On the verge of being dropped, Billy Joel silenced the doubters with this 1977 smash hit, stuffed to the brim with soon-to-be classics
It’s easy, looking back across a career of countless hits and classic singles, to assume Billy Joel was always a star. How could the man who wrote a song that captured repeated zeitgeists (‘We Didn’t Start The Fire’) ever be anything other than a success?
The truth is that Joel was once a risk. Prior to his solo career, he’d been involved in two projects that travelled totally under the radar. His debut album was a flop, not helped by the fact that it was mastered at the wrong setting, making Joel sound like he recorded his vocals inside a helium balloon. To this day, Joel himself hasn’t a kind word to say about it.
That’s not to say that Billy Joel was a flop coming in The Stranger. ‘Piano Man’ and ‘The Entertainer’ had charted well, but neither had ignited much beyond their individual success. His return to New York for Turnstiles reignited a creative spark, particularly on ‘Say Goodbye To Hollywood’ and ‘New York State Of Mind’, which split the difference between Springsteen’s urban character studies, Elton John’s direct melodies and a sense of scale inspired by Broadway.
Nobody was saying that Joel was on his last chance, but it was heavily implied. Decades later, he would conjure the image of someone at Columbia going through the sales charts with a red pen at the ready, the name Billy Joel prime for the chop. A solo career that wasn’t setting the world on fire after six years and four albums isn’t anyone’s idea of a good time. The signs of talent were obvious, but the whole thing just hadn’t gelled at the same time.
So, what changed with The Stranger? For one, Joel brought in Phil Ramone to produce. Ramone had produced Simon and Garfunkel (albeit separately) and Kris Kristofferson and Barbara Streisand’s A Star Is Born. Ramone stuck with Joel’s touring band for recording (as Joel had previously done on the self-produced Turnstiles), recognising that the issue was replicating Joel’s live energy on record, something he helped achieve with clean, direct production.
Just as importantly, something clicked in Joel’s writing. He was never going to be Dylan or Springsteen, but there’s a profundity in his plain-spoken lyrics and a darkness and occasional nihilism that seems to surface sometimes with deliberate viciousness, sometimes against his wishes. On the title track there’s little sympathy for the rejected lover, just a reprimand for ignoring the danger: “Why were you so surprised that you never saw the stranger when you never let your lover see the stranger in yourself?”
For an album that contains Joel’s most sentimental song (more on that in a bit), The Stranger is for the most part remarkably unsentimental. ‘Scenes From An Italian Restaurant’ is all the more heartbreaking for how plainly Joel tells its unremarkable story. This isn’t Tom Waits calling long-distance to ‘Martha’, the pangs of lost love still etched into his voice. Instead, Eddie and Brenda fall apart like many couples do: “They started to fight when the money got tight and they just didn’t count on the tears”. They might have regrets, but even when they reunite in their favourite Italian restaurant, there’s no tearful reignition, no poring over old grudges. Just some gentle nostalgia and life goes on.
Even being upwardly mobile isn’t greeted with the wild abandon of a ‘Born To Run’. On the wonderful ‘Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)’, Joel frames it as eternal dissatisfaction, a futile and doomed endeavour, sneering: “Is that all you get for your money?” You can debate what “movin’ out” really means, but there’s no doubt that Joel (or Anthony) means it as a resolute “F**k this”.
There isn’t even much fatalism or romance to the swinging ‘Only The Good Die Young’, Joel shrugging “I might as well be the one” with zero conviction to the Catholic girl he pretty much just wants to lead astray. Instead of promises of a better tomorrow or undying love, he’s selling himself on his bad boy rep: “Your mother told you that all I could give you was a reputation.”
Even one of Joel’s most enduring love songs, ‘She’s Always A Woman’, comes with a heavy dose of realism. The picture he paints of his love might seem to some as a borderline sociopath, a callous and elusive individual whose allure seems to mainly revolve around how unpredictable and unattainable she is. Or maybe he just sees the way the rest of the world sees her, feeling their special connection in his ability to see her as more than that. Joel wrote it about his future wife and then manager, who, in a misogynistic, male-dominated world, was viewed as less of a woman for standing up to the boys. It’s also the source of my favourite tweet of all time.
The counterpoint to all of Joel’s hard talk is ‘Just The Way You Are’, a love song that is surely ever-present on Valentines compilations, if they’re still a thing. It’s an unfussy, plainspoken love song, which is probably why it connected like it did and like it continues to. Joel reportedly thought it was too sappy for the album, up until Ramone enlisted Linda Ronstadt to make him see sense. Ronstadt declared it one of the greatest songs she’d ever heard, which turned out to be enough to change Joel’s mind.
The Stranger could only have been a huge success. It won Joel a Grammy for Album Of The Year, ‘Just The Way You Are’ winning Song Of The Year. At the time of writing, it’s sold 10 million copies, making it Joel’s best-selling studio album. Almost equally important, it kick-started the run of albums with Phil Ramone through the late 70s and early 80s that would make Joel into an indelible superstar.
Billy Joel plays BST at London’s Hyde Park on 7 July 2023. Get tickets here from 10:00 on 6 October 2022