Once again your rockin’ writer felt the need to resurrect his “Listen Again” series. For those of you just joining us, the “Listen Again” series is a series in which we revisit albums that for one reason or another didn’t receive the attention or acclaim they deserved when they were originally released. Whether it was the recording was ahead of its time, broke away from the artist’s usual style, was poorly publicized or initially misunderstood, the “Listen Again” series urges music fans to listen again. This time we revisit Billy Joel’s The Stranger.
As a refresher to some younger readers, William Martin (Billy) Joel was born May 9, 1949 and is an American singer-songwriter and pianist. Since the release of his first hit, “Piano Man”, in 1973, he has become the third-best-selling solo artist in the US. The Stranger is his fifth studio album. Joel leads the way on keys and vocals backed by an assortment of additional artists including: Doug Stegmeyer (bass), Liberty DeVitto (drums), Richie Cannata (saxophones, clarinet, flute, organ and tuba), Steve Khan (guitars), Hiram Bullock (electric guitar), Patrick Williams (orchestration), Ralph MacDonald (percussion) and Hugh McCracken and Steve Burgh (acoustic guitar).
They stepped into the studio in New York City in the summer of 1977 to record the platter. Joel had already written five of the songs to be used. He had yet to write the remainder of the material.
The 9-track album opens on “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)”. This one—written prior to the recording sessions–outlines Joel’s attitude about “the upwardly-mobile bourgeois aspirations” of working folks. (Interesting track trivia: The car sounds near the end of the song were from Stegmeyer’s classic Corvette.)
The second selection, “The Stranger”, was completed in the studio. A short instrumental version of this song is reprised at the end of the LP. (Interesting track trivia: Joel whistled the tune’s theme for his producer Phil Ramone unsure what instrument should play the melody. Ramone told he didn’t need any instrument and stated: “That’s ‘The Stranger,’ the whistling.”)
“Just the Way You Are” was written previously for his first wife and then manager Elizabeth Weber. Joel and the band didn’t really like it but the opinions of Linda Ronstadt, Phoebe Snow (both also recording in the building) and his producer swayed him to include it rather than try and write a new song. It features Phil Woods on alto saxophone and Richard Tee on Fender Rhodes.
Side one winds down with “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant”. This more than seven-and-a-half-minute song-story started out as a shorter tune titled “The Ballad of Brenda and Eddie”. It became the third chapter of “Restaurant” in the studio. It features Dominic Cortese on accordion.
The flip side leads off with “Vienna” which also includes Cortese on accordion was also finished in the studio. It is one of Joel’s two favorite songs, was inspired by a search for his biological father and is meant to be a musical metaphor for the rest of one’s life. It is perhaps all too quickly followed by “Only the Good Die Young” which was controversial for its time because it told the tuneful tale of a boy trying to talk a Catholic girl into having sex with him.
Next is the acoustical ballad “She’s Always a Woman”. This was a love song to an imperfect, modern woman. He shifts gears with the next number “Get It Right the First Time” before winding it up with the closing cut “Everybody Has a Dream/The Stranger (Reprise)”. This included Tee on organ and Phoebe “Poetry Man” Snow, Gwen Guthrie (Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder), Grammy winner Patti Austin and Lani Groves on background vocals.
Released in September of 1977 with a running time of over 42 minutes, it was his breakthrough album and camped out at number 2 on the US charts for six weeks. Four singles off the LP made it onto the Billboard Hot 100: Grammy winner “Just the Way You Are” (number 3), “Movin’ Out” (number 17), “Only the Good Die Young” (number 24), and “She’s Always a Woman” (number 17).
In 2008, a special 30th Anniversary Edition of The Stranger was released. It included two special editions: a 2 CD Legacy Edition as well as a Deluxe Limited Edition (which includes two CDs and a bonus DVD). The limited deluxe edition of The Stranger features a CD of the original platter, a CD of a previously unreleased concert, a DVD of two live promo videos and Joel’s appearance on the BBC’s Old Grey Whistle Test.
Billy Joel’s The Stranger was a critical improvement over the previous releases and was lyrically more mature in terms of perspective. It remains his best-selling non-compilation disc to date and was even slotted in at number 70 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. If you’ve never listened to Billy Joel’s The Stranger, listen to it. If you’ve already listened to it . . . listen again.
My name is Phoenix and . . . that’s the bottom line.