Friday, 13 February 2009

Guilty Pleasures No.162

Every Christmas, the 'lads' get together for their seasonal drink, and every year a 'top 5' list is requested in advance. We've had top 5 films, albums, debut albums, tracks, disappointing albums etc etc, but Christmas 2008 was "all time worst records". Now in my book there's really only two types of bad record... things that can't be taken seriously (e.g. Barbie Girl, Mr Blobby, Timmy Mallett etc etc) and things that ARE supposed to be taken seriously (e.g. anything by Cliff Richard!). I can't get too worked up about the first lot, but I can about the second!

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:



PIANO MAN - Live on the OGWT


CAPTAIN JACK (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.



Anonymous said...

How old are you? Do you have any idea who Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons are? Billy Joel's 'Uptown Girl' is simply an homage to the sound and the angst of their hit records. When The Beach Boys were singing about surfing and cars and California sunshine, The Four seasons were singing about poor kids and tough guys and girls from the wrong side of the tracks. Joel grew up on the east coast where the voice of Frankie Valli was the sound that defined that era. Try to put 'Uptown Girl' in that perspective and maybe you'll understand how bloody great that record was. Billy Joel is perhaps the most underrated genius of his tine.

Mondo said...

In all these years - I've known you were a Billy Joel fan (I know you've shown my yours, but I won't show you my GP - not yet anyway)..

I've always thought he lent heavily on Macca's style particularly Abbey Road's You Never Give Me Your Money

Have to disagree with Anon 'Uptown Girl' regardless of context or influence is still a dreadful song.

In much the same way that Phil Collins tips a hat to the plight of the homeless Another Day In Paradise - nice idea, shame about the song..

Have you checked out the Sonic Execs for some soft rocking they could be your fave new band

Piley said...

Anon (a name is always welcome here) - thanks for taking the time and trouble to comment, many don't bother. For information I'm 42, and as such, old enough and ugly enough to make up my own mind on what I like and dislike!!

Of course I am aware of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, but to be honest, I'm not crazy about them either!! (but hey, at least it's looking like I'm consistent!!). You need to understand that my musical 'roots' are in 60's and 70's punk, so perhaps that puts my position into a little more context for you.

I'm sorry that you have concentrated on the one small negative part of my post, without viewing the article as a whole, choosing to ignore the fact that the piece is very pro-Joel!! The reason I included my Uptown Girl comments was simply to show how despite recording a song I have always loathed (again, a personal choice), the quality of the mans other work STILL won me over - and that (should) speak volumes.

However, I couldn't agree with you more when you say "Billy Joel is perhaps the most underrated genius of his time", and I hope that my post and the samplers therein, may inspire one or two readers to investigate his work further.

Mondo - Yup, i've kept it pretty quiet eh?! Especially in those dodgy goth days of the late 80s!!

You are spot on with the Macca style. I once read a BJ quote where he said his 2 biggest influences were the Beatles and Beethoven, and I can totally see that. Some of his piano playing almost sounds classical, and would do if you removed the rest of the instruments.


Heff said...

I could tolerate "The Joelster" BEFORE his "Uptown Girl" days, but not so much afterwards.

marmiteboy said...

I have to agree with you Piley. Billyu Joel is a great song writer. I loved and still love 'Just The Way You Are' and 'Moving Out' is a fantastic pop record. Howvever even the best artists have a shite record in their closet and 'Uptown Girl' is Billy's.

I hate it with a passion. Whenever you go to weddings or family do's etc some dreadful DJ always puts ity on and then the drunken revellers do the Billy Joel dance from the video. It is enough to make you run for the exit.

Oh and by the way i can't stand Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons either.

Marmiteboy is 43.

Anonymous said...

I love Billy Joel too but really really dislike Uptown Girl.

Its might not be a terrible record or song, there's just something about it that makes me switch it off if I ever hear it!

Anon, I dont think anyone could call Billy Joel underrated, he's a fantastically respected and successful artist. I personally can't put Uptown Girl on anything like a par with My Life, Just the Way You Are or Piano Man but I'm glad you can, else it would be a damn boring world all liking the same stuff and all!

I agree, Joel is a musical genius, but if I was going to try to convince someone else of this, Uptown Girl would not be my weapon of choice!

Cheers for the clips Piley, good value as ever!

E F RICE said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
E F RICE said...

Great respect for your post
Piley, I'm not a fan to be honest but having just viewed the Billy Joel back catalogue, I would say he has made some cracking tracks that I would not turn my nose up at. Marmite Boy - 'Just the Way you Are' great call.

I think I would remain anonymous if I said Uptown Girl was a great record. I personally find it unlistenable. Fortunately the lead in is so distinct I have time to turn the radio off or politely make my excuses !

Nazz Nomad said...

Billy Joel is the anti-christ of rock n roll. And not in a good way, either. We have a non-Joel accord in our household. Of course living in his home-area of Long Island, New York (also known as Satan's back-yard; once again not in a good way) and being subjected to his inane shit every day on the radio for the past 934 years might have something to do with it too.

However, any man who has the balls to profess his adoration for this sawed-off half-wit, is OK in my book.

Now, if you had started spewing love for Phil Collins...

Nazz Nomad said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

It's funny how friends keep stuff quiet. I've known you all these years P and we have had many a musical get together and not once have either of us mentioned that we like Billy Joel. I've only got the double greatest hits CD i admit i borrowed it from a mate on vinyl many years ago to put the track It's Only Rock N Roll on a mix tape. I hate Uptown Girl too but i played through the rest of the album and was really surprised that i liked virtually all of it up to the Uptown Girl years. My fave tracks are New York State of Mind , Captain Jack , Always A Woman and Good Night Saigon. It's amazing how you are told certain artists are shit if they don't appeal to the critics. They get "the treatment". He writes really good lyrics and no one ever say's so. Also check out another much slagged off singer song writer Elton John, his Madman Across the Water and Captain Fantastic albums are the tits i kid ye not. I don't feel guilty about likeing ANY MUSIC that gives me pleasure. It'S the music press and their weak minded followers who made up this guilty pleasure shit. It's ok to like Sex Pistols but not Gen X, Dylan's cool Joel aint , AC/DC rock but Quo's stuff all sounds the same WELL GET FUCKED CRITICS !!!!. It's music and if you like it you like it, who care's about "being cool" i'm 42 and don't give a tuppence fuck. I love you Piley top man :-).


Anonymous said...

PS i forgot to mention that i don't like Franki Valli and that's why i hate Up Town Girl, same kinda sound. To each their own though.


Anonymous said...

Without wanting to hijack the thread, i just really interested with all the people not liking Franki Valli, thought of his track The Night. (Not to be confused with the December 1963 song)

It has been in my top 5 records ever since I heard it and I defy anyone not to get up and dance whenever its played.

Is it not a totaly awesome record?

E F RICE said...

Sorry PH it doesn't do it for me, I would need some Mad Dog 20/20 (Orange flavour!) to shake me legs to it. You buying .....?

Anonymous said...

Mad Dog 20 20 + Clash City Rockers + 40 auditors = one big White Riot.

Sorry you didn't like the track EFR- are you still annoyed with me for dissing Wonky Alice?

Piley said...

Thanks everyone for the comments, I really appreciate the feedback (good, bad OR indiferent!)

Heff, Marmite, PG, EF - looks like the jury is still out on Uptoen Girl then eh?!! Glad it's not just me who hates it with a passion. Evil record!

Nazz - cheers, i'm sure it must be just that little bit annoying when you don't like him AND live in his hometown!!! Like Carl says, I'm happy to be un-cool, I have no agenda, my main love is 60's and 70's punk, but I don't blinker myself off from anything, and if I like it, then I like it... I'm not worried if it's cool or not cool (i've spent a lifetime being uncool, so why worry now??!!)

Carl - thanks for the comments man! which inspired a 90 minute phone call soon after!!! Shocked to find you a closet fan too!

PH - sorry fella, I didn't like it either! In fact, I didn't even recognise it, which was a shock. Assumed I would as soon as it started. Nah, the Jersey Boys just aint fa me i'm afraid!


Cocktails said...

Hello Piley, Mr Mondo pointed me over here yesterday (after a post I wrote about Air Supply!) and I just wanted to say thanks - you see, I've always been meaning to buy a copy of The Stranger but haven't ever been *that* motivated. So what do I see this morning at the market? Yes, The Stranger, so I thought of your post, bought it and it's ace. I've played Scenes from an Italian Restaurant several times over.

For the record, I don't mind Uptown Girl, it's definitey not a favourite though, and I like Frankie Valli. But then again, I like Air Supply...

Piley said...

Hi Cocktails, thanks for stopping by. Pheww! Glad you liked it, I coulda been in trouble if you didn't!! (No refunds given by the Piley Corp i'm afraid!!).

It's a cracker isn't it?? I'm sure if you played it to people without telling them who it is, they would rave about it.

Don't be a stranger!


Ad said...

We'll have to disagree on this one.
I prefer Chris De Blerrgggh.
One of the most irritating people I've ever known though BJ was god and all his songs were somehow relevant to his crappy life.

I'd quite happily stove Joel in his smug face with a long bit of 4x2 with rusty nails in.

Rant over.

Piley said...

Ad, yoo always sit on the fence mate. Why not say what you feel??!