We can’t speak for the rest of the country, but in the greater New York City area, nearly every track on The Stranger was in constant radio rotation, AM and FM alike. It’s a microcosm not only for his own career, straying just this side of rock, but for the time and place: this is the sound of summer in New York City in the late ‘70s.
It also presents another good defense for the art of the album side: side one alone has “Movin’ Out”, the title track, “Just The Way You Are” and “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant”. There’s no deep concept going on here, but each just seems to fit. (And again, if you were a kid back then, today you know all the words without knowing you know them.)
“Movin’ Out” is subtitled “Anthony’s Song”, but most people would think of it as the “ACK-ACK-ACK-ACK” one. Mama Leone and Sgt. O’Leary are distantly related to the characters in “Piano Man”, and just as believable. The title track is framed by that wonderful piano piece with the whistling; the main body of the song isn’t as wonderful, though the bridges provide excellent contrast. “Just The Way You Are” is pretty middle-of-the-road as far as formatting goes, and has become a cliché seeing as how he’s no longer married to the object of the lyrics (as Ben Folds can appreciate). Meanwhile, notice the subtle 10cc “I’m Not In Love” background vocal effect on the fade. We said that the side wasn’t meant to be conceptual, which is good considering the suite that is “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant”. The opening section (and reprise) fits the mood of such a place, and the Dixieland detour of section two leads well into what we always heard as the story of “Thunder and Eddie”.
There are more European hints throughout “Vienna”, a song forever linked with a certain Taxi episode. A more universal plaint appears in “Only The Good Die Young”, where the lyrics beat the hell out of the arrangement. “She’s Always A Woman” is loaded with similes, which only inspires more (e.g. “she drinks like a fish”, “she eats like a pig”, “she lies like a rug”, etc.) “Get It Right The First Time” is fluff, but it’s well-constructed fluff. Even the samba lilt of the post-chorus la-la is infectious. “Everybody Has A Dream” sports a 1971 copyright, suggesting that it wasn’t yet deemed worthy of any album yet, but maybe the access to an all-star choir made it easy to fill out the side. But there’s something else—just seconds after “Everybody Has A Dream” insists its way to the fade, that haunting “Stranger” theme returns for a couple more minutes, whistling and all.
That’s the thing with Billy Joel—scrape away the lyrics and the Long Island arrangements, and you’ve got well-crafted music. The Stranger was a huge hit, going gold within six months and certified diamond (10 million) today. Granted, some of that is thanks to its continual “Nice Price” availability; a more recent deluxe edition added a contemporary concert, and another one added a DVD to that. From here he would ramp up his dance with critics who refused to accept him as deep, while selling out stadiums and hockey arenas. (The piano kid would have been just as excited to make it to Carnegie Hall, which is obvious from the reception his “hometown” crowd gives him throughout the concert included on that bonus disc.)
Billy Joel The Stranger (1977)—3½
2008 30th Anniversary Legacy Edition: same as 1977, plus 12 extra tracks (Deluxe Edition adds DVD)