KamerTunesBlog

Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time

Forty Year Friday – BILLY JOEL “THE STRANGER”

Artist: BILLY JOEL
Album: THE STRANGER

[Welcome to Forty Year Friday, the weekly series on my favorite albums of 1977]

billy-joel-the-strangerSummer 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 billy-joel-band-1977York 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 billy-joel-1977memorable 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.

 

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35 comments on “Forty Year Friday – BILLY JOEL “THE STRANGER”

  1. DanicaPiche
    February 24, 2017

    Have I mentioned I like the eclectic nature of your posts? I probably did a while ago…I’m used to it now, but I don’t want to take it for granted so — I enjoy the diversity of artists you cover.
    This is an interesting read for me. I don’t know a lot about Joel’s catalogue and have enjoyed some tracks on an individual basis. I’m sure I’ve missed a lot of his talent.

    Like

    • Thanks, Danica. I’m not sure how eclectic my tastes are since most things I enjoy have either gotten mainstream exposure or flew under the radar but are similar to other artists/albums that were commercially successful. I do tend to move between genres easily, though. That’s why I have such a sizeable collection (much to my wife’s chagrin). There’s a whole lot to love in Billy Joel’s discography, even beyond the radio hits. Let me know if you enjoy any of the songs in this post.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Kevin
    February 24, 2017

    Of all the musicians I am a casual fan of, Billy Joel is near the very top of that list. I am more of a “Greatest Hits” fan, but I also know he has a lot of great “deep cuts” (“Rosalinda’s Eyes”, used so effectively in Freaks And Geeks). Turnstiles and The Stranger are essential. I might add The Nylon Curtain to that list, too. I have a super soft spot for “She’s Always A Woman.”

    Like

    • Kevin, I’m surprised that you’re only a casual Billy Joel fan, but considering you know (and like) some of his deep cuts you might not be as casual as you think. I love that F&G episode, where the geeks meet the new girl (Maureen?) and vie for her attention. I always think of it as the “Billy Joel episode.” I agree that The Nylon Curtain is essential, but I feel that way about all of his albums through An Innocent Man, with The Bridge being semi-essential. After that there’s a steep decline before he stopped recording pop/rock music. Thanks for checking in. I always appreciate your input.

      Like

      • Kevin
        February 25, 2017

        Hmm, maybe I am more than a casual fan. The thing is, I all but lost interest after The Nylon Curtain. However, there are a few post-’82 songs that I really like; “This Is The Time” “Running On Ice” “The Downeaster Alexa” and “And So It Goes” immediately come to mind (I might even like Storm Front more than you). What I need to do is go back and listen to his pre-Turnstiles stuff, of which I know very little of.

        Like

      • I really liked Storm Front when it came out but it hasn’t held up well for me, other than 3 or 4 songs. Mick Jones’ big production and Billy’s huskier voice lacked the nuance of his earlier albums. I do like it a whole lot more than River Of Dreams. When I heard the title track I was so excited, but there’s nothing else on there that does anything for me. I hope you enjoy the pre-Turnstiles material whenever you check it out.

        Like

  3. Alyson
    February 24, 2017

    As Danica above has already mentioned I also like the diversity of artists you choose to write about and Friday is rapidly becoming my favourite day for checking out other blogs as the suspense as to which FYF album you choose will be revealed!

    As it turns out I didn’t really know who Billy Joel was in 1977 as this album didn’t come out in the UK until 1978 after which he had a few successes in the Singles Chart. Ironically I still knew Just The Way You Are from the Barry White version in ’78 as it did better than Billy’s over here (a beautiful song). As was wont to happen back then however, by 80/81 The Stranger had been copied onto cassette tape for me by a friend (are we allowed to admit to that heinous crime here) and it was played a lot that year – Thus I know all the songs verbatim and came to love them in a gradual fashion. Don’t know what it was about Billy but I think he was more popular with males at the time than females as my husband still has The Stranger in his collection and the original cassette tape version was from the boyfriend the time.

    Not sure why but the video clips don’t work for me over here although I can easily revisit them myself elsewhere. Last week only the Vevo one worked so much me some international quirk of the internet!

    Like

    • Thanks, Alyson. I’m pleased that I can offer something to look forward to at the end of each week, even if you’re not always a fan of my selections. I figured Billy Joel didn’t break through overseas until this album became a hit in the US, so I’m not surprised that he started to make an impact in the UK a year later. His appeal here always seemed to be split pretty evenly between guys & gals so it’s strange to hear that wasn’t the case for you.

      Sorry the video clips didn’t work for you. I know that some YouTube clips are region-specific but with a couple of clicks I’m sure you could find any of these songs on your side of the pond.

      Like

  4. Phillip Helbig
    February 24, 2017

    “Thanks to producer Phil Ramone”

    Fun fact: Phil Ramone was not one of the Ramones.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. stephen1001
    February 24, 2017

    Fantastic review of a fantastic record Rich (Joel’s only album on the 1001).
    Scenes from an Italian Restaurant and Movin’ Out are my favourites here but like you said, every note is practically perfect in every way!

    Like

    • Thanks, Geoff. Glad you’re also a fan of this one. I’m surprised it’s the only Billy Joel album on the 1001, but if they had to choose only one I suppose this should be it.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Murphy's Law
    February 25, 2017

    The first Billy Joel album I ever heard and still a favorite.

    Like

    • It is an ideal entry point into his discography. Are you a fan of any other Billy Joel albums or just this one?

      Like

      • Murphy's Law
        February 27, 2017

        I stayed with him up to An Innocent Man. I didn’t hate it, but it was a direction that didn’t interest me and I’ve never really caught up with him. I always intended to dig into his back catalog (especially after Songs in the Attic) but I’ve just never gotten around to it. Maybe one day… but I still like Songs in the Attic, Glass Houses, 52nd Street and The Nylon Curtain.

        Like

      • This could be an interesting topic for someone to cover: an album that made you jump ship from an artist you previously liked, and whether you came back on board or completely lost interest. I can see where An Innocent Man wouldn’t have appealed to all of his fans, and by the time The Bridge showed up 3 years later it was too late.

        Like

  7. 80smetalman
    February 25, 2017

    “The Stranger” was the first Billy Joel album I listened to as it did get a lot of airplay back in 1978. What helped me enjoy this album more was the fact that I hadn’t discovered my hard rock self yet.

    Like

    • I could see how this album wouldn’t have been for you if you were in full metal mode, and there’s not much (well, any) metal in his discography, but there are some harder rockin’ songs on 52nd Street, Glass Houses, The Nylon Curtain and Storm Front. Have you ever heard any of those?

      Liked by 1 person

      • 80smetalman
        February 26, 2017

        I’ve heard them all, when “Glass Houses” came out, I thought that Billy Joel was progressing in the same vein as myself. That is definitely his hardest album. Even though I was going harder rock then, I still liked him.

        Like

      • I’m glad I wasn’t off the mark in thinking you might enjoy Glass Houses. I may be right, I may be crazy. 😛

        Like

  8. J.
    February 26, 2017

    Nice post, Rich. I only know a handful of singles and the An Innocent Man, which I happen to own on vinyl (spotted it for 50p a few years ago and thought I’d pick it up) and actually quite like.

    Like

    • Thanks, J. You’re one of the few people I’ve encountered who like An Innocent Man. I consider it one of his best but a lot of people didn’t like the “pop” direction, based on a couple of singles. It’s more diverse than it seems.

      Liked by 1 person

      • J.
        February 26, 2017

        I’d agree. I honestly think it’s really pretty good. I like the nods to pop music of the 50s and there’s a real shuffle to much of it.

        Like

      • I also read years ago that he knew he was reaching the age where he was going to lose his high vocal range so he wanted to make an album where he could sing like Frankie Valli, or something like that. I saw him on the Innocent Man tour and he already had a female vocalist hit the high notes on the title track. He knew what he was doing.

        Liked by 1 person

      • J.
        February 26, 2017

        The title track is pretty wonderful. Never thought I’d ever say that about a Billy Joel track, but it is.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I assume you weren’t always open to Billy Joel’s music so I’m happy to know something changed for you. I agree about the title track from An Innocent Man. There’s really nothing else like it in his discography.

        Liked by 1 person

      • J.
        February 27, 2017

        I never disliked his stuff, but it just never really did anything for me. But I knew a few tracks from An Innocent Man and thought 50p wasn’t much of a loss if I didn’t like anything other than Uptown Girl and The Longest Time.

        Like

      • 25p per song isn’t bad, and the rest were free. 😛

        Liked by 1 person

  9. keepsmealive
    February 26, 2017

    Dammit Rich, 40 years on this one too? Oy.

    Like

  10. Pingback: YOU RIP, YOU SHRED – My Favorite Drummers Part 2 | KamerTunesBlog

  11. Murphy's Law
    February 27, 2017

    I didn’t mean to jump ship, but when one has broad musical tastes, there’s a lot of competition for money and time. Some bands, I don’t care how many mediocre albums they put out, I’ll keep buying them. But sometimes, if an artist slips, they get lost in the shuffle.

    Like

  12. whereishesite
    April 25, 2017

    He is my absolute favorite. I have seen him so many times and my favorite was at The Garden. He is a musical genius. The Stranger is such a great song and so true when you are dating.

    Like

    • Always nice to meet another big Billy Joel fan. I saw him a few times at The Garden in the ’80s & early ’90s and was always blown away. I’ve heard his current shows are really impressive although I miss the band from his classic years. Thanks so much for stopping by.

      Best…
      Rich

      Like

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