In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
Hands up: Who’s heard Billy Joel’s “The Longest Time” and spent at least a minute thinking that they were hearing actual doo-wop? I’ve done it. Joel’s fooled me.
“The Longest Time” is a fine piece of songwriting. It has to be. Joel does everything in his power to evoke the pop music of his youth, and that music is so spare and unadorned that the songwriting needs to be strong. You can’t hide a sub-par tune in slick production. You need to bring it. Joel brings it, and he makes a simulacrum convincing enough to dupe me, a person not particularly disposed to interrupting car-radio scan-throughs for Billy Joel songs.
“The Longest Time” (which, incidentally, peaked at #14) was one of seven singles from An Innocent Man, the 1983 Billy Joel album that consists entirely of that kind of genre exercise. A few years earlier, Joel had experimented with surly new wave on the 1980 album Glass Houses. In the process, he’d scored his first-ever #1 with the passive-aggressive sneer “It’s Still Rock And Roll To Me.” From there, Joel went through a turbulent time. He got into a bad motorcycle accident. He divorced his first wife. He poured all his songwriterly energies into the layered, ambitious 1982 album The Nylon Curtain. That album did business, but it wasn’t the blockbuster that Glass Houses had been, and it didn’t exactly produce chart hits. (“Allentown,” the highest-charting single from The Nylon Curtain, peaked at #17.)
A year later, when Joel went full nostalgia and did his best to make an early-’60s pop album, it turned out to be a canny choice. When Joel made 1983’s An Innocent Man, he was rich, famous, and single for the first time ever. He was dating supermodels like future second wife Christie Brinkley. He’d been asked to write a song for Easy Money, a Rodney Dangerfield movie, and he’d come up with a peppy, stagey facsimile of early-’60s soul. Joel was into it, so he just went ahead and made a whole album like that. With that album’s first single, Joel made it to #1 for the second time.
“Tell Her About It” is pure, naked pastiche. It might as well be Grease, set four years later. (The 20-year nostalgia cycle is a real thing.) The video makes this as plain as day. An opening chyron lets us all know that we’re watching something happen in July 1963 — four months before the Kennedy assassination, nine months before Beatlemania. An Ed Sullivan impersonator introduces “BJ And The Affordables” — Billy Joel, in sunglasses and skinny tie, with an all-Black Motown-style backing band. A whole lot of period-appropriate bopping ensues.
The “Tell Her About It” video is really, really good. Joel famously disliked the entire idea of music videos, but he still threw himself into the performance, going for fully hammy self-aware showmanship. (He also looks a lot like Michael Keaton, which probably helped things. The week that “Tell Her About It” hit #1 on the pop charts, Mr. Mom was #1 at the box office.) Director Jay Dubin, who would go on to helm three different Andrew Dice Clay comedy specials, keeps things moving and throws in a bunch of little jokes; the dancing cosmonaut really got me. There’s a Rodney Dangerfield cameo that’s both predictable and note-perfect. In evoking memories of a pre-MTV era, Joel and Dubin came up with some pretty great MTV-bait.
As a song, though, “Tell Her About It” is less convincing. When he wrote “Tell Her About It,” Joel was trying to pay tribute to the feeling of early Motown — an even more difficult sound to recapture than the doo-wop of “The Longest Time.” As a songwriting exercise, “Tell Her About It” hits its marks. Joel and his band effectively tap into the classic Holland-Dozier-Holland four-four big-beat stomp. Joel comes up with a memorable hook, and he keeps the structure sharp and uncluttered. There’s nothing revolutionary about it, but that fits the conceit. It’s pastiche. There’s not supposed to be anything revolutionary about it.
The lyrics are good, too. Joel realized how many of the early Supremes hits involved giving romantic advice to lovelorn young women, so he wrote an advice song of his own. The “Tell Her About It” lyrics take advantage of Joel’s age — 34 when the song hit #1 — by making him the guy who’s made mistakes and who wants to tell a younger guy how to avoid them. If you’re in love, Joel tells this hypothetical young man, you need to let someone know about it. It might not work out, but it’s better than the alternative: “Listen boy, it’s not automatically a certain guarantee/ To insure yourself, you’ve got to provide communication constantly.” Good advice!
On paper, “Tell Her About It” works. The execution is a different story. Joel hits some big notes on “Tell Her About It,” but as a singer, he’s got nothing on the stars of early Motown. In his delivery, Joel is stiff and mannered, and he sounds like he’s playing a role instead of inhabiting it. The backup vocals from his bandmates are worse. The production is brittle and thin, with none of the organic immediacy of the music that Joel so fondly remembers. It turns out that you couldn’t really make an early-’60s song in an early-’80s studio, with an early-’80s producer. (“Tell Her About It” producer Phil Ramone actually replaced himself at #1; he’d also done Michael Sembello’s “Maniac,” the song that topped the Hot 100 just before “Tell Her About It.” Ramone never produced another #1 hit after that.) In any case, Joel himself can’t stand “Tell Her About It” much. He’s said that it’s one of his worst songs, and he hasn’t played it live in 33 years.
I’ve got a sort of philosophical issue with “Tell Her About It,” too — or, if not with the song itself, at least with the idea that it made it to #1. 1983 was a time of sharp, transformative pop-chart brilliance. A lot of the songs that hit #1 in that year sounded like transmissions from some alien world. “Tell Her About It” is the opposite of all that, and it’s almost a rebuke of it. In a period of great pop-music futurism, Billy Joel looked backwards. If The Nylon Curtain was Joel’s attempt to evoke the frustrations of working-class Reagan-era America, then “Tell Her About It,” and An Innocent Man in general, are Joel capitalizing on the rose-tinted simpler-times nostalgia that helped Reagan get elected in the first place.
Joel’s timing was good, anyway. “Tell Her About It” became part of a minor cultural nostalgia-wave. Earlier in 1983, Phil Collins had gone for the same Holland-Dozier-Holland sound that Joel had homaged on “Tell Her About It.” Collins scored his first-ever American top 10 hit with his cover of the Supremes’ 1966 #1 hit “You Can’t Hurry Love.” (Collins’ cover peaked at #10; it’s a 5. Collins will soon appear in this column so many times that we might end up calling him “Phil Columns.”) The week that “Tell Her About It” hit #1, the Stray Cats’ “(She’s) Sexy & 17,” a piece of Halloween-costume ’50s rockabilly, broke into the top 10, later peaking at #5. (It’s a 6. The Stray Cats’ highest-charting single, 1981’s “Stray Cat Strut,” peaked at #3. That one is an 8.) A few weeks after “Tell Her About It” hit #1, The Big Chill hit theaters and tapped into a vein of aging-boomer ennui. The film’s nothing-but-oldies soundtrack album sold six million copies in the US.
An Innocent Man, meanwhile, sold seven million copies and launched another two singles into the top 10. (The Four Seasons-esque “Uptown Girl” peaked at #3; it’s a 7. The album’s title track, Joel’s attempt at a Drifters tribute, made it to #10; it’s a 5.) An Innocent Man was a big enough deal to get nominated for an Album Of The Year Grammy, though it still lost to Thriller. And Billy Joel will appear in this column again, thanks to an even-more-weaponized take on boomer nostalgia.
BONUS BEATS: “Billy Joel” and “dance remix” are not two phrases that you expect to see in the same sentence, but someone at Columbia made the fascinating decision to release “Tell Her About It” as a 12″ single and to include a reworking from the rising DJ John “Jellybean” Benitez. Here’s the handclap-happy Benitez remix:
(As an artist, Jellybean Benitez’s highest-charting single is the 1987 Elisa Fiorillo collaboration “Who Found Who,” which peaked at #16. As a producer, Benitez will eventually appear in this column.)