45 Years Ago Today: Billy Joel Releases ‘The Stranger’
It was 45 years ago today (September 29th, 1977) that Billy Joel released his breakthrough fifth album, 1977’s The Stranger. The album didn’t enter the Top 10 until nearly four months after its release, finally appearing on January 21st, 1978 when it took a four-spot jump to enter at Number 10 under The Grand Illusion by Styx. The Stranger hit Number Two on February 18th, 1978 — blocked from the top spot by the soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever — and remained stalled at Number Two for six straight weeks.
The Stranger stayed in the Billboard Top 10 for a total of 17 weeks and marked Billy’s first collaboration with the legendary Phil Ramone, who went on to produce the next six Billy Joel albums — 1978’s 52nd Street, 1980’s Glass Houses, 1981’s Songs In The Attic, 1982’s The Nylon Curtain, 1983’s An Innocent Man, and 1986’s The Bridge. To date, The Stranger remains Billy Joel’s biggest selling original album, having earned “Diamond” status for sales of over 10 million units.
The album spawned four Top 40 hits — “Movin Out” (Anthony’s Song)” – Number 17; “Only The Good Die Young” – Number 24; “She’s Always A Woman” – Number 17; and the Top Three era-defining evergreen “Just The Way You Are,” which scored Billy both the 1978 Record Of The Year and Song Of The Year Grammy Awards — along with countless cover versions, worldwide acclaim — not the least of which included Frank Sinatra permanently adding it to his concert setlists and Billy’s hero Paul McCartney going on record as saying it was among the songs he wished he had written.
Billy Joel’s recent Madison Square Garden residency has featured deep-cut rarities from across his career. In addition to that, Billy hasn’t shied away from the hits — including his 1977 classic, “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song).” Billy recalled the genesis behind the crowd favorite: “Well, it’s the old thing, ‘Ay, if you work hard, y’know, you get a house in the suburbs and you get a nice car. . .’ I always — I grew up in the suburbs. I always wanted to get back to the city, exactly where my parents couldn’t wait to move out of the city; y’know, the kid couldn’t wait to move back in, because the city was always magic. And especially there’s an area in New York and people. . . it’s called Little Italy. And they’ve got great restaurants, and there’s guys walking around with guitars (sings in Italian) — and people (go) ‘Wow!’ — with mobsters drivin’ around in limos, and just a great area.”
We asked Billy why he decided to add “Anthony’s Song” as a parenthetical to the title of “Movin’ Out” — something he hadn’t done before: “I don’t know why I subtitled it. At the time, I just pictured some lady just yelling out of her house — ‘Anthony! Anthony!’ — and the character that starts in the first verse is named Anthony, so, I thought it was a good theme for Anthony — but the title is ‘Movin’ Out.'”
One of the tracks from The Stranger that has taken on a life of its own as the decades progressed is the sleeper ballad, “Vienna.” Billy Joel explained the inspiration of the song came from reconnecting in his 20’s with his absentee father, who returned to his native Austria when Billy was eight-years-old: “Vienna was always a crossroads city (in Europe). So, I go to visit my father in Vienna and I’m walking around in this town and I see this old lady — she must’ve been about 90-years-old and she’s sweepin’ the street. And I say to my father, ‘What’s this nice old lady sweepin’ the street?’ He says, ‘She’s got a job, she feels useful, she’s happy, she’s making the street clean, she’s not put out to pasture. . .’ And, I thought this is a terrific idea that old people are useful and that means that I don’t have to worry so much about gettin’ old, because I can still have a use in this world, in my old age. And I thought: ‘Vienna waits for you.'” SOUNDCUE
Billy Joel drew upon his high school years in Levittown, New York for “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant” — rated among his best by die-hards. He explained the song’s genesis during his appearance on Inside The Actors Studio: “That song started out, the middle part was called ‘The Ballad Of Brenda And Eddie.’ The thing I was trying to get across, and I’m sure we all know, there were people who peaked a little too early in life. When we were in high school, there were the people we thought were so cool — I thought, ‘Man, I wish I was that guy!‘ With a perfect pompadour, he always had great clothes, he always had the coolest shoes, he always went out with the coolest girl. And then I saw him at the 10-year reunion, and this guy was like a caved-in ashtray. In high school, it was so important to be with the right crowd — in my era, maybe it’s the same in this era, I’m assuming there’s a certain amount of this that still goes on. But they were my heroes, these people. But then I said — ‘that’s not enough.'”
Billy Joel actually turned down Beatles producer George Martin, who was interested in producing The Stranger — but only if Billy ditched his touring band to record with Martin-approved session players. Billy told us that the success of 1977’s The Stranger could only have been realized by the late-producer Phil Ramone who allowed him, drummer Liberty DeVitto, late-bassist Doug Stegmeyer, and saxophonist/keyboardist Richie Cannata to tackle the work at hand: “I was working with a group of musicians that nobody wanted to work with, they were just ‘road guys.’ So I said, ‘No, I want my band.’ Phil got it right off the bat. He said, ‘I want these guys to play on your record.’ He encouraged them and they blossomed, and the result was The Stranger album. So, he knew.”
The Stranger was the first of Billy’s seven albums produced by Phil Ramone. We caught up with Ramone just prior to his 2013 death and he credited the strength of the songs and the backing band for the success of the album: “Some of the things that had been said about him prior to that, early, y’know, Elton John-ish, folky — all the words that he hated. I think what we did in The Stranger was to obliterate it by making this become a band record. Billy Joel’s band was very much a part of what made that record. They collectively made arrangements up.”
Despite several unsuccessful relationships, Billy Joel has written some of his most important love songs about his wives. First wife Elizabeth Weber inspired such classics as “She’s Got A Way,” “Summer Highland Falls,” “You’re My Home,” and The Stranger classics “Just The Way You Are,” and “She’s Always A Woman” — which he feels is a love song with a definite message: “I was being managed by a woman, my wife, and she was taking a lot of flack. When a guy was being successful in business, he was ballsy, he was aggressive, he was, y’know, a tough businessman and a tough negotiator. If a woman was doing that at the time she was a bitch, she was castrating, she was accused of all kind of things. And what I wanted to say with that song was you can call her whatever you want, but she’s a woman to me. . . she’s always a woman to me. Y’know, just because she’s doing well in your particular line of work doesn’t make her any less feminine to me.”
Phil Ramone explained that even after his suggestion of rearranging the beat of the song — not to mention enlisting jazz great Phil Woods to play the signature solo on “Just The Way You Are” — Billy still couldn’t hear a hit: “Songs like ‘Just The Way You Are’ had to go under such a metamorphosis. And then in desperation, he said ‘OK, I’ll try it.’ We knew at the end of the day — he said, ‘Jesus, this could be a wedding song. What am I supposed to do with that?’ And of course I tease him now, I say, ‘I hear the wedding song is doing OK.’ And when he first went on the road with that song nothing happened. People didn’t applaud. It kind of dribbled down at the end. He took it out of his set for a long, long time.”
We asked Phil Ramone about his incredible — almost familial — connection with Billy Joel: “I never let him off the hook if there was something that could be better. Y’know, he trusted the hell outta me — by expressing myself. The band had it’s own craziness and the way they spoke, but we, we really spoke. We spent time after the gig. And then I wouldn’t hear from him for months. (I’d) suddenly get a call, just: ‘Billy.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I’ve heard of you, whaddya want?’ (laughs). Y’know, you get a relationship going.”
Liberty DeVitto, who drummed on every Billy Joel studio album from 1976’s Turnstiles to 1993’s River Of Dreams, told us the only constant when recording with Billy Joel was that he never stayed in the same creative space for too long: “Billy changes things — every album, he changed something. Whether it be the style of music that he’s writing, or whatever it is. You go from The Stranger to 52nd Street — more jazzy, to Glass Houses, which was just total rock, just the band, ‘tip of the hat to the Beatles — (The) Nylon Curtain, Innocent Man — oldies.”
Billy Joel recalled how singing honestly about his upbringing helped him score one of his most beloved and enduring hits in “Only The Good Die Young”: “Yeah, we got some interesting mail on that particular song. The song came out as a single and it might not have gotten the attention it got, but it got banned on a few stations. I think banning it made some people go, ‘Oh, what are they banning? Lemme hear what they’re banning. I wanna decide if I wanna ban it.’ And part of that controversy, I think, contributed to being a hit record.”
In 2008, Billy Joel released The Stranger 30th Anniversary collection. The Sony Legacy Edition was remastered by Phil Ramone and features the original album, along with a previously unreleased Billy Joel concert taped at New York’s Carnegie Hall on June 3rd, 1977, just prior to the sessions for The Stranger.
The deluxe edition features three discs: The Stranger remastered; Live At Carnegie Hall 1977; a bonus DVD containing a performance on the BBC’s Old Grey Whistle Test, two live promotional videos, and a 48-page booklet including previously unseen photos from the original album photo shoot.