Billy Joel – The Stranger (1977) 30th Anniversary Deluxe Edition (2007)
Billy Joel is the complete artist. A wonderful vocalist, a brilliant lyricist, an exceptional musician, an absolutely astounding pianist and an incredible performer. He is, quite literally, one of the greatest songwriters of the 20th Century and his breakthrough 1977 album, “The Stranger”, is widely regarded as his finest moment in music. Although I believe that, given his talent, there are other strong contenders for that honour, I can certainly understand why this album is rated so highly and why this is the first Billy Joel album to have such a grand re-release. Like any truly classic release, you can listen to ‘The Stranger’ from start to finish and it is like listening to a greatest hits package. In fact, nearly all of the tracks on this album can be found on the better Joel compilations and with good reason – it’s a masterpiece. “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)” kicks the album off, a ballsy song about leaving the rat race which is full of characters working too damn hard to improve their lives against a vividly-painted New York backdrop (“Sergeant O’Leary is walkin’ the beat/At night he becomes a bartender/He works at Mister Cacciatore’s down on Sullivan Street/Across from the medical centre”). The title track follows, introducing itself with a gentle piece of pretty piano music accompanied by a whistled melody line. This proves to be a false start as the song itself is an electric guitar-heavy rock song about recognising how you and everyone you are close with can be an emotional stranger, something that I’m sure most people will be able to connect with.
“Just The Way You Are” is the first ballad of the album, a bossa-nova style song with an interesting, almost ‘backwards’, drum rhythm, during which Joel implores his loved one (it was written as a birthday gift to his then wife, Elizabeth) to never change. Always his harshest critic, Billy has gone on record saying that he dislikes this composition and that it was very nearly left off the album. He’s entitled to his opinion, of course, but I think that the popularity of it amongst his fans (not to mention the two Grammy awards) proved him wrong. The next song, “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant” is truly remarkable. It tells the story of two people getting together over a couple of bottles of wine, reminiscing about their early years, about Brenda & Eddie, the king and queen of the prom who evidently peaked too early in their lives. It’s the human detail in this song (“Do you remember those days hanging at at the village green?/Engineer boots, leather jackets and tight blue jeans”… “Well they got an apartment with deep pile carpets/And a couple of paintings from Sears”) coupled with the genuinely stirring and moving music which makes this one of the best songs Billy ever wrote and recorded.
“Vienna” would have been the first song on what they used to call ‘side two’ and, to this day, remains one of my favourite songs of all time. It is ballad written as a piece of advice for someone who wants everything all at once (“Dream on, but don’t imagine that they’ll all come true/When will you realise Vienna waits for you?”) and is a truly beautiful piece of music. The next song is the rather amusing but controversial rock shuffle “Only The Good Die Young” which sees Billy attempting to get a Catholic girl, Virginia (very subtle, eh?), into bed with him. This extremely enjoyable song got banned by many radio stations which only aided its popularity and was defended by the author as being “pro-lust” instead of anti-Catholic – a stance that I’m sure that many young men could testify to. Continuing on, the beautiful 6/8 time Gordon Lightfoot-inspired ballad, “She’s Always A Woman”, tells the story of a man who loves a woman for all of her flaws and perceived cruelty. The album then moves upbeat with “Get It Right The First Time”, a catchy near-disco number which betrays the era a little and finishes with the powerful, emotive gospel of “Everybody Has A Dream” which has echoes of Billy’s early albums. At nine tracks and just over 42 minutes of music, ‘The Stranger’ has no excess, no flab and is up there with amongst the greatest albums ever made. As essential as any album could ever be.
So, the first question is – if I already own the original album “The Stranger”, why should I buy the 2 CD re-release? Well, it’s for this. The bonus CD is a live recording taken from Carnegie Hall on June 3rd, 1977, and it is seriously good. A powerful version of “Miami 2017 (Seen The Lights Go Out Of Broadway)” opens the show which is then followed by a rip-roaring “Prelude/Angry Young Man” and then the masterclass in jazzy-bluesy piano, “New York State Of Mind” (all from the wonderful 1976′ album, ‘Turnstiles’) which also features a magnificent saxophone solo. Billy is in fine voice all the way through the concert. It’s wonderful to hear him performing live at this age, when his voice still had that clear, higher quality and especially so on “Just The Way You Are”. Some of the renditions of the songs on this live album rival their studio counterparts but this particular song sounds incredible performed live; it is performed with a passion which wasn’t captured on the slightly cocktail lounge-like studio version. The gorgeous “She’s Got A Way” (from 1971’s “Cold Spring Harbor”) is performed with a beautifully-fitting string accompaniment and proves to be a better live version than the “Songs In The Attic” (1981 live album) cut.
Apart from the slightly long guitar introduction, “The Entertainer” (from the underrated 1974 album “Streetlife Serenade”) is performed brilliantly and we’re even treated to some lyrics which didn’t make it to the original album version. “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant” makes full use of the orchestra they had that night and sounds phenomenal, as does “Captain Jack” (from 1975’s “Piano Man”), the performance of which encapsulates virtually everything I love about this album and his live shows – the improvisation, the love for music, the re-invention and re-working of material to keep it fresh. Up next is a wonderful and stirring rendition of one of my favourite songs from “Turnstiles”, the story of decadence and excess that is “I’ve Loved These Days”. The version of “Say Goodbye To Hollywood” on this album is perhaps the finest one I have heard either live or in the studio form – it is just breath-taking. Closing the album is the touching “Souvenir” (from “Streetlife Serenade”), one of the many highlights of his early years. I have to say that this is probably the best live album Billy Joel has ever released and this package is worth buying for this alone. Live in 1977, he was completely on top of his game and his passion for the material is more than evident. The piano playing is incredible, the band are magnificent and his voice is just heavenly at times. No Billy Joel fan should deny themselves this album and if you’re on a budget, the 2CD set is a fantastic buy.
However, there are lots of additional treats in the 30th Anniversary Deluxe Limited Edition box set. There are quite a few reasons to buy it, as well as the excellent remastered sound quality of the original album, of course. For a start, the box it comes in is really classy (it’s about the same size as the “My Lives” collection) and it includes two booklets. One is a reproduction of the notebook Billy used to write the lyrics for and to sequence the record and the second is large, glossy and contains some fantastic photographs as well as the written story of the making of the album. You also get a poster from one of Billy’s 1977 shows on which he looks scarily like Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper – but don’t let that put you off. With the deluxe package, you also get a DVD full of top-quality material, most notably the “Old Grey Whistle Test” broadcast from 14th March, 1978, which features 10 songs performed live. It is a truly amazing show. Highlights include Billy doing “New York State Of Mind” in the manner of Ray Charles, a phenomenal, blistering performance of “Root Beer Rag” (from “Streetlife Serenade”) and a rocking version of “Ain’t No Crime” (from “Piano Man”, 1975). The whole programme is a real joy and well worth the extra money you pay the box set. In addition to the “Old Grey Whistle Test” show, there are also the promotional videos from “The Stranger” and “Just The Way You Are”, plus a 30-minute documentary about the making of the album. The documentary features interviews with Billy and Phil Ramone and is a very interesting half-an-hour. Some little-known facts divulged include that Joel’s record company were considering dropping him before the release of the album and that George Martin was also approached about producing it. Of course, they didn’t drop him, George Martin didn’t produce him and, as they say, the rest is history.
All in all, this package is a must for any serious Billy Joel fan. Even though this isn’t cheap, I would highly recommend it and, believe me, if you did treat yourself to the deluxe box set, you wouldn’t regret it for a moment. This is hours and hours of top-notch entertainment from the entertainer himself and one of those rare occasions where a deluxe package delivers nothing but quality content.