Billy Joel’s ‘The Stranger’ at 40: A Track-by-Track Guide
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.
“Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)”
The first of the many characters we meet on The Stranger is Anthony, a Long Island grocery-store worker with dreams of making it big. “At the time I just pictured some lady yelling out of a house, ‘Anthony! Anthony!'” Joel said. “I was thinking about a kid who’s been living at home and getting a lot of pressure from his family to go his own way. He isn’t buying into the whole upward mobility thing.” That sort of resistance to societal pressures was a theme that Joel would hit again and again. The single reached Number 17 on the Hot 100 and has remained a key part of his live show for the past four decades. Its fame only grew when it became the title of his 2002 Broadway show.
The title song to The Stranger didn’t have an intro when Billy Joel began tracking it. He wanted to create an evocative mood, sort of like what Orson Welles did in The Third Man, but he couldn’t quite come up with anything. He whistled an idea merely as an example of something that could be emulated on an instrument. “I look at [Phil Ramone] and I said, ‘So what instrument should that be?'” Joel recalled. “And he looks at me and he goes, ‘You just did it.’ I hadn’t even considered that. I’m not the greatest whistler in the world, but he said that’s what should be on the recording. And I listened back and I went, ‘Holy shit, he’s right.'”
“Just the Way You Are”
Billy Joel originally didn’t want “Just the Way You Are” on The Stranger. He felt it was a “gloppy ballad” destined to be played at weddings. It didn’t sound like the rest of the album and he thought it would bring it to a crashing halt. Phil Ramone, however, thought it was essential. To convince Joel that he was right, he brought Linda Ronstadt and Phoebe Snow into the studio. “They heard the song, and Linda Ronstadt goes, ‘Are you crazy? That’s a great song!'” Joel said. “And Phoebe says, ‘You gotta put that on the album!’ I was like, ‘Really?’ I hadn’t really had a woman’s input. And Linda Ronstadt was pretty cute. I said, ‘Oh, Linda Ronstadt likes it? OK!'”
“Scenes From an Italian Restaurant”
In the brilliant words of Rob Sheffield, this is Billy Joel’s “Jungleland,” his multi-part epic that gets crowds singing along at the top of their lungs and even tearing up a little near the end. The actual Italian restaurant that inspired it was Fontana di Trevi, which used to be across the street from Carnegie Hall. Billy Joel had dinner there with Phil Ramone a lot in the early days of conceiving The Stranger, and this song was actually three different tunes they sewed together: “The Italian Restaurant Song,” “Things Are Okay in Oyster Bay” and “The Ballad of Brenda and Eddie.” Taken as a whole, they chart the doomed marriage of quintessential Long Islanders Brenda and Eddie. It was never a proper single, but it’s become perhaps Joel’s single most beloved tune.
Billy Joel didn’t spend much time with his father as a kid, but a few years after his career took off he visited him in Vienna, Austria, and they reconnected. On the trip, Billy saw an old lady sweeping the streets and told his father he pitied her for having to do such menial work. “She’s being useful and she’s doing a service that benefits everyone,” said his father. “She’s not just sitting at home wasting away, and she’s got dignity.” It made Joel realize that Austrians have a very different perspective on life than Americans, and he also found himself enjoying the slower pace of existence there. All of this was poured into the lyrics for “Vienna.” “We tend to put older people away, and it’s all about young people,” Joel said. “Well, wait a minute, why do I have this whole lifespan? What’s the point of it?”
“Only the Good Die Young”
Originally, Billy Joel had the crazy idea that “Only the Good Die Young” should be a reggae song, complete with him singing in a Jamaican accent. Thankfully, his longtime drummer Liberty DeVitto did everything he could to bring him to his senses. “He threw his sticks at me and went, ‘I hate reggae,'” said Joel. “‘Why are you singing like that? The closest you’ve been to Jamaica is the Long Island Rail Road!'” They then arranged the song in the rocking arrangement that became famous, even if the line “Catholic girls start much too late” was guaranteed to piss off more than a few people for years to come.
“She’s Always a Woman”
“She’s Always a Woman” is one of many songs Joel wrote in the 1970s about his wife Elizabeth Weber. She was his manager for a period of time, which upset a lot of old-school music business folks who didn’t like seeing a woman in a position of power. “I wrote it as a commentary on women in business being persecuted and insulted,” Joel said, “talked about as if they were somehow not feminine because of their business acumen.” They divorced in 1982, but that hasn’t stopped him from singing the song in concert.
“Get It Right the First Time”
The first seven songs on The Stranger almost read like the track listing to a Billy Joel greatest-hits album. Only the true hardcore Billy Joel fans, however, know the final two songs, beginning with “Get It Right the First Time.” The simple tune about making a positive impression with a girl when you first meet isn’t exactly radio fare, and he hasn’t done it live a single time since the 1970s. Still, it’s full of solid advice: “You get it right the next time/That’s not the same thing/Gonna have to make the first time last.”
“Everybody Has a Dream”
The fans that came out to see Billy Joel at the Nassau Coliseum on January 29th, 1998, got a pretty big shock when he busted out “Everybody Has a Dream,” the grand finale of The Stranger he’d only played live at a couple tiny shows in Montauk, Long Island, in 1991. The gospel-flavored tune is an ode the domestic bliss he felt with his then-wife Elizabeth. “Everybody has a dream,” he sings. “And this is my dream, my own/Just to be at home/And to be all alone … with you.” The song fades out around the 4:30 mark, but then it kicks back into the whistling intro of “The Stranger,” bringing the album to a close.