“Artists – musicians, painters, writers, poets – always seem to have had the most accurate perception of what is really going on around them, not the official version or the popular perception of contemporary life.” – Billy Joel
Oh, Billy Joel. Why has it taken me so long to do a post on one of your albums? I’m beyond baffled.
My first experiences with Billy Joel were shaped by my brother. I remember him listening to Billy Joel, as well as playing his tunes on the piano. For me, Billy Joel reminds me of those times way back when.
The Stranger is Billy Joel’s fifth studio album. For some strange reason, I thought this album was much earlier. It was released in September 1977 and is AMAZING!
This album (and Billy too) gave us “Just the Way You Are”, “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)”, “She’s Always a Woman”, “Only the Good Die Young” and others. It is an incredible album filled to the brim with top-notch songs that are still remembered and popular today. Out of the nine tracks on this album, four because singles. That is a pretty good percentage.
Each song on this album tells a story. So, I suppose you could say that this album is narrative. It seems that, during the composition period, each song grew out of what came previously. We get the full “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant” because of a shorter song (included within “Scenes” called “The Ballad of Brenda and Eddie.”
Let me not forget to mention that the producer was Phil Ramone! Phil Ramone! Come on!
The Stranger has remained Billy Joel’s best-selling album to date and is ranked #70 on the Rolling Stone list.
“Movin’ out (Anthony’s Song)” details disgust with the aspirations of working and lower-middle class New Yorkers who take pride in working long hours to have the ability to afford those outward signs that they have “made it.” Character names include Anthony, Mama Leone, Sergeant O’Leary, Mr. Cacciatore. They work blue-collar jobs and ultimately end suffering from a heart attack or a broken back.
“The Stranger” features whistling. This was originally Billy Joel demonstrating the melody to Phil Ramone but was convinced by Ramone to use the whistling instead.
“Just the Way You Are” was the demo song on my first electric keyboard. I used to pretend (in my early piano lesson days) that I was really playing the piece. Of course, my neighbors all humored me. This song was Billy Joel’s first gold single in the US. It won the 1979 Grammy for Song of the Year and Record of the Year. Billy Joel revealed in an interview that the inspiration for this song came from the last line in the Frankie Valli and the four Seasons song “Rag Doll.” There is a saxophone solo in this song, performed by Phil Woods. Woods was known as a jazz performer and a Grammy award winner. Billy Joel, over the years, has debuted many different versions of this song. It seems to be an ever-evolving piece of music.
“Scenes From an Italian Restaurant” I talked about a little already. It is long track – over 7 minutes! This song is a medley of three distinct pieces melded into one. 1) gentle, melodic piano ballad; 2)triumphant, uptempo jazz-influenced section featuring clarinet, trombone, tuba, and saxophone solo; 3) rock and roll section.
“Vienna” is one of Billy Joel’s favorite songs. He stated,
“The beginning and the end is very Kurt Weill. That kind of sick, middle-European, kinky decadent thing…cabaret kinda… there’s a lot of crazy stuff going on. We are seeing the result of it in this ethnic warfare in the Balkans which is a tragedy. This centure started out with this Assassination of the Archduke in Sarajevo and that begat World War I which begat the Russian Revolution, then you had the Depression then that begat World War II and then that begat the Cold War and all that’s over but they’re still blowing each other to smithereens in Sarajevo. So this whole thing is going on in middle Europe – it’s Kurt Weill. And some composers, Dvořák, Smethana – they captured it.” (Billy Joel, An Evening of Questions & Answers…and a Little Music)
“Only the Good Die Young” was fairly controversial when it came out but became the 3rd single off this album. This song is from the perspective of a young man determined to deflower a Catholic girl. “You Catholic girls start much too late, but sooner or later it comes down to fate. I might as well be the one.” Did you know that was what this song was about? News to me once I actually listened to the lyrics. I’ll give you the spoiler – the boy does not get anywhere and the girl remains chaste. It has a good beat and a memorable melody. I’m singing it in my head now. Out ear worm! Out!
“She’s Always a Woman” is probably one of Billy Joel’s most recognized tunes. It is a song about a modern woman, with whom he falls in love for her flaws and her quirks. A Muzak version of this track is known to be one of the last songs played over the former WTC complex before the collapse. It is in the time signature of 6/8 and is played over and over on the radio to this day.
Billy Joel is amazing. He is right up there in my esteem with Elton John. Okay, they are the Piano Men to me.
Go listen and listen and listen. This album is amazing and rightly should be where it is on the RS list. If anything, I would put it higher.