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Re:Masters: Billy Joel

The 'piano man' looks back at the album that catapulted him from also-ran to superstar

By Alan Light
Special to MSN Music

In 1977, Billy Joel was struggling to catch a break. The Long Island native was approaching 30, and had released four albums to no great response -- the highest he had reached on the charts was No. 27, with 1973's "Piano Man." He was, he says, on the verge of getting dropped by his label, Columbia Records. Yet when Beatles producer George Martin expressed interest in working with Joel on his next record, the singer passed, insisting that he record with his touring band rather than use session players.

The resulting album was not only Joel's breakthrough, it also became one of the biggest-selling releases of all time. "The Stranger" (produced by Phil Ramone, who would continue to work with Joel on all his subsequent albums) became Columbia's biggest seller to date, and went on to sell more than 10 million copies in the United States.

"The Stranger" included four singles that remain in perpetual radio rotation to this day -- "Just the Way You Are" (which won Grammys for Record and Song of the Year), "She's Always a Woman," "Only the Good Die Young," and "Movin' Out (Anthony's Song)," which later gave its title to the smash Broadway musical based on Joel's songs.

This July, "The Stranger" is getting the blowout "30th Anniversary" treatment. (The two-CD "Legacy Edition" contains the original album, remastered by Ramone, and a previously unreleased concert disc, "Live at Carnegie Hall 1977"; the "Deluxe Limited Edition" version adds a DVD with two live promotional videos and Joel's 1978 appearance on the BBC's "Old Grey Whistle Test.")

A few days later, on July 16 and 18, Joel, a six-time Grammy winner, and the sixth best-selling recording artist in the United States, will perform at Shea Stadium, the final concerts at the storied venue before it is torn down following the end of baseball season.

Joel, 59, seldom speaks to the press (and hasn't released an album of new songs in 15 years), but he got on the phone between stops on his current tour to offer his thoughts on these two landmark events.

MSN Music: What do you hear when you go back and listen to "The Stranger"?

Billy Joel: Well, I remember the sessions. Every song has a particular story -- some were written before we started recording, some were half-written, some we wrote in the studio. A song like "The Stranger," the title track, it has that whistling intro. When I wrote that, I was thinking about an instrument playing that part, that was really just my demonstration of the melody, and I was asking the producer, Phil Ramone, what instrument should play it. When I was finished, Phil said, "That's it." And I said, "What's it?" And he said, "You got it, that whistling is it."

So things like that are a lot of what the personality of that record is. And one of the great things about Phil as a producer is that he knows the right sound when he hears it.

Is it true that you turned down George Martin's offer to produce the album?

I met with George Martin, and he was somebody I admired tremendously, but he wanted to use session players and I really wanted to record with my band. I knew my band weren't the most finessed musicians in the world, but I wanted that, I wanted that road dynamic. So I told him I didn't want to do the album without the band, and that's how we left it.

How did your record company react to that decision?

I assume at the label there was some anxiety about that -- "He passed on the Beatles producer?!?" -- but they never hassled me about my vision or my artistic direction.

You know, the four albums before were really not successful. "Cold Spring Harbor" [Joel's debut] was a disaster. "Piano Man" had a turntable hit with the title song, meaning it got played a lot but didn't really sell. Then "Streetlife Serenade" was a total flop, and "Turnstiles" wasn't a seller, either.

I found out afterwards that I would have been dropped if "The Stranger" hadn't been a hit. It wasn't my goal just to make a commercial album, but I was told that later.

Do you think anything was changing in your songwriting for this project?

Really, I only came in with three prepared, finished songs. But it was a very inspiring atmosphere. Phil encouraged the band to add their individual contributions to each song. Before that, it had always been a battle with the producer, and now he was encouraging us and we were just going with it. A song like "Vienna," that just popped out. I have no idea where that came from, it was in response to something else on some other song.

Was there a point in the sessions when you realized that something different was going on, that this was unlike the albums you had made previously?

Well, we had fun, had a good time, and I think that comes through. We liked it from a musician's point of view. We had no idea it was going to be a hit -- I mean, we almost left "Just the Way You Are" off the album. We didn't like it, we thought it was a chick song, that it sounded like some cocktail lounge ballad. Phoebe Snow and Linda Ronstadt talked me into keeping it on -- "Oh, no, you have to use that one!" We're guys, what do we know?

Was there a moment when you remember feeling things really coming together, and you really got a sense of what the album was going to be?

By the end of recording, when we added that little last reintroduction of "The Stranger" theme, that felt like we had completed an arc to the album. There was a beginning, a middle, and an end, it had a concept and a personality to it. It felt like a very complete project, and that all really happened organically.

It was definitely my best-produced album to date. There was a certain sterility to the earlier albums. Except maybe for "Turnstiles," but I kind of ended up producing that myself, and I'm just not a real good producer on my own. I have ideas, but I don't have the technical knowledge to really do it. "The Stranger" just sounded right, it captured the fun and the improvisation that was going on.

When were you first aware of the public reaction to the album?

We could see it was getting popular from airplay. I remember we were opening for the Doobie Brothers somewhere in Pittsburgh, and we got to "Just the Way You Are" and the crowd erupted, and we looked at each other and thought, "Oh, I guess they're playing this one." And then everywhere we went, we started to get that reaction.

I have no idea why it was such a big hit, though. Maybe it was just my time, maybe it was just the zeitgeist. It's all a grand accident, really. I have to give credit to Columbia Records for picking the singles, because we had four hits off that record, and I wouldn't know a hit if it bit me on the ass.

Let's talk about the Shea Stadium shows. Did it bring up any particular emotions when the idea of these concerts came up?

Well, I remember when Shea opened in 1964. It's a bit daunting to think that a state-of-the-art stadium was built and torn down in my lifetime.

These shows finish what I call the hat trick of New York stadiums -- we played Yankee Stadium, then Giants Stadium, and now Shea, so that's pretty cool. But after that, and selling out 12 Madison Square Garden shows, where else are we gonna go?

Do you feel any added pressure for a concert like this?

I actually think it was more problematic when we played Yankee Stadium. We were told we were the first act to play there, and it was also our first big, gigantic stadium show. Now we know how to play the gig technically, we just have to figure out how to make it different from our usual show. We don't have blow-up pigs or fireworks or gimmicks, so trying to figure out how we can amplify the music itself -- that's the challenge, and I think we've got a handle on it.

And, I mean, the Beatles played there -- that's pretty humbling.

What do you remember from the Beatles' concerts at Shea? You were living just down the island when they played that first show in 1965.

It was insane -- I didn't go to the concerts, but everybody was just in awe of the fact that a band would play a show like that. I know they only played like a half an hour, and nobody could hear them anyway because of the screaming. I don't think we'll get the screams, so I guess we're going to play a little longer, and you'll be able to hear us.

Really, it's just a big thrill, to know I'm closing a place that the Beatles opened.

Alan Light is the former editor-in-chief of Spin, Vibe and Tracks magazines and a former senior writer at Rolling Stone. His writing has also appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, GQ and Entertainment Weekly. His book "The Skills to Pay the Bills: The Story of the Beastie Boys" was published in 2006. Alan is a two-time winner of the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for excellence in music writing.

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