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The Stranger
Billy Joel

Columbia 34987
Released: September 1977
Chart Peak: #2
Weeks Charted: 137
Certified 6x Platinum: 10/19/84

Billy JoelThe title of Billy Joel's newest release, The Stranger, may echo the Albert Camus novel, but once into it you soon discover that it is much more like a "Remembrance of Things Pasta," an Italian-American nostalgia trip. True, it has a directness that Proust would probably have found appalling, but it gives the listener a unique opportunity to get into the head and feelings of a now grown-up ex-greaser through a group of songs that are at once a love letter and a farewell to youth, by turns touching, mordant, funny, gross (new sense), melodramatic, and naive. One indication that this is a real world that confronts us is the fact that none of these songs could possibly be sung convincingly by the thirty-four-year-old classically trained actor who plays "Fonze," either of the young Beverly Hills matrons who play "Laverne" or "Shirley," or any of the other commercially confected personalities from Fernwood and beyond that the media have been offering up to satisfy that strange new longing for blue-collar times and places that never were.

The Stranger works because Joel knows his territory firsthand. Beginning with "Movin' Out (Anthony's Song)," you know that the testimony you are about to hear is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but. An ambitious kid works in a grocery store, saving his pennies for he knows not what, "Mama Leone left a not on the door/ She said, 'Sonny, move out to the country.'" But, Sonny asks, "Who needs a house out in Hackensack?/ If that's movin' up, then I'm movin' out." He goes on to question just what everyone else in the neighborhood is doing with what they've earned ("He's tradin' in his Chevy for a Cadillac"), and comes to the angry and defiant conclusion that all he knows is what he doesn't want.

Billy Joel - The Stranger
Original album advertising art.
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Another closely observed vignette is "Only the Good Die Young," in which the tensions of sexual urge and sexual guilt are beautifully sketched. A young Casanova half cajoles, half pleads with a girl to let him ease her off her virgin pedestal with a technique as time-worn as it is dishonorable, pretended hurt feelings, pious illogic, and all. What really gets him is that her mother has warned her about him: "(All) I could give you was a reputation/ She never cared for me/ But did she ever say a prayer for me?" It is such accurate little touches that make Joel's work a delight.

"Scenes from an Italian Restaurant" is a lot moodier but no less candid. It is an eight-minute monologue about running into a buddy from the old neighborhood and catching up on what's happened to everybody -- mostly to Brenda and Eddie who were, to the narrator, the Scott and the Zelda, the golden kids of the hang-out set: "Nobody ever looked finer/ Or was more of a hit at the Parkway Diner." Of course they had married -- and divorced: "Brenda and Eddie had had it/ Already by the summer of '75." The melody for this greaser "Tristan und Isolde" (and Joel is a melodist, something rather rare in Seventies pop) is in the hazy, smoky, yearning style of his own "Piano Man," dust particles filtering through afternoon sunlight. Much of the impact of the song comes from the tone of resigned acceptance (that's the way things turn out) in which he sings it, the kind of sarcastic wisdom with which a man looks at the boy he was.

There are a couple of things here that don't work in the way they were probably intended, but they still carry wight because of Joel's performing intensity. The most ambitious is the title song, a thoroughly respectable failure that attempts the almost impossible -- describing the stranger within us who knows all our secrets, shares all our lies, and tries to hide us from ourselves and from other people. It is a rather too abstractly presented attempt to ape the log-cabin philosophizing of a Harry Chapin or an Elliot Murphy. Joel's best work is too real and wise for him to bother with such solemn chit-chat.

A world apart from this kind of introspection is the melodramatic "She's Always a Woman," about one of those five-and-dime Loreleis who can do an honest man in with the flick of a beaded eyelash. It gets fairly silly before it cranks down to its masochistic end, but then even greasers must have some myths to live by. "Everybody Has a Dream" (see what I mean?), "Get It Right the First Time," and "Just the Way You Are" are all good tracks only slightly below the very top grade of "Scenes" and "Movin' Out."

The production by Phil Ramone and the orchestrations by Patrick Williams serve Joel and his work perfectly by intruding not at all; there's not a "cute" gimmick to be heard anywhere in the album. Joel is singing better than I've ever heard him before, with an accent on clear-clearer-clearest diction and an avoidance of his old habit of underscoring "big" lines with an extra mood chord or two on the piano. The Stranger isn't a particularly showy or innovative album, but it is bone-hones, filled with a very privileged kind of insight, and as gritty as life.

The next time a young greaser sideswipes your car, gives you the finger, and roars off into the sunset, remember that he is probably one of those Anthonys cursed with the strong premonition that his personal sunset will begin promptly at the end of his teens. Billy Joel seems to be about the only artist who is pointing out what this sad little sociological footnote means in human terms, and that, I think, is important.

- Peter Reilly, Stereo Review, 1/78.

Bonus Reviews!

This is the first Billy Joel album in some time that has significantly expanded his repertoire. While Streetlife Serenade and Turnstiles had occasional moments, the bulk of Joel's most memorable material was on Cold Spring Harbor -- despite its severe technical flaws -- and Piano Man, which gave him his only major success. This time, while such songs as "Movin' Out" and "Just the Way You Are" are forced and overly simplistic, the imagery and melodies of The Stranger more often than not work.

Together with producer Phil Ramone, Joel has achieved a fluid sound occasionally sparked by a light soul touch. It is a markedly different effect than his pound-it-out-to-the-back-rows concert flash, although the title song, "Only The Good Die Young" and "Get It Right the First Time" will adapt to that approach as readily as, say, such a Joel signature piece as "Captain Jack."

"She's Always A Woman," which sounds misleadingly tender, is the key to the difference between The Stranger and Joel's other LPs. We don't expect subtlety or understatement from him and, indeed, his lyrics can be as smartassed as ever. But Ramone's emphasis on sound definitely lessens the impact of the sarcasm, which in the long run may help boost Joel's career immeasurably. In the meantime, old fans will have to listen more carefully than usual.

- Ira Mayer, Rolling Stone, 12-29-77.

Nine new tunes from the piano-playing, singing songwriter whose detailed descriptions of life, love and suburbia have won him a loyal following. Producer Phil Ramone hasn't taken him too far away from the basic Billy Joel style, which tends toward sameness. The compelling story lines carry the album, however, and his fans won't be disappointed, nor will curious newcomers. Backing Joel's piano is a rhythmic support unit. Best cuts: "Only The Good Die Young," "Vienna," "The Stranger," "Movin' Out," "Scenes From An Italian Restaurant."

- Billboard, 1977.

Having concealed his egotism in metaphor as a young songpoet, Joel achieved success when he uncloseted the spoiled brat behind those bulging eyes. But here the brat appears only once, in the nominally metaphorical guise of "the stranger." The rest of Billy has more or less grown up. He's now as likeable as your once-rebellious and still-tolerant uncle who has the quirk of believing that OPEC was designed to ruin his air-conditioning business. B-

- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.

The Stranger was Billy Joel's first chart album in Britain and his first Top 10 hit in America. In the States The Stranger went platinum and yielded four Top 30 singles.

The major hit, "Just the Way You Are," has become a standard. Joel once told The Other Side of the Tracks that he wrote the song for his then-wife Elizabeth's birthday. "I had the idea a couple of months before but I forgot about it because I don't write music down," he recalled. "When I get an idea I'll sing it into a tape recorder. I didn't have a tape recorder at the time I thought of it. [Weeks later] I was in the middle of some meeting discussing bookings or something. I said 'I have to leave right now because the melody just came back in my head.' ...I went home and wrote the song and said, here, happy birthday."

Billy modestly credited the success of the song to several factors, not just its own merits. "We were doing a major tour where we were headlining big places... Phil [Ramone] had produced a really good album... everything was just clicking." Since the love song was Joel's first UK success it was not too surprising that Barry White, who had a dozen hits under his belt, achieved a higher chart placing in Britain with his version. Though amused by that fact, the composer was more tickled by Isaac Hayes' cover.

"Only the Good Die Young," another US hit from the package, was a controversial cut. Joel attributed its success to the publicity it received from being banned on what could be called Catholic stations, such as the radio at Seton Hall University. "The point of the song wasn't so much anti-Catholic as pro-lust," the artist explained. "Jewish guilt is in the guts. Catholic guilt is all Gothic, and a lot of people obviously were interested in hearing about this." In St. Louis, where Joel received a threat of assassination if he performed the song, he played it twice.

One track that received considerable airplay despite all odds was the lengthy "Scenes from an Italian Restaurant." This was an amalgam of three different songs Joel had worked on, one of which had actually been called "A Scene from an Italian Restaurant." Another was "The Ballad of Brenda and Eddie" and the third had no title.

Though obviously not of Italian ancestry himself, the writer felt an affinity for the culture. "If you're from New York you're Italian and Jewish by assimilation," he said. "You are just from the atmosphere, the food and the people you meet. 'Scenes from an Italian Restaurant' wasn't so much about an Italian restaurant as the Italian-American way of life. It's typically New York." So typically, as Billy pointed out, that when he names Brenda in the song he pronounces the name "Brender."

In 1987, The Stranger was chosen by a panel of rock critics and music broadcasters as the #55 rock album of all time.

- Paul Gambaccini, The Top 100 Rock 'n' Roll Albums of All Time, Harmony Books, 1987.

Billy Joel's big breakthrough came with The Stranger, a finely crafted album which finally ousted Bridge Over Troubled Water as the biggest selling album in America. The appeal lies in the fluidity and interchangeability of style and Joel's impeccable keyboard craft across this wide range of styles from boogie and rock to ballad. Some of Joel's finest hits are contained on this album including the subsequently heavily covered love song "Just the Way You Are" and the touching slow-moving ballad "She's Always a Woman."

The Stranger was one of the first Compact Discs available in 1983. The sound from those discs was not altogether ingratiating with a lisping treble character and a lack of real detail and dynamics. The end-result was a "twisted" sounding, hissy CD. Current pressings are much finer with a tighter sound and a slight pitch difference! The sound now is confidently relaxed with a neat bass and a new-found purity in plectrum-strummed acoustic guitar. The carefully polished production now gleams.

Early pressings show a 42.38s track timing as opposed to 42.49s. Sadly, discoveries like this serve to underline the impossibility of double guessing Compact Disc releases and the problems of parallel supply.

Recommended as Joel's lasting best.

- David Prakel, Rock 'n' Roll on Compact Disc, 1987.

The breakthrough to superstardom, containing the hits "Just the Way You Are," "Movin' Out (Anthony's Song)," "Only the Good Die Young," and "She's Always a Woman." All those are on Greatest Hits -- Vols. 1 & II, but "Scenes From an Italian Restaurant," one of Joel's most compelling story-songs, is not. * * * *

- William Ruhlmann, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.

There's more to the 1977 pop-rock masterpiece The Stranger than its four hit singles (the suite "Scenes From an Italian Restaurant," for one), making it a Billy Joel classic. * * * * *

- David Yonke, Musichound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, 1996.

"I love it just the way it is" fawn fans of this brilliantly produced guilty pleasure of smart, effective pop songs that tell stories of everyday life, love and Catholic girls with unabashed romanticism countered by New Yawk charm. The Long Island suburban poet created so many vivid, reliable characters on this sentimental favorite that there are no throwaway cuts -- but perhaps what's stranger is he never had an album this good again. * * * * *

- Zagat Survey Music Guide - 1,000 Top Albums of All Time, 2003.

Further reading on
Super Seventies RockSite!:

Album Review: Piano Man

Album Review:
Streetlife Serenade

Album Review: 52nd Street

Album Review: Glass Houses

Album Review:
The Nylon Curtain

Album Review:
An Innocent Man

Album Review: The Bridge

Album Review: My Lives

Article: "A Billy
Joel State of Mind"

Billy Joel:
In His Own Words

Billy Joel FAQ

Billy Joel Lyrics

Billy Joel Videos

Billy Joel Mugshots

Before The Stranger, Billy Joel's albums had always sounded a bit thin sonically -- which was part of the reason he had trouble establishing a reputation as a rocker. But this record marked the beginning of a fruitful decade-long collaboration with producer Phil Ramone, who put some much-needed muscle behind Joel's carefully crafted songs. "Just the Way You Are" became the wedding-band standard, but the real pleasure here is the specificity of the lyrics in the rock songs located in New York, such as "Mister Cacciatore's down on Sullivan Street," in "Movin' Out (Anthony's Song)," or the saga of Brenda and Eddie in "Scenes From an Italian Restaurant."

The Stranger was chosen as the 67th greatest album of all time by the editors of Rolling Stone magazine in Dec. 2003.

- Rolling Stone, 12/11/03.

The Stranger delivered on the promise of earlier albums such as Streetlife Serenade and Turnstiles to become Billy Joel's breakthrough album. Pairing him for the first time with producer Phil Ramone, the nine-track set offered at times a slicker, more commercial version of what had come before.

The album's double Grammy-winning ballad "Just The Way You Are" gave Billy Joel his first million-selling, Top 10 single, even though he had to be convinced by Linda Ronstadt and Phoebe Snow that it was even worthy of inclusion on The Stranger. The song has since been covered by more than 200 artists. "Movin' Out" and "She's Always a Woman" from the album also became Top 40 hits in their own right, as did "Only The Good Die Young," despite a ban by Catholic radio stations which deemed it anti-Catholic. "Scences From An Italian Restaurant," a characteristic Joel observation on New York life, was the result of combining three different songs.

Penned entirely by its artist, The Stranger went on to become Columbia's all-time second biggest seller behind Simon and Garfunkel's Bridge Over Troubled Water, although was kept from ever reaching Number One by the success of the soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever.

As of 2004, The Stranger was the #12 best-selling album of the 70s.

- Hamish Champ, The 100 Best-Selling Albums of the 70s, 2004.

The Stranger was the third album from the 28-year-old Billy Joel, who had just begun making a living from his music, having played in piano bars throughout high school in New York to supplement the income of his single mother. Whilst he had already achieved headline status with 1974's Streetlife Serenade, The Stranger was Joel's first album to hit number one on the charts and remained Columbia Records' biggest selling album until 1985. It also prompted his biggest tour yet, playing 54 shows to the United States and Europe in the fall of 1977.

The nine-track-long album produced four singles; "Just The Way You Are" that provided his first two Grammy Awards in 1978, "Movin' Out (Anthony's Song)" with its teen rebellion message and car sounds included, the gentler "She's Always A Woman," and the infectious "Only The Good Die Young." Whilst the lyrics are poetic and clever, the album has a youthful appeal and Joel's gift for storytelling is particularly poignant on the astonishing "Scenes From An Italian Restaurant."

Musically diverse, Joel's dynamic songwriting is further dramatized in the title track's quiet piano introduction before rocking out in the middle section incorporating a barrage of electric guitars, concluding with the haunting sound of whistling. An amazing 24 people played various parts on the recording. The album is reasonably warm in tone, but slightly eerie in its execution, further exemplified by the stark black-and-white image of a bare-footed, suit-and-tie wearing Joel, sitting on a bed lookng at a mask with boxing gloves hanging in the background.

- Claire Stuchbery, 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, 2005.

(30th Anniversary Legacy Edition) In 1977, Joel's fifth and best album replaced Simon and Garfunkel's Bridge Over Troubled Water as Columbia Records' top seller to date, establishing Joel as a titan of adult contemporary -- America's answer to Elton John. The Stranger also marked the beginning of Joel's long-term collaboartion with producer Phil Ramone, who distilled the Piano Man's music to its essence: a hook-packed blend of AM-radio pop rock and glistening dollops of Broadway schmaltz. The hit single was the gooey "Just the Way You Are," but there's impressive variety here: contemplative ballads ("Vienna"), impressionistic epics ("Scenes From an Italian Restaurant") and pop's greatest paean to deflowering Catholic schoolgirls ("Only the Good Die Young"), written in a style that recalls Tin Pan Alley.

Joel's melodic genius invites comparisons to Paul McCartney, but Joel is a much nastier guy, always pissed off at someone, usually female: "She's Always a Woman" has a lovely, lulling tune, but listen to the words: "She'll carelessly cut you and laugh while you're bleeding."

This 30th-anniversary reissue is also available in a Limited Edition that includes a bonus DVD featuring two live promotional videos from The Stranger, as well as Joel's 1978 appearance on the BBC's Old Grey Whistle Test, which only aired once on the U.K.'s BBC2. But the real gem is the bonus live CD of a Carnegie Hall performance from 1977. It's a reminder that Joel was a distinctly regional artist: the poet of the Parkway Diner, who captured the pugnacious attitude and garish local colors of the New York suburbs.

- Jody Rosen, Rolling Stone, 8/7/08.

On this record, the Piano Man found the recipe for success, sharpening his storytelling gifts with a sense of humor and compassion, whether he's singing about a Little Italy hustler in "Movin' Out (Anthony's Song)" or the femme fatale in "She's Always a Woman."

The Stranger was chosen as the 169th greatest album of all time in a Rolling Stone magazine poll of artists, producers, critics and music industry figures in Oct. 2020.

- Rolling Stone, 10/20.

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