Billy Joel reminisces about producer Phil Ramone, who just recently died, and his anecdotes and reflections about him make clear in conversation what you can already hear in recordings. For example:
Phil perceived that recording hadn’t been fun for me for a very long time. The process was like pulling teeth. I don’t want to do 15 to 20 takes. I start to hate the song. If I gotta do more than a half a dozen takes, I’m ready to leave. I don’t wanna beat something to death. I just want to be as spontaneous and improvisational and free-wheeling and then I can walk away. I don’t think it’s a matter of laziness, it’s a matter of being in love. You gotta love what you’re doing. If you love what you’re doing, you’re gonna do a great job. If you’re starting to dislike the process, you’re gonna hear it on the recording.
The albums previous to The Stranger had always sounded so weak to me, and it’s refreshing to know that Joel felt the same way. (Same goes for The Bridge, which was the last album they worked on together, and which he also acknowledges isn’t all that great, but due to his own apathy, not Ramone’s production.)
I gave The Stranger a fresh listen tonight, and not only is the album sharp, but you can hear the balance between studio perfectionism and the joy of the work. It’s not slick, it’s not as tight as it might be, and some of it is even a touch muddy. But I wouldn’t change a thing, because the best of what Joel and his band had to offer comes through the speakers.
Also telling to me is how much better (and I mean way, way better) pre-Stranger songs sound on Songs from the Attic, a live compilation that was, now obviously, produced by Ramone, who, as Joel tells us, just got it.
Just listen to the studio version of “Miami 2017” and then compare it to the live version on Attic. No contest.