Before I go any further, many thanks to all that got in touch to wish me well after I mentioned last week that I was struggling. Sorry for the absence of responses or “likes” to the Comments, but, to compound my misery, I managed to lose my phone last weekend, so wasn’t getting the usual message alerts that the App provides. Coupled with that, I had decided that perhaps being chained to a laptop all day in my flat – my work one during the day, my own out of hours – probably wasn’t doing my mental health much good, so I made a conscious effort not to even turn my laptop on all week.
It seems to have worked, I feel better: not 100%, but getting there. But I didn’t want any of you kind enough to have sent me messages of support to think that they weren’t appreciated, because they definitely were, when I finally read them. So thank you all.
During my week of abstinence, it occurred to me that I haven’t really fulfilled the original remit of the blog for some time – “a confessional trawl through my record buying history…where there’s no such thing as guilty pleasure”– so I figured I should maybe redress that a bit.
As far as I’m concerned, a “guilty pleasure” is a particular song which some consider to be naff or embarrassing to admit to liking, or a song by an artist viewed in the same way. I’d like to say it’s a position that I’ve never subscribed to, but that wouldn’t be entirely true.
What I think would be a fairer description would be that when I first started buying records, they were what most would consider to be “guilty pleasures”, but I was too young to know or to care. As I moved into my teens, I developed a love of rock music, and, as I have documented far too often on these pages, of Status Quo in particular, with whom I was, no doubt about it, utterly obsessed.
As an illustration, just after I moved to London and started house-sharing with Hel, the topic of what our Mastermind specialist subject would be came up. Without hesitation, I selected “The singles of Status Quo, 1967 – 1987” and, as luck would have it, she owned a copy of the Guinness Book of Hit Singles, so she decided to test me.
Suffice it to say, by the end of her cross examination, she would have been perfectly entitled to ask me to move out again, so nerdily accurate were my answers.
I’m not suggesting my development is unique or unusual, by the way; we all had (un)healthy obsessions with singers or bands in our teenage years, didn’t we? Swap the words ‘Status Quo’ for the words ‘Duran Duran’ or ‘Prince’ or ‘Nik Kershaw’ or ‘Keith Harris and Orville’ and I’m sure many of you will find yourselves looking into the same mirror.
I also began to like and purchase more ‘charty’ records, but at the same time, aided by a membership of Britannia Music, I began to investigate older, more established artists, usually songs I’d heard on Radio 2, which was my parents’ radio station of choice. Terry Wogan has a lot to answer for, and I don’t just mean his version of The Floral Dance (a copy of which resided in our house, though I’m not sure anybody ever accepted responsibility for bringing it in to our home).
And so, aided by Wogan’s breakfast-time picks, and with easier access to purchasing records via Britannia Music, I started buying records by the likes of Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran, Dusty Springfield, Little Richard, The Doors, Elvis Presley, The Kinks, and, inevitably, The Beatles – none of which my peers would have considered to be “cool” records to listen to, let alone own.
I’m not a fan of tribalism, and see no reason to swear allegiance to one band over another, but if absolutely pressed, I’d pick Blur over Oasis, and The Beatles over The Rolling Stones every time. Contentious, I know. But I’ve bought many records by all four over the years, and I’ve never understood why you had to be “for” one and “against” the other. They’ve all released songs which are, at best, great: why deny yourself the pleasure of listening to songs by the act you’re not supposed to like? It makes absolutely no sense to me.
Anyway, by the time I arrived at 6th Form, where I properly immersed myself in what was then called “indie” music, I had a fair old collection of vinyl building up at home. Any trip into Town would only be considered successfully completed when I returned home with a clutch of new vinyl purchases tucked under my arm, sleeve notes read greedily on the bus home. At home I’d head straight for the record player, brushing past my mother, who would, without fail, roll her eyes and mutter something about money burning a hole in my pocket.
There was a battered old stereo in the 6th Form Common room, which I soon commandeered, compiling a new mixtape every couple of days or so, an evening spent, headphones on, hunched over the pause button on my Dad’s far superior midi stereo system, but only when I’d completed my homework *coughs* honest.
And because of all of those purchases, I was able to provide a new mix-tape with a revolving roster of current hits, mixed in with the classics, along with some new indie band who I was tipping for great things, much as I try to do with the occasional mix I post here. I wish I’d kept some of them.
All that changed when I went to college. Here was a chance to reinvent oneself, to create an identity, and I went for “indie kid circa 1988” big time. I would only buy records considered to be cool, and I would dress like (I thought) an indie kid should. Thankfully very few photos exist, but for a couple of years my uniform would always include a tatty cardigan, a band T-shirt, a pair of baseball boots, jeans (obviously) and – get this – a black cap. By 1990 the cap had all but disappeared, as I started wearing hoodies and – yikes – a pair of dungarees, as my (indie) DJ’ing activities increased at the same time as Madchester (which I embraced) and acid house (which, regrettably, I did not) exploded.
And so it was for several years (the record buying, not the dress sense), I would only buy what I thought were “cool” “indie” records, and, as I’ve written here many times, it wasn’t until I met my now no-longer-with-us best friend/little brother/kindred spirit Llŷr that I was reminded that it doesn’t matter whether anybody else likes what you like. Plough your own furrow, like what you like and be happy. And so I learned to love pop music and all things naff again.
Where am I going with all of this? Well, last night I watched a concert by an artist that I bought records by back when I was a teenager, who has, I think, never been considered cool, always considered a guilty pleasure, or at the very least someone liked by the “older generation”, which I have to admit I’m now part of, in the eyes of those pesky nowadays teenagers, at least.
The show was recorded over two nights in New York’s Shea Stadium back in 2008, just before it was demolished, was broadcast on Sky Arts, and is available to stream on NOWTV (although you really have to look for it); it’s 2 hours 21 minutes of fantastic showmanship, incredible technical musicianship, the occasional guest appearance (in order of descending impressiveness: Tony Bennet, Paul McCartney, John Mayer, Garth Brooks) and the most amazing percussionist in Crystal Taliefero (introduced to the crowd as “…on percussion…and on vocals…and on saxophone…and harmonica…and guitar…and everything else on the fricking stage, you name it”) – even if you don’t like the headline act’s music, it’s worth watching just for her: she looks gorgeous and cool as fuck, with a fantastic afro and unbridled energy. She’s amazing, even if you don’t think Billy Joel is.
And that’s who I’m talking about: Billy Joel. Never in his career has he been considered “cool”, but nevertheless some of his songs used to pop up on my 6th form mixtapes, and many of his songs are not skipped over when they pop up on shuffle now.
To this day, I will defend this as being a truly great pop single (and I know it was, because Llŷr agreed with me):
Personally, I’ve always loved this one too, delivering a message which I must have absorbed somewhere along the line:
I think it’s the steadfast refusal to call it “Rock’n’Roll” that holds part of the appeal for me there.
Sadly, neither of these get performed in the aforementioned Shea Stadium gig, but then neither does Uptown Girl, which, given it was his last UK #1 and it’s awful (as is any song which Westlife feels worthy of a cover) is both a surprise and a blessed relief.
Although, this would perhaps be one of my few criticisms of the show: not enough of the hits. Early doors, Joel feels the need to explain that he’s about to perform an album track, and which album it’s from. But given that the crowd, all baying Noo Yawker Karens, more concerned with being seen to be there than actually enjoying the night or, heaven forbid, being fans, don’t seem to recognise any of the songs until he starts singing, missing the very obvious signature piano-flourish which identifies each of his songs, perhaps that doesn’t matter so much. To be honest, it was kind of nice to hear some songs I’d either not heard in ages or had never heard before – but in my book, for this sort of massive gig, it should be: play the hits, keep the bums off the seats.
Not that all of Joel’s hits are booty-shakers, of course. This single, which I adore, gets an outing:
What I love about that song is that it can be interpreted in two very opposite ways: one, a rather lovely description of the woman he loves and why he loves her, or two, a list of the things that really annoy him about his partner, which borders on the misogynistic (I prefer the first explanation, by the way – but just listen to some of those lyrics, there’s some venom there).
This absolute belter does get an airing, and if you can’t empathise with the lead character on this record then I’m not sure you’ve lived. You certainly haven’t met some of the people I have:
Last one, and it’s his signature tune, where he assumes the persona of a guy playing piano in a bar, a job he actually did before he got famous, an authenticity which Tom Waits can only hope for. This is, rightly, hailed as a masterpiece of bar-room observation and storytelling, even if he does look like every midwife’s almost-sufficiently-dilated nightmare on the album sleeve:
Joel is the consummate performer, perhaps at his best when perched on a piano stool. He knows how to work a crowd, how to stir YOO ESS AYY patriotism in a non-jingoistic way. Although, he does strap on a guitar for We Didn’t Start The Fire, and manages to look like David Brent trying to emulate Pete Townsend’s whirlwind style of playing.
He is, like it or not, America’s Elton John, but without the extravagant clothing, the coke habit, the hair transplant. Plus, he writes all his songs, not just half of them, which makes him…I dunno…better….?
I’m not sure if looking like a red-faced sweaty bloodhound about to explode like a hotdog in a microwave, as he does through much of the Shea Stadium show, is a preferable look, mind.
So, to summarise: I’m feeling better and I like Billy Joel. Join me.