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.
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.
From the very first note of the very first song, it’s clear The Stranger is introducing us to a different Billy Joel. “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)” comes in with a burst, guitar and piano jumping straight in together. Right away, you can hear that “in the room” energy Joel had long been seeking. DeVitto’s drums rattle, Joel’s vocals seem to vibrate through the piano’s strings, and vice versa. The song is alive, kicking and screaming against the structures of more “refined” expectations — which is exactly what the lyrics are all about. Plenty of artists sing about youth rebelling against society’s dictation, but Joel brings a particular straightforwardness to the song’s titular grocery store clerk who’s just “savin’ his pennies for someday.”
Joel doesn’t gun for the epic fancy of other quintessential American songwriters like Bruce Springsteen — and that’s his strength. Take the album’s unquestionable masterpiece, “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant”: Really three movements (“The Italian Restaurant Song,” “Things Are Okay in Oyster Bay,” and “The Ballad of Brenda and Eddie”) stitched together á la the final tracks of Abbey Road, the song finds ex-lovers meeting up at their favorite eatery. Over a lovely ballad, they order some wine before reminiscing about “cold beer, hot lights/ My sweet romantic teenage nights” while Dixieland jazz plays. A pulse-quickening piano solo brings in the rock and roll third act, where we’re treated to Brenda and Eddie’s backstory: “The king and the queen of the prom” were always “a hit at the Parkway Diner,” but everyone was still shocked when they got married fresh out of high school. They got an apartment furnished from Sears, the “money got tight,” and “they got a divorce as a matter of course.”
And that’s it. They pick up the pieces of their lives and come together some years later for dinner. It’s an utterly plain tale, yet articulates such an incredibly real experience over such an undeniable composition (the pre-finale swell of horns and strings really seals the deal) that it becomes a rock sonnet. Joel’s lyrics have a way of reaching deep beneath the surface while barely seeming to drive in the shovel — it’s his piano that appears to do all the heavy lifting, a deceptive balance of power.
That magic combination is what led to “Just the Way You Are” taking home Grammys for Record and Song of the Year in 1979. Written for Joel’s first wife, Elizabeth Weber (who also happened to be his business manager at the time), it’s about as uncomplicated a love song as you can get. The most tantalizing bit of production is on the background vocals, which blend with keyboard into a constant hum that adds an ethereal element to the grounded orchestration. An organ sways in the arms of the shuffling drums, there’s a winning sax solo from Phil Woods, and there’s Joel singing earnestly about how much he loves his woman for exactly whom she is. “I don’t want clever conversation/ I never want to work that hard/ I just want someone that I can talk to” — who could ask for anything more?
But don’t confuse Joel’s simplicity with a lack of poetry. “She’s Always a Woman” might be the better love song on The Stranger, written in defense of women against the old guard of male-dominated business. Employing a pattern of contradiction, he paints a complex portrait of a woman who’s so self-assured in her ways that even her flaws become attractive. “She never gives out and she never gives in/ She just changes her mind,” Joel sings in awe as he lays down a beautiful dance on the keys. Backed by a pastorally plucked guitar and a soft flute, it’s one of the sweetest songs of Joel’s career.
Perhaps no song on The Stranger better encapsulates the unique charm of Joel’s songwriting than “Vienna.” The song has connected with a new generation on TikTok thanks to its message of patience and self-care, all stemming from Joel recontextualizing his views on life after watching an old woman sweep the streets in Vienna. Musically set like a dusty, slowed down cabaret, the song finds Joel rebuking our culture’s need for speed, but as frequently happens with his music, he’s being as reflective as he is admonishing. “Slow down, you’re doin’ fine/ You can’t be everything you wanna be/ Before your time,” he sings on the second verse; he’d tried so much on his four previous albums that wasn’t what he’d envisioned, and it was only through those trials that, with Ramone by his side (listen to the way Joel’s voice pops in the mic, not off it), he was able to see his dreams fully realized: “Though you can see when you’re wrong/ You know you can’t always see when you’re right.”
And when Joel is right, he’s very right. The biggest bop on the record, “Only the Good Die Young,” is pop rock at its absolute finest. Thankfully so, because Joel’s original plan to make it a reggae number, something he’d toyed with on Turnstiles’ “All You Wanna Do Is Dance” to… less than fruitful results. DeVitto is credited with correcting the course of “Only the Good Die Young,” convincing Joel to rewrite it as a piano boogie for the ages. With its high-set acoustic guitar, giddy rhythm, handclaps, and swinging piano, it carries the same streetwise seduction as the protagonist. In his attempts to woo a Catholic school girl away from her innocence (and failing, mind you), Joel comes up with arguably his best lyrics on the LP. “You didn’t count on me/ When you were counting on your rosary” is some of the cleverest religion-vs-sex wordplay you’ll hear pre-Madonna.
The Stranger’s title track is another wonder of Ramone’s willingness to let Joel run loose, while even “Get It Right the First Time” demonstrates the chemistry between producer and songwriter that would remain a staple of both their careers for the next decade. It’s on the punchy “The Stranger,” though, that the Piano Man weaves his most tantalizingly oblique lyrics, summiting the apex of a songwriting style he’d been trying to reach for years.
In fact, that’s exactly what The Stranger is: everything Joel had always been, perfected. Some alchemy of his own dissatisfaction with his previous work, Ramone’s approach, and Joel’s touring band finally led to all the right elements being in the same room. All of Joel’s disenchantment with the world and the industry, his tiny life observations and inquisitions, and his seemingly innate knack for melody and technical focus were almost destined to sound like this. There were, of course, classics in his pre-Stranger efforts, and more would come in the seven albums that followed — but never before or after were so many contained on one collection.
The Stranger reintroduced the music world to Billy Joel by showing off everything he could do, promising he wasn’t just an icon in the making — he was an icon fully formed.
Essential Tracks: “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant,” “She’s Always a Woman,” “Only the Good Die Young”