The Familiar Stranger Gets Expanded


Billy Joel: The Stranger: 30th Anniversary Edition (Columbia Legacy)

If you live in New York, it has been impossible to avoid mention of Billy Joel lately. On July 16 and 18, the semi-retired Piano Man played the last two concerts at Shea Stadium (scheduled to close at the end of the current baseball season). A week earlier, this set appeared, and if you want to know why the fanfare for Joel's own reappearance is so loud, well, The Stranger is the reason why.

This is not, in the opinion of this writer who was a Billy Joel fan before The Stranger was issued, Joel's best album. That would be Turnstiles (and The Nylon Curtain is arguably second best). Nor does it contain his best song, "And So It Goes"(from Storm Front). Nonetheless, it is by far the most important album of Joel's career, and the most popular, and the one that made him a national star.

Listened to 31 years after it was issued in September 1977, it holds up well. The four big hit singles - "Just the Way You Are" (#3 on the Pop Singles chart), "Only the Good Die Young" (#24), "She's Always a Woman" (#17), and "Movin' Out (Anthony's Song)" (also #17) - are an indelibly part of American culture by this point, but what makes this a great album is more than hits.

There are certainly criticisms that can be leveled at some aspects; Joel is a better musician than lyricist (as he freely admits), and Phil Ramone's production, which gave the songs the sheen that broke Joel through to a big audience, has dated a bit. But the music itself is impeccably crafted, immediately ingratiating as pop and permanently compelling as art.

"Movin' Out (Anthony's Song)" is a rejection of striving for the American Dream, a mild surprise coming from Joel, who on his previous album's "Angry Young Man" had ridiculed protestors, but he's always had a rebellious streak too, and a Whitmanesque dismissal of self-contradiction. Musically, the surprise is how the guitars carry the song, and with Ramone bringing in two top session men, Steve Khan and Hiram Bullock, they carry it well; this is probably not Ramone diminishing Joel's trademark (though piano dominates the bridge into the coda) so much as Joel returning to his Beatles roots.

It's worth noting, by the way, that aside from the guitarist, the members of Joel's regular band are the core here; Joel could have had George Martin as producer for The Stranger but turned him down because he wanted to use all session musicians instead (just one of many great tidbits in David Fricke's fine booklet notes). The title track opens with one of the most memorable slow introductions in rock history, featuring piano and whistling. After a pause, a guitar riff in thirds kicks in as the tempo bolts forward and a funky beat emerges; once again, though it started out in the spotlight, piano is submerged in the textures of the body of the song. Joel nearly snarls the verses at times, but flips into a higher voice for the contrasting consolation of the bridges. Near the end the guitars fade down and the whistling/piano return. The nearly bilateral symmetry of the structure (if there were two verses between the second bridge and the outro, it would be complete) must have been carefully considered. The intro is just piano and bass for eight bars, then nine bars with whistling and drums (mostly cymbal) added, plus a bar of rest. At the coda, there's a bar of overlap as the guitars fade and the piano comes in, then nine bars with whistling on top of the piano/bass drums, then just piano/bass/drums, faded slowly and dying away after the first beat of the eighth bar.

This brings us to the song that made Joel a superstar, the ballad "Just the Way You Are." The production alone made it stand out from anything Joel had done before: he plays electric Fender Rhodes piano instead of an acoustic; bebop alto sax icon Phil Woods takes over from the band's regular saxophonist; a synth setting of sustained wordless vocal harmonies (a sound straight from 10cc's 1975 #2 hit "I'm Not in Love") frequently fills out the textures. Attention to the lyrics reveals that this song's popularity at weddings might not be entirely apt; the tone seems forgiving of faults, but really insists that the loved one should never change and should never reproach the lover for lack of expression. Then again, "My Funny Valentine" is not the most complimentary lyric either, and what the lyrics lack in eloquence, the music - especially Woods's agile playing -- compensates for. When the song fades down on another fine Woods solo, one wishes it had gone on for a few more choruses of hot bop.

Though it was not issued as a single, the epic "Scenes from an Italian Restaurant" is firmly established as one of Joel's most famous songs. This was an era when FM radio stations would proudly play long tracks and album-only cuts, and at the time, listeners in the Northeast probably heard it so often they didn't realize it wasn't a single. There seems to be songs within songs here, with bridging material to get from one to the next. First the singer is proposing dinner with an old friend, presumably an old flame, "In our old familiar place" this is done in intimately with piano dominating, plus accordion emphasizing the Italian flavor of the joint. The textures thicken as strings quickly swell and sax croons over them in an instrumental interlude. Then the singer provides an update of his life, and the music becomes punchier, staccato; when he switches to reminiscing, clarinet takes over in a near-dixieland vein (fitting well with "Drop a dime in the box play the song about New Orleans"), suggesting an American "When I'm 64." Then everything but piano drops out, a frenetic pattern is set up, bass and drums rejoin, and the reminiscing focuses on the tale of another couple, Brenda (or "Brender" in Joel's accent). After their marriage falls apart, the band rocks out without vocals; where Woods flitted with jazz finesse, Richie Canatta blows pure '50s rock 'n' roll aggression. This is the pivot; we then quickly return through the some of the earlier styles. Brenda and Eddie are quickly disposed of; the rock gives way to a brief interlude with the strings at their heaviest; the invitation to the diner is renewed; accordion returns briefly; the sax returns in lyrical mode to close the mini-operetta. (On the strength of this song, for years I believed Joel to be Italian; I've been told he's Jewish.)

"Vienna" is the closest the album comes to stumbling; once again Joel is lecturing the young ("Slow down you crazy child"). Soon Neil Young would proclaim that it's better to burn out than fade away, but Billy's of the opposite opinion ("You better cool it off before you burn it out"). This time out, accordion conjures Viennese gemutlichkeit. It's a pretty enough song, but seems to exist mostly to provide a brief rest between more intense tracks.

What follows, "Only the Good Die Young," is again a man addressing a woman, but this time it's a randy young buck trying to talk a chaste Catholic girl into surrendering her virginity to him. He doesn't have much of a logical argument ("But sooner or later it comes down to fate / I might as well be the one"), but he's full of sneering quips ("The stained-glass curtain you're hiding behind / Never lets in the sun"; "You didn't count on me / When you were counting on your rosary"). The music is his best argument (once again Cannata gets to rock out with a squealing sax break), jaunty and insouciant, as is fitting for a guy who, in best West Side Story swagger, proclaims, "You might have heard I run with a dangerous crowd." The title may not really advance his argument, but once you've heard it you never forget it.

"She's Always a Woman" is a bit Dylanesque in its listing of a woman's character flaws, but Billy doesn't mind, because, after all, "she's always a woman to me." For a lyric of such cutting wit, the arrangement is surprisingly low-key, all acoustic and with touches of flute. Khan and Bullock are replaced here, as on other tracks with acoustic guitars instead of electric, but Hugh McCracken and Steve Burgh.

The following track, "Get It Right the First Time," about making a good first impression, mixes acoustic (with the flute returning) and electric, but positively crackles with the baion groove Joel probably learned from old Drifters 45s. Nothing profound here, but Joel inserts a great tension-building bridge that kicks a slight song over the line into effective theater. Finally, the jangling repetition of a single guitar note at the end provides the perfect suspenseful fadeout after his pep talk: the actual action has yet to take place, but whoever he was talking to -- perhaps himself -- is now wound up to go out and give it his best shot.

"Everybody Has a Dream" finds Joel in gospel mode as he waxes philosophical. Of course, he's nothing if not a realist, and his dream is most realistic: "Just to be at home / And to be all alone, all alone with you." Even if Richard Tee weren't added on organ and a backing chorus of female vocalists weren't taking the song to church, this would rank among Joel's most soulful songs. Though on CD it doesn't get a track to itself, instead being tacked onto the end of "Everybody Has a Dream" (whoops! Royalty calculation mistake!), we then get a reprise of "The Stranger," just the slow intro/outro material, here expanded to two minutes and with strings added. It's a haunting coda that brings us down after the exhilaration of "Everybody Has a Dream." 

The remastering of this edition is at a higher volume than the previous CD edition, and also has a sharper focus - which, as usual with these things, involves sacrificing a bit of ambience for brightness. I'm not sure which I prefer; I'll keep my previous CD so I have both alternatives. But I do wonder why there are no alternate takes (the Joel career-overview box, My Lives, has an alternate of "Only the Good Die Young"), no demos, no outtakes. Granted, there probably weren't any rejected songs, but Fricke's liner notes have a tantalizing quote from Ramone about Joel's habit of warming up at recording sessions:

"Billy would play some things to feel comfortable -- Eric Clapton or Beatles songs, whatever was on his mind." 

How much would Joel fans give to have a bit of that? That said, there's much more than the original program here, of course.

There are multiple versions available of this package; I'll ignore the various one-store-only bonus variations (Wal-Mart, Amazon, etc.) and just look at the two main editions, the two-CD set and the box with two CDs and a DVD (in yet another sign of the LP resurgence, the remastered original program has also been reissued on 180-gram vinyl). Both the two- and three-disc sets have Joel's June 3, 1977 concert at Carnegie Hall (the middle show of a three-night stand), in excellent sound. As the earliest issued Joel concert from a single venue, it's a fine demonstration of just how fully developed he already was as a showman and bandleader. Although it comes bundled with The Stranger, it's mostly an engrossing encapsulation of his solo career leading up to it. "Captain Jack" is the big showpiece that climaxes the show, although some later songs follow it here.

The best-represented LP, with five songs, is his most recent at the time, Turnstiles, which -- remember my declaration in the first paragraph -- obviously makes me happy. The finger-busting piano on "Prelude" is taken at a manic tempo but holds together precisely; Joel was in his chops prime here. This concert took place before the recording sessions for The Stranger, so the "live" versions of "Just the Way You Are" and "Scenes from an Italian Restaurant" give us some insight into the album. All of the structural elements of the latter are already in place, and most of the musical arrangement as well (sax riffs, strings, rhythms). I had always wondered if Ramone had suggested the electric piano on "Just the Way You Are," but here's Joel already playing it. The string arrangement here was not used for the LP, although Ramone wanted strings; one wonders what Joel thinks of the comparative merits of Carnegie version versus the LP version 31 years down the road. If the conga opening weren't so cheesy, the Carnegie version would have dated better. It's interesting that those are the only Stranger songs here; the lack of prepared new material suggests why a six-year-old song, "Everybody Has a Dream," was pulled out of mothballs for the LP.

Beyond these historically interesting points, this disc can be appreciated as just a good show, of course. It was a bigger deal than most Joel gigs of that era, given the venue, and he classed things up with orchestral backing on some songs; in particular, the arrangement on the decadent "I've Loved These Days" is wonderfully ornate, and the counter-melodies on "She's Got a Way" add a masterful touch; with just piano and orchestra, this is the best version of that song I've heard, compared to which the studio recording (on his solo debut, Cold Spring Harbor) sounds like a mere demo. The orchestra even participates when "Happy Birthday" is played for the soundman. The whole thing is an occasion, and all concerned rise to it. The only possible complaint is that we're perhaps not getting the entire show, given the omission of "Piano Man" and the fact that even with applause and band introductions included, the disc's only 64 minutes long.

The DVD in the box set features more "live" work. First come promotional videos for "The Stranger" and "Just the Way You Are," both taken from an unidentified 1977 concert (presumably post-album; it's surprising that the booklet has nothing to say about it). We not only get to hear how tight the band was, and how Cannata could take over from Woods and put his more basic yet still lyrical spin on the alto sax parts, we also get Joel's vocal ad-libs, we get to watch him sweat like James Brown, and we get to see a seemingly random stage backdrop of what I guess is a winged elephant.

Then comes a TV concert broadcast on March 14, 1978 by the BBC 1 program The Old Grey Whistle Test. The ten songs include four from The Stranger, with only "Just the Way You Are," of course (for the third time), duplicating the live Stranger tracks heard elsewhere in the box, while four other songs are repeated from the Carnegie show. Not only is sound good (if a bit tinny - that Bechstein grand piano undoubtedly had more body in its tone than we hear), the camerawork is clearer and more intimate than the promo videos, an obvious benefit of performing in a TV studio (with an appreciative audience). And Joel hams it up for the camera; his humorous intro to his epic performance of "New York State of Mind," including his claim that his cigarette is a small smoke machine for creating atmosphere, is endearing; I wonder if the sunglasses he dons then are a subtle pointer to the song's Ray Charles heritage, not just as Joel's equivalent of "Georgia on My Mind" but also in some of his vocal phrasing. His long setup for "The Entertainer" actually made me enjoy a song I'd long dismissed (and suggests he could have been a stand-up comic had he been so inclined).

The importance of Joel's band is slightly clearer here than just listening to it. The fact that Cannata occasionally doubles on organ (and synth) helps the sound immensely. The give-and-take between piano and organ on "Root Beer Rag" is joyful, and where on Streetlife Serenade it's a cute interlude, here it's a virtuoso showcase; when the band encores with "Ain't No Crime," Cannata's soul organ is crucial. The tastefulness of Doug Stegmeyer's limber bass lines is accented by the more stripped down stage arrangements as compared to the denser studio versions. The more spare instrumentation of "She's Always a Woman" gives it a tenderness that's concealed on the LP version, while here "Only the Good Die Young" conveys such winning exuberance that it puts the lyric over better. This 47-minute show by itself is well worth the additional cost of the box as opposed to the two-disc version.

Also included is a 30-minute documentary about the making of The Stranger, interweaving a Joel audio-only interview from 1977 and new interviews with Joel and Ramone (and a brief contribution from the mix engineer of Carnegie Hall). It's full of interesting observations (for instance, Ramone says the only overdubs on the LP are guitars; notably, all the vocals were "live") and amusing stories.

The box also has a bigger booklet (more pictures); a reproduction of Joel's lyrics notebook complete with food stains, cross-outs, and lists of countries he'd performed in and artists he'd opened for (a wildly eclectic list ranging from Yes to Mahavishnu Orchestra to Stevie Wonder to Olivia Newton John to Sha Na Na!); and a copy of the poster for the Carnegie concerts.

Everyone who thinks they're real Billy Joel fans should opt for the big box.