beauty, energy and stories in it."
Regarding the song's meaning, Marr told NME: "It's about how it's easy to be unaware that we're seen as targets by corporations. When you're young, you can see through that, and it can become a feeling of empowerment. Alternative culture can be a weapon."
"Piano Man" was inspired by Billy Joel's time playing at a piano bar in Los Angeles. The "real estate novelist" was a guy who always talked about writing a book, but spent all his spare time in the bar.