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.
“It’s Still Rock And Roll To Me,” Billy Joel’s first #1 hit, is a neat trick. It’s a massively successful musician sarcastically raging against the idea that he should have to switch his style up, to adapt to a new sound. But even as he snarks about that idea, he also adapts the sound pretty well, doing exactly what he complains that he shouldn’t have to do. While Joel sneers at the idea of all these stylistic mutations — next phase, new wave, dance craze, anyways — he still changes his style to suit those mutations. In the process, he achieves the one pop milestone that had evaded him, topping the singles charts. Joel has always taken pains to point out his own cleverness, but you have to hand it to him. All of that is pretty clever.
Billy Joel has written a lot of songs about a lot of different things, but the plight of the performer might be his single favorite subject. He’s a meta kind of guy. Joel’s first real hit was 1973’s “Piano Man,” a thoughtful sketch about what it’s like to soundtrack other people’s desperate moments. (“Piano Man” is probably Joel’s most famous song now, but it peaked at #25.) A year later, Joel reached the top 40 a second time with “The Entertainer,” a deeply self-conscious song that’s clearly and pointedly about the pop industry: “If you’re gonna have a hit, you gotta make it fit/ So they cut it down to 3:05.” (“The Entertainer” peaked at #34.)
Joel was still in his mid-twenties when he scored those early successes, but he was already a music-business veteran, and he’d had plenty of time to think about the pop musician’s role in the world. Joel was the son of Jewish parents, one of whom had escaped Germany as the Nazis were taking over, and he was born in the Bronx and raised in Long Island. He’d learned piano as a kid at his mother’s behest, and he was a teenager when he saw the Beatles play Ed Sullivan and had his mind blown. Before he dropped out of high school in 1967, Joel split his time between boxing — he won 22 of 28 amateur fights on the Golden Gloves circuit — and playing in various local bands. He also found work as a session pianist, playing on, among other things, a demo version of the Shangri-Las’ “Leader Of The Pack.”
Joel played in a couple of Long Island bands, the Hassles and Attila, that released major-label albums in the ’60s, but those albums didn’t sell. 1971’s Cold Spring Harbor, Joel’s solo debut, didn’t sell, either. But he followed it up with Piano Man two years later and carved out a decent niche for himself. In 1977, Joel broke through massively with his album The Stranger, which sold millions and launched a bunch of hit singles. One of those singles, the syrupy ballad “Just The Way You Are,” became Joel’s first top-10 hit, peaking at #3. (It’s a 3.) 1978’s 52nd Street did even better, outselling the Bee Gees’ Spirits Having Flown and becoming the biggest-selling album of 1979 in the US. Joel again reached #3 on the singles chart with the lush Broadway-rock 52nd Street hit “My Life.” (It’s a 5.)
Even as he hit his imperial phase, though, Joel was mad about the press he was getting. His songs were richly orchestrated and full of detailed storytelling touches, but critics still lumped him in with the middle-of-the-road soft-rock balladeers of the era. Glass Houses, Joel’s 1980 album, is at least in part a reaction against all of that. Joel saw the kind of press that punk and new wave bands were getting, and he decided that there wasn’t actually anything new about these new bands. (He was absolutely right about that. At least aesthetically, early punk bands like the Ramones and the Sex Pistols were back-to-basics reactionaries who tied their lyrical provocations to then-outmoded ’60s rock ‘n’ roll sounds.)
Joel might’ve been pissed, but he also saw an opportunity. Glass Houses was Joel’s attempt to show that he could rock as hard as anyone else. Joel had turned 30 in 1979, so he was old enough to remember those supposedly-new sounds when they actually were new. He had plenty of Tin Pan Alley in his background, and he was comfortable stripping the fripperies away from his music and pushing the hooks to the forefront. That worked remarkably well on “You May Be Right,” the opening track and first single from Glass Houses, which is basically an Elvis Costello/Joe Jackson new-wave rave-up, and which pretty much kicks ass. (“You May Be Right” peaked at #7. It’s an 8.)
“It’s Still Rock And Roll To Me” works in the same mode as “You May Be Right,” but with some angry snark in the mix, as well. Musically, “Still Rock And Roll” is more mannered than “You May Be Right.” It doesn’t have that big honking fuck-you riff or that sense of abandon. Instead, it’s a controlled and locked-in rockabilly shuffle — as if Joel is proving how old these new sounds are by making them sound as old as possible.
“Still Rock And Roll” simmers, but it never takes off. At times, it nods in the direction of Bruce Springsteen, Joel’s fellow tri-state beach-town road warrior; Richie Cannata’s saxophone solo is a straight-up Clarence Clemons bite. But Joel never tries to wail his way into transcendence, the way Springsteen always did. Joel is more concerned with airing out petty grievances.
If “Still Rock And Roll” has a villain, it’s the press: “Oh, it doesn’t matter what they say in the papers/ Cuz 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.” To Joel, the cool punk and hot funk and old junk are all the same thing; that’s the point. Joel also has plenty of venom for the very idea of fashions changing. He opens the song fake-worrying about his tie being too wide, a very 1980 concern. Instead, Joel delights in the old rock ‘n’ roll fetishes that weren’t that old at the time, like the Springsteenian image of the baby blue Continental with whitewall tires.
If you can ignore the suppressed rage in Joel’s voice, you can hear “Still Rock And Roll” as a fun song about music and partying. It’s fast and catchy enough to be that. If anything, the changing fashions of the day do Joel a favor, since they suit his pugilistic bray of a voice better than the slick arrangements he’d been using. It’s a canny adaptation to a changing climate. But something about “Still Rock And Roll” rubs me the wrong way. It’s like Billy Joel is dressing up in a costume and then pointing out to everyone he sees that he thinks the costume is stupid.
Still, “Still Rock And Roll” is a sharp, well-written song. With it, Joel proves his ability to chase trend without making it look like he’s chasing trends, an enormously important pop-star ability. And Joel remained a pop star for years after “Still Rock And Roll.” He’ll be in this column again.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s an old live video of “Weird Al” Yankovic performing “It’s Still Billy Joel To Me,” the atypically acidic “It’s Still Rock And Roll To Me” parody that he wrote in 1980 and then never released:
(Yankovic’s highest-charting single is 2006’s “White & Nerdy,” a parody of another song that will end up in this column. It peaked at #9, and it’s a 7.)
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s KRS-One interpolating “It’s Still Rock And Roll To Me” on the classic 1987 Boogie Down Productions diss track “The Bridge Is Over”:
(KRS-One has never had a top-10 hit. His highest-charting single, 1995’s “MC’s Act Like They Don’t Know,” peaked at #57.)