ALBUM: “The Stranger” by Billy Joel
RELEASE YEAR: 1977
RECORD LABEL: Columbia Records
Even though Billy Joel is a world-renowned singer-songwriter and piano player, I only started listening to him recently. I discovered Joel through the movie “Uncut Gems”. The song “The Stranger” was included in the soundtrack. It fit well with the scene and overall was a killer track. I was intrigued and wanted to listen to the whole LP. I was not aware of it then, but it ended up becoming one of my favorite albums.
Before this album was released, Billy Joel was on verge of being dropped by his label. While he had a few hits, such as “Piano Man”, many critics felt lukewarm about his music and career. He had trouble finding a band and producer who fit his vision.
Phil Ramone who worked with artists such as Paul Simon, came in and took over production. He was able to understand Joel’s vision and turn it into reality. This album ended up being one of the landmarks of Joel’s legacy.
I could continue talking about the intriguing history behind this LP, but other articles already do a cohesive and comprehensive recap.
This album opens with “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)”, which tells two delayed coming-of-age stories.
The first verse focuses on Anthony. He lives with his mother and is saving up money to be independent. Anthony’s mother encourages him to move out to the country. He doesn’t see a fulfilling future in being a country man.
The second verse focuses on a policeman named Sergeant O’Leary, who is walkin’ the beat while on duty and afterhours works at a bar. He is working these two jobs to trade in his car for a Cadillac. Working this much will likely result him not being able to enjoy his Cadillac whenever he can afford it.
And if he can’t drive“Movin Out(Anthony’s Song)” by Billy Joel
With a broken back
At least he can polish the fenders
This song wants these people and the audience to rebel against the idea of success given to them by others or society. He wants people to find and work for whatever is satisfying and fulfilling for them. He shares a similar sentiment in an interview(2:08 to 2:44).
While the songwriting is sharp, it would not have the same impact if the track had lackluster production and playing. However, Phil Ramone and Billy Joel, and his band, knock it out of the park.
The song has small, but impactful production choices.
A heart attack (ack, ack, ack, ack, ack)
He’s tradin’ in his Chevy for a Cadillac (ack, ack, ack, ack, ack)
You should never argue with a crazy mind (mi-, mi-, mi-, mi-, mi-)“Movin Out(Anthony’s Song)” by Billy Joel
At the end of these lines, it sounds like the record is skipping. This then transitions into the start of the pre-chorus, “You oughta know by now”. Joel’s voice comes in explosively and with clarity when he says the line.
Every time I hear this part of the song, it puts a smile on my face. I have an affinity for genres like hyper-pop which often use very similar glitch effects.
At the end of song, sounds of a revving engine are played in the background. Joel says this about the inclusion of the sound effect.
“In the song, there’s the sound of a car peeling out. That was (bassist) Doug Stegmeyer’s car, who at the time had a ’60s-era Corvette. He took his little tape machine in the car and hung the microphone out the rear end, and started burning rubber, screeching away from his house.”Billy Joel on USA Today on July 9, 2008
These production choices almost make the song sound modern which gives it a timeless quality.
The song’s backbone is electric and bass guitar, piano, organ, and drums. The chorus is effectively split into two sections. At the start, “It seems such a waste of time” is said. This is when the instrumentation becomes more skeletal with just the guitars and drums are in the mix.
When “Then I’m movin’ out” is playing, Joel extends the “I’m” and the instruments slow to a crawl with some piano coming in. Joel then says, “Movin’ out” and all the instruments explode back into the mix along with the addition of a saxophone.
This song uses all of these elements to have the listener not only sympathize for these characters, but feel their excitement of starting on their own journey in life. “Movin Out(Anthony’s Song)” makes me want to drop my responsibilities and pursue my wildest aspirations.
I also love the song “She’s Always a Woman”. It is a realistic love ballad that makes the humanity and agency of his lover the focal point.
Oh, she takes care of herself, she can wait if she wants“She’s Always a Women” by Billy Joel
She’s ahead of her time
Oh, and she never gives out and she never gives in
She just changes her mind
I really enjoy this track because many love songs overlook the humanity of their lover. Turning them into someone who just goes along with the narrator’s wants. This removes the agency from their partner and turns them into an accessory.
This song avoids these pitfalls by acknowledging the independence and clashing opinions his lover has. Although they might not always see “eye to eye”, they see each other as equals.
This song is emotionally impactful as a result. Love songs that use more flowery and ornate language are usually more about being in love than actually being in a relationship.
I also want to talk about “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant”. The majority of the song centers around the couple, Brenda and Eddie. The song goes through the start of their relationship in high school to their divorce. Before Brenda and Eddie are mentioned, he is talking to a women who he’s lost touch with. He is very aloof and brief about when filling her in on his life.
Things are okay with me these days“Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” by Billy Joel
Got a good job, got a good office
Got a new wife, got a new life
And the family’s fine
Joel does not want to focus on his own life and instead pivots to talking about others. He seems to be doubting his current relationship and flirts with the women he’s with.
He makes the couple’s divorce sound inevitable. This is him projecting his own insecurities unto their relationship. He sees this restaurant as an escape from his normal life and is eager to meet her whenever they can.
They lived for a while in a“Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” by Billy Joel
Very nice style
But it’s always the same in the end
They got a divorce as a matter
I’ll meet you any time you want“Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” by Billy Joel
In our Italian Restaurant
I enjoy this track because of how it uses the story of Brenda and Eddie as a vehicle to show how unhappy narrator is in his own life.
While I could pull apart every track on this album, I want to focus on the LP’s greatest success. This album’s ability to capture the aurora of rock and roll with a nuanced twist. “The stranger” is a encapsulation of Billy Joel’s love for the genre. Phil Ramone was able to capture the ethos of Billy Joel and put into album form to great succusses (0:40-0:55).
It’s no wonder this is album that made me and the world fall in love with Billy Joel’s music.
Favorite Tracks: “Movin’ Out(Anthony’s Song)”, “The Stranger”, “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” and “She’s Always a Woman”