The Steely Dan 64 Project, Songs 8 and 7

[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; songs 16 through 13]; and songs 12 through 9.]

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During the course of this project, there was a high degree of scrambling and shuffling of my ratings chart. (For those who are curious, I used an iPad app called Cardflow that enabled me to create individual cards — think index cards or Post-It notes — for each of the 64 songs, then move them around the screen at will. I’ll post a screenshot of my working chart in the final post.) Certain songs made dramatic moves up or down in the ratings, sometimes even as I was composing posts that included those songs.

My Top Eight, however, were set pretty solidly from the very beginning. The only real movement here was internal; the order of these eight did shuffle around a good deal. Seven of my Top Eight occupied the Number One position in at least one iteration, which tells you just how much all of these songs mean to me, and how small the distinctions are between them. On any given day, I might rethink and re-sort these into yet another different order. (At one point, I just had to stop myself and say, “No more finagling — this is the order I’m going with.”) But at this juncture, I don’t believe that any of the songs we’ll review from here on would ever fall lower than eighth.

Let’s begin the ascent to the summit.

8. Here at the Western World (Greatest Hits)
In the night you hide from the madman
You’re longing to be
But it all comes out on the inside
Eventually

Of all of the songs in this list of 64, “Here at the Western World” is probably the least familiar to the casual Steely Dan fan. Recorded during the sessions for The Royal Scam, Becker and Fagen elected not to use it either on that album or its followup, Aja.

I’m not sure why that decision was made. “Here at the Western World” compares favorably with the material on both of the aforementioned albums; if you’ve been keeping score, you’ve already figured out that I’ve only ranked one track from each of those albums higher than this. Sonically and tonally, “Western World” fits more seamlessly with the Aja material than with The Royal Scam, so perhaps Walter and Donald decided to reserve it from Scam in favor of their next record, then either forgot about it or didn’t have room for it when Aja‘s track list was being compiled.

Whatever occurred there, the Dan’s delay in creating their next studio album after Aja convinced ABC Records, their label at the time, to release a Greatest Hits set. Someone, somewhere, was inspired to resurrect “Here at the Western World” as a bonus cut on that compilation. And while it’s not truly a “greatest hit,” in that it was never released as a single and never charted, it definitely stands — in my opinion, and I’m the one writing here — among the very finest tracks the Dan ever produced.

As is usually the case with the boys from Bard, it’s tough to be 100% certain what “Here at the Western World” is about. It’s possible to interpret the titular location as either a bordello or a drug den or possibly both; I favor the first interpretation, but I wouldn’t argue with the others. The lyrics here are, even for the Dan, particularly twisty and sly. In any case, it’s yet another opportunity for Fagen and Becker to explore a slice of urban life’s seedy underbelly, as they were frequently wont to do.

From a musical perspective, it’s a beautifully simple song; for a team that excelled at devising spectacularly complex arrangements and tonalities, Becker and Fagen accomplished some of their most memorable work when they stripped everything down to basics. The entire musical corps supplies subtle support. Michael Omartian delivers a lovely, lilting piano backdrop, counterpointed against the rock-steady rhythm section of Bernard “Pretty” Purdie on drums and Chuck Rainey on bass. Similarly, Fagen’s vocal is buoyed by an all-female chorus; this time, it’s Leslie Miller, Casey Syszik, and Florence Warner. Frequent Dan sideman Dean Parks slips in a tasteful guitar solo just to round things out.

If you’ve never heard “Here at the Western World” — or even if you have — click the link above and immerse yourself in some Steely deliciousness. You’ll be glad you did.

7. Doctor Wu (Katy Lied)
Katy lies
You can see it in her eyes
But imagine my surprise
When I saw you

Are you with me, Doctor Woods?

That’s Phil Woods, whose alto sax solo provides the instrumental highlight of “Doctor Wu.” Becker and Fagen always did a superlative job of roping in top sidemen — once they had decided that a set band lineup didn’t put enough tools in their toolbox — and Phil Woods was about as top as sidemen got. I mean, Phil Woods was so close to being the next Charlie “Bird” Parker that he actually married Parker’s former common-law wife, Chan. (You could say that she had a type, and that type was world-class saxophone players.)

If you were Walter and Donald, who so idolized Parker that they wrote a song about him (“Parker’s Band”), and you can’t get Parker to play on one of your records — mostly because he died 17 years before you started making records — the next best thing would be Phil Woods. (Billy Joel thought so too; that’s Woods playing sax on Joel’s megahit “Just the Way You Are.”)

Now, “Doctor Wu” would be an excellent song even without Woods’s sax solo. Start with one of the catchiest, hookiest, most unavoidably infectious lyrics of any Dan song — seriously, try listening to this track and not walk away singing, “Are you with me, Doctor Wu? Are you really just a shadow of the man that I once knew?” Add one of Fagen’s warmest, most engaging vocal performances; sprinkle in a soupçon of drummer Jeff Porcaro’s sneaky-tight percussion; and you’ve got a recipe for bliss.

As for the title character himself, I’ve read numerous articles over the years that purported that there was a real-life Doctor Wu — maybe a psychiatrist, maybe a pharmacist, maybe a plastic surgeon to the stars. Becker and Fagen always maintained that Wu was fictional and metaphoric, though they didn’t always agree what the metaphor was supposed to be. Becker once claimed that Wu represented a breach of trust between a patient and physician; Fagen said in an interview that Wu was the personification of a drug addiction.

You believe what you choose. Just don’t ask Katy. She lies.

Next up: Songs #5 and #6. Where will your favorite land on my scale?

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

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