By the summer of 1977, Billy Joel was hanging on to his Columbia Records contract by a tiny thread. “Piano Man” may have been a fluke radio hit in 1973, but he’d never sold many albums and his prior effort, 1976’s Turnstiles, peaked at a pathetic Number 122. “You have to imagine them sitting there with a red pencil going, ‘OK, that’s it for this guy,'” Joel told Rolling Stone in 2013. “‘He doesn’t come through on this next album, he’s gone.'”
As Joel saw it, a big part of the problem was that his albums never came close to matching the power of his live show. Columbia kept teaming him with studio bands and producers that failed to truly understand his music. But by 1977, Joel had an incredible new batch of songs in his back pocket and a new producer named Phil Ramone eager to work with him and his road band. “He loved the energy we put out onstage,” said Joel. “He loved the band, he loved the interaction, he loved the sound. He loved the rough edges. He liked that we were rock & roll animals.”
Working together they crafted an album that would produce four huge hit singles, sell millions of copies and move Billy Joel into basketball arenas for the rest of his career. They called it The Stranger, and it hit shelves on September 29th, 1977. In honor of its 40th anniversary, here is a guide to the album’s nine songs.