The Steely Dan 64 Project, Songs 12-9

[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; songs 24 through 17; and songs 16 through 13.]

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12. Black Friday (Katy Lied)
When Black Friday comes
I’ll fly down to Muswellbrook
Gonna strike all the big red words
From my little black book

One of the underrated boons of the Internet is easy access to song lyrics, something that in less technological times, people had to decipher for themselves more often than not. For years, I puzzled over the word — or was it a phrase? — in the second verse of “Black Friday.” Was it “my swell brook”? “Mizewell Brook”? “Muscle Well Broke”?

As it turns out, the word is “Muswellbrook.” It’s a small town in New South Wales, Australia, about 150 miles north of Sydney. No one is quite sure how the place came to be called Muswellbrook; the best guess is that it was originally designated “Mussel Creek,” which became “Muscle Creek” before morphing into “Muscle Brook” and eventually Muswellbrook. Or perhaps, as allegedly happened with Istanbul, people just liked it better that way.

Becker and Fagen chose the name-check for their tune about a scurrilous financier absconding with funds because it sounded like a nicely remote place to run off to if you were a fugitive from Los Angeles. Also, it rhymed with “book.”

Musically, this one’s got everything you want: a driving beat, pushed along with aplomb by Jeff Porcaro on drums (not many Steely Dan joints can be described as “danceable,” but “Black Friday” certainly is); a catchy, clever, hook-laden lyric; and a propulsive guitar solo by Walter Becker, wringing the snot out of Denny Dias’s Telecaster. People who think of every Dan track as “yacht rock” need to hear them just plain rock, and that’s what they do on “Black Friday.” (That, and maybe wrestle over a cheap flatscreen at Target.)

Then again, for some of us, every Friday is Black Friday.

11. Peg (Aja)
I like your pin shot
I keep it with your letter
Done up in blueprint blue
It sure looks good on you

Rumor has it that this song recalls the brief life of Peg Entwhistle, a wannabe starlet in the early days of the LA film industry who committed suicide by jumping off the Hollywood sign (it read “Hollywoodland” then) in 1932. To the best that I can determine, Fagen and Becker never confirmed this — they rarely have confirmed speculation about any song they wrote — and I suppose that explanation works. I always thought it was about a young actress being seduced by a sleazy producer into making films “for mature audiences.” Either way, the grimy underlying narrative is offset by as bright and bouncy a melody as the boys from Bard ever penned.

The most famous anecdote concerning “Peg” surrounds the quasi-Hawaiian guitar solo by Jay Graydon. By the time of Aja, Becker and Fagen had become so anal-retentive that they would routinely bring in multiple session musicians to record parts to their songs, discarding everything but the one track that met their specifications. Six other guitarists took a whack at the “Peg” solo before Graydon, in a day-long marathon involving countless takes, finally nailed it. It’s no wonder that Graydon switched from playing to producing shortly after the Aja sessions, going on to success helming albums for the Manhattan Transfer and numerous other acts. I’d have probably hung up my axe too.

In a nod to our repeated mantra that Michael McDonald makes everything better, let’s mention that McDonald’s multitracked backing vocals (pianist Paul Griffin also contributed; he’s the one muttering incomprehensibly late in the song) are probably the feature of “Peg” that everyone remembers. Has any background singer ever squeezed as much juice out of a single syllable as McDonald does with his punctuating “Peg”? Consider that lily gilded.

10. Rikki Don’t Lose That Number (Pretzel Logic)
I have a friend in town, he’s heard your name
We can go out driving on Slow Hand Row
We could stay inside and play games, I don’t know
And you could have a change of heart

What often gets lost in the Steely Dan discussion is the fact that, despite their penchant for elaborate arrangements and jazz-influenced solos, Becker and Fagen spent their classic period creating — for the most part — relatively compact, radio-friendly songs. At the time of Pretzel Logic, for example — the Dan’s last pretense at being an actual band with regular members beyond the Dynamic Duo — they were filling albums with tunes timing in at around three minutes. “Rikki” ties with the title track as the longest selection on the record, and it’s only four-and-a-half minutes. Not too long for a single, even in the fast-moving ’70s.

“Rikki” would become the Dan’s all-time biggest chart hit, peaking at #4 on the Billboard Hot 100. [“Do It Again,” their debut single (#4), and “Hey Nineteen,” the lead single from their last classic-period album (#10), would be the group’s only forays into the Top Ten.] Even now, 45 years after its release, Victor Feldman’s bizarre marimba noodling makes the song’s intro immediately identifiable.

It’s funny now to think that for many years, everyone thought “Rikki” was about a drug dealer and his client. The reality is much simpler. The real-life Rikki was a girl Walter Becker knew and crushed on during his Bard College days. She didn’t reciprocate his interest, at least not to the same level. The song, written in the days before Steely Dan was yet a thing, is about Becker’s earnest attempts at connecting with this aloof would-be paramour. That number, so important for Rikki not to lose, was Walter’s.

9. Black Cow (Aja)
Just when it seems so clear
That it’s over now
Drink your big Black Cow
And get out of here

For the record, I’ve never consumed a Black Cow: a kind of alcoholic milkshake consisting of Kahlua (a sweet coffee-flavored liqueur imported from Mexico), half-and-half, and cola. Which sounds, frankly, like something a stoner with the munchies would dream up if challenged to create a cocktail. The strange brew that is “Black Cow” the song, however, goes down even more smoothly and sweetly than its namesake drink.

Here’s an odd casting choice: drummer Paul Humphreys, who makes his only Steely Dan session appearance on this track, was for many years the drummer for Lawrence Welk, the king of sanitized Muzak for elderly white folks. But let’s not hold that against the man — a cat’s gotta eat, right? Before settling in to tap out rhythms behind champagne music, Humphreys was a veteran jazz session player alongside everyone from John Coltrane to Wes Montgomery, and who recorded and toured with such diverse popular music stars as Marvin Gaye, Jerry Garcia, and Sammy Davis, Jr.

Speaking of casting, let’s give a shout-out to the ladies of the chorus, who carry even more of the weight on this number than they often did. Steely Dan employed teams of soulful female vocalists on recordings all the way back to their debut album (for example, “Dirty Work” on Can’t Buy a Thrill). For “Black Cow,” the Dan enlisted the quartet of Clydie King, Sherlie Matthews, Venetta Fields, and Rebecca Louis to glide along with Fagen as he wove this tale of a crumbling relationship with a drunken and dissolute lover. The counterpoint between the silky tones of the women and Donald’s nasal growl lends the song a subtle irony.

Also, we have to talk about Tom Scott. The legendary sax man contributes both a stylish solo and some stellar horn arrangements here. Scott’s impact would be even more powerfully felt on the Dan’s subsequent album, Gaucho.

Fun fact: Of the seven classic-period Steely Dan albums, two open with a song whose title begins with “Black.” And we’ve covered them both in this post.

Top Eight next. The pure cream rises to the surface.

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

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