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Billy Joel: The Stranger

Is “The Stranger” Billy Joel’s best work

Billy Joel The Stranger 2

Photo credit: Jim Houghton/SonyBMG Archives

“Slow down you crazy Child, you’re so ambitious for a juvenile, but then if you’re so smart, tell me why are you so afraid, where’s the fire what’s the hurry about, you’re better cool it off before you burn it out,  you got so much to do and only so many hours in the day. But you know that when the truth is told, you can get what you want or you can just get old. You’re gonna kick off before you even get half way through” – part of the song, Vienna by Billy Joel.

For people that like or love Billy Joel, The Stranger, is an album that has mostly aged well. In many ways, it was among the most important albums of my teenage years (the whole list will be revealed over time and its an eclectic list). First, turn on the album and keep reading. I’ve found some great photography from the original photo shoots, and there’s some great interview material and a video of “The Stranger” for you to watch, not to mention the entire album from our friends at lala.com.

According to Jody Rosen in Rolling Stone magazine: “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 collaboration 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.”

While I was growing up in Calcutta in the early 80’s – Billy Joel was confessional, yet in a way that took control. He wasn’t the pussy that Jackson Browne was to me at the time (although that album would save me from despair in many ways in 2006) and got even more interesting with a chance encounter with Jackson in LA later that year. Billy Joel was American to the core, not just singing about Pink Houses or being happy to be born in America, but also proud to be a New Yorker, and eager to share the motley crew of characters that populated his life. Movin’ Out has, of course, become bigger because its the name of the show, The Stranger track, itself, always made me sad when I realized the distance between Billy and his lover – and this was in my early teens. While Just the Way You Are is a sugary song, which was a huge hit, it has always been a favorite. My mother and I sang it to each other and it was part of the soundtrack for my early formative relationships. While most people love Scenes from an Italian Restaurant, my favorite is Vienna. Perhaps, now, in my forties, I can come to the conclusion that this is track on this record that has aged best. Its stood the test of time – its never been over played and it speaks to the fact that growing older (not old) bring new pleasures, and even suggest slowing down because the meaningful awaits.

I hope you’re listening to these tracks and when you get to Vienna. Take the phone off the hooks and disappear for a while. Its alright. You can afford to lose a day or two. When will you realize? Vienna waits for you.

Footnote: There’s also a 30th-anniversary reissue which includes a bonus DVD featuring two live promotional videos from The Stranger including Billy Joel’s 1978 appearance on the BBC’s Old Grey Whistle Test (which only aired once on the U.K.’s BBC2) and there’s the bonus live CD of a Carnegie Hall performance from 1977.

CREDIT: Jim Houghton/SonyBMG Archives

Photo credit: Jim Houghton/SonyBMG Archives