Billy Joel – The Stranger
Released September, 1977
This week’s guest reviewer is Perth’s very own piano man, Mr Courtney Murphy. Courtney has been making music with his brothers Kieran and Chris for most of his life, and started playing in pubs well before he was 18. Raised on a diet of Beatles, Hollies, Bee Gees and Beach Boys, Courtney is blessed with an ear for harmonies and fingers that know what the black keys do. In 2004, Courtney finished in third place on the second series of Australian Idol. Since then he’s toured the country in a stage production of Grease, released his solo album “Big” in 2010 and recently put out “Thick as Thieves” with Kieran and Chris as The Murphy Brothers. Courtney continues to play in and around Perth, both as a solo artist and with his bands Murphy’s Lore and The Murphy Brothers. He’s also a massive Billy Joel fan. You can find him on the internet here: www.courtneymurphy.com.au and www.themurphybrothers.com.au.
I’m not a Billy Joel fan; I’m a Billy Joel freak. He’s the guy that got me out of classical piano playing and into rock piano. I remember auditioning for the conservatorium of music at the age of 15 with my audition piece a medley of ‘Prelude/Angry Young Man’,’ My Life’ and ‘Root Beer Rag’.
Billy Joel has always fascinated me, from his humble beginnings through to his meteoric rise; otherwise known as ‘The Stranger’.
“The Stranger” was Billy’s 5th Studio album, and by this point his writing was getting stronger and stronger. Not to delve too deeply into his previous outings, “Cold Spring Harbor” a valiant attempt at his first solo album suffered from poor mastering (he sounded like a chipmunk) and an even poorer recording contract. “Piano Man” his first album signed to Columbia, did considerably better in the US Billboard charts reaching #27, however in Joel’s own words ‘it didn’t sell well’. “Streetlife Serenade”, Joel’s third album didn’t fare as well as its predecessor only reaching #34 on the US chart. Billy has stated that the album suffered due to a lack of songs; the studio rushed him into recording a follow up to “Piano Man” and the material ‘wasn’t there’. In fact, on a ten song album, 2 of the songs are instrumentals.
On Billy’s 4th album “Turnstiles” a sense of happiness appears, possibly due to the album being recorded back in his hometown, New York, a first with his stint with Columbia. The album is strong and shows a clear direction for Billy’s work; upward.
“The Stranger” is considered Billy Joel’s breakthrough album, and with reason. It stayed at the #2 spot on the US Charts for 6 weeks. It remains his highest selling non-compilation album to date and is a stalwart at #70 in the Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.
The track listing tells the story, literally. From the opening line of ‘Movin’ Out (Anthony’s song)’ “Anthony works in a grocery store, saving his pennies for someday”… Billy paints a picture of life as he sees it. This is no more evident than in the epic piece ‘Scenes from an Italian Restaurant’. Running at a whopping 7 minutes and 37 seconds, he obviously didn’t heed his own advice from ‘The Entertainer’ (Streetlife Serenade) where he exclaims “If you’re gonna have a hit, you’ve gotta make it fit, so they cut it down to 3:05”. ‘Scenes’ epic story only adds to the ‘concept’ album feel Billy has created, from the enigmatic ‘whistle’ of the Stranger to the repeated ‘Woooah’ motif in both ‘Scenes from an Italian Restaurant’ and ‘Get it Right the First Time’. So recognisable is the vocal ad lib it’s hard not to feel like a reprise of sorts.
Concept aside, it was the songs that finally put Billy into the echelon of great pop/rock composers, with 4 of the 9 songs on the album being released as singles and all 4 charting well within the US Top 40. ‘Just the Way You Are’ the first single and Grammy’s song of the year reached #3, ‘Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)’ the 2nd single reached #17, ‘Only the Good Die Young’ climbed to #24 and his 2nd heartfelt love song for the album ‘She’s Always a Woman’ also hit #17.
‘Only the Good Die Young’ may have possibly charted higher but many radio stations banned the song due to its risqué intentions of a boy trying to convince a chaste catholic girl to have sex with him. Joel also admits that the album’s success could have been helped along by the minor controversy.
The Stranger stands up even today with the production sounding raw and honest with songs to match. The album cemented Billy Joel pride of place in the all-time greats and in my opinion matched this intensity for many years after; until his final pop/rock studio album ‘River of Dreams’ from 1993. If only we could convince him 20 years on to come out of studio album retirement… he could give us another ‘The Stranger’.
This is what I’m going to love about the 70s. I still hear some of the songs from “The Stranger” on the radio! ‘Only The Good Die Young’, ‘She’s Always A Woman’ and ‘Just The Way You Are’ are songs I’ve been listening to as long as I’ve been alive, and always sing along to when I hear them on the radio. Another great point about the 70s is that a lot of our bands had already debuted in the 60s, and have found their way, sort of refined their style by the 70s. “The Stranger” is Billy Joel’s fifth studio album, and it came quite late in the 70s, to the point where I always thought it was an 80s album. The strength of Billy Joel’s appeal is based around his brilliant piano skills. There’s not enough piano anymore. I’m always impressed by people who can play like Joel does, and sing as well as he does simultaneously. The stand out track for me in this regard is ‘She’s Always A Woman’. Joel sings so sweetly, and sounds one hundred perfect focused on the vocals, but the piano never misses. That kind of skill is amazing to me. I loved that Billy Joel actually sounds like he’s enjoying himself while he’s singing. Listen to ‘Scenes From An Italian Restaurant’ and tell me he’s not having fun, especially at the 1:40 mark when the tempo ramps up. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the saxophone in “The Stranger”, because it’s one of my favourite things. The soulfulness in ‘Just The Way You Are’ is perfectly smooth, the hyper soprano sax in ‘Only The Good Die Young’ (even though it’s only short) is suitably energetic. Not a weak spot in this album. I don’t think I’ll ever tire if it!
I hadn’t really listened to much Billy Joel up until now and have been living in blind ignorance, in fact I didn’t even know that he wrote ‘Just the Way You Are’ or ‘Only the Good Die Young’, although I knew the songs. I found this album really enjoyable to listen to and you can see that Joel put in tonnes of heart and soul and filtered his own experiences into this album. On this, his breakthrough and best-selling album, Joel works within the genres of rock, soft rock and soul. It’s not exactly a concept album, but there are common themes of love and the reality of loss, a sense of melancholy and at times bitterness. The lyrics tell vivid stories about big loves (‘Just the Way You Are’) relationship breakdowns (‘Scenes from an Italian Restaurant’) and premature death (‘Only the Good Die Young’). The album is a solid concoction of pop rock songs, some of them memorable, some of them not, and at least 2 of them are a bit too naff for me. There were more highlights than lowlights, in fact the only tracks that I didn’t particularly rate were ‘Scenes from an Italian Restaurant’ (too long and drawn out), ‘Vienna’ (plain boring and too different from the rest), and ‘Get it Right the First Time’ (too cheesy). As a whole, “The Stranger” is so easy to listen to that I listened to this one about 10 times without even flinching. You can see why it is a timeless classic.
When Billy Joel was recording “The Stranger” he was under considerable pressure. His previous album, “Turnstiles”, was a commercial failure and his biggest hit single to date, ‘Piano Man’, was three years ago. Joel needed to deliver the goods or disappear into the annals of pop obscurity. Well, deliver he did. “The Stranger” went on to become Joel’s highest selling album and saw four songs land in the Top 25 of the US singles chart. This is an excellent set of pop/rock classics that have been subconsciously engrained into my psyche over the years. I was already familiar with most of this record, despite having never listened to it in full before. Even the album tracks are killer, with songs like ‘Scenes From An Italian Restaurant’ and ‘Vienna’ becoming big audience favourites over the years, despite never being released as singles. Timeless ballads ‘Just the Way You Are’ and ‘She’s Always a Woman’ have graced many a wedding reception, and Joel’s knack for observational pop pieces paint the New York landscape of ‘Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)’ as vividly as any Scorsese film. I love the way the instrumental introduction from the title track returns as a reprise after the gospel-infused closer ‘Everybody Has a Dream’ finishes. I think ‘The Stranger’ might actually be my favourite track on the album too. I really dig the concept of people hiding a part of themselves away from others and Joel’s haunting whistle sounds like a it came from a film noir soundtrack. You can almost hear the rain falling. This a rare example of an album filled with high quality songwriting and production to match from an artist about to reach his artistic peak. I wonder if “The Stranger” hadn’t been born out of a make-or-break situation, would it still have been this good?
When it came to putting together the 70s list, my vote was for “The Stranger” by Billy Joel to not be there. One of the things I’ve been very firm about with this project is that the bands and singers that make the cut have been in someone influential on the musical landscape. Because of Joel’s commercial success and the fact I still hear him on the ‘golden oldies’ radio stations I wrote him off as being fluff. I’m glad I put the vote out there to you guys and can now see the error of my ways. The week wasn’t without its trials and tribulations though. Because my only familiarity with Joel was from his big commercial hits I struggled through the first few listens. Once I had sat with the album a few times and was able to get past that, and well past myself really, I was able to see the brilliant storyteller that Joel is and the intricacies in his music. The key to it though is he makes it sound so simple and effortless. The album definitely has a gritty New York feel to it, and in that respect Both Joel and the musicians are right on the money. Joel uses both his lyrics and music to paint a landscape that is very vivid. The vocal melody in ‘Vienna’ is particularly pretty and the story it tells is as relevant as ever, so it stands out as a highlight for me. I fell a little bit in love with Billy Joel this week. I don’t think I’ll be so quick to change the station next time I hear the opening bars of one of his ‘classics’ from now on. As schmaltzy as “Just the Way You Are’ is I will now sing along with every corny word with much respect for the man.