The thing is, everyone knew what my worst ever record was going to be before I even turned up, as it's been the same record for over 25 years, and I doubt it'll ever be beat... Uptown Girl by Billy Joel. I hate every possible thing there is hate about this record, I hate the cheesy sound, I hate those "wooo-ooooo-oooo-ooooh" bits, I hate that pathetic little drum roll towards the end, I hate the use of the word 'mine' like this.. my-yi-yine, and the word 'time' like this... tie-yi-yime', I hate that smug video, and I HATE when they play it at naff weddings or parties and people start linking arms and kicking their legs... why do they do that??!
But now here's the rub, and promise me you wont tell anyone... I like Billy Joel! And the REALLY surprising thing is that I got into him after Uptown Girl!
Between about 1984 and 1988 I ran a record shop (and it really was records in those days!). Around 1986 a guy opened up a shop opposite me selling sports shoes. He was a really nice guy, and turned out to be the brother of my hairdresser at that time. The only problem with him was his obsession with Billy Joel! From opening time to closing time he played Billy Joel, every single moment of every single day. Uptown Girl was still fairly fresh at that time (only 3 years old), and I made sure I let him know how much that record sucked! But over the months, the more I heard, the more I realised there was more to 'ol BJ than I thought. Eventually, the guy compiled me a tape of bits and pieces and I have to say it won me over. I'm pleased to say Uptown Girl was not on the tape! In fact, nothing much past the 70's was on there, and for me, that is the period where the mans genius lies.
I guess like many artists who keep going through the decades, Joel's career has been 'watered down' over the years, and is now no doubt seen as some kind of sub-Elton John non-entity. Yet believe it or not, in the 70's and very early 80's (i.e. pre Uptown Girl!) he was a musical force to be reckoned with, and his first 9 albums are all pretty much essential listening. I've picked them all up over the years, but have never dared venture any further. Yeah, there are the lovey dovey romantic ballads in there (Just the Way You Are, She's Always a Woman etc), but there are also some raw, angry songs in there too.
Lyrically the songs he wrote for these albums are incredibly clever and intelligent, they are Dylan-esque at times, sometimes Springsteen, sometimes McCartney\Beatles... but always Billy Joel, and he can tell a story through a song like no other. Take Piano Man for example, which tells of a young Joel, when he used to play in bars and clubs, highlighting the unfulfilled dreams of both himself and the clientele...
Now John at the bar is a friend of mine
He gets me my drinks for free
And he's quick with a joke and he'll light up your smoke
But there's some place that he'd rather be
He says, "Bill, I believe this is killing me"
As his smile ran away from his face
"Well I'm sure that I could be a movie star
If I could get out of this place"
Or how about Captain Jack, about the neighbourhood dealer he used to see selling heroin to the local kids when he was growing up in Long Island.
You sister's gone out, she's on a date
And you just sit at home and masturbate
Your phone is gonna ring soon,
but you just can't wait
For that call
But Captain Jack will get you high tonight
And take you to your special island
Captain Jack will get you by tonight
Just a little push 'n' you'll be smilin'
Then there is Tomorrow Is Today from his debut album in 1971. The lyrics to this one come from the note Joel had written when he tried to commit suicide the previous year.
People tell me life is sweeter
But I don't hear what they say
Nothing comes to change my life
So tomorrow is today
Though I'm living and I'm singing
And although my hands still play
Soon enough it will all be over
'Cause tomorrow is today
Scenes from an Italian Restaurant is a masterpiece. An incredibly complex track, which at times sounds like McCartney at his tip top 70's best. This almost 8 minute track is 3 songs fused together (much like Macca used to dabble with), and tells the story of a restaurant called Fontana di Trevi that Joel used to frequent. In the song he recalls some of the diners and the conversations he overheard.
For me, my favourite will always be The Entertainer. At first listen it sounds like a nice jolly affair, but listen to the lyrics and find a barbed song highlighting his frustrations during the early years of his career, when he was being generally ripped off by the music business. When Piano Man was released as a single, the record label decided it was much too long (almost 6 minutes), so drastically cut it to make it radio friendly (and cutting half the story it tells in the process). Joel was incensed by this, and there is a reference it in The Entertainer:
I am the entertainer,
I come to do my show.
You've heard my latest record,
It's been on the radio.
Ah, it took me years to write it,
They were the best years of my life.
It was a beautiful song
But it ran too long
If you're gonna have a hit
You gotta make it fit
So they cut it down to 3:05
The other thing I love about this track is how it builds up momentum as the song progresses. It starts with a simple acoustic guitar riff, then adds more and more instruments with each verse. Have a listen here:
BILLY JOEL - THE ENTERTAINER
ENTERTAINER - Live on the OGWT
PIANO MAN - Live on the OGWT
SCENES FROM AN ITALIAN RESTAURANT (audio only)
If you asked me for one essential Billy Joel album to pick up, it would have to be 1977's The Stranger. More than 30 years on, it is still a stunning piece of work.