Wow In Music – Just The Way You Are
Kobus Cilliers | On 19, Feb 2020
One of the funniest things I ever saw on television happened about twenty years ago when a very hip and trendy TV music programme invited Paul McCartney onto the show for an interview. It was a big coup, and I remember the show’s hosts looking and sounding unnaturally nervous in the build-up to their superstar coup. It was the beginnings of Britpop and it felt like a return to the halcyon days of The Beatles. 50% of all Britpop bands worshipped The Beatles, and so McCartney, who’s never really been anything other than an icon, was particularly in favour again.
The interview was chugging along quite nicely. The desired hip-and-trendy aura was working. McCartney played and it was good. He was interviewed and made a couple of witty, hip-and-trendy comments. He played some more music. Then was interviewed again, this time with some more serious questions. One of which was, ‘which are the songs by other artists you wish you’d written?’ It was a good question. Macca paused like he was actually racking his brains. The host was clearly thinking, ‘please say something cool’. Macca finally answered, ‘Just The Way You Are’. The room went silent. Whatever this was, it wasn’t anything like cool.
The host wasn’t smiling any more. ‘The Billy Joel song?’ he responded, clearly looking like he was clutching at straws. Maybe there was another – cooler – song called Just The Way You Are? There wasn’t. The room stayed silent. Macca looked embarrassed, shrugged his shoulders and said, ‘well I like it’. There was no way out.
Billy Joel has never really been cool. In fact, if there’s such a thing as a guilty-pleasure Top Ten artist list, Joel would probably make the top three. In 1977, at the start of the Punk revolution, he was about as uncool as it was possible to be. But having disappointed with his fourth album and been told by the record company that if he didn’t do better next time, he would be dropped, the pressure to make something great was on. Enter ‘The Stranger’, the eventual winner of two Grammy’s, sales of over 10 million copies, and an enduring presence in the Rolling Stone magazine list of the best albums of all time. One of the Grammy’s made Just The Way You Are the Record Of The Year. Irony of ironies, however, it was never a favourite of the artist himself, considering it a “gloppy ballad” that would only get played at weddings.
Joel wrote this song about his first wife, Elizabeth. A pure expression of unconditional love, he gave it to her as a birthday present. Sadly, after nine years of marriage, Joel and Elizabeth divorced in 1982… which might have something to do with Joel’s reluctance to play the song live…
…”Every time I wrote a song for a person I was in a relationship with, it didn’t last,” Joel said. “It was kind of like the curse. Here’s your song – we might as well say goodbye now.”
Joel told USA Today July 9, 2008: “I was absolutely surprised it won a Grammy. It wasn’t even rock ‘n’ roll, it was like a standard with a little bit of R&B in it. It reminded me of an old Stevie Wonder recording.”
After Joel recorded this, he didn’t think much of it, He credits his producer, Phil Ramone, with convincing him that it was a great song. Ramone brought Linda Ronstadt and Phoebe Snow into the recording studio to hear the song, and of course they loved it, which was good enough for Billy. On Australian TV in 2006, Joel confirmed: “We almost didn’t put it on an album. We were sitting around listening to it going naaah, that’s a chick song.”
Joel’s longtime drummer Liberty DeVitto considers his work on this track his greatest contribution to a Billy Joel song. In an interview for the Songfacts website, DeVitto said: “Me and [producer] Phil Ramone came up with that kind of crazy rhythm that started out as a samba beat, like a bossa nova with a brush and a stick.” Ask people to recall the song and they usually don’t even think about the rhythm, but I suggest, next time you hear it on the radio, you focus on DeVitto’s skittering, floating master work when it enters just after the thirty-second mark. A little bit Principle 37, a little bit Principle 5, and a lot of Principle 16.
The drum part alone probably justifies the song’s presence in this ‘wow’ feature, but that’s not the end of the story. The melody line is, of course, an all time up-and-down (Principle 19) the scale rollercoaster. Helped along by a very 10cc, ‘I’m Not In Love’ (Principle 26?) chorus-of-thousands (Principle 5) in the background.
Then there’s the Fender Rhodes electric piano sound. Stick a Rhodes onto any song and you pretty much can’t go wrong (see: Supertramp, Steely Dan and, especially, the Paul Simon song, “Still Crazy After All These Years.”), but it’s Joel’s use of the instrument’s phase shifter effect (Principle 18) here that made the Rhodes sound the aural icon it has since become.
Finally, as if the vocal melody, piano and drums don’t sound like enough, we get the final killer blow in the form of another in a string of iconic saxophone solos by jazzman, Phil Woods. The trick here is the (Principle 37) combination of jazz chops and pop context. Woods’ solos literally makes Steely Dan’s “Doctor Wu” from their 1975 album Katy Lied, Paul Simon’s “Have a Good Time” from the 1975 album Still Crazy After All These Years, but his work on Just The Way You Are is bang on definitive.
In the wake of the Paul McCartney interview, the ultra-hip music media in the UK decided it was time to perhaps interview Joel. I remember it being something of a non-event, except for Joel’s admission that his main songwriting trick was to include an ‘unexpected’ wow hook in every song. Thus making him one of the first TRIZ songwriters? Well, maybe that’s stretching the point. Just The Way You Are, in the meantime, does the job in spades, featuring more wow moments than most artists manage to muster in a whole career. If that makes him a guilty-pleasure, so be it. I’m in.