13
Jul 09

BILLY JOEL – “Uptown Girl”

FT + Popular74 comments • 4,817 views

#528, 5th November 1983, video

Billy Joel pays tribute to the music of his childhood, and so inevitably there’s something childish about “Uptown Girl”: its instant singability makes it sound like a Grease outtake, except there was more sex and chemistry in Grease’s flirtatious goofery. The street music – doo-wop and rock’n’roll – that “Uptown Girl” draws energy from was able to speak so powerfully to sexual and social codes partly because the act of addressing those codes head-on was itself a breach of them. There’s nothing at stake in “Uptown Girl” – how could there be? Rock and roll moved uptown long ago.

Of course Billy Joel is smart enough to realise this, and “Uptown Girl” works because it’s history written by the winners. It isn’t a record about bedding an uptown girl or wanting to bed an uptown girl, it’s a record about remembering wanting to bed an uptown girl, and boasting to your blue-collar buds that that’s what you were gonna do, and wanting to have blue-collar buds to boast to! The video makes this explicit with Christine Brinkley as pin-up come to life, but it’s in the song too, in the husky, hearty interplay of those cascading backing vox, whose prominence makes it obvious that the guys – not the girl – are the chief audience for Joel’s talk. Those endless runs of “oh-oh-whoas” are the main reason to listen to the song, and they’re a tip off as to where it’s really coming from, in spirit if not in music: not the street heat of Frankie Valli but the lusty lads-together innocence of the Beach Boys.

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Comments

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  1. 51
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 15 Jul 2009 #

    The list bit is the good (ie silly) part of the song, it’s the “nuffink to do wiv me guvnah” chorus that’s annoying — who’s he even having the argument with?

    Newsreader: “In a surprise turn, pollticians of all parties have agreed that Billy Joel is responsible FOR EVERYTHING EVER (since time began).”

  2. 52
    pink champale on 15 Jul 2009 #

    yes, the chorus is wierd isn’t it? it’s generally taken that he’s saying “don’t blame us boomers” (though i do also like the idea that it’s simply “don’t blame me and the supermodel missus”) but isn’t he a little old to be telling his parents (and all their forbears!) that its all their fault?

  3. 53
    LondonLee on 15 Jul 2009 #

    Re: 46. Well, Joel is a New Yorker while Brucie is from New Jersey.

  4. 54
    peter goodlaws on 15 Jul 2009 #

    Erithian # 30 & 34 – Glad we didn’t lose you to the Knutsford city limits, mate. I am going to assume that your previous groping hitchhike driver was not a Jenny Hanley doppelganger kitted out in a singlet and briefs?

  5. 55
    MikeMCSG on 16 Jul 2009 #

    One thing about BJ is that you can never be sure what’s coming next. He can be excellent (Moving Out, All For Leyna) or dreadful. An Innocent Man (the song) is one of my all-time worst, a shapeless plodding morass of faux-profundity which stops for a chorus at arbitary intervals.
    I’m rather indifferent about Uptown Girl. Like many one time chart-toppers (Chuck Berry, Madness, Leo Sayer,The Hollies) the number one isn’t his best work.

  6. 56
    Erithian on 16 Jul 2009 #

    Peter #54 – no he certainly wasn’t. I won’t go into detail but suffice to say I’ve never thought of Yeovil in quite the same way since. And the scenario you allude to never quite took place…

  7. 57
    Caledonianne on 16 Jul 2009 #

    I care very little for 1980s music, 1980s fashions, 1980s politics, 1980s anything really, which is is one of the reasons I haven’t been around for the last nine months or so. This – however – is great – warm, funny, affectionate and sassy.

    I’ve never understood the hostility BJ attracts – Erithian @ #28 nails a lot of it for me. My personal favourite on An Innocent Man has always been Leave a tender M=moment alone, but this is worth an 8 (at least) to me.

    And, although Storm Front isn’t a favourite album,I love to blast along the motorway hollering along to WDSTF – Aids. Crack. Bernie Goetz.

  8. 58
    Dan M on 17 Jul 2009 #

    re: #36 “I’ve always thought what Joel really wanted was to be Springsteen but could never escape the “Piano Man” side of his art.” Yes! The first Billy Joel that I remember hearing was “only the good die young,” which was 110% ersatz Springsteen, that revealed BJ as closer to the type of lounge-singer that Bill Murray was spoofing at the time. I thought of Springsteen as brilliant back then, and now that stuff sounds more like fun over-the-topness-verging-on-self-parody than gritty genius…. which only pushes BJ further down the scale. On the other hand, # 46’s “Whenever I go to New York and I overhear New Yorkers conversing, it always sounds far closer to a Billy Joel song than a Bruce Springsteen song” is a perceptive and humane comment… but is maybe the reason why we listen to records instead of just walking around the streets eavesdropping. But I can’t really fault Joel for being a slick empty entertainer who appeals to a lot of people… any more than I do his contemporary Barry Manilow.

  9. 59
    Steve Mannion on 22 Jul 2009 #

    I wonder what exactly it was about Uptown Girl that encouraged the Uptown Wally adaptation, the kind of treatment that most catchy pop songs avoid.

  10. 60
    MikeMCSG on 27 Jul 2009 #

    11- Billy, “Say Say Say” was an interesting one. It was released without a video ,came in around 13, climbed to 8 I think then started dropping after no exposure on TOTP. McCartney then rushed down to do an interview on “Late Late Breakfast Show” -I’ve often wondered who got bumped to make way for him – and unveil a video.

    The British public kept its end of the deal and the record went back up to number 2. However they’d actually got it right first time round as it was a contrived cut and paste job which did neither of them any favours.

  11. 61
    Erithian on 17 Aug 2009 #

    Channel 4 Top 100 Watch: this was the 93rd best-selling single in the UK in the period 1952-2002.

  12. 62
    DV on 28 Dec 2009 #

    I still like this, there is something endearingly cheesey about it. Funny you mention the doo-wop influence, as I hate doo-wop, but this is fun.

  13. 63
    DanH on 11 Feb 2013 #

    It’s odd…this and “The Longest Time” have to be the most beloved songs off of An Innocent Man, yet the only #1 from that album in America was “Tell Her About It.” Uptown did reach #3, and Longest made the Top 20, so it isn’t like either flopped, but still.

  14. 64
    Lazarus on 4 Dec 2013 #

    Re: several earlier posts, a link between Billy and Bruce was Ronnie Spector recording ‘Say Goodbye to Hollywood’ with the E Street Band. One pastiche that I don’t think has been mentioned was ‘Until the Night’ on 52nd Street, in which Joel is pure Righteous Brothers with Phil Spector – and it’s bloody brilliant.

  15. 65
    Lazarus on 3 Feb 2014 #

    For those of us for whom this record, and its accompanying video, are still so fresh in the mind, it seems absurd to note that Christie Brinkley turned 60 yesterday. No doubt she’s worn well, but still …

  16. 66
    hectorthebat on 25 Nov 2014 #

    Critic watch:

    1,001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die, and 10,001 You Must Download (2010) 1002
    Bruce Pollock (USA) – The 7,500 Most Important Songs of 1944-2000 (2005)
    Rolling Stone (USA) – The 100 Best Singles of the Last 25 Years (1988) 99
    Musikexpress (Germany) – The 700 Best Songs of All Time (2014) 646
    Gilles Verlant and Thomas Caussé (France) – 3000 Rock Classics (2009)
    Giannis Petridis (Greece) – 2004 of the Best Songs of the Century (2003)

  17. 67
    mapman132 on 4 Dec 2014 #

    Not entirely surprised to see this song and BJ in general be so polarizing in the comments. It’s good to see him getting a fair shake by many here as it’s pretty much a requirement to be a Serious Music Critic in America that Thou Must Hate Billy Joel, including writing at least one article about why the man and his fans represent everything that is wrong with popular music over the past 40 or whatever years…..

    One thing that may not be evident to Brits is that BJ’s American fanbase is very much regionally skewed (far more than Springsteen’s for example), most specifically to the working-to-middle-class suburbs of the Boston-NY-Phila-DC northeast corridor. Growing up outside Philadelphia in the 80’s I can say that virtually everyone I knew had at least one BJ album in their collection, the two (now three) part Greatest Hits album if nothing else. Among those of us with deeper collections, BJ is one of the few artists whose unreleased album tracks are as well known and discussed as much as his biggest hit singles.

    I can understand that Billy Joel is not everyone’s cup of tea, but what I’ve never understood is why critics continually need to bash him to establish some sort of cred. It’s certainly true that much of his style derives from earlier periods and was in many ways out of step with the times (especially in the mid 80’s). But the songwriting craftmanship is still excellent and the lyrics actually seem to mean something (and I say that as someone who’s usually not a big lyrics person). Each song, for better or for worse, seems to actually have a story behind it. Somehow the earnestness seems to bother critics. So does the suburban nature of both his upbringing and fanbase, because apparently being from, and appealing to, the “soulless” suburbs makes one less of an artist. Anyhow, I’m a fan, a lot of my friends are fans, and the critics can…well, you get the idea ;)

    Back to “Uptown Girl”, a good 50’s pastiche, perhaps one of his signature tunes. I’m definitely in the camp that interprets it as “if I can get a supermodel, you can too”. Not my personal favorite Joel tune but good enough for 8/10. Unfortunate that in real life the uptown girl story had an ultimate sour ending :(

    #63 Agree: I’ve always thought it strange that “Tell Her About It” was one of his only three US #1’s. Still a good song though – another 8/10.

    Finally: I love “We Didn’t Start The Fire”! Never understood it’s haters – I’ve always found it catchy and clever. 9/10 from me.

  18. 68
    Larry on 8 Dec 2014 #

    I’m also happy to see the poptimists on here stoutly defending Mr. Joel. I hated him in the 80s and love him now. In between, I realized that he expresses what I and my contemporaries (geographically and in age) experienced and thought. Mapman132 (#67) is right – it’s weird how hating Joel is practically a ticket that must be punched to be cool. One would have thought a contrarian view would’ve emerged by now. And what thevisitor (#46) says rings true – Joel authentically and unabashedly expresses the voice of New York. Uptown Girl? Not my favorite Joel song – I’d give it 4 or 5.

  19. 69
    uptøwn sükråt on 8 Dec 2014 #

    the redoubtable maura johnson is an unapologetic joel stan

    (sadly i think maura mag is on ice tho)

  20. 70
    Mostro on 13 Apr 2015 #

    “Uptown Girl” seemed to be at number one forever when I was seven years old. I really disliked it, but I didn’t think too much about why.

    As an adult I still dislike it in the same visceral way, but what’s frustrating is that I’ve never been able to convincingly put my finger on just what the problem is, or why.

    On paper, it’s a catchy song. I can see why it was number one for donkey’s years. Any smugness (perceived or otherwise) over Joel getting off with a model wouldn’t have meant anything to me at that age, even if I *had* felt inclined to consider the lyrics.

    Maybe it’s the fact it’s an old-fashioned song/pastiche wrapped up in 80s production. Maybe it’s the underlying Franki Valli-isms; I wasn’t aware of his work at the time, but I’ve never been a big fan of falsettos (could never take to the Bee Gees either for that reason).

    Maybe it’s the childish quality Tom mentions. Who knows? Wish I did!

  21. 71
    Phil on 14 Apr 2015 #

    I loathed this with a passion, partly because of the astonishingly awful message & partly because it was so damn catchy. The OP is very charitable about reading it, ‘7 Days’ style, as a lad bragging to other lads; I heard it all along as an entitled dick congratulating himself on scoring a top model, and it turns out I was right – BJ says so himself, in comments (forgot the number, sorry).

    You know how George Harrison’s songs for the Beatles all basically boil down to “sod off and leave me alone” – until he gets religion, and then they’re all “how sad it is that you’re so unenlightened that you won’t sod off and leave me alone”. Billy Joel, to me, is what you get if you put that mind in the body of a hotel lounge pianist – at his happiest he’s smug, at his angriest he’s passive-aggressive. I could go on (“We didn’t start the fire” – in the immortal words of Robert Wyatt, “Yes you bloody did!”), but I’ll just point out that he wrote a song telling his wife he didn’t mind her being thick. His first wife, that is.

  22. 72
    Phil on 14 Apr 2015 #

    A bit of the lyric just floated up:

    “Uptown girl, you know I can’t afford to buy her pearls
    But maybe someday when my ship comes in…” & so on

    In other words, he’s boasting about how he’s scored a classy lady (which isn’t a good look to start with), despite being not only working-class but, more importantly, poor. And here’s Billy Joel himself, quoted in #7:

    “So here I was, a rock star who was suddenly single. I took a vacation down in the Caribbean. I met Elle McPherson, Christie Brinkley and Whitney Houston all at the same moment in some little hotel bar. … They were all down on the model shoot and I was just in the piano bar playing As Time Goes By. I looked up and there were these three gorgeous women looking at me from the other side of the piano. I looked back down at the piano and said, ‘Thank you! Being a singer is so great! What an incredible thing this is!’ I was squiring these models around! I dated Elle McPherson half a year before Christie. Then I was dating Christie Brinkley, and so the original song was Uptown Girls, I was just a pig in shit.”

    So, Christie Brinkley, what first attracted you to the millionaire Billy Joel?

    It’s the dishonesty that winds me up, as well as the self-congratulation and the blatant check this out guys! sexism. “Look what I’ve got despite being an ordinary joe with nothing to offer her but my love! OK, nothing except my love and my amazing songwriting talent! OK, my love, my songwriting talent, six Grammies and the proceeds from a multi-platinum album!” In interview he’s honest & even self-deprecating, but the BJ who comes out in songs is a self-aggrandising git.

  23. 73
    Andrew Farrell on 14 Apr 2015 #

    In fairness, I’m assuming that Christine Brinkley wasn’t short of cash herself!

  24. 74
    Phil on 14 Apr 2015 #

    Well, she was an uptown girl…

    Fun fact: Billy Joel came from Hicksville. No word of a lie.

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