The Steely Dan 64 Project, Songs 32-25

[NOTE: The Steely Dan 64 Project represents my ranking, in order of my personal preference, of the 64 songs released by Steely Dan during their “classic” period (1972-80). You’ll find a detailed introduction to the project, as well as notes on the songs I’ve numbered 64 through 57, HERE. Songs 56 through 49 are discussed HERE. Songs 48 through 41, you’ll find HERE. And songs 40 through 33, HERE.]

SteelyDan_logo

We’re now halfway through the countdown. Just as it’s true that not one of the 32 Steely Dan tracks we’ve considered thus far has been terrible (even my least favorite Dan tune is a darned good tune), every song in the upper 32 is pretty amazing. This level and the one immediately above it — to be chronicled in our next post — are where I dithered the most over placement. Seriously, I could have placed the names of the eight songs below into a hat and drawn the order randomly, and most likely could have lived with the outcome. But since I didn’t have a hat handy, onward we go.

32. Barrytown (Pretzel Logic)
I can see by what you carry
That you come from Barrytown

When I think of the Steely Dan oeuvre, I don’t immediately think, “simple, catchy pop songs.” And yet, here is one. Then again, even at their simplest and catchiest, the Dan have something darker going on underneath. In real life, Barrytown is a neighborhood in Dutchess County, New York, practically next door to Bard College, where Donald Fagen and Walter Becker matriculated. (Achievement unlocked: Use “matriculated” in a blog post.) As documented in the song “My Old School,” which we’ll cover in a later post, Becker and Fagen didn’t have the fondest of memories of the townsfolk in the little burg where they attended classes. “Barrytown” is another poke at the stuffy swells who inhabited the area.

It’s frequently stated that “Barrytown” refers to the Unification Church — or the Moonies, as followers of the late Sun Myung Moon are commonly known — because the church’s seminary campus is located there. However, the seminary opened in September 1975, well over a year and a half after Pretzel Logic was released. Becker and Fagen were brilliant songwriters, but I don’t believe they were clairvoyant.

31. Parker’s Band (Pretzel Logic)
You’ll be riding by, bareback on your armadillo
You’ll be grooving high or relaxing at Camarillo

Although this song’s a tribute to legendary saxophone player Charlie Parker, it’s the drumming that makes it for me. Steely Dan didn’t employ dueling drummers very often, but the interplay here between Jim Gordon (who plays on most of Pretzel Logic, despite the fact that Jim Hodder — relegated to backing vocals on this track — was still “officially” the Dan’s drummer) and then-19-year-old Jeff Porcaro is nothing short of stellar. The rhythm is propulsive without being overbearing, fascinating without being flashy.

Ironically, it doesn’t sound an awful lot like something that Mr. Parker’s band would have recorded, but I’ll bet the Birdman would have enjoyed the shout-out nonetheless.

30. Kings (Can’t Buy a Thrill)
We’ve seen the last of good King Richard
Ring out the past, his name lives on
Roll out the bones and raise up your pitcher
Raise up your glass to good King John

Your guess as to why Fagen decided to sing a punchy pop tune about long-dead English royalty is as good as mine. Give me some fine backing vocals by the Greek chorus of Venetta Fields, Clydie King, and Sherlie Matthews, and a smattering of tasty guitar by Elliott Randall, and I don’t really care what the motivation was.

29. Don’t Take Me Alive (The Royal Scam)
Here in this darkness
I know what I’ve done
I know all at once who I am

As tasty and understated as Randall’s playing is on “Kings,” Larry Carlton’s is snarling and ferocious to the same degree on “Don’t Take Me Alive.” The stinging solo that opens the track comes as close to metal as anything on a Steely Dan record ever got.

Meanwhile, Becker and Fagen contribute yet another lyrical narrative about a dangerous man living on the dark side of society. When the boys began their professional careers as touring sidemen for Jay and the Americans, lead singer Jay Black referred to them as “Manson and Starkweather.” He may not have been as far wrong as we’d like to believe.

28. Gaucho (Gaucho)
Bodacious cowboys
Such as your friend
Will never be welcome here
High in the Custerdome

The title track from the final album of the Dan’s classic period is notable for three random facts:

  1. Jeff Porcaro reportedly played more than 45 separate takes of the drum track, pieces of which Fagen, Becker, producer Gary Katz, and engineer Roger Nichols cobbled together into what appears on the record.
  2. Jazz piano legend Keith Jarrett sued Becker and Fagen for plagiarizing his 1974 release “Long As You Know You’re Living Yours” in this song. The legal settlement earned Jarrett a co-writing credit and a million-dollar paycheck.
  3. The mythical Custerdome, famously mentioned in the lyric here, was described by Becker as “one of the largest buildings in the world… an extravagant structure with a rotating restaurant on top.” According to Fagen, “It exists only in our collective imagination. In the Steely Dan lexicon, it serves as an archetype of a building that houses great corporations.”

Tom Scott’s tenor sax riffing is pretty archetypical all by itself.

27. Show Biz Kids (Countdown to Ecstasy)
They got the shapely bodies
They got the Steely Dan T-shirts
And for the coup de grâce
They’re outrageous

Back in my days as a college radio disc jockey, I worked at a station where the cover of Countdown to Ecstasy bore a big, Sharpie-inscribed sticker: “DO NOT PLAY ‘SHOW BIZ KIDS’!” The conservative administration of our university was certain that airing a song in which Donald Fagen drops an F-bomb would lead to the moral disintegration of our community. Strangely, that community was Malibu, which in the early ’80s (and still today, for that matter) was pretty much ground zero for moral disintegration without any aid from college radio.

Now the truth can be told: I snuck this bad boy onto the turntable at least twice during my two-year stint, my expert timing and deft touch on the potentiometer preventing the offending word from beaming out over the Southern California airwaves. Society did not collapse. (I left the cut off my official playlist, though, just in case.)

By the way, that’s Rick Derringer kicking in with the nasty slide guitar. You know he don’t give a [REDACTED] about anybody else.

26. Reelin’ in the Years (Can’t Buy a Thrill)
You been tellin’ me you’re a genius
Since you were seventeen
In all the time I’ve known you
I still don’t know what you mean

On each of their first three albums, the boys from Bard tossed in a number that skewered their collegiate experiences and the people who made them miserable. This is the first of those excoriations (“My Old School” and “Barrytown” would follow) and the only one to be a major chart hit. Musically, it’s that now-iconic Elliott Randall guitar solo that buys the thrills for me.

In a 2009 interview with Rolling Stone, Fagen referred to this song as “dumb but effective,” while Becker opined that it was “no fun.” Seems harsh, but that’s Donald and Walter for you.

25. Josie (Aja)
Jo, would you love to scrapple?
She’ll never say no
Shine up the battle apple
We’ll shake ’em all down tonight
We’re gonna mix in the street

I have no idea what a “battle apple” is, but I imagine one would come in handy in a game of Street Fighter. What I do know is that Chuck Rainey and Jim Keltner bring some cool funky bass and stylish, rock-steady drumming to the skirmish, ensuring that we all come out winners. I desperately wanted to rate this song higher, but as you’ll see in the next post, I just plain ran out of space.

Also, me being me, I always imagine the title character of this tune wearing a leopard-print bodysuit with a long tail and kitten ears for a hat.

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

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: