Monday, 27 March 2017

"The Stranger: 30th Anniversary Edition" by BILLY JOEL (July 2008 Columbia/Legacy 2CD and 1DVD Long Book Set Reissue - Ted Jensen Remaster) - A Review by Mark Barry...



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"…Mister Cacciatore's Down On Sullivan Street…" 

It’s hard now in March 2017 to imagine just how huge Billy Joel’s The Stranger was at the time of release in late September 1977 - almost 40 years after the event. 

Not since Carole King’s Tapestry album way back in March 1971 and Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours in February of that same eventful year (1977) - had an album so grabbed the public by the neck – hammering them with dollops of palatable romance and pain in equal measure. And all it came wrapped up in great hooky tunes that the radio loved. Before 1977 few people knew Billy Joel’s name – by the end of 1978 there were few who didn’t.

Joel had been bubbling under since 1971 and produced four whole albums prior to his 1977 breakthrough - "Cold Spring Harbor" (1971), "Piano Man" (1973), "Streetlife Serenade" (1974) and "Turnstiles" (1976) – each featuring songwriting brilliance on an escalating scale with "The Stranger" seeing that craft and promise come to full fruition. 

Every track rocked both musically and lyrically - and this '30th Anniversary Edition' Long Box Set (there is also a smaller 2CD Legacy Edition) does that musical milestone a solid. Here are the Scenes From An Italian Restaurant (Down On Sullivan Street)…

US released July 2008 – "The Stranger: 30th Anniversary Edition" by BILLY JOEL on Columbia/Legacy 88697308012 (Barcode 886973080122) is a 2CD and 1DVD Long Book Set of Remasters and breaks down as follows:

Disc 1 (42:33 minutes):
1. Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)
2. The Stranger
3. Just The Way You Are
4. Scenes From An Italian Restaurant
5. Vienna [Side 2]
6. Only The Good Die Young
7. She’s Always A Woman
8. Get It Right The First Time
9. Everybody Has A Dream
Tracks 1 to 9 are the vinyl album The Stranger – released September 1977 in the USA on Columbia JC 34987 and December 1977 in the UK on CBS Records 86108. Mastered for CD by TED JENSEN at Sterling Sound in New York. The album rose to Number 2 in the States and 25 in the UK.

Disc 2 Live At Carnegie Hall, 3 June 1977 (64:04 minutes):
1. Miami 2017 (Seen The Lights Go Out On Broadway)
2. Prelude/Angry Young Man
3. New York State Of Mind
4. Just The Way You Are
5. She’s Got A Way
6. The Entertainer
7. Scenes From An Italian Restaurant
8. Band Introductions
9. Captain Jack
10. I’ve Loved These Days
11. Say Goodbye To Hollywood
12. Souvenir
Original recordings produced by DON DeVITO, Produced for Record by PHIL RAMONE and mastered by MARK WILDER at Battery Studios in New York

DVD (90:00 minutes) Region 0 NTSC:
Live Promotional Videos (Recorded USA - No Dates Provided)
1. The Stranger
2. Just The Way You Are

Billy Joel filmed in concert for The Old Grey Whistle Test on BBC1 – recorded and first transmitted 14 March 1978
3. Intro
4. Miami 2017 (Seen The Lights Go Out On Broadway)
5. Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)
6. New York State Of Mind
7. The Entertainer
8. She’s Always A Woman
9. Root Beer Rag
10. Just The Way You Are
11. Only The Good Die Young
12. Souvenir [extra track to original broadcast]
13. Ain’t No Crime [extra track to original broadcast]

14. A 30-minute bonus documentary on the making of "The Stranger" featuring new interviews with Billy Joel and Phil Ramone

Before we get into the album itself and the extras – let’s talk about the gorgeous packaging. The long box gives you a 48-page glossy booklet with loads of professionally shot black and white outtake photos from the album cover session – round the world 7” single picture sleeves, the British “Now Playing” promo-only LP on CBS BJ 1, A Japanese-Only 1978 Concert Promo LP, American Tour Posters, Live Shots of his band, trade adverts, the lyrics, an essay by DAVID FRICKE and even a facsimile of a Billy Joel Valentine’s Day gift card! But better than this is a reproduction of his small notebook containing the lyrics for “The Stranger” and other thoughts. “Vienna” he notes is about ‘work and friends’ while “Scenes” is about ‘divorce and nostalgia’. There’s a list on the first page of quality bands and artists he opened for – Yes, Bill Withers, Crazy Horse, Hall & Oates, Badfinger, The Eagles and Janis Ian to name but a few. How about quality placing by his management making him open for Jazz-Fusion monsters The Mahavishnu Orchestra, pseudo Rock ‘n’ Rollers Sha Na Na and Australian Popstral Olivia Newton John – wow did this guy pay his dues! There’s also a gorgeous foldout repro poster of the 2, 3 and 4 June 1977 Carnegie Hall Concert in New York which I’ve never seen – very tasty. 

The TED JENSEN Remaster of the album sounds like the 1998 version but with more oomph and to my ears is better than that first attempt. The second the street-punk lyrics to “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)” hits your speakers – you can hear the upgrade – all the instruments clear and with so much more punch. Particularly impressive is opening piano notes of the title track and the vocals on “Just The Way You Are”. It has to be said there’s noticeable hiss in the background on some portions of both - but as Joel quite rightly points out – Producer PHIL RAMONE went for ‘feel’, ‘the right take’ and you can hear why – they’re full of feeling. It still sounds magical and the rhythm section is now more to the fore. “A bottle of white, a bottle of red…” – who doesn’t love the Side 1 finisher “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant” with Accordion by DOMINIC CORTESS beautifully captured. When the Saxophone of RICHARD CANNATA and the Strings kick in – it’s full of power and presence. And those fabulous lyrics about “Brenda and Eddie” who “didn’t account for the tears…” Side 2 opens with the superb “Vienna” – another double-whammy of a great melody and brutally honest lyrics. But for me the album’s true masterpiece is “She’s Always A Woman” which sounds just glorious. What a beautiful song.

I now know why fans have loved the bootlegs of the famous ‘Carnegie Hall’ concert – it’s an absolute blinder – every song rocking – his band tight and on the cusp of success – playing quality new material – mixing with the best of the old. It also features the JOE MALIN ORCHESTRA backing the band (conducted by Frank Owens) – giving a large number of the songs an epic feel. You’re wowed never mind impressed. What I wasn’t expecting however is the stunning Production Values. This thing sounds amazing and is better in some respects than the officially released live set “Songs In The Attic” from 1981. The two openers rapidly set the pace with his piano playing on “Prelude/Angry Young Man” being just brilliant – but it’s the eight and half-minute “New York State Of Mind” that slays everything in its path – the crowd eating it up (check out the Sax solo). To this day the song evokes New Yawk for me – fabulous (“taking a Greyhound on the Hudson River line…”). A clever choice for romance is “She’s Got A Way” - as gorgeous a song as he’s ever written. He gets all Phil Spector on “Say Goodbye To Hollywood”. And as the short but pretty finisher “Souvenirs” (from “Streetlife Serenade”) plays out – he says “Good Night New York...” - and you can hear they want more. In a few months Billy Joel would arrive for real everywhere else.

The DVD is yet another level – giving you visuals. First up are two American promo videos of Joel and his band before an audience (no dates, no locations) as he whistles his way through “The Stranger” and introduces a ‘new one’ called “Just The Way You Are”. They’re well-filmed and full frame. The BBC show aired the night it was recorded 14 March 1978 is introduced by a laidback BOB HARRIS in front of an invited audience at BBC Television Centre. Like the live promo videos, luckily its defaulted to full screen so there’s no bars top or bottom and the sound is excellent. It’s typical of Seventies footage – a tiny bit blurry but not enough to detract. The British crowd you suspect don’t know much of his material and the album’s only been released in the UK 3 months – but as the gig goes on – their appreciation and the band’s rather ‘fish-out-of-water’ mood lifts. This footage hasn’t been seen since it was first aired – and not seen at all apparently are the two rather great encores – a solo “Souvenir” on his Bechstein piano – an then the band is brought on for a rollicking “Ain’t No Crime” (also from “Streetlife Serenade”). He even manages a Joe Cocker impression before he starts the song. The Documentary is great fun too – the artist and Producer clearly proud of their achievement. Along with the two discs before it – the whole shebang is impressive.

If you want a cheaper option – the 2CD Legacy Edition is available for peanuts – but I’d plum the extra few quid for this thoughtfully put together celebration of a classic Seventies album.

"...Don't imagine you're too familiar…" - Billy Joel sings on the classic "Just The Way You Are". Apply the same logic with this superb reissue… 

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