New York City in the 1970s was a bleak place.
The Big Apple was in a major economic recession, and a wave of crime broke over the five boroughs. Murders, rapes and burglaries tripled, car thefts and felony assaults doubled. The middle class fled for the suburbs, while the city’s pissed-off, disaffected youths squatted downtown and formed punk bands, distilling their rebellious views in blasts of sound aimed at the establishment.
But like Bruce Springsteen across the Hudson River, Billy Joel had a different, more working-class perspective of the crumbling metropolis during this down-and-out era. Joel, a Bronx native, had moved to Los Angeles for several years seeking fame, but had returned to his hometown by ’76. The Stranger, his breakout fifth album 40 years old today (Sept. 29), is a homecoming of sorts, a snapshot of the city and its residents by one of its wistful native sons.
By the mid-‘70s, Joel was four albums deep into an up-and-down career. He had an unexpected hit with 1973’s “Piano Man,” but failed to sell many LPs, and his previous release, 1976’s Turnstiles, peaked at No. 122 on the Billboard 200. He was on the verge of being dropped by his label, Columbia Records, and he knew it. So Joel recorded the best album of his life.
Originally, Joel set out to work with the Beatles’ legendary producer George Martin. But the Fifth Beatle insisted Joel hire studio musicians, not use his touring band, and Joel hesitated. He continued searching for a new producer, not wanting to break up his newly-assembled, white hot group: drummer Liberty DeVitto, bassist Doug Stegmeyer, rhythm guitarist Russell Javors, lead guitarist David Brown and saxophonist Richie Cannata. It would prove a fateful choice.
He ultimately chose producer Phil Ramone, a champion of Joel’s backing quartet, and hit the studio to capture their high-energy live performances to tape. It worked. The album far surpassed the middling chart successes of his previous four LPs, reaching No. 2 on the Billboard 200 and surpassing Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water to become Columbia Records’ best-selling album to that date. Ramone would go on to produce every Joel album through 1986’s The Bridge.
Like the downtown punks, The Stranger has tones of disaffection: rejection of the American Dream, of upward mobility and the big job, the fancy car, the house in the ‘burbs. The LP opens with one of Joel’s most well-known tunes, “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song),” a scathing rebuke of the aspirations of lower class New Yorkers who work their lives away and only receive a heart attack or a broken back for their efforts. We meet several downtown characters (Anthony, Mama Leone and Sergeant O’Leary, who bartenders down at Mr. Cacciatore’s down on Sullivan Street). They’re all savin’ up their pennies to move on up, trading in their Chevy for a Cadillac and buying a house in Hackensack, New Jersey. “Is that what you get with your money / It seems such a waste of time,” Joel sings. “If that’s what it’s all about / Mama if that’s movin’ up / Then I’m movin’ out.”
“Scenes From an Italian Restaurant” is Joel’s “A Day in the Life,” an epic that bridges three different tunes in one: “The Italian Restaurant Song,” “Things Are Okay in Oyster Bay” and “The Ballad of Brenda and Eddie.” It recounts the saga of a Long Island couple whose romance is doomed. It opens with one of Joel’s most-famous lines: “A bottle of white, a bottle of red / Perhaps a bottle of rose instead,” he sings, inspired by a restaurant near Carnegie Hall that he and Ramone frequented during The Stranger sessions. Then we find the couple struggling: “They started to fight when the money got tight / They just didn’t count on the tears.”
On the rock n’ roller “Only the Good Die Young,” Joel revisited an old high school crush, Virginia Callahan, a good Catholic girl from his days in Levittown, Long Island. “Come out Virginia, don’t let me wait / You Catholic girls start much too late,” Joel sang, much to the chagrin of the church. “Aw, but sooner or later it comes down to fate / I might as well be the one.”
Elsewhere, Joel writes about characters closer to home. He penned the tender piano anthem “She’s Always a Woman to Me” for his wife and manager Elizabeth Weber, who had a steely business acumen some considered unfeminine. “She can kill with a smile, she can wound with her eyes,” he croons. “And she can ruin your faith with her casual lies / She only reveals what she wants you to see.” But she was always a woman to Joel. For the gospel anthem “Everybody Has a Dream,” he sings of attaining his dream life at home with his then wife (they would divorce in 1982). The airy mega ballad “Just the Way You Are” was also written for Weber. At first, Joel didn’t want the saccharine tune on The Stranger; he knew it was destined for wedding dancefloors. But Ramone was insistent and invited Linda Ronstadt to the studio to help convince Joel to keep it. The track would go on to win a pair of Grammys for Record of the Year and Song of the Year — and, yes, soundtrack weddings across the world.
For “Vienna,” Joel recounted an experience he had while visiting his estranged father, a classical pianist, in the central European capitol, where he watched an elderly woman sweeping the streets. It’s a meditation on growing old, wisdom and hitting the breaks in the fast lane: “Slow down, you’re doing fine / You can’t be everything you want to be before your time.” He nails the accordion solo, too.
The cover of The Stranger finds Joel sitting on a bed, looking down at a mask resting on a pillow. He was fascinated by characters and stories — New York City is full of them, the streets bustling with millions of tales on the move. On the title track Joel sings, “We all have a face / That we hide away forever / And we take them out and show ourselves / When everyone has gone… They’re the faces of a stranger / But we’d love to try them on.”
On The Stranger Joel tries on multiple faces, threading tales of New Yorkers as the city stood at a crossroads — and when his career was at a crossroads, Joel fully revealed himself and his talent to the world.