“The Stranger”: The Jewel In Billy Joel’s Crown

Billy Joel Concert Courtesy of Getty Images

It took five albums to rocket Billy Joel from mere respected artist to global superstar. The album that did it? 1977’s The Stranger.

The front cover shows Billy clad in a suit and bare feet in bed, fixated on a theatrical mask alluded to on the titular track. Boxing gloves (a former endeavor of Joel’s) hang on the wall. It’s a black-and-white photo with a mild noir vibe. The back of the album shows sharp-dressed Billy with his band and producer Phil Ramone at a now-defunct red-sauce restaurant in Hell’s Kitchen. This, too, will echo one of the classic tracks within.

The Stranger is a rock and roll masterpiece. Some tracks have fared better than others, but each features Billy’s superb story-telling and musicianship. The Stranger made it into the Grammy Hall of Fame and sold over 10 million units. It conjures up the late 1970s to perfection while remaining a timeless treat.

The album opens with the catchy “Anthony’s Song (Movin’ Out)”, a New Yawk-flavored screed about a young man’s desire to dodge the pointlessly materialistic, soul-killing work he’s been raised to pursue. It concludes with a revved-up motor from bassist Doug Stegmeyer’s Corvette.

“The Stranger” is a mystery, open to interpretation. The title track opens with Joel’s contemplative whistle, then kicks in with raw power. It ponders the masks we all wear, the secrets we keep, and what they do to our psyches. “Though you drown in good intentions, you may never quench the fire/you’ll give in to your desire when the stranger comes along.” Dark lyrics from a young man.

Next up is “Just the Way You Are,” a misty ballad about a man asking his beloved to remain unchanged. Despite some blowback about the notion of trying to keep romantic partners static and contained, this love song was a common wedding dance for the era.

The most masterful track is “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant,” which closes out Side One. It’s an operatic confection about the fate of high school “it” couple Brenda and Eddie (or “BrenderandEddie” as Billy enunciates it), viewed through the reminiscences of former classmates. Brenda and Eddie were the duo who had a high gloss to them as teens. But their early marriage flamed out quickly. It speaks to the fragile humanity of our perceived heroes.

Side Two opens with “Vienna,” which has become more popular as subsequent generations embrace this startlingly beautiful tune. Billy advises an intense young girl to go easy and enjoy life. According to Joel, it’s a metaphor for the serene old age that eludes us when we double-down on superficial ambition.

“Only the Good Die Young” features Joel vehemently trying to talk his Catholic high-school crush into sleeping with him. (Spoiler alert: No indication that his line was successful.) It got a lot of extra press when the Catholic church censored it.  Understandable, perhaps, with lyrics like “I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints/the sinners are much more fun/Darlin’, only the good die young.” Joel maintains that this song was “…never anti-Catholic, only pro-lust.”

“She’s Always a Woman” is a romantic but edgy ballad to his first wife Elizabeth, who was both his manager and a tough businesswoman. He acknowledges her problematic behavior while conceding that she is still his beloved. Next is the underappreciated rocker “Get it Right the First Time.” It’s a breath of fresh air as Billy goes into witty self-deprecation mode.

The closing track is the exquisite “Everybody Has a Dream,” written in 1971 and intended for Cold Spring Harbor. It found its rightful place on The Stranger. “Everybody Has a Dream” is a gospel-infused ode to a man’s desire to shake his “quiet desperation” and share his life with the woman he loves. With a sublime Joe Cocker-esque delivery, it’s a stunning finale. The ending whistle/keyboard riff from “The Stranger”  ties everything together, a superb end to the album that skyrocketed Billy Joel to the level of legend.

-Ellen Fagan

Photo: Billy Joel (Getty Images)

Ellen Fagan is a forever New Yorker, long-time Greenwich Village resident and vintage Duke University graduate with hippie-esque leanings. The best description of Ellen was given to her by a sardonic lawyer during the voir dire of one of her myriad Jury Duty stints: "...housewife, mom, voracious reader, freelance writer, copy editor, jewelry designer and frequent cyber-sleuth."

12 comments on ““The Stranger”: The Jewel In Billy Joel’s Crown

  1. Steve Lux

    Great article for a great album. Thanks!

    • Ellen Fagan

      Thanks so much! It really is a shining example of Billy at his best.

      • Jason Hayes

        Fantastic review of the great man’s album, best album you could say. It’s interesting that the album came out in the late 70s but the messaging in the lyrics and musical composition has stood the test of time with ease.

        The fact that some songs off the album are staples in the setlist at stadiums the world over is testament to an amazing artist and songwriter.

        • Ellen Fagan

          Very much so, Jason! Excellent point. Thank you so much. “Dated & timeless” is a striking combo. What an album.

  2. Of particular personal and emotional resonance as college and (semi-) adult life began with this album’s release.

    As such, liberty to express the overstated requested…”The Stranger” is collectively one of the most important pieces of recorded music ever.

    So there. ;}

    • Ellen Fagan

      I’ll not dispute that, John! 🙂 I was a callow adolescent when it came out & I remain struck by how meaningful it remains.

  3. Michael Keenan

    Fine article regarding one of the best pop albums ever made.

  4. Maria K.

    Thank you for reminding the world of how lucky we are to be living during the same time as this musical genius, Billy Joel. His music, spanning over 5 decades, touches generations – past, present and future.

    • Ellen Fagan

      So true, Maria! He spans the generations & I am so grateful that we got to enjoy him from the get-go.

  5. Steve Schlansky

    Another FANTASTIC Ellen Fagan article. Billy spoke to all our new yawka teenage souls that we stubbornly hang onto many, many years later.

    • Ellen Fagan

      Thanks so much, Steve! That he did – to squirmy perfection.

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