Happy 40th Anniversary to Billy Joel’s The Stranger, originally released September 29, 1977.
Music is often a reflection of the times we live in. Bob Marley's Survival (1979), John Lennon's Imagine (1971), and the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack (1977) are examples of albums that personified the times. With their sound (reggae, pop rock and disco) and sign-of-the-times lyrics, they captured the essence of the ‘70s and were pop culture juggernauts. Billy Joel's milestone album The Stranger also fits within this category, as it homes in on the ups-and-downs of relationships, what makes his woman special and the everyday nitty gritty of life. It's blue collar pathos at its finest. Released on September 29, 1977, it was Joel’s fifth studio album and certified him a place in the annals of rock history.
William Martin Joel, born May 9, 1949 in the Bronx and raised in Long Island, allows his New York roots to permeate the sound, lyrics and style of his music. And it's glorious. Listening to his music, one can practically hear factory whistles and smell the barroom cigarette smoke. Prior to The Stranger, Joel was a hitmaker with songs such as "Piano Man," She's Got a Way" "Miami," and "New York State of Mind" scaling the charts as singles. His use of modest melodies and finely-crafted pop lyrics are his signature, and The Stranger exhibits these qualities to the fullest and makes this his chef d'oeuvre.
Released by Columbia Records, the no-frills album contains nine tracks, four of which became hit singles. As most stellar songwriting should do, each song on the album tells a story and is anecdotal in its approach. His collaboration with the man with the Midas touch, Phil Ramone, proved to be golden here, and they went on to engineer other timeless, incandescent material. The four singles released were "Just the Way You Are," "Only the Good Die Young," "She's Always a Woman" and "Movin' Out (Anthony's Song)," with each chronicling Joel's plaintive three to seven minute stories of love, heartache and day-to-day challenges.
A Grammy winner for Song of the Year and Record of the Year, "Just the Way You Are" is as satisfying as a warm plate of spaghetti with a glass of red wine. Hitting #3 on the U.S. Top 10 chart, it was Joel’s first Top 10 hit and first gold certified single. It also languished at the top of the Billboard Easy Listening chart for the whole month of January in 1978. Joel has mentioned that the song came to him in a dream and dreamy it is, with its clean chord progression and romantic lyrics. It's a soft-rock diamond that shines the more you listen to it. The third track on the album, it exemplifies the overall tone of the album: moody, reflective, down-to earth.
"Only the Good Die Young" was a bit controversial when it came out because the lyrics portend to a young man wanting to deflower a Catholic girl. Compared to today's tawdry music, it's as sweet as a nursery rhyme. The tempo is reminiscent of ‘50s rockabilly, much like his hit "It's Still Rock and Roll to Me," and has a much faster pace than most of the songs on the album. When the song was censored by select radio stations pressured by religious activist groups, it caused the album to skyrocket on the charts. Joel has mentioned that critics failed to note that the guy in the song never got anywhere with the girl, her chastity remaining intact.
"She's Always a Woman" touched on Joel's relationship with a modern woman, accepting her warts and all, and was a tribute to his then wife, Elizabeth Weber, who was also his no-nonsense manager. This earnest ballad was the B-side to "Just the Way You Are." Hard to imagine having two nuggets like this released as A and B sides these days. It definitely has a gentle acoustic feel, and Joel has said he was influenced by Gordon Lightfoot's ballads upon writing it.
"Movin' Out (Anthony's Song)" is an anti-gentrification anthem and stands the test of time. It addresses how New York City’s working class will sacrifice anything to "make it." The ultimate message is that it's impossible to escape your roots. It peaked at #17 on the Billboard Hot 100 and had a successful Broadway musical based on it. It's a catchy tune that makes use of Joel's raspy voice and from-the-wrong-side-of-the-tracks, in-your-face attitude. Unlike his winsome ballads, this is a barreling tune that touts ethnic and neighborhood pride.
As The Stranger's 40th anniversary arrives, dust your copy off and take another listen. The album is an experience, not just a series of songs. Joel takes us on a journey, cruising through his neighborhood and his soul. The Stranger makes us look in the mirror and examine all the nooks and crannies that the light might not touch. It's Billy Joel's pièce de résistance and a masterwork of sublime soft pop.