Saturday, September 13, 2014

"Uptown Girl": Auto Shops Sure Have Changed Since The '80s

So, there's this guy you know, and for all intents and purposes, he's a lot like you. He's kinda goofy, fun to be around, not too attractive, not too ugly, but you can identify with him. Suddenly, he snags this girlfriend who's like a supermodel. OK, that's nice, good for him, but you don't really want to hear about it too much. However, he can't believe his good fortune and he thinks everyone in the world is as excited about it as he is and it's all he ever wants to talk about. Also, it's 1983. And that guy is Billy Joel.

I guess it's fair that if we ask our artists to turn their suffering into art, then occasionally we have to let them turn their adolescent glee into art. I don't really begrudge Billy Joel too much for Christie Brinkley, since a) for most of his career, he seemed pretty depressed, b) eventually they got divorced and his songwriting dried up, and c) the whole concept of their marriage is pretty funny. Also, I like the songs she inspired.

Amusingly enough, according to Wikipedia, "Uptown Girl" may not have even initially been inspired by Christie Brinkley, but rather by another '80s supermodel Billy had been dating just prior to Brinkley: Elle MacPherson. Oh you have got to be kidding me. If you didn't want to punch him before, you really want to punch him now.

Although Billy conceived "Uptown Girl" as a Four Seasons homage, the final product probably has more meat on its bones than "Sherry" or "Big Girls Don't Cry" ever did. Those old Four Seasons mixes tended to feature extremely wide stereo separation between the rhythm track and the vocals (which was quite prevalent during that era, and which some people hate but I really love). On "Uptown Girl," however, all the instruments are essentially mixed in the center, almost like a mono mix. Well, I guess Billy Joel isn't Lenny Kravitz. But what this means is that "Uptown Girl" plays thicker and louder than any of those early '60s hits, and it may even be catchier (!). "Uptown Girl" has more hooks in it than an annual pirate convention (not sure if those exist, but hey, just go with it). Let's count them:
  1. The initial "Ah-ah-ah-ah"s from the backing vocalists (0:12)
  2. The verse melody (0:20)
  3. The "And when she knows what she wants" melody, which is sort of a bridge or a pre-chorus (except I don't think the song actually has a chorus) (0:49)
  4. The sudden minor key twist of the "She'll see I'm not so tough" section, which leads back into the verse (1:04)
  5. The "Oh-oh-oh" hook, which sounds like a modified version of Hook #3, but is actually a bit different (1:27)
That's five different hooks, all piled on top of each other, and they just keep coming! The interplay between Billy's lead vocal and the backing vocals is very creative as well, somewhat reminding me of the way McCartney and Harrison's backing vocals zig-zag behind Lennon in "Help!" Here's my feeble attempt to write it out:
And when she knows
(And when she)
What she wants
From her ty-yiy-yime
(Wants from her ty-yiy-yime)
And when she wakes up
(She wakes up)
And makes up
(Makes up her)
Her my-yiy-mind
We're not talking beginning level Tetris here.

While the single was a big hit in America, it was ginormous in Britain, hitting #1 for five weeks, becoming the second best-selling song of the year there (behind "Karma Chameleon"), and apparently elevating Billy to a whole new level of UK stardom, dragging his whole back catalog into the charts along with it (much like what Born In The U.S.A. would do with Springsteen a year later). I mean, what was it, specifically, about "Uptown Girl" that made the UK think it had been missing out on all those years of Long Island brilliance?

At any rate, Billy probably figured, "Well, as long as I've got Christie Brinkley lying around, I might as well stick her in my video." The clip for "Uptown Girl" must surely feature the least authentic depiction of a New York City mechanic's shop in celluloid history, with grungy auto workers eagerly breaking out into song. It's like the opening scene from West Side Story: why have I always had the feeling that real-life gang members didn't prance around in leotards and display unparalleled grace and poise? By the same token, I'm pretty sure there weren't too many auto shops with black guys wearing frilly little crop tops, but I could be mistaken. Then again, if Christie Brinkley showed up at my auto shop, perhaps I might have found myself in the mood to sing too.

This is also your chance to watch two people who, I assume, were not particularly adept at dancing (one being a singer and the other being a model) dance for three minutes. Oh, and not only is she better looking than he is, but she's also taller (or maybe it's the shoes?). But who's idea was the hat? Since when did girls from "Uptown" wear black cowboy hats? The whole time I'm thinking, "Hey, Christie, ditch the hat." And sure enough, she does.

Here's how I know I'm getting old: A couple of years ago I was over at a friend's place and he was listening to the radio, which was tuned to an "oldies" station. Suddenly "Uptown Girl" came on. No, no, no. See "Uptown Girl" was supposed to be an homage to oldies, not an actual oldie itself. But the kids, the damn kids, they can't even tell the difference these days.

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