Friday, November 8, 2013

"It's Still Rock And Roll To Me": Fanfare For The Dorky Man

Not everybody in 1980 was reading the NME and the Village Voice. What about those common masses, that "silent majority," the vast waves and waves of American listeners blowing across the continent like fields of wheat, who didn't understand the first thing about punk and New Wave? What about all those people who weren't hip enough to "get it"? Where was the anthem for them?

With "It's Still Rock And Roll To Me," William Martin Joel gave them that anthem.

For years, I never really understood the lyrics to "It's Still Rock And Roll To Me," which, in July 1980, became Billy Joel's first #1 single. Then one day it hit me. There wasn't one person singing; there were two. "Two?" you say. "But that's ... that's impossible!" In the world of Billy Joel, anything is possible.

See, "It's Still Rock And Roll To Me" is a miniature piece of theater, a dialogue between opposing viewpoints, an intellectual confrontation writ large. In one corner we have Yer Average Guy, represented by a solitary Billy Joel voice, smothered in disorienting echo. In the other corner we have Sleazy Rock Critic/Journalist/Press Agent Guy, represented by a double-tracked Billy Joel, compressed and echo-free. This batch of lyrics I found on the internet clarifies things quite handily with the necessary quotation marks:
What's the matter with the clothes I'm wearing?
"Can't you tell that your tie's too wide?"
Maybe I should buy some old tab collars?
"Welcome back to the age of jive
Where have you been hidin' out lately, honey?
You can't dress in trash till you spend a lot of money"
Everybody's talkin' 'bout the new sound
Funny, but it's still rock and roll to me

What's the matter with the car I'm driving?
"Can't you tell that it's out of style?"
Should I get a set of white wall tires?
"Are you gonna cruise the miracle mile?
Nowadays you can't be too sentimental
Your best bet's a true baby blue Continental"
Hot funk, cool punk, even if it's old junk
It's still rock and roll to me

Oh, it doesn't matter what they say in the papers
'Cause it's always been the same old scene
There's a new band in town
But you can't get the sound from a story in a magazine
Aimed at your average teen

How about a pair of pink sidewinders
And a bright orange pair of pants?
"You could really be a Beau Brummel baby
If you just give it half a chance
Don't waste your money on a new set of speakers,
You get more mileage from a cheap pair of sneakers"
Next phase, new wave, dance craze, anyways
It's still rock and roll to me

What's the matter with the crowd I'm seeing?
"Don't you know that they're out of touch?"
Should I try to be a straight `A' student?
"If you are then you think too much
Don't you know about the new fashion honey?
All you need are looks and a whole lotta money"
It's the next phase, new wave, dance craze, anyways
It's still rock and roll to me
One way I can tell that Billy really captured the fickle finger of fashion is that I don't understand half the trends he's referencing. "White wall tires"? "Sidewinders"? Why is he talking about snakes?

Speaking of snakes, the music has a tense, lean feel that mimics New Wave quite effectively, whether that was Billy's intention or not. I could almost swear that Tina Weymouth is playing the throbbing bass line which opens the song - and is that Dave Edmunds on guitar adding some tight rockabilly fills? That said, the two undisputed best parts: 1) the drum roll at 1:22, and 2) Billy's sustained, solitary "Ooooh" at 2:10 (Note: Billy's vocals in the video are live, but the backing track is from the studio recording).

The man's enemies - and there were many - most likely looked at "It's Still Rock And Roll To Me" as further evidence that Billy Joel was an obnoxious brat. It's like when a Republican hears a Democrat describe his positions, or vice versa. The opposition completely exaggerates and distorts your views beyond all recognition. I can just imagine some rock critic sitting there listening to this song, his veins popping out of his neck as he clenches his fist, muttering, "We're not like that at all! Billy Joel doesn't understand my problem with his music. I hate his music because of this, not that. Geez!"

But the point of "Its Still Rock And Roll To Me" is that Billy Joel, possibly like most people, heard rock critic lingo and though, "What the hell are they talking about?" Perhaps it wasn't brave, perhaps it wasn't necessary, but at least someone, someone, finally stood up for the clueless dorks of the world.

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