Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
Artist: BILLY JOEL
Album: THE STRANGER
[Welcome to Forty Year Friday, the weekly series on my favorite albums of 1977]
Summer camp in 1978 was soundtracked by a number of albums from the previous year that will appear in this series, but few are more vivid than Billy Joel’s The Stranger. Most of us pre-teens knew 1973’s “Piano Man” but not the man who recorded it. Then, after two subsequent albums that failed to make much mainstream impact, he broke through in a big way with his fifth studio album, The Stranger. Thanks to producer Phil Ramone, who took over for the previous year’s Turnstiles and allowed him to record with his incredible touring band (drummer Liberty DeVitto, bassist Doug Stegmeyer & saxophonist Richie Cannata) for the first time, alongside several session musicians, Joel was finally able to capture the energy of his live shows on record, a formula repeated for The Stranger. This was his most consistent & diverse collection of songs to date and, with seven of its nine songs becoming radio staples, it could easily be mistaken for an early greatest hits album. I love all of the records that preceded The Stranger but the legend of Billy Joel really begins here. I previously discussed my love of his discography in last year’s Thirty Year Thursday post on The Bridge, his final collaboration with Ramone and the majority of his “classic era” band. Few artists have enjoyed the kind of successful run, both creatively & commercially, that he had during the decade spanning 1977 & 1986.
The longest song in his discography, “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant,” is also one of his most popular despite never being released as a single. Bookended by a piano ballad about “a bottle of white, a bottle of red” are two uptempo but stylistically different stories; a first-person account of two people catching up (“Things are okay with me these days, got a good job, got a good office…”) and a hopeful yet dispiriting tale about high school sweethearts Brenda & Eddie. “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)” was the first song that caught my attention, with its tales of New York characters & locations (Mama Leone, Sergeant O’Leary, Mr. Cacciatore’s) and an instantly memorable hook at “heart attack-ack-ack-ack-ack-ack.” The pretty ballad “Just The Way You Are,” with Joel on Fender Rhodes, quickly became a slow dance staple at school dances, Bar/Bat Mitzvahs and weddings. The writer himself apparently felt it was too treacly and wanted to leave it off the album, but fortunately he was convinced otherwise, as the song won Grammy Awards for Song Of The Year & Record Of The Year and became his first Top 5 hit. The peppy “Only The Good Die Young” was originally intended as a mock-reggae tune but DeVitto hated playing reggae, so he convinced Joel to try out an uptempo shuffle groove which came to define the song. Protesters who claimed the song was anti-Christian inadvertently helped the single, which was stalling on the charts, become another big hit. “She’s Always A Woman” is a stunning ballad in a sort-of waltz tempo, with lyrics that always seemed like a backhanded compliment (“She can kill with her smile, she can wound with her eyes”) until I learned it was about his first wife, who was also his manager.
The haunting “Vienna” evokes visions of Eastern Europe with its lilting accordion melody and Joel inquiring, “When will you realize…Vienna waits for you?” Since 1981 I’ve associated this song with the TV comedy Taxi thanks to its memorable use in an episode where platonic friends Alex & Elaine travel to Europe and escalate their relationship for the first & only time. “The Stranger” shifts from tinkling piano & Joel’s whistled melody line (originally intended as a placeholder for some kind of wind instrument) to a funky groove with vivid lyrics (“Well we all fall in love but we disregard the danger, though we share so many secrets, there are some we never tell”). A shorter instrumental version appears as a hidden track at the end of the album. Two lesser known but equally vital songs round out the track listing: the jazz-tinged “Get It Right The First Time,” highlighted by a kick-ass groove from DeVitto, and “Everybody Has A Dream,” a gospel-flavored waltz with gorgeous female choir vocals (featuring renowned singers Patti Austin, Gwen Guthrie & Phoebe Snow), originally written by Joel in 1971. The Stranger is a classic album in every sense of the word, where each song…each note…each performance is as close to perfect as it can get.