528. ‘Uptown Girl’, by Billy Joel

We are now racing through 1983 – no chart-topper in the second half of this year will spend less than three weeks on top. And after six for Culture Club comes five for Billy Joel…

Uptown Girl, by Billy Joel (his 1st and only #1)

5 weeks, from 30th October – 4th December 1983

In my post on ‘Karma Chameleon’, I pointed out how that song took pleasure in its retro touches. Well, here the retro theme is not just maintained; it’s shoved front and centre. ‘Uptown Girl’ harks fully back to the doo-wop and male vocal groups of the late fifties/early sixties. The eighties are temporarily on hold. It’s a pastiche, yes, but one that’s lovingly done, and that’s certainly good enough to stand up on its own.

Uptown girl, She’s been livin’ in her uptown world… It’s a tale as old as time (or at least as old as the invention of social class structures…) A working class boy besotted with a high class lady (I’ve always liked the lyrical contrast between her ‘white bread world’ and this ‘back street guy’). In the video Billy Joel’s a well-groomed mechanic, with some impressively slick dance moves, and the object of his affections goes from being a pin-up in his locker to riding side-saddle on his motorbike in barely three minutes. It has strong overtones of ‘Grease’, which adds to the fun, campy feel of the song. The uptown girl is played by swimwear model Christie Brinkley. Life imitated art, and less than two years after meeting on the set of ‘Uptown Girl’ they married.

This is a great pop song, timeless in the best possible sense of the word, and one that defies too much critiquing. ‘Uptown Girl’ comes on the radio, and you sing along with the woah-oh-ohs. It’s non-negotiable. I’d even go so far as to say that using the word ‘uptown’ in a song title almost guarantees classic status. To date, there have been three ‘uptown’ #1s: ‘Uptown Top Ranking’ (a classic, dripping in attitude), this (a singalong classic) and another one, still thirty-odd years off, that I’m sure you can guess at (another great pop song).

(This has to be the biggest disconnect between ‘mood of song’ and ‘mood of record sleeve.’.. ever)

The fact that I still like this record is, actually, quite surprising. Not only have I heard it several thousand times (I’d imagine), I also suffered through Westlife’s cover version hitting #1 when I was fifteen. That’ll be along soon enough on this countdown, don’t worry… Actually, as Westlife hits go it’s not that bad – although that’s the very definition of ‘damning with faint praise’. And as if that wasn’t enough, a supermarket chain in Hong Kong, where I live, has used the tune of ‘Uptown Girl’ for an in-store jingle. And when I say ‘in-store’, I mean: In. Every. Single. Bloody. Store. Twenty. Four. Hours. A. Day. The poor checkout staff must suffer PTSD episodes every time they hear this original.

A song that can survive both Westlife covers and terminal overplaying as a supermarket jingle must have something truly great at its core. ‘Uptown Girl’ was good enough to give Billy Joel his sole #1 single in the UK, in marked contrast to his US chart career. I once read a theory suggesting that Joel isn’t as big in Britain because we already have Elton John to fill our piano-based balladeering needs. Which is an interesting theory, until you remember that Elton is as big in America as he is across the Atlantic. Whatever the reason, and despite not being short of hits, this was indeed Joel’s only chart-topper. But if you’re only going to have one chart-topper, you might as well make it a million-selling, 2nd biggest hit of 1983, 19th biggest hit of the decade kind of chart-topper…

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12 thoughts on “528. ‘Uptown Girl’, by Billy Joel

  1. One of those classic No 1’s that everybody loves – even if they have heard it a tad too much over the years anyway! Not the least interesting thing abut it was that in Britain the previous single ‘Tell Her About It’ was No. 1 in America but stiffed over here at first – until CBS-UK did the obvious thing and rushed it out as a very swift follow-up, thus giving him two singles in the Top 10 at once for one week.

  2. I have good memories of my parents playing “Uptown Girl” in the car as a kid which gives me a nostalgic attachment to the song. If you live in New York and especially Long Island, Billy Joel’s music is less of a thing to like but more of a lifestyle given his big roots here. From that perspective, Joel has a lot more notable songs than “Uptown Girl” but it definitely feels like a song of his that gets a lot of play for more casual mainstream listeners. It was even referenced last year in Olivia Rodrigo’s hit “Deja Vu” which like “Uptown Girl” in the US peaked at #3. A thing about Joel’s album at the time An Innocent Man is that it’s his way of emulating various ‘50s and ‘60s acts with “Uptown Girl” very obviously being the Four Seasons with the way he enunciates like Frankie Valli on lines like “fine” and “time” to the backing vocals and the wordless refrains.

    Here’s Tom Breihan’s review today on “Wannabe” which probably encapsulates a lot of your thoughts on the Spice Girls
    https://www.stereogum.com/2184839/the-number-ones-spice-girls-wannabe/columns/the-number-ones/

    • Yes, you can definitely hear the Frankie Valli tribute act in his voice…

      I had no idea that the Spice Girls were that big in the US – I thought Wannabe was more of a 1-hit wonder. A 9 feels quite generous, though!

      • Honestly I wouldn’t blame you since “Wannabe” is the only song of theirs I hear all the time and it being their only US #1 makes sense as to their biggest cultural impact here but considering their massive fame it only makes sense that they had more hits even if they didn’t have as big of an impact as their first hit but Spice was the biggest-selling album in America for 1997 so clearly their impact went beyond “Wannabe.” I find it funny how Tom describes people at the time mistaking them for Britpop which tells you how little of a impact it had on the States and comparing the piano riff to Elastica’s “Connection” which listening to the song isn’t totally out of place as well as the dirty rumors of the chorus. Definitely too generous of a rating and would personally grade “Say You’ll Be There” above “Wannabe.”

  3. Bravo! Great post man…I busted out laughing when I read “Every. Single. Bloody. Store. Twenty. Four. Hours. A. Day.” LOL
    I do like this song! Of course I would though…because it sounds like late fifties early sixties… it’s just so damn likeable!

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  5. Love this Frankie Valli four seasons loving tribute. Billy is a classically trained class act and i love the variety in his music. I dont always love everything he does but he is never less than decent. Ive been to see enthusiastic musician fan Elio Pace a few times when he is touring billys back catalogue. He points out the classical bits and has converted me into much more of a Joel fan. Top notch billy? Just the way you are. Its still rock n roll to me. We didnt start the fire. River of dreams… All very dfifferent from uptown girl and each other…

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