(Billy Joel had a #1 single in 1993, so I was posting about Billy Joel in general for the podcast blog that’s now on hiatus for a bit.)
Billy Joel - Still Rock And Roll To Me
When I was a Year 12 music student in NSW, we had the HSC exams, where basically you played your pieces for a touring team of markers who’d never seen you before. I played piano, and, honestly, I was about ten times as technically proficient as I am now (albeit, I’m about ten times better at playing in bands and at coming up with good parts now, etc).
You had to play 4 pieces, and they had to be from different genres (‘film music’ or ‘rock’, etc). I…erm, actually forget a couple of the songs I did - maybe a ragtime-y ‘Chattanooga Choo Choo’? Or possibly a Bill Evans-y ‘All The Things You Are’? I remember two quite vividly though: I do remember playing ‘Philosophy’ by Ben Folds Five - mostly because I was accepted into the Encore concert based on my performance, and because I put my feet up on the keyboard at the end during the HSC performance, which they asked me not to do at the Sydney Opera House. And the other was ‘Still Rock And Roll At Me’.
I said on the podcast that I’d never learned ‘Piano Man’ and that was pretty much true; however, I did somehow inherit a book of super simplified easy sheet music of Billy Joel songs, most of which I didn’t know well enough to work them out (I was always bad at reading sheet music, because I had such a good ear and could figure out things from listening to my piano teacher play it).
After I’d played that one, I remember the examiners asking, “oh, do you like Billy Joel?” I think I basically shyly shrugged. Which was probably an accurate reaction at that time; I actually knew quite a lot of Billy Joel, but I knew better than to admit to liking Billy Joel in 1999. I mean, I was a Radiohead fan!
I did really like ‘Still Rock And Roll To Me’ though. I don’t think, in 1999, that I had much of an idea of where it was meant to sit culturally, that Billy was trying to do Elvis Costello in the verses and Elvis Presley in the bridge (as he really obviously signposts in the video), and I had no idea about how he came across as a phony with his faux-New Wave thing. What I dug about the song (apart from it being catchy) was the message in the lyrics about how music is all basically the same. By 1999, I was coming out of an alt-rock haze, discovering quite twee stuff like Belle & Sebastian (I remember someone pulling my headphones off when I was listening to Belle & Sebastian, listening for a bit, and then saying “oh, sounds like 60s music…why are you listening to that?”) and starting to listen more extensively to older music that I would have thought was terribly daggy 2-3 years previously (it was Napster time, so I could download and listen to all sorts of stuff that I’d downloaded over the magical internet).
And so I related to ‘Still Rock And Roll To Me’. Music was kind of all the same. Once you figure out the inner thread of music - which I was definitely starting to do by this point - you can listen to music of all genres and, before long, instantaneously hear what they’re trying to do. And that’s sort of what Billy’s saying here, right? That he hears the inner thread between Elvises Presley and Costello, even if Elvis Costello was trying to pretend he didn’t care about Presley.
It was ‘Philosophy’ that I ended up playing at the big Encore concert at the Sydney Opera House (I headbutted the piano at the end of the song instead). But my suspicion was that the 40-something women who marked my pieces were Billy Joel fans, and so even if they thought my arrangement of ‘Philosophy’ was the better performance, it was the Billy Joel that converted them to me.
I suspect it was 2003-2004 before I actually listened very much to Billy Joel - I would have downloaded Glass Houses and probably the best of around then. Before then ‘Still Rock And Roll To Me’ was the one song I liked. Oh, and ‘The Longest Time’. And maybe ‘Anthony’s Song (Movin’ Out)’ though it was the kind of song I forgot about until I heard it again. And then there was…