The Steely Dan 64 Project, Songs 16-13

[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). These links will connect you to a detailed introduction to the project, as well as notes on the songs I’ve numbered 64 through 57; songs 56 through 49; songs 48 through 41; songs 40 through 33; songs 32 through 25; and songs 24 through 17.]

SteelyDan_logo

Here, we begin our ascent into the Top Sixteen. We’ll narrow the focus from eight songs per post to four from here on, just to give ourselves room to breathe. It’s going to get stratospheric on the remainder of our journey up the charts.

16. Night By Night (Pretzel Logic)
“It’s a beggar’s life,” said the Queen of Spain
But don’t tell it to a poor man
‘Cause he’s got to kill for every thrill
The best he can

“Night By Night” has always struck me as the ideal theme song for a cool neo-noir detective film set in the ’70s. It just has that vibe. Whenever I listen to this tune, I envision a flinty-eyed tough guy wearing impeccably tailored dark suits over a leather shoulder holster, driving a black Buick Electra 225 (what we used to call a “Deuce and a Quarter” back in the day) down a rain-slick, neon-glossy Sunset Boulevard. And his hair? Perfect.

Everything you need to know musically about “Night By Night” is right here: Jeff Porcaro, who delivers a lockdown drum beat so crisp you want to dunk it in coffee, was just 18 years old when he played this session. Think about that. When I was 18, the only drumstick I could handle was fried and came from a chicken. The young Mr. Porcaro’s stunning work on this track led to Becker and Fagen bringing him back for the entirety of their next album, Katy Lied. And of course, he would go on to a bazillion other sessions, and some little rock combo that had a hit or three. You’ve probably heard of them. I think they were named after a dog in some old movie.

But not the movie to which “Night By Night” would be the theme. There’s no dog in that one.

15. Babylon Sisters (Gaucho)
Well, I should know by now
That it’s just a spasm
Like a Sunday in TJ
That it’s cheap, but it’s not free

One of the many things Steely Dan did better than practically any other band before or since was choose absolutely perfect tracks to open each of their albums. Every one of the seven studio releases during their classic period kicks off with a number that just sucks you in, and makes you need — not want, but need — to hear the rest of the record.

“Babylon Sisters,” the initial track on the Dan’s last album of the period, is no exception. By the time Gaucho debuted in 1980, fans had been waiting three years since the precedent-shattering Aja to find out how in the world Becker and Fagen would follow up that magnum opus. Then the needle finally hit the vinyl, and we heard Bernard Purdie’s signature shuffle drop in, followed by Chuck Rainey’s throbbing bass line, and then that almost mystically gliding electric piano riff by Don Grolnick. We all breathed a sigh of relief and whispered, “Oh, yeah… they’ve got this.”

When Patti Austin and her vocal crew sail in to sing, “Here come those Santa Ana winds again,” I’m swept back to a Sunday night in late August 40 years ago. I’m sitting on a concrete staircase on a hillside in Malibu, chatting with a girl I had met just a few hours before, already starting to feel the stirrings of that magical sensation that young love generates. As we sit and talk, a warm stiff breeze blows in from the southeast. My companion, a native of the Pacific Northwest who is new to southern California, wonders aloud where that weirdly hot wind is coming from. And I explain to her what a Santa Ana is.

She would hear a lot of Steely Dan in the weeks and months that follow.

14. Pretzel Logic (Pretzel Logic)
I have never met Napoleon
But I plan to find the time
‘Cause he looks so fine upon that hill
They tell me he was lonely, he’s lonely still

Part of the joy of listening to Steely Dan comes from attempting to decipher Becker and Fagen’s cryptic, convoluted lyrics. In this particular instance, however, they tell us out front that there’s no point in that: the name of the song is “Pretzel Logic.” I’m reasonably certain that the boys from Bard had something in mind when they wrote this, but all these decades later, I still have no idea what that something is. Fagen once stated that the song is about time travel. To which I can only say… okay?

This bluesy track — somewhat unusual in the Steely Dan canon, which tends to tilt more toward jazz than blues in terms of influences — finds Walter Becker playing lead guitar for the first time on a Dan album; prior to this, Becker primarily played bass, while Denny Dias and Jeff “Skunk” Baxter handled the guitar chores. As a guitarist, Becker lacks Baxter’s flash and Dias’s crystalline technique, but when he steps forward to grind out a solo, he delivers it with a melancholy soulfulness that packs an emotional punch. Here, he leans into the blues without leaving his more experimental predilections behind entirely.

It’s worth noting that “Pretzel Logic” offers, in my estimation, one of Fagen’s finest vocal performances. There’s a lightness — dare I say, joy — to his singing on this track that I’ve always found appealing. He gets an assist in the choruses from future Eagle Timothy B. Schmit, who’s not a bad guy to have singing harmonies if you haven’t yet discovered Michael McDonald.

As for Napoleon, I’m still waiting to find the time.

13. The Caves of Altamira (The Royal Scam)
On the stone an ancient hand
In a faded yellow-green
Made alive a worldly wonder
Often told, but never seen

In 1955, a German author named Hans Baumann wrote a book entitled The Caves of the Great Hunters, in which two young boys stumble upon some prehistoric paintings on the walls of a cave. Years later, Becker and Fagen thought the theme of the book would make an interesting basis for a pop-rock song. You know… as one would.

(It should be noted — because someone is bound to point it out if I don’t — that there was a period early in his life during which Hans Baumann was a straight-up Nazi; not in the generic “I don’t agree with that guy politically so I’m going to call him the worst name I can think of” sense, but in the actual Deutschland-uber-alles, Hitler-saluting sense. Post-World War II, Baumann sort of handwaved his Nazi past and became an internationally acclaimed writer of children’s books, of which The Caves of the Great Hunters was but one. This is not to suggest in any way that there’s anything even remotely fascist about this song. It’s just that, well, life is complicated.)

As we’ve seen in the posts leading up to this one, Steely Dan’s catalog teems with fascinating deep cuts. “The Caves of Altamira” is a brilliant example of a Dan song that most casual listeners aren’t familiar with, but that everyone should be. Not only is the lyrical subject matter unique — quick, name all the other songs that you can think of that use Paleolithic cave art as a metaphor for fleeting youth — but the music itself is glorious. Few rock bands have used horns as effectively as the Dan does here (early Chicago; Blood, Sweat and Tears; to a lesser degree, Huey Lewis and the News) without diving directly into the cheese plate. Chuck Findley’s trumpet flourishes soar and swing. And at a time when saxophone solos were everywhere on the pop charts, few were as economical and tasteful as John Klemmer lays it down.

Incidentally, the caves of Altamira, along with others throughout northern Spain, were designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1985. I’m not saying that this song had anything to do with that. I am saying that I’m sure it didn’t hurt.

Next up: Songs 12 through 9. Any theories yet on what Steely Dan joint will be my Number One?

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: