[Talking about what making Spider-Man has taught them] Bono: A lesson for me? Don’t hang out with Elton John, ‘cause he’s like [in an English accent] “I loved it. It was such a wonderful thing. I did it for three weeks, darling”. And, you know, we’ve spent how long at it? Six- Both: Seven years. The Edge: Not all the time, I mean, we had weekends off.
Billy Joel’s first album as a solo artist, Cold Spring Harbor, came out in 1971. Over the course of six years, several subsequent albums, lineup changes, botched tours and other promotional misfires, he struggled to find his voice as an artist or achieve any real commercial success. Even with classic songs like “Piano Man” and “Say Goodbye to Hollywood” in his pocket, Joel received little airplay and no real chart success.
Then in 1977 he teamed with producer Phil Ramone and released The Stranger.
Words have been written around the world for 30 years about this album and its legacy, but all you really need to know it that it contains no less than seven all-time, hall-of-fame classic recordings.
Only the Good Die Young
Scenes from an Italian Restaurant
Vienna (BJ’s all-time best album b-side?)
Just The Way You Are (Grammy award for song of the year)
She’s Always a Woman!
Not only is this an example of a world-class songwriter in his prime, but the fluency of the album as a whole speaks to Joel’s artistic relationship with the producer, Phil Ramone.
A Julliard grad and musical child prodigy who had just won a Grammy the year before for Paul Simon’s “Still Crazy After All These Years”, Phil Ramone immediately brought an ease and understanding to Billy Joel’s music that allowed him to present it in a context that was missing from Joel’s earlier and less successful releases. It’s easy to overlook the strange brew of Billy Joel’s unlikely influences: Baroque piano harmony, shot through with blues and jazz; a blue-collar folk lyrical sensibility that is deeply American at least in spirit. Ramone captured all of these at their best, and then managed to match the traditional elements already in play with contemporary sounds like loud brass and bold electric guitar that give the music an attitude and relevance that stands up with the best popular music of the ‘70s.
Ramone and Joel’s arrangements of unusually complex songs like “The Stranger” make them immediately accessible, and the many transitions memorable because of their fluidity. One might be surprised at how they sing along to every piano instrumental, whistling solo, or key change in this song; more so the full eight minutes of orchestral theatre that is Italian Restaurant.
Then there’s the way Ramone perfectly captures Billy Joel’s singing. Evocative, versatile, effective singing is a vital proposition for a singer-songwriter of any period, and Ramone’s sublime ability to showcase Billy Joel’s voice is all over this album (and would go on to define their collaborations to come; see Glass Houses to The Nylon Curtain).
The fact is, on The Stranger Billy Joel had found in Phil Ramone the avatar to express his specific gifts to the world in album form, and delivered not just his greatest album, but one of the best (and best-selling) of all time. What happened next is even more remarkable. Over the course of nine years and six more albums, Joel and Ramone followed their artist/producer muse and managed to deliver genius albums one after another. Every one of these albums not only evolved Joel’s sound distinctly each time, but managed to define its own place within the history of popular music, while also delivering a sort of slanted , timely commentary on the world around them. These guys had a formula, and put it to use crafting some of the best albums in rock history in rapid succession.
52nd Street, 1978. “Big Shot” and “My Life” are two of Joel’s most enduring songs and stand on their own as proof the guy could immediately live up to the insane promise of Stranger. “Honesty” is without question one of his greatest ballads and an under-recognized song. If you don’t know it, enjoy:
Glass Houses, 1980.
Tribute to turn-of-the-decade personal excess, good-natured egomania, posturing behind the cultural artifice of “rock and roll.” The most fun album in his catalogue and his first #1. Listen to this thing on vinyl and step into a time machine. Also includes the gem “All For Leyna”:
Songs in the Attic, 1981. Live album with no new material BUT this includes the definitive career recordings of “Say Goodbye To Hollywood” and “She’s Got a Way,” two songs that hadn’t gotten their due in the days before Joel became a household name. As the AllMusic guide says, this album serves to prove that “even if Joel wasn’t a celebrity in the early ’70s, his best songs of the era rivaled his biggest hits.” This thing holds up.
The Nylon Curtain, 1982.
This album to me is the crux of the Joel/Ramone argument. Five years after the two define Billy Joel’s sound and vision within the context of popular rock and roll in the ‘70s with The Stranger, they do it all over again in the ‘80s with an album that is just as progressive and thematically relevant. The songwriting and recording techniques bring Joel in a totally new direction that still feels like it’s been a part of their musical DNA from the start. There’s the imprint of McCartney in terrific album tracks like “Laura”, “She’s Right On Time” and “Surprises”; and the synthesizers and sound effects incorporated more across this album than any other to date (“Allentown” and “Goodnight Saigon” most notably).
But like any great creative work, the grace is in the details, and this album is the ultimate realization of Joel and Ramone’s ability to play to each others’ gifts and deliver a classic musical moment. “Pressure” is filled to the brim with pitch-perfect instrumental touches. The chugging, palm muted guitars; the one-beat-late snare drum accents that suddenly propel the choruses; and most of all, the exultantly screeching main synth riff that to me will always personify anxiety and yes, Pressure in the Reagan era. The dynamics in “Goodnight Saigon”, from the opening helicopter and cricket sound effects up through the epic snare drum roll leading into the first revelatory chorus, are simply transporting, and this somewhat trite thematic recap of loss and brotherhood in Vietnam becomes and living and breathing anthem for any generation.
The highlight of the album, and maybe one of Joel’s best songs of all time, is the opening track “Allentown.” Opening with (again) some very literal sound effects – in this case, a steel manufacturing plant in the titular town in Pennsylvania – something happens when Joel’s vocal enters the mix in the opening line of the song. There is a unique effect on his voice – call it reverb, delay, I leave that classification up to Phil Ramone – that has never been heard on a Billy Joel vocal before, and immediately transports this song and the album into new artistic territory; Joel and Ramone are exploring the bounds of their own pop legacy together and it’s thrilling. As for “Allentown” itself- what could have been just a pleasant observational riff on the decay of the American working class becomes, through the prism of Joel’s writing and Ramone’s production, a definitive and moving cultural statement that holds up and is still deeply moving to this day.
Everyone knows “Allentown” so here’s the unsung gem of the album, “Laura”:
An Innocent Man, 1983. Old pals Billy and Phil decide to mess around and tackle the Frankie Valli doo-wop sound of the ‘50s. These guys are so on fire that even a left-field turn like delivers another American classic. “The Longest Time” “Tell Her About It”, “An Innocent Man”, “Leave a Tender Moment Alone” and of course “Uptown Girl” are all Top 40 hits.
The Bridge was still to come in 1986; not a classic, although the music once again is an uncanny reflection of the sonic recording trends of the era. “A Matter of Trust” is the most enduring example of this. Just listen to that guitar and tell me this doesn’t sound like 1986:
There have been plenty of essential artist/producer relationships in the course of rock and roll history; The Beatles and George Martin might be the most revered, and then there’s Quincy and Michael, Eno and U2; for my money, Brendan O’Brien and Pearl Jam is worth at least as many words as this. But the albums created by Billy Joel and Phil Ramone represent a special flashpoint in the evolution of pop music in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and signify the genesis of Billy Joel’s greatest work. They’re also a few of the greatest pop albums ever made; buy them all (on vinyl if possible), listen to them in sequence and find your own special moments to celebrate on each one.
Footnote: these thoughts were inspired by a couple of hours spent reading through credits and assessments of Billy Joel’s catalog on All Music Guide; the link is here if you want to get into more detail, always a good time.