I love the way radio was done in 70’s. There was no music videos and no cared about singles. DJs seemed to just play whatever song they liked. It seems like because of that you had records like Boston’s self titled record and Meat Loaf’s Bat out of Hell where partially every song was a well known hit. Billy Joel’s The Stranger is no different. The average person will known 6 or 7 of the albums 9 songs, by that standard alone it’s Billy Joel’s most successful record.
My favorite book of all time is Sex Drugs and Cocoa Puffs which is a collection of essays by Chuck Klosterman. In that book there’s an essay about Billy Joel (specifically his Glass Houses album). He proposes that the reason everyone loves Billy Joel is because he’s so uncool that he becomes cool (but never in an ironic way) and also because all of his hit singles while cheery have an underlying sadness to them.
The Stranger is no exception. Songs like Moving Out and the titular song all create a fantastic world filled with sadness, failed love and working hard for every penny. However there’s two songs that stand out more than anything else on the album (in my book), Vienna and Scenes from an Italian Restaurant.
Vienna is the prettiest song Billy Joel has ever written. This is a controversial statement if I’ve ever made one. I mean I’m discussing an album that also has She’s Always a Woman and Just the Way You Are. They are great songs, don’t get me wrong, but Vienna has one of the best melodies in Joel’s career (ranked along with Piano Man and For the Longest Time) as well as simply gorgeous lyrics. The opening line ‘Slow down you crazy child, you’re so ambeous for a juvenile’ is as simple as songwriting gets, but it sticks with you. That’s a sign of perfect songwriting.
Then you have Scenes from an Italian Restaurant. You could write a whole movie based off this song. Joel paints us a picture of a friendly Italian Restaurant where everyone knows your name (almost like Cheers fucked Olive Garden). After he’s described the settings, we learn about the people who frequently attend this restaurant (specifically Brenda and Eddie). B & E are two young kids who get married fresh out of high school despite everyone telling them it’s an awful idea. Eventually they break up. I think that the message in Joel’s negative vision of love is that no relationship is perfect and unbreakable.
I recall a night a few years ago when my roommate and I argued with a girl about the message of the song. More so who’s fault was the break up. My roommate and I said Brenda’s life was too expensive and that’s why they broke up while the girl felt like Eddie wasn’t working hard enough to pay for his girl. Clearly the song runs deep enough that it has people divided.
More than almost any other Joel album, The Stranger shows how Billy Joel is simply a more accessible Randy Newman.