“In my neighborhood, somebody hits you, you hit them right back,” Billy Joel once said about his first No.1 single, “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me.” The amateur boxer, who won 23 of his 26 fights as a teenager, set out to deliver a knockout punch with the song – and he landed it square on his target.
As the ‘80s began, Joel was at odds with the music business in general. His argument was simple: While marketing people tried to generate excitement by describing the next big thing as a new big thing, the singer and songwriter believed that almost all of the music that was being released in the “New Wave” genre, by bands like the Police and the Cars, wasn’t that different than material from 20 years earlier.
“New Wave songs, it seems, can only be about two and a half minutes long,” Joel told Rolling Stone soon after the single’s release. “Only a certain number of instruments can be played on the record —usually a very few. Only a certain amount of production is allowed or can be heard. The sound has to be limited to what you can hear in a garage. A return to that sound is all that’s going on now, so don’t give me any of this New Wave. … It’s just a reaction to a rediscovered past, and a rejection of Emerson, Lake & Palmer using multi-deck synthesizers.”
He also had a more specific target in “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me”: critics who tried to peg his own music inside a genre, often adult contemporary. “What bothers me is the untruths, the lies, the slander and libel,” he said. “Bad reviews don’t bother me. But a lot of these critics are looking for art. … An artist is a guy with a beret who sits in a park and paints pictures, and he starves in a garret somewhere.”
Joel pointed out that the Beatles explored new territory with “Yesterday,” and the Rolling Stones had done the same with “Angie” and “Ruby Tuesday.” “Did that mean that they became an adult-contemporary group suitable only for dentists’ offices?” he asked. “No, that didn’t stop them from doing any of the trashy rock ’n’ roll stuff they did.”
Watch Billy Joel’s ‘It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me’ Video
Joel’s own inspiration, he said, came from whatever he found on jukeboxes. “The Sex Pistols’ ‘God Save the Queen’ bored the hell out of me,” he noted. “If I go to a folk club and all I hear is some girl strumming a guitar, singing, ‘Give me some wine and cheese, please,’ I don’t want it. I would rather go and hear a good Top 40 bar band — which is what we still are, basically. … I’m just trying to be accepted for doing a diversity of things.”
He laid out his arguments in the song’s lyrics, which ridiculed obsession with style over music. But he also made his point with the arrangement, which copies the New Wave style he’d outlined, before it leaps into a classic rock ’n’ roll vibe. The video worked similarly, showing Joel and his band in a contemporary minimalist studio setting while he appeared in ‘50s-like clothing.
Released on May 12, 1980, “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me” eventually spent two weeks at No.1 – Joel’s first visit to the top spot. It was the ninth-biggest single of the year and helped propel his seventh LP, Glass Houses, to a six-week stay at the top of the album chart.
In 2014, Joel recounted the “hit them right back” childhood memory to Howard Stern. “Sometimes the press gave me a hard time,” he explained. “And I liked giving them a hard time back.” You can listen to the interview below.