1977 found Billy Joel in Columbia’s Fifty Second Street studio working on material for a new album (his fifth). He’d had great success with the song “Piano Man,” which had become an FM radio staple, but, unfortunately, the album just didn’t sell very well. He wasn’t particularly happy with the production efforts on his first four albums, which had mostly included session musicians. And he finally had assembled a really crack working band, and wanted the new record to focus on the sound of the band. He’d actually ended up serving as the producer on his last album, which he wasn’t really comfortable with, so he’d already begun the search for a new producer as the group rehearsed for an upcoming gig at New York’s Carnegie Hall. Unbeknownst to Billy at the time, Columbia Record execs had already made the decision that unless the new record was a commercial success, it would be his last for the label.
He first met with George Martin (yes, of Beatles fame), who immediately wanted to jettison the band and go with studio players, which was completely contrary to Billy Joel’s wishes. Somehow Phil Ramone’s name came up, and Billy invited him to attend one of the Carnegie Hall dates prior to meeting with him. Phil liked the sound of the band, and expressed to Billy his desire to highlight the band on the new record. The partnership was made, and the resulting album, The Stranger, went on to become, at that point, Columbia’s biggest selling album of all time. This new Thirtieth Anniversary Edition celebrates the legacy of that partnership with a new remastering of the original album, along with a bonus CD and a DVD of live material and featurettes highlighting the back story of The Stranger.
I was a huge fan of Billy Joel up until the whole “Uptown Girl” – Christie Brinkley thing; ever since then, I’ve had very little appreciation for the musical direction he took off in. However, I still consider his first six albums as his classic period, and The Stranger is unquestionably his masterpiece and the peak of his artistic output. I saw him live on tours for both The Stranger and Fifty Second Street albums, and he was an amazingly good showman and entertainer, and he was definitely no slouch as a piano player!
I’ve always considered all previous CD reissues of this album to be seriously lacking, and a quick comparison to the Thirtieth Anniversary edition with both a catalog CD issue and the previous SACD proved quite telling. The original CD was flat and lifeless, and just sounded, well, digital! The Thirtieth Anniversary disc has been cut much hotter, and while I can’t begin to tell you how many web entries I’ve seen denegrating the remastering of this disc, I found it to be much closer in sound and spirit to the SACD issue. Of course, the SACD is superior in every technical aspect, but a great deal of A-B-ing made the differences quite difficult to discern, and this would be especially true for most non-critical listeners. I felt that the remastering had a much more analog sound than any previous issue of this material, outside of the SACD version. A really good comparison track is “She’s Always A Woman;” the standard CD issue sounds lifeless and congested, whereas the Thirtieth Anniversary issue sounds not unlike good vinyl – even if the SACD didn’t exist, I could be perfectly happy with this new release! [Shows how CD mastering has often improved in the last few years…Ed.]
The additional CD included in the package documents the Carnegie Hall concerts, which took place prior to the recording of The Stranger, and have never been released. The songs give you a really good idea of how Billy Joel’s working band sounded live in concert, and it’s amazing to think that the failure of this album could easily have made this all go away. It’s interesting to note, when the song “Just The Way You Are” is introduced (it was yet to appear on record), it’s to just a smattering of applause, and yet the song went on to win multiple Grammys as Song of the Year and Record of the Year! The DVD disc includes additional live material from the British TV show “The Old Whistle Stop,” and it really took me back and reminded me what a dynamic performer and incredibly gifted showman Billy Joel was back in the day. When the group plays the song “New York State Of Mind,” his sax player, Richie Cannata, plays an amazingly brilliant solo that left the audience breathless! The DVD also includes a fascinating 30-minute featurette on the making of the album and some of the back story surrounding the album and the genesis of many of the songs.
This reissue was offered in two versions: the Deluxe Edition (reviewed here) differs from the standard version with the inclusion of the DVD, and amazingly luxurious packaging, which includes a really nice hardboard case and a deluxe, large-format book on varnished, heavy glossy stock. There’s also a full sized poster, and a facsimile of the booklet in which Billy Joel wrote all the lyrics to the album.
If you’re a fan of this album, or of just Billy Joel in general, I really encourage you to get the Deluxe Edition. It’s not that much more money than the standard issue, and I can’t begin to tell you how much more satisfying this reissue is than any other previous CD version. And the DVD is an incredibly entertaining watch. Very highly recommended – five stars!
CD 1: Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song); The Stranger; Just The Way You Are; Scenes From An Italian Restaurant; Vienna; Only The Good Die Young; She’s Always A Woman; Get It Right The First Time; Everybody Has A Dream.
CD 2: Miami 2017; Prelude/Angry Young Man; New York State Of Mind; Just The Way You Are; She’s Got A Way; The Entertainer; Scenes From An Italian Restaurant; Captain Jack; I’ve Loved These Days; Say Goodbye To Hollywood; Souvenir.
DVD: Intro; Miami 2017; Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song); New York State Of Mind; The Entertainer; She’s Always A Woman; Root Beer Rag; Just The Way You Are; Only The Good Die Young; Souvenir; Ain’t No Crime.
— Tom Gibbs