GLASS HOUSES -- By Billy Joel (Columbia FC 36384.)
There's a shudder running through the punk community, and at least a shiver across the New Wave -- a reaction to the slow absorption into commercial rock of seemingly antithetical punk stylisms.
Punk, after all, evolved as a kind of loyal opposition to big business music ("loyal" because it adhered to what it perceived to be the bedrock principles of rock'n'roll). It was counter-revolutionary, intentionally regressive. The paragons of rock -- the Rolling Stones, the Who -- were accused of having lost their virtue to the record companies. Even beyond the rebellious '60s, the punkers looked back in anger to the harsh and superficial '50s.
So to hear Elvis Costello from the mouth of Linda Ronstadt, and to see producer Phil Spector rebuild his wall of sound around the three-chord juvenility of the Ramones, is heresy. And now comes Billy Joel, the "Piano Man," with an album that gets some of its muscle from the revivalist New Wave but manages to send it up at the same time. This is how folk purists must have felt about the Byrds, and how blues adherents still feel about boogie.
The constant borrowing from one rock idiom by another can make for excruciatingly mediocre melting-pot Muzak. But it can also produce something lively and imaginative, and on the whole, the current proliferation of power-pop, rock-erotica and, uh, Second Wave is quite promising.
The centerpiece of Joel's new "Glass Houses" album, in this context, is undoubtedly "It's Still Rock'n 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,
It's a reminder that the minimalists rail without reason: Joel was playing three chord rock'n'roll 15 years ago back in Hicksville. I like to think the album title is addressed to the "purists" of the new rock, too, but then I never had any manners to speak of.
Like Joel's last album, "52nd Street," "Glass Houses" tips an occasional hat to other musicians. "You May Be Right" jolts off with a melody line from the early Stones and a Long Island vocal that manages to evoke Mick Jagger. In "Sometimes a Fantasy," one of the best cuts on the album, Joel hearkens back to the hiccuping style of Buddy Holly to stretch the word "night" to three syllables -- and, in passing, knocks the similarly imitative Knack by panting heavily: "I know it's awful hard to try to make love long-distance."
Like most of Joel's albums, there are a couple of numbers that seem to exist solely because of a particularly entrancing chord progressions; anyone who plays an instrument will understand. The lyrics to "All for Leyna" are almost simple-minded (perhaps another sendup), although the sheer piano forte' is attractive enough. And Joel's erratic luck with love songs has let him gently down on "Through the Long Night" and "C'Etait Toi (You Were the One)."
"Don't Ask Me Why" could be viewed as the third part of a trilogy on the music business reaching back as far as his first album (the weird and rare "Cold Spring Harbor"), "Everybody Loves You Now" was, like Steely Dan's "So They Made You a Star," a wry look at the blinding light of the Spotlight -- in someone else's eyes. It was not quite condescending, but critical.
Part two would be "The Entertainer" from "Streetlife Serenade," whose protagonist is a musician running on the exercise wheel of the Top 40 cage. And now comes "Don't Ask Me Why," a rueful, enjoy-it-now warning from a onetime "Overnight star" to another:
All the servants in your new hotel
Throw their roses at your feet
Fool them all but baby I can tell
You're no stranger to the street
Don't ask for favors
Don't talk to strangers
Don't ask me why.
Joel loves throwing stones, and he picks his victims well. "Glass Houses" will be popular, and so will three, maybe four singles. But the introspection of "Turnstiles" and even "The Stranger" is missing; it's the songs like "Summer, Highland Falls" that raise a piano man above Kings and Diamonds.