Much of the success of Billy Joel's fifth album, The Stranger, has been attributed to his pairing with producer Phil Ramone, who surely did help turn Joel's tunes into stainless pop, but a heavy focus on Ramone tends to give the producer too much credit, attributing the record's phenomenal success to his presence. This, of course, isn't quite true, as Joel already had his artistic breakthrough on 1976's Turnstiles and The Stranger built upon that, carrying through on that record's combination of dramatic spectacle (there's a through line from "Angry Young Man" and "Say Goodbye to Hollywood" to "Scenes from an Italian Restaurant" and "The Stranger"), gentle ballads, and McCartneyesque melody. Ramone gave Joel's music a soft impeccable gloss that turned it into a hit that rivaled Fleetwood Mac's Rumours -- the other big American mainstream pop sensation of 1977 -- but the core of the album's success is naturally due to Joel's songs and the durability of his touring band, an argument that the deluxe 30th anniversary reissue of The Stranger makes plain.
Weighing in at three discs -- two CDs plus a DVD (there is a separate, cheaper edition minus the DVD) -- this is a heavy expansion of the original nine-track album, but there are no alternate takes here, no unreleased songs, which shouldn't come as a great surprise as Billy Joel has little of that kind of thing buried in the vaults (and what he does have was largely unearthed in 2005's My Lives box). Instead, this anniversary edition relies on live material to earn its designation as a deluxe reissue: the bonus disc captures Billy's concert at Carnegie Hall on June 3, 1977, held just prior to the recording of The Stranger, while the DVD contains a concert first aired on the BBC's The Old Grey Whistle Test in March 1978, along with the live promo videos for "The Stranger" and "Just the Way You Are" (there's also a 30-minute documentary on the making of the album). This, combined with the emphasis in David Fricke's liner notes on how Joel and band performed most of the album live in the studio, winds up shining the spotlight on Billy's strengths as a bandleader and showman, as well as his songs. This is a nice, welcome counterbalance to the smooth surfaces of the original album, but it also isn't that drastic of a difference, as Joel's band really did deliver live, giving full, energetic performances. And, apart from a vague bossa nova lilt to "Just the Way You Are," the Stranger material on the Carnegie Hall set feels fully formed, especially the epic sweep of "Scenes from an Italian Restaurant." There's also real energy to the older tunes here and that exuberance is palpable on the Old Grey Whistle Test performances, too. Taken together, these are the first vintage full-length Billy Joel live performances -- Songs in the Attic being a compilation, while all live videos have dated from the '80s and beyond -- and they're both excellent, illustrating how the constant touring and writing really strengthened the skills of Billy and band and, in turn, they subtly illuminate The Stranger, showing the hard work that lay beneath the surface of this blockbuster breakthrough. [A 30th Anniversary Legacy Edition was also released.] ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine