AN IMAGINARY COMPILATION ALBUM : #69 : BILLY JOEL

JC writes

One of the entrants to the recent Chemikal Underground competition got in touch again a few days afterwards with an observation that the ICAs were incredibly varied and demonstrated an incredible range of tastes on my part.  I was of course, able to explain that many of the ICAs were completely the work of others with a number of them comprising bands who I’d just about no knowledge of beforehand such as the likes of Tilly & The Wall, Detroit Cobras, A.R. Kane, SBTRKT and Stars.

He was also astonished that I was prepared to publish any submitted ICA and I didn’t censor anything on the grounds of me personally not liking the music.  As I said in my response, I regard this little corner of the internet as being a collective effort.  I might do a bit of the heavy lifting and shifting, but without guest contributions, comments and indeed those who drop in regularly to read for the sheer hell of it, then it would be a waste of time.  His next e-mail contained an ICA of his own…..composed in two parts – one by himself and one by a former school mate who now lives in the States.  They wish to be known as These Charming Men.

Even if, like me, you don’t particularly like the music (and you might, in the usual T(n)VV way, wish to debate some of the conclusions), you can’t deny their passion for the man and his songs.

TELL HER (AND HIM) ABOUT IT – A BILLY JOEL ICA FOR THE VINYL VILLAIN

billyj

SIDE A

Piano Man (from Piano Man)

I have to start the compilation at the beginning. That might seem an obvious thing to say but this was the first song I ever really remember loving by Billy Joel.

It was about 40 years ago, I was still at school and I’d just started going out with Sally McAllister. I can use her real name for reasons that will become evident. I used to dream about her and one day those dreams came true. (Well, not entirely true, as my dreams were more “imaginative” than the reality.) Evening after evening we’d do nothing but sit on her bed and listen to side one of the Piano Man album, while I gazed longingly at her long brown hair and other attributes. We didn’t speak that much but, when we did, it was all about “BJ” as we fondly came to know him. It was our shared code for our time together, albeit frustratingly all that meant was 3-4 plays of side one of the album each evening. I never found out why she only played side one. I was so lovestruck that I don’t think I asked. I just gawped at her as we sang along. This being a particular favourite.

You’ll have guessed that there wasn’t a happy ending to this story. She dumped me for a Hells Angel that she met at her Auntie Avril’s wedding. I never enjoyed Piano Man with her again after that but my love for the song remains true.

For the purposes of this compilation, and because I know from reading other Vinyl Villain contributions that you like to know, I tracked Sally down through a mutual friend on Facebook that I hadn’t spoken to for 25 years. I was somewhat surprised to find that, like my fellow Charmer who contributes side two of this compilation, she had moved to the States and swapped gender.*

I was delighted to hear that he clearly hadn’t lost his love for BJ though as he’s now apparently going by the first names of Billy Joel and, though married, he’s still a McAllister. If you’re stalker level interested, then I hear also that he’s an engineer working on bridges in Mississippi. I hope if he reads this he’ll spare a thought for the times he played me this song (and the rest of side one). Again. And again.

I should also mention that, after Sally ditched me, I started going out with Arlene. Fairly early in our relationship she took me back to her bedroom. As she wandered across to a messy stack of vinyl, she asked if I “fancied a BJ”. Surprised, given she’d always struck me as being a bit more punky, and privately praying it wouldn’t be side one of Piano Man, I said “Why not”. Surprised doesn’t cover it when she put on (what I later found out to be) The Cure’s Three Imaginary Boys, walked back, whipped down my tracksuit trousers and…

Captain Jack (from Piano Man)

On most compilations I reckon this would come near the end, as it does on the original album. For me though it follows naturally on from Piano Man.

If you’re wondering when, finally, I got to hear side two, there’s a tale there too. Hanging out with a few friends at Euan’s, he put side one on. I begged him to change it for side two. Delighted that he’d found a fellow fan, he flipped it over. This track really stood out on first listen.

You can probably see a pattern emerging here, but it became a habit when we were all round at Euan’s to listen to side 2 of this album while shooting the breeze together. One day we got into a conversation about the lyrics of this song and shot something else. It started as a naïve debate about what “Captain Jack” actually was, that led initially to boasting around who could masturbate the quickest without any pornographic material, to an actual race. As it were. What we would all have said had his mother popped into the living room in that minute and a half I don’t know. I wasn’t the winner, but second in a field of five seemed a good performance to me at the time.

You can probably now see from the first two songs why, ever since my youth, I’ve always associated Billy Joel with wank.

The Entertainer (from Streetlife Serenade)

As that youth, I had become hooked on Billy now. And this sits perfectly for me as the next track on the compilation.

This truly is the perfect evocation of life as a rock star. The song itself builds to a climactic conclusion which Billy ends by practically spitting out his lyrical frustration at the difficult life he now finds himself enduring. It even has a slightly comical false ending, just to raise the spirits after the trials and tribulations that have just been shared.

For those not aware of the considerable breadth of Billy’s work and perhaps more used to his more charty stuff of the 1980s and 90s, I think that you’ll be pleasantly surprised by this number. Believe it or not, it also refers cleverly back to Piano Man and how it was edited in length for radio play down to around 3 minutes. For those that have been listening to this compilation, you’ll realise just how criminal that action was.

Returning to my younger life, I’d earned some money as one of Santa’s little helpers in a local shop (I spent most of the time on my knees), and so I bought up Billy’s back catalogue and was realising how much more there was to him than I’d previously known. Until that point I’d been a bit mainstream in my musical choice – though it didn’t feel that way to me at the time. It was only later in my life when I heard The Smiths that it opened my eyes and ears to the sort of music that I enjoy here on Vinyl Villain. Even now though, I’m still more Josh Rouse than Josh Wink.

I’ve got a theory that I share with my boys. That is that every real great in music has a five letter first name. Think about it – Billys Joel, Bragg and Mackenzie; Elvis; Elton; Edwyn Collins; Adele; Bruce Springsteen; Keith Richards; Bobbys Dylan and Gillespie; James Brown; Kanye; Kylie; Bryan Ferry; Jonny Rotten; Queen; Suede; Cilla even. Look down the side of the Vinyl Villain front page and the roster of bands covered and how many of them are five letters. Even the Smiths I’d argue were only pluralised because the name wouldn’t have made sense as a singular word. The root is a five letter word. See also the Beatles. My sons laugh at me and point to all the stuff in the charts and the dance stuff they like with bizarre names. I point them back to sites like this and Q magazine and proper music. They retort with Peter Andre and Duran Duran. I say that’s the curse of the double five – there are no good artists with five letters in both names.

There is however one exception to my rule and that’s my namesake, Rod. Not the Rod of recent musical times, but the guy beloved of John Peel who led the Faces. I’ll happily admit that his music from that time is even better than Billy, but that’s for another day.

New York State of Mind (from Turnstiles)

I had to include this for many reasons.

First, it is just a brilliant song that slots in so well here.

Second, it comes from the last album that Billy released before he went global. As an album it flopped but this song remains a true fan’s favourite, and a live singalong. (I’ve lost count of the numbers of times I’ve ‘duetted’ with Billy on this.) This is how I remember him before he became famous and that always brings a lump to my throat, or is it a bit of sick – I never know the phrase.

Third, the Muppets did versions of it (not only Dr Teeth and the Electric Mayhem, but also Rowlf the Dog) and you don’t get much better than that. For those that aren’t old enough, this was the equivalent of appearing on The Simpsons in the 1970/80s.

Fourth, it was the ‘inspiration’ (as they like to call it) for Jay-Z and Alicia Keys smash-hit song Empire State of Mind. While comparing the two, you can see the obvious similarities, I’d say blatant stealing, but this remains better, I’m sure you’ll agree.

Too little is made of the inspiration that Billy has had on many other artists both directly and indirectly. I think you’d find few who, thinking about it rationally, would argue about his influence over the likes of Tom Waits, Ben Folds and the piano ballads of Nick Cave. Lyrically, the likes of Elvis Costello, Joe Jackson and the Blow Monkeys’ Dr Robert have borrowed liberally from his intensely political storytelling style.

He has duetted with the best singers in the world, including with Barbra Streisand on a version of this. Not one of my favourite versions I’ll grant you. He has been covered by many, many artists and sampled by countless hip hop DJs looking for essential beats or piano lines.

It’s sometimes too easily forgotten just how big a musical player he is. Maybe not in the largely independent world that most people who read Vinyl Villain live in (and I include myself in there now) but in the proper music premier league.

Only the Good Die Young (from My Lives)

It’s always good to end a side with a bit of controversy, and this is Billy’s Relax moment. Just to show the diversity of his talent and because it slows things down, ready for the more commercial stuff on side 2, I’ve included the version with a reggae feel, found on his My Lives compilation.

Ironically this also takes me full circle to Sally McAllister as in some ways it’s a similar tale. Apparently, Billy was frustrated by a Catholic girl at his school whom he believed was refusing him because of her religion and her belief that pre-marital sex was sinful. He translated the experience into this beautiful song, perhaps using reggae as a subtle acknowledgement of its potentially sexist nature to some saddos. Religious groups and some radio stations weren’t happy. Billy countered that the song was actually a true story, pro-lust and the girl remained unsullied at the end, so there should be no ban. Whether, like me, the real focus of his attention ever ran off with a Hells Angel remains undocumented.

With that I’ll hand you on to my partner in charm, who I must stress has clean hands as he was not involved in the earlier mentioned Captain Jack action.

* Note: my fellow Charmer hasn’t swapped genders, not last I looked anyway – he’s just gone West too.

SIDE B

Uptown Girl (from An Innocent Man)

Research has shown that repeated exposure to this #1 hit will result in all listeners catching a uncurable dose of STD* (but in a different way to my partner in crime from his habits and behaviours as detailed on Side A!!!!!).

I so wanted to be Billy Joel in the early 80s. He bounced around from one relationship to the next, but it was always with someone so famous and glamorous that the owners of Hello magazine must have seriously contemplated giving him an entire edition of his own. Most of us when we set eyes on a stunner find it difficult to articulate our thoughts and feelings for them, but such is Billy’s incredible talent that he conceived of not just an entire song but an accompanying video with which to sweep Christine Brinkley off her feet. A move that would be copied in reverse just a few years later by Posh Spice when she made her move on David Beckham (have a listen to ‘2 Become 1’ and you’ll see EXACTLY what I mean).

*Sexiness Through Dancing

We Didn’t Start The Fire (from Storm Front)

I’ll put it as simply as I can – We Didn’t Start The Fire cemented Billy’s place as the greatest lyricist of the 20th Century.

I’ve read that there are people out there who claim this just a rip-off of “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It” but they have no idea what they are talking about. Anyone who is studying modern history need only memorise the lyrics to Billy’s song and they are guaranteed to be an A-grade student when it comes to exam time. The R.E.M. song was all about obscure non-entities like Lenny Bruce and Lester Bangs; Billy name-checks all the greats including the likes of Doris Day and Liberace, not forgetting too that he also gave a nod to the legendary Johnnie Ray, something that nobody else has managed in song.

Just The Way You Are (from The Stranger)

My partner in crime has shown just how sexy and sexually active you can become as a result of becoming acquainted with the songs of Billy Joel. I’m not like him and I tend to shy away from the personal stories as I am modest and easily embarrassed. But Just The Way You Are will always be special to me as this was the song that was playing when I lost my virginity. It was a momentous time for me and my girlfriend (but I can’t name her as I promised I’d never tell anyone about it – but we did meet at a fish processing factory where we had been taken on through the YTS – click here if you don’t know what that is).  We also always kept our love secret as we didn’t want the older workers to make fun of us.

A few weeks later we got together again but to our horror (hers more than mine), realised that we couldn’t get ‘in the mood’ without our song playing in the background.   I went out to the local Woolworth’s the next day and ordered in a copy of the single which arrived two weeks later, after which things were fine.  We were soon enjoying ‘real intimacy’ in the comfort of my bedroom every Thursday night when my mum went down to the bingo. Things were great at first as I would always ‘finish’  well before Billy reached the second verse, but as we got better and more experienced, we found ourselves able to keep things going right to the part where it fades out at just under three and a half minutes.

But then one day, disaster struck. The song ended and I was nowhere near ready to satisfy Geraldine. She was furious and slapped me so hard that it left an imprint on my cheek for days. Worse than that, she told me it was over between us.  I stayed off work for a few days until the swelling went down but was shocked to hear that she had quit her job and was rumoured to have headed off to Ibiza with a broken heart.

But don’t fret on my behalf as this story has a happy ending.

It hit me (almost as hard as her slap) that if I lifted up the arm of my Dansette, I could make the needle fall automatically back into the groove of any record at the very beginning and it would then play over and over again….and again…and again…until someone physically went across to the record player to switch it off, or just put the arm down to its normal position.

Six weeks later, I spotted my girlfriend (I never ever at any time had thought of her as my ex) on the High Street looking really bronzed…but she’d lost a lot of weight as if she hadn’t been eating.  I went across to say hello and right away she gave me a huge hug and told me she was really happy to see me…said something like she was ecstatic but I couldn’t quite make it out as she had a different accent as if she was from somewhere near Manchester.  I told her about the Dansette solution I’d come up with. She smiled and said that as it was a Thursday, why don’t we give it a spin that very night….

We did, and while the Dansette solution wasn’t needed for a few more weeks, it was the thing that brought us so closely together.  It was now true love…with a whole new energy and purpose in our lives. And to show her love for me, I got the 12 inch version for my Christmas which I still play with to this day.

Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song) (from The Stranger)

OK, the last song had a happy ending, but only for a time.

She actually moved in with me the next Easter for two weeks when my mum went away with her pals for a seaside holiday.  We had a great time and talked about getting a place of our own from the council but then the night before my mum came home, my ex (and yes, I could tell this time that was how I had to now refer to her) left me.  I came back from the Chinese take away to find a note saying I wasn’t adventurous or ambitious enough (can you believe that?).

I turned to Billy to see me through the tough days, and took great comfort from this classic given that he shows, once and for all, that the grass on the other side is very rarely a better shade of green.

A few months ago (and remember that our clandestine rendezvous had always been a bit of a secret) I casually dropped her name into a conversation with my fellow charming man while he got away for a night out away from his kids.  We went back to shoot some pool down the pub where the goths hang out – well they did years ago but not now.  We were the only two in that night.

He told me that he’d recently after all these years made contact with Sally McAllister (although he mentioned that she’s changed her name to Billy Joel McAllister – how mad and crazy is that???) and that Sally and my ex were in contact. Not only in contact, but Sally had made an introduction to someone and to cut a long story short my ex is now a key member of Team Trump and has the job of staging the rallies. She was even on television the other day being interviewed outside a thrift shop in Hicksville, Mississippi talking about him and how he was the very man to save the country. (I have the clip on my hard drive and watch it least ten times a day).

And now I listen to Movin’ Out in a totally different light. It’s no longer my breaking-up song but my call to arms.

I’ve recently moved to Mississipi in the hope of finding my ex, or at least bumping into Sally – I did see someone who looked like her the other day but unless she has a twin brother that none of us know about then it was just an uncanny resemblance.  I’ve now decided the best way to get back in touch with my ex is through Donald Trump and so I’m going to e-mail his team and volunteer to help out.

And d’you know one other thing?  Movin’ Out now has another new meaning for me.  I’ve changed my name to make a new life here in the States – I’ve taken the first name of Anthony after this great song and the surname of Soprano as it’s my favourite type of singer.   It’s also a name that I think is totally original and will get me noticed by the Trump team….and my ex won’t even realise that it’s really me and that I’m coming to get her.

It’s Still Rock’n’Roll To Me (from Glass Houses)

I’ve so much to say here but I so want to e-mail Donald.

Very quickly……..essential listening for All The Young Dudes who think they are the first artist to be tortured by the evil music industry. Fads may come and go while musical influences will, in the inevitable cycle of things, drift in and out of fashion. But for those of us with music firmly in our hearts, we will always have Billy Joel.

JC adds…..

For those of you who are perhaps still pondering why, let me leave the last word to a dear friend of the blog who is himself a professional musician being the keyboard wizard within indie darlings The Just Joans. Here’s what Doog has to say…..

‘I had heard and known many Billy Joel songs throughout the 80s – I’d always loved tunes such as ‘The River of Dreams’, ‘Uptown Girl’ and ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire’ – but I hadn’t really got into the detail of his work until 1993. This was a period that coincided with the death of grunge and Britpop was coming over the horizon. I had more or less stopped playing keyboards to focus on guitars, but while I could do all the right faces for the six string I just couldn’t quite nail the playing side.

I still had the dream of making it in the biz and it was once again hearing the chilled out gospel strains of BJ that saw me drawing a line in the sand and going back to the stool and behind the keys to develop the 3 chord straight blues and on the beat those C, F, Am, G sequences that more than two decades later still put a chill down my spine.

Indeed Billy is THE piano man and the first post-rock musician who was a precursor to the ambient and whacked-out come-downs of Spiritualized and 90’s Primal Scream, pushing the limits of what can be achieved in top notch studios with the best musicians and producers the USA has to offer. His piano playing is an inspiration to me and the people who taught me.  I only wish I could one day perform a duet with the great man or have him guest with the Just Joans; BJ and the JJ’s….a dream come true.’

mp3 : Billy Joel – Piano Man
mp3 : Billy Joel – Captain Jack
mp3 : Billy Joel – The Entertainer
mp3 : Billy Joel – New York State Of Mind
mp3 : Billy Joel – Only The Good Die Young

mp3 : Billy Joel – Uptown Girl
mp3 : Billy Joel – We Didn’t Start The Fire
mp3 : Billy Joel – Just The Way You Are
mp3 : Billy Joel – Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)
mp3 : Billy Joel – It’s Still Rock’n’Roll To Me

Enjoy.

15 thoughts on “AN IMAGINARY COMPILATION ALBUM : #69 : BILLY JOEL

  1. ‘Billy Joel’s Greatest Hits’ was the first (double) album that I’ve ever bought, and I still love a lot of his songs. The ‘day’ has finally come that someone else acknowledged his songwriting ability here on T(n)VV..

  2. ..and the fact that I wrote the previous comment in total and candid seriousness means that the joke’s definitely on me.

  3. I was prepared to take this seriously until the back stories for each song started to get wilder. However, having said that, I always had a sneaking liking for Piano Man….. Well done! 🙂

  4. I’m with Luca – Billy was king, and in many ways, still is. Captain Jack is in all seriousness one hell of a tune, though I may never listen to it in quite the same way again…

    I do have one issue to take up here though – BJ is not the only person to mention Johnny Ray in a song. The debut single by North Devon’s premier sibling punk/indie trio Jive Turkey (released c. 1987) was Goodbye Johnny Ray. A real blast of fury, and it pre-dated Billy’s reference by a good few years. You can see where he gets his inspiration from.

    I just can’t help thinking that These Charming Men sound rather familiar…

  5. Outstanding. Strangely I’d always associated Billy Joel with wank to.
    Glad you included ‘Uptown Girl’ otherwise I wouldn’t have believed a word of this.

  6. Brilliant read, absolutely superb. Unlike Luca and The Robster I possess, and never have done, any Billy Joel albums/singles.

  7. OK, so now I’m confused. Was it all an April Fool? ALL of it? Did you write it yourself JC? Are you really just mocking dyed-in-the-wool Billy fans like myself? And even if all that’s true, and not disputing TheRobster’s mention of Jive Turkey, how could you “forget” the opening line of Come On Eileen? Poor old Johnnie Ray, indeed, and poor old Billy, and poor old me.

    Actually, no, forget April Fool’s, I’m ignoring my fellow commentators and choosing to believe every word written above (apart from the Johnnie Ray omission). That way, I can sleep soundly tonight… with Turnstiles on my headphones.

  8. CC – brilliant!, Oh and anything about the date pertinent to this conversation? BTW, how can you have a Billy Joel ICA without Italian Restaurant?

  9. Thanks everyone for seeing the funny side.

    I was keen to dod something riduculous for 1 April as I never want to be accused of taking this blogging lark too seriously. The idea of this particular ICA was hatched at a pre-match lunch with Jacques the Kipper – the fact that he knows an otherwise indie-lover whose passion for Billy Joel knows now bounds has always been a source of amusement and bemusement to us.

    He went away and wrote side A on the basis that he was at least vaguely of some of the songs thanks to his mate while I just took the idea and ran with it using the hits. No offence was intended to anyone….other than Donald Trump fans.

    Oh and the PS from Doog is real. The keyboard player in The Just Joans is a work colleague of mine and he was delighted to be part of the fun. I have no idea if his ‘C, F, Am, G sequence’ is an elaborate and clever joke that will be understood by those who can read music………………

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