Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Songs #89, 90, and 91: It's THREEsday! (normally, it's TWOsday)

Song #89 of 9999                                 Song #90 of 9999                                  Song #91 of 9999
Title: It's Still Rock and Roll To Me       Title: Crazy Little Thing Called Love      Title: (Just Like) Starting Over
Artist: Billy Joel                                     Artist: Queen                                          Artist: John Lennon
Year: 1980                                            Year: 1980                                              Year: 1980
Album: Glass Houses                           Album: The Game                                  Album: Double Fantasy

I guess every generation has a tendency to hearken back to a previous time and 1980 was no different. As songwriting was becoming increasingly less complex and a return to the three-minute song was emerging, artists could choose to move in one of two directions: the new wave future with all of its synthesizers and drum machines or the nostalgic past when rock and roll was born. Although all three of these artists (except maybe John Lennon—and probably only due to his untimely death) did eventually test the new wave waters, they chose in 1980 to return to the past, specifically to the sound of the mid- to late-1950s.

Billy Joel's track is actually kind of a best-of-both-worlds approach with the verses sounding like a lot of the guitar-based new wave bands (perhaps Blondie or The Cars) but the chorus breaks out into a rollicking feel reminiscent of Chuck Berry or Jerry Lee Lewis complete with a 50s-era sax solo. This dichotomy is part of the gimmick, I suppose, since the lyric aims to put "the new sound" in its place a bit. For me, it's the least effective of the three nostalgia songs precisely for this reason, but it's a fun song nonetheless.

In Queen's shuffle "Crazy Little Thing Called Love," Freddie Mercury trades opera for Elvis and turns out a pretty good impression. Technically, this is the best approximation of the music it wishes to emulate—everything is in its right place and in all the right proportions: the walking bass line, the call-and-response vocal harmonies and the vocal hiccups we remember from artists like Buddy Holly and Gene Vincent. But best of all, the song provides an opportunity for Brian May to lay down a masterful guitar track with a solo that would have made Check Berry proud.

On the "stripped down" version of Double Fantasy, John Lennon says in reference to "Starting Over," "this one's for Gene, Eddie and Elvis....and Buddy!" Of course, he's referring to Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran, Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly. You can probably add Roy Orbison to the list too. Unlike Joel and the boys from Queen, Lennon had already experienced the influence of these artists first-hand when he was playing with The Beatles in the early 1960s. And his song is the most genuine to me in its construction and performance. Yes, it hearkens back to this other time and borrows from his childhood heroes, but the song is unquestionably Lennon. I could write a lot about the chord choices—the augmented chords, the 6th chords, etc.—but this post is getting long so I'll save it for another time. I'll just say I think this song best captures the essence of the time period all three of these songs were honoring. It's a true masterpiece of pop.

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