Few people have enjoyed as much sustained success as Billy Joel. Even though some of his most well-known songs came out over 40 years ago, the 68-year-old pop rock icon has sold out Madison Square Garden every month since January 2014. He has 33 Top 40 hits and his songs are still in constant rotation on classic rock radio stations, weddings, and karaoke bars. He may not be the critically-acclaimed artist of the last half century, but his songs are undeniable.
Joel’s fifth album 1977’s The Stranger is the best encapsulation of the Long Island musician’s charm and talents. With songs as iconic as “Just The Way You Are,” “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song),” and “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant” it’s not just his most commercially successful non-greatest hits album, but far-and-away his most beloved by critics and fans alike. Rolling Stone rated it #70 in their 500 Greatest Albums of All-Time list while fans have consistently ranked Joel’s discography with The Stranger at the top.
But while Billy Joel sold tens of millions of albums with The Stranger, millions more only just heard “Piano Man” like Chicago rock band Twin Peaks. “The other day, I was making fun of ‘Piano Man’ hard but Jake Hirschland from Post Animal told me I was trippin and played me ‘Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song),’ which I kind of loved. I don’t know what to expect. I might hate it” co-frontman Cadien Lake James tells me. “First off, “Piano Man” is too long. Doesn’t he have that ‘Big Shot’ song too? I think I like that one,” adds bassist Jack Dolan. “‘Piano Man’ is too long, too repetitive, and too many fucking rich white people sing it when they’re drunk at karaoke,” keyboardist and multi-instrumentalist Colin Croom agrees. “It drives me absolutely insane and so does ‘We Didn’t Start The Fire,’” adds James.
While that might not be most promising start to hearing Billy Joel’s The Stranger for the first time, Joel does sing on “Get It Right The First TIme” that “I don’t believe in first impressions.” Check out the song-by-song reaction to the album from Twin Peaks’ Croom, Dolan, and James below.
1. "Movin' Out (Anthony's Song)"
Dolan: Oh yeah, I know this one.
James: This one’s pretty sick, actually.
Croom: It’s crazy when he goes “heart attack ack ack ack.”
Dolan: Which rapper sampled this song?
Noisey: Juelz Santana and Cam’ron.
Dolan: Right. Joel has a pretty underrated voice all things considered. It sounds very McCartney-esque here.
James: I saw a video of Billy Joel performing one time and he kicks over his piano. It was pretty nuts. He starts breaking the mic stand but he’s still singing. It’s so punk.
That’s one of the most iconic meltdowns. It’s up there with Bill O’Reilly’s “We’ll Do It Live” rant but I empathize with Joel way more than I ever could O’Reilly.
James: Whoa, he’s also got the sound of the car revving up in this song. "Movin' Out”? I get it. It’s so dramatic.
Croom: It’s like a Broadway musical.
There actually was a Broadway musical based off Billy Joel’s songs called “Movin’ Out,” believe it or not. The main characters were called Brenda and Eddie and were based off characters from a song off The Stranger .
Croom: God dammit.
James: Yeah, that’s gonna be a no for me, dog. But this song was actually pretty tight.
Dolan: That’s a good song.
Croom: I appreciate his voice but I would just rather listen to McCartney.
2. "The Stranger"
James: Oh, play for us piano man.
Croom: “The Stranger” is strange.
James: He can whistle like a motherfucker.
Croom: Listen to how he sings “forever,” like, “for-EVUH.”
James: I’m getting some Steely Dan vibes.
Croom: The drummer’s in the pocket. Who played on this record? Oh, got Liberty DeVitto on drums.
James: My big problem with these songs is that they’re long and repetitive. Happy there’s a fadeout here. Oh, wait. He’s going back to the coda. He’s a cinematic boy.
3. "Just the Way You Are"
Croom: This is such a classic. This one rips.
Dolan: This is a good one. It’s a real good love song.
James: The production here reminds me of “I’m Not In Love” by 10cc.
Croom: I feel like I should be thrift-shopping right now. I’ve heard this at Village Discount so much lately.
I definitely heard this at a CVS on the way over here. It’s not a knock but it’s just a testament to the cultural ubiquity of Joel 40 years after these songs came out.
Croom: See, that’s what I’m saying. It’s an “every occasion” song. You’re going to hear this song at so many different points in your life, weddings, at the dentist office, thrift-shopping, in an Uber. Wherever!
Or four dudes sitting on a couch in Humboldt Park listening to Billy Joel.
Croom: Exactly. Also, this song has such an interesting feel. I love the rhythm.
4. "Scenes from an Italian Restaurant"
This is probably the biggest Billy Joel fan favorite. He plays this basically every night.
James: A bottle of red, let’s go!
Dolan: This one changes up a lot.
Croom: He can’t quit the sax solo. Even at this part, he switches it up to a soprano.
James: Holy fuck. He changes the vibe so much here.
There’s definitely that mid-period Beatles thing going on where he stitches songs together.
James: This piano part is hot, though.
Croom: People probably go fucking wild when he does that part live.
Dolan: Oh, there’s that Brenda and Eddie you were talking about.
James: There’s so much going on here.
Dolan: Did Billy Joel do any cocaine? Just going off the way he sings about shit and the way the songs move.
James: I can see how a lot of people hear this and think, “Holy shit. This is the best thing ever.” It’s definitely cocaine music.
Think it’s over? It’s not over.
Dolan: Back to the beginning. I feel like he really liked how the names “Brenda and Eddie” sounded together and he just rolled with it.
The same is almost definitely the case for John Mellencamp’s “Jack and Diane.”
This song was inspired after he visited his estranged father in Vienna.
Croom: He really sets the theme with each song. Italian restaurant? We’ll make you really think you’re in one. “Vienna”? Same shit with this accordion.
Dolan: This is actually a really nice one.
James: Good. It ended there. Thank god.
Croom: That was the best one so far.
James: I really like that he went a little shorter there. I just think some of his songs are too long. “Movin’ Out” might still be my favorite so far though.
6. "Only the Good Die Young"
James: Oh, what do we have here? This is fun. If he fits this into a three minute single it’s going to be a great track.
Well, it’s four minutes. Close enough.
Croom: Oh shit, it’s “Only The Good Die Young!” I know this one too.
I’ve always thought that there are more people in songs named “Virginia” than actual people named “Virginia.”
James: That makes sense. He loves the sax.
Dolan: Wait, what did he just say there?
“The Catholic girls start much too long.”
Dolan: Oh, Jesus.
James: Besides that, there’s a really good feel here too. It’s chill.
7. "She's Always a Woman"
This one’s the tearjerker.
James: Is it a ballad? I don’t know if I want to hear a Billy Joel ballad right now.
Well, what do you all think of this so far?
Dolan: This is nice.
Croom: It’s chill.
James: I don’t hate it. It’s actually really pleasant.
Dolan: I feel like Billy Joel says so much in his songs that I think he overstuffs them.
James: It wasn’t really a sad ballad. I actually like that.
8. "Get It Right the First Time"
Dolan: Oh shit! What’s going on here?
Dolan: I love this so far.
James: Feeling like a Stevie Wonder jam . Oh yeah, dude!
Dolan: I love this but does he play it live often? I feel like this is a deep cut.
He played it this year but before that, hadn’t had it on a setlist since 1978. The two last songs on this album are not really in a live rotation but the other seven are played almost every night.
James: This has a much more natural structure. I like how easy it is to follow.
Dolan: I think I like this one better than “Movin’ Out,” mostly because I didn’t know Billy Joel made songs that sounded like this.
Croom: It was fresh. It was fun.
James: That’s the thing for me. It was fun. I know Billy Joel is fun for a lot of people but listening to every song before this one, it wasn’t my kind of fun.
9. "Everybody Has a Dream"
This is the last song on the album.
Dolan: I get the idea of this one. You’re closing out the album so why not end it with a corny-ass song.
The choir isn’t the subtlest touch.
James: Billy Joel is the King of Schmaltz.
Dolan: He still tours right?
Yeah, extensively. Since January 2014, he’s had a monthly residency at Madison Square Garden and has sold out every night. It’s upwards of 50 shows so far not to mention his traveling tour dates.
James: Wait, every month? That’s actually insane.
Dolan: Holy shit.
He’s playing this week actually. Tickets on Stubhub are around the $160 range. 400-level.
James: Let’s fucking go. Ever think how much money he makes a month doing those?
Dolan: Yo, that’d actually be really fun. Wow, this songs keep going doesn’t it.
Yeah, it’s the second longest on the record.
Croom: Oh, he brought back the intro from the title track!
James: No whistling?
Wait a couple of seconds.
Croom: Yeah, it was on its way.
Dolan: The whistling makes me feel like it’s a Western.
James: True, that makes me like it more but this whole section is unnecessary.
Croom: I respect that he hasn’t released a record since 2001 but still sells out stadiums monthly. I feel like the record would be dope if he just saved some of the ideas for later. He could’ve made his album material longer to just cut some of the ideas and put aside for another thing. He says so much and it didn’t really work. I can appreciate it but some of it could’ve been broken up.
James: I didn’t hate it. There were a couple songs I enjoyed and then the rest were whatever. It didn’t really surprise me though. I knew what I was getting into. I loved “Movin’ Out” and the second to last one too. I like “Just The Way You Are.” It’s cheesy but it’s nice.
Dolan: I thought it was decent. The song about his dad was really nice and then the second to last one was so sick. You know this dude is a multifaceted musician and has a wide range of vibes and talents he can put into a song. I guess I was surprised at how much I liked it. And for the Italian restaurant song, I noticed that he didn’t mention any food. He just talked about wine. Does he go to an Italian restaurant just to get wasted?
Croom: He just went for the easy rhymes. There isn't much that rhymes with fettuccine.
Dolan: Ziti for my sweetie, that’s one for free-ti.
Croom: I’ll think back to this moment and put on Billy Joel again.
Dolan: I’ll definitely listen to some of the sweeter sounding songs again.
James: If my boy puts it on, I won’t tell him to fuck off and turn it off.
Croom: I have that TouchTunes app on my phone so if I’m walking by a bar I might just put on “Scenes From An Italian” for the unsuspecting patrons at Go Tavern or whatever.
Josh Terry is a writer in Chicago. Follow him on Twitter.