The Steely Dan 64 Project: Introduction and Songs 64-57

After months of listening, pondering, arranging and rearranging, my Steely Dan 64 Project is ready for prime time.

What is the Steely Dan 64 Project? So glad you asked. I will explain. Or at least, I will sum up.

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As many longtime readers know, the musical partnership Steely Dan — it’s not quite accurate to say “band,” at least not for most of the Dan’s history — holds a unique place in my consciousness. I’ve often remarked that Steely Dan got me through college, and that’s true. No other recording act spent as much time in my speakers during those critical years as did Donald Fagen, the late Walter Becker, and the ever-changing cast of superlative musicians they assembled to make a series of uniformly splendid albums.

There are many, many groups, bands, and solo artists whose work I adore. But the seven studio albums released by Steely Dan from 1972 through 1980 stand out for me in a special way. I wouldn’t claim that those seven records are the greatest ever. Music, like all art forms, is subjective — it’s a fool’s errand to make objective comparisons about anything so dependent on the individual tastes of the observer. And there are plenty of specific songs and performances that I treasure as much, if not in some cases more than, anything in the Dan’s catalog. Suffice it to say that these seven albums form a body of work that has resonated with me deeply for decades. Over the past few months, I’ve spent a fair amount of hours revisiting these records, and considering each component in a way that I never had in my 40-plus years of Dan fandom.

Which is where the Steely Dan 64 Project comes in.

The seven studio albums of Steely Dan’s prime period — beginning with 1972’s Can’t Buy a Thrill and ending with 1980’s Gaucho — comprise a total of 62 songs. During this same timeframe, the Dan released two additional tracks: one, a film soundtrack theme; the other a bonus track on a “Greatest Hits” package. These two songs bring the total to 64.

It’s my contention that none of those 64 songs sucks.

That’s a statement that I don’t believe can be made about many other popular music acts with discographies of similar size.

The Beatles were arguably the most important band of the rock era — without question I consider them so, and in my mind, there isn’t a close second. But you and I both can name some undeniably terrible songs the Fab Four released for public consumption. (Including at least a third of the White Album.) When I think of all of the other bands I particularly enjoy, every single one of them put out at least one truly embarrassing clunker. In most cases, several such clunkers.

It’s a credit to the notoriously anal-retentive Becker and Fagen that they never let a single stinker clutter up their published repertoire during their prime years. This is not to say that they weren’t capable of making a stinker; the first single released under the Steely Dan name, “Dallas,” is unabashed dreck. (Its B-side, “Sail the Waterway,” is marginally better… but only marginally.) But Walter and Donald were savvy enough never to allow that horror to deface one of their albums. (“Dallas” does appear on an early Japanese compilation, the content of which I suspect the boys never personally authorized.)

However, the fact that I find all 64 songs in the core Steely Dan repertoire worthwhile doesn’t mean that I love all of them equally. The Steely Dan 64 Project is my attempt to rank these songs in order of my personal preference, and to talk a bit about the reasons why each song lands where it does on my list.

I want to emphasize that this ranking is purely a subjective, individualized analysis. Your mileage will, and should, vary. I also want to note that my ordering makes no real attempt to be qualitative; the fact that one track occupies a higher slot on my list than another does not mean that the musicianship, songwriting, arranging, or production on either track is better or worse. It just means that I like the higher-ranked song better. Or at least, I did at the exact moment when I pronounced this list closed. If I rewrote the list again, no doubt things would move up or down. That’s how music works. It’s about how it connects with you in the moment.

Note also that this ranking does not include any of the songs from the Dan’s two later albums, Two Against Nature (released in 2000) and Everything Must Go (2003). Both albums are worthy additions to the Dan discography (the former being somewhat more worthy than the latter, in my opinion). I don’t, however, have the same long-term relationship with that material that I have with the classic-period recordings, so it’s tough for me to judge it on the same level. Therefore I didn’t try. (You should absolutely check out these two albums, though.)

Enough introduction. Over the next several posts, I’ll present my ranking of the Steely Dan 64. Think about where each song would rank on your personal chart. Again, we’ll disagree on the numbers — that’s totally cool. There’s no right or wrong here. It’s just me sharing what I think and feel about this music that has meant so much to me. What you think and feel is just as valid. Where I hope we agree is that it’s fun to revisit these legendary tracks, relive some memories, and reflect on the unparalled, uncompromising genius of Becker and Fagen.

So let’s begin with the bottom eight. (Since 64 is the square of eight, I’ve decided to break the ratings into eight-song groups. As we get closer to the top, the groups may get smaller.)

64. “Through With Buzz” (Pretzel Logic)
You know I’m cool, yes, I feel alright
‘Cept when I’m in my room and it’s late at night

Well, something had to be at the bottom of the list. Fortunately, it doesn’t take long to be through with “Buzz” — at a hair over a minute and a half, it’s by far the shortest song in the Steely Dan catalog. It’s a bit of a throwaway; I wonder whether there was, at some point, more to the song than this, but maybe Becker and Fagen decided to strip it down to bare essentials. Still, it’s a great vocal by Fagen, and a rare use of strings on a Steely Dan record. (I think “FM” is the only other Dan track with violins.) One cultural note: Fagen’s tossed-off homophobic slur hasn’t aged well.

63. “Daddy Don’t Live In That New York City No More” (Katy Lied)
Lucy still loves her Coke and rum
But she sits alone ’cause her daddy can’t come

The mystery of Daddy’s departure from the Big Apple remains unsolved. I suspect he’s doing hard time upstate.

62. “Brooklyn (Owes the Charmer Under Me)” (Can’t Buy a Thrill)
The whole of time we gain or lose
And power enough to choose

My antipathy for country music (an oxymoronic phrase if ever there was one) is well documented, and the instrumentation on “Brooklyn” veers ever so slightly too far in a country direction for my taste. There’s something weirdly dissonant about this Nashville-lite arrangement butted against the smooth, soulful vocal trio of Venetta Fields, Clydie King, and Sherlie Matthews. (That said, the pedal steel work by Jeff “Skunk” Baxter is choice.) Like most Dan fans, I don’t really dig David Palmer on lead vocals, but I think he’s fine here. And no, I have no idea why Brooklyn owes anyone anything.

61. “Charlie Freak” (Pretzel Logic)
Poor man, he showed his hand
So righteous was his need
And me so wise, I bought his prize
For chicken feed

A solid song, tightly written and performed. Donald Fagen’s pulsing piano riff alone makes it worth the price of admission. For me, “Charlie Freak” ranks this low mostly because it’s dark, angsty, and depressing — the sordid tale of a youthful drug addict, who’s dead by the final verse. Granted, the Dan did a lot of material that’s not exactly cheerful or uplifting, but most of their more morose numbers are redeemed by an arch joke or a witty turn of phrase here or there. “Charlie Freak” is just sad.

Also, the title reminds me of “Charlie X,” one of my least favorite episodes of Star Trek — which is, coincidentally, also about a kid named Charlie who could be accurately described as a freak, and who also comes to a rather unfortunate (albeit not fatal) end. That mental connection probably doesn’t help me love this song any better. Sorry, Charlie.

60. “Turn That Heartbeat Over Again” (Can’t Buy a Thrill)
My poison’s named, you know my brand
So please make mine a double, Sam

Mentions my name and Jesus in the same phrase repeatedly, so it can’t be all bad.

59. “Rose Darling” (Katy Lied)
With only you and what I’ve found
We’ll wear the weary hours down

Steely Dan didn’t perform many unapologetic love songs. “Rose Darling” is about as close as they got. I hope Snake Mary enjoyed a good night’s sleep.

58. “With a Gun” (Pretzel Logic)
Did you pay the other man with the piece in your hand
And leave him lying in the rain?

High Noon, Becker/Fagen style. Side 2 of Pretzel Logic (for those of you who remember when albums had sides) includes several shorter selections that represent the Dan’s last genuine attempt at being an actual band that recorded radio-sized (that is, three minutes or less) pop-rock tunes. “With a Gun” is one such tune.

57. “Chain Lightning” (Katy Lied)
Don’t bother to understand
Don’t question the little man
Be part of the brotherhood
Yes, it’s chain lightning
It feels so good

The groove on this track is so laid-back that I’m surprised the record didn’t slide off the turntable. Rick Derringer contributes a tasty guitar solo.

Explore posts in the same categories: Listology, Soundtrack of My Life, Steely Dan 64 Project, SwanStuff, That's Cool!

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