30th Anniversary Edition
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Reviewed by Jason Thompson
This could have been the deal-breaker for Billy. After serving up three albums for Columbia Records – Piano Man, whose title track became a modest A.M. radio hit and won Joel his first gold record (and also included “Captain Jack,” the song that actually netted Billy his contract with Columbia), Streetlife Serenade, which featured the sarcastic “The Entertainer” and eerily predicted Billy’s early career trajectory, and Turnstiles, Joel’s back-to-New York album whose songs such as “New York State of Mind” were scoring better as cover versions by Babs Streisand and Bette Midler – it was time to have a hit, come hell or high water. For those keeping score at home, Joel’s botched 1972 debut Cold Spring Harbor was only picked up by the label when its mix was corrected and reissued in 1984.
At first, it looked like things were going to go the usual route. The leadoff single from The Stranger, “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song),” didn’t set the charts alight at all. It wouldn’t be until the love ballad “Just the Way You Are” and the infamous “Only the Good Die Young” were released that the album started selling like crazy and literally turned Joel into an overnight success – if by overnight we mean after seven years. The album was produced by Phil Ramone, who had everything to do with capturing the essence of Billy and his band as they were in the studio. Joel’s prior albums had capable but somewhat sterile production (Turnstiles had been produced by Joel himself, who had hated the overall sound of his first two Columbia LPs). On The Stranger, though, Ramone brought out a super-professional and warm sound from the mix, with the overall quality sounding not unlike the heights Steely Dan had been hitting for years with producer Gary Katz.
And so the rest is rock history. Billy Joel was never a stranger to the charts afterward. The Stranger begat 52nd Street which begat Glass Houses, and the list of hit albums and singles just keeps rolling on. Here it is 2008, and The Stranger has been dressed up as a “Legacy Edition” by Sony. This package comes in one of two editions. The first is a two-disc set featuring the original album remastered by Phil Ramone, plus a second live disc of Joel performing at Carnegie Hall in 1977 just before the album was released. It’s interesting to hear him at this point in his career, and hear the crowd cheer fan faves like “Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go out on Broadway),” “The Entertainer,” and “Captain Jack” while being absolutely quiet and respectful during the then “new” tunes like “Just the Way You Are” and “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant.”
The second version of this package features the two CDs, plus a bonus DVD featuring Billy on “The Old Grey Whistle Test” in 1978, and a deluxe 48-page booklet. For this review, I only received the two-disc set, so I cannot comment on the DVD or booklet. That said, the remastered disc by Phil Ramone sounds absolutely fantastic, sounding even better than the late ‘90s remaster of the album when Joel’s catalogue was given the complete overhaul treatment. There’s something even more immediate and “live” sounding about the album that it honestly never had in any previous versions. It sounds fresh and exciting all over again. Likewise, the live disc sounds just as great as Songs in the Attic – the recording is crisp and warm, and is certainly a treat for fans of all stripes. As stated earlier, it’s interesting to hear Billy in a concert setting prior to all the really huge hits.
Having now taken in this new version of The Stranger, I can only say that it would be great if the rest of Billy’s catalog could be given another remastering treatment by Ramone and the other respective producers. Regardless of that, this album remains one of the best of the ‘70s and certainly of Billy Joel’s career. It is the definite line of demarcation when he went from being an opening act to headlining stadiums all on his own. That the album escaped the trappings of the time in which it was recorded and still sounds as vital today is a testament to Joel’s talents as a songwriter and performer. The Stranger remains one of the best LPs of all time.