Advertisement

Billy Joel’s The Stranger Made an Icon Out Of the Piano Man: Classic Album Review

Looking back at the songwriter's star-making fifth album ahead of the new season of The Opus podcast

Advertisement
billy joel the stranger album review classic opus
Billy Joel, photo by Jim Houghton

    The Opus returns on December 22nd with a brand new season exploring the legacy of Billy Joel’s star-making fifth album, The Stranger. Ahead of the podcast’s release, check out our classic review of the LP, and listen to the record here. For more of the Piano Man, check out the recently released Live at Yankee Stadium, capturing Joel’s two nights at the iconic ballpark back in 1990.


    With little interruption, Billy Joel has sold out Madison Square Garden once a month since January 2014. He’s currently set to continue doing so through at least May 2023, which will bring the residency’s grand total to 91 shows, and mark Joel’s 137th lifetime performance at the historic venue. Those staggering numbers are unlikely ever to be matched; it’d be like a quarterback topping Tom Brady’s seven Super Bowl rings — you’d just have to be too good for too long to make it feasible.

    If you’d told anyone in music 45 years ago that Long Island native William Martin Joel would be that level of legend, you’d have been mocked out of the industry. At the time, Joel was a critical and commercial shrug, an aggrieved artist whose work didn’t align with his attitude. He’d had what he called a “turntable hit” — a song radio DJs would spin, but didn’t actually move units — with “Piano Man,” and singles off 1976’s Turnstiles and 1974’s Streetlife Serenade had at least appeared on the charts. But when a label like Columbia has money on the line and you fail to deliver a certified hit after four albums, you can bet some exec is readying their scissors to cut the piano strings.

    Advertisement

    Joel didn’t know it, but his fifth studio LP was his last chance to have a career. As usual, he was focused more on delivering his vision of piano-led rock ‘n roll than satisfying unspoken label mandates. His Cold Spring Harbor debut had been botched in production, while 1973’s Piano Man and Streetlife Serenade lacked the “organic feel” Joel wanted because they’d been recorded with studio musicians. Although he finally got to bring in his own guys for Turnstiles, the effort still didn’t match what was in his head because he’d ended up producing it himself. “I just know what I’m looking for, but I don’t always know how to get it,” Joel once admitted.

    After passing on working with Fifth Beatle George Martin, Joel finally found the right person to “get it”: producer Phil Ramone. Known for his work with artists like Paul Simon, Ramone embraced Joel’s vision, including bringing his road band — drummer Liberty DeVitto, multi-instrumentalist Richie Cannata, and bassist Doug Stegmeyer — back into the studio. This time with Ramone at the boards instead of Joel, the results were more than just greatly improved — they were perfected in the form of a single release with more classic songs than other artists might have in their entire catalog.

    Released in September 1977, The Stranger would become Columbia’s highest-selling record at the time and launch Joel into a new stratosphere of success. A sonic advancement from his previous efforts, the collection also saw Joel sharpening his songwriting chops, redefining what some critics had previously seen as garrulous schmaltz as simple poetic genius.

    Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement