Paul McCartney crafted countless classic songs throughout his career with The Beatles, Wings, and as a solo artist. However, despite the rich catalogue of tracks in his canon, there are a few more that McCartney wishes he could call his own, including one by Billy Joel.
Little did McCartney know it at the time, but he played a pivotal role in Billy Joel’s decision to pursue a career in music. When The Beatles made their famous debut on US television in 1964 on the Ed O’Sullivan Show, Joel was 14 years old and transfixed by the spectacle on his screen. While they were from a different side of the world to the teenager, they spoke his language, and Joel saw a reflection of himself within the Fab Four.
“That one performance changed my life,” Joel once recalled. “Up to that moment, I’d never considered playing rock as a career. And when I saw four guys who didn’t look like they’d come out of the Hollywood star mill, who played their own songs and instruments, and especially because you could see this look in John Lennon’s face – and he looked like he was always saying: ‘Fuck you!’ — I said: ‘I know these guys, I can relate to these guys, I am these guys. This is what I’m going to do — play in a rock band’.”
From that moment, he never looked back and immersed himself in the New York music scene. For a few years, it looked like Joel’s career would never take off, but his work finally caught the attention of Artie Ripp, who helped him become a star. While his first four albums didn’t particularly trouble the charts, Billy Joel’s trajectory changed in 1977 thanks to his single, ‘Just The Way You Are’.
The love song was penned as an ode to his first wife, Elizabeth, and struck a chord with McCartney, who named it one of the tracks he wished he had written. The former Beatle said in the Club Sandwich newsletter in 1994: “I don’t really want to have written anyone else’s songs, but, as a fantasy question, I love ‘Stardust’, by Hoagy Carmichael and Mitchell Parish. It’s a beautiful song. And I remember thinking that Billy Joel’s first hit, ‘Just The Way You Are’, was a nice song, I’d like to have written that one too. ‘Stardust’ first, though.”
He added: “But when it comes down to it, the truth is that I feel so lucky at what I’ve done… if I ever start listing them: ‘The Long And Winding Road’, ‘The Fool On The Hill’… it’s difficult to take it all in.”
Despite the track being Joel’s first major hit, the musician held mixed feelings towards the song for many years because of his divorce from Elizabeth in 1982. “Every time I wrote a song for a person I was in a relationship with, it didn’t last,” he said. “It was kind of like the curse. Here’s your song – we might as well say goodbye now.”