The Stranger

The Stranger

Sometimes, overnight success takes a decade to happen. Billy Joel had been recording for that long, in bands and as a solo artist, when he released his fifth solo album. Prior to The Stranger, he’d had one song in the Top 30 of the charts, “Piano Man”. A year later, he had a total of five. Joel had approached The Beatles’ legendary producer George Martin, who agreed to make the album if Joel would use a studio band. But he was determined to use his touring band, so in a massively audacious move, he rejected Martin. Instead, he began a long and fruitful relationship with Phil Ramone, who’d recently produced hits for Paul Simon. In addition to the sheen Ramone brought with him, Joel wrote his best batch of songs to date. “Just the Way You Are” became a pop standard, thanks in part to a dulcet alto sax solo from jazz man Phil Woods, and got him pegged as a balladeer, much to his dismay. But aside from the song’s swaying and enduring beauty, it’s the least interesting song here. The Stranger is a bravura set of rock songs filtered through Joel’s broad, inclusive love of non-rock formats, including Latin rhythms, gospel melodies and brassy Tin Pan Alley songs. There is also a Broadway sweep to the episodic hit “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant”, which taught the whole country that on Long Island, the name Brenda is pronounced “Brender”. Drama suffuses the album, including the film-noir whistling that sets up the title song, and the narratives of “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)”, in which a young man rejects the traps of materialism and hard labour, and “Only the Good Die Young”, where a virgin Catholic girl is wooed by a street tough who could use better come-ons than “I might as well be the one”. It’s a very New York album, from its stylistic diversity and urbane tone to lyrics that mention Sullivan Street, the Village Green and the Parkway Diner. But Joel later said his favourite song on the album, and one of his career favourites, is “Vienna”, an earnest, fatherly meditation on adolescence that opens with a Kurt Weill-styled beer hall piano melody and then adds a string part orchestrated by Pulitzer Prize-nominated arranger Patrick Williams, and an accordion passage that’s like something you might hear walking on the banks of the Danube River.

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