Archive for the ‘SwanStuff’ category

The Steely Dan 64 Project, Song 1

March 25, 2020

[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; songs 12 through 9; songs 8 and 7; songs 6 and 5; song 4; song 3; and song 2.]

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1. Kid Charlemagne (The Royal Scam)
Is there gas in the car?
Yes, there’s gas in the car
I think the people down the hall
Know who you are

We’ve counted upward through 64 classic tracks to reach the pinnacle of the Steely Dan catalog. As I’ve said throughout this project, not a single one of these 64 songs sucks. Half or more of them stand among the finest recordings made during the rock era. Any of the final seven or eight that we’ve covered in this ranking could easily merit consideration as Number One. Indeed, among the seemingly infinite iterations of this list that I devised on my path to this point, each of the top seven landed in first place at least once.

So why did “Kid Charlemagne” end up on top?

My glib response: “Two words — Larry Carlton.”

But there’s so much more to it than just that.

“Kid Charlemagne” is, as is generally well known by this late date, based on the activities of a guy named Augustus Owsley Stanley III, nicknamed “The Bear,” who worked as a sound technician for rock bands (most notably, the Grateful Dead) in the 1960s and early 1970s. When not designing and maintaining high-powered audio systems (and, according to legend, co-creating the Dead’s now-familiar skull-and-lightning-bolt logo), Stanley was in his bathroom laboratory cooking up high-powered LSD. He quickly gained renown as a purveyor of quality acid, becoming the preferred provider of same to musicians and other celebrities in the psychedelic scene.

I don’t know whether Donald Fagen and Walter Becker knew Stanley personally, or merely by reputation, but they used his career — specifically, the raid in 1967 that led to Stanley’s two-year imprisonment — as the inspiration for “Kid Charlemagne.” (They weren’t the first, incidentally. The Grateful Dead songs “Alice D. Millionaire” and “Truckin’,” Frank Zappa’s “Who Needs the Peace Corps?,” and Jefferson Airplane’s “Mexico” either allude to or specifically mention Stanley; all four predate “Kid Charlemagne” by several years.)

The narrative of a drug kingpin riding high until it all goes sideways provokes some of Becker and Fagen’s most memorable lyrics:

Did you feel like Jesus? Did you realize that you were a champion in their eyes?

On the hill the stuff was laced with kerosene, but yours was kitchen clean / Everyone stopped to stare at your Technicolor motor home

And of course, perhaps the most quotable Steely Dan couplet of all:

Is there gas in the car? Yes, there’s gas in the car…

It’s stunning storytelling, even from two scribes supremely skilled in weaving wicked tales.

But then, we have to talk about the music. Which means that, yes, we have to talk about Larry Carlton.

Can I say that Carlton’s incredible guitar solo is the greatest guitar solo in the history of recorded rock? I probably wouldn’t go that far — although I’m struggling to come up with all that many better candidates. There is, however, an undeniable genius to Carlton’s effort; a constantly shifting fusillade of jazz chords and progressions that somehow fits perfectly within the context of a rock song — a straight-ahead pop-rocker propelled by a funky, almost quasi-disco undercurrent. And yet, Carlton brings the full weight of his prodigious fusion chops to his solo without it feeling out of place for so much as a single note.

I listened to Carlton’s playing on “Kid Charlemagne” a couple dozen times while preparing to write this essay. Thanks to YouTube, I was even able to listen to it in isolation from the rest of the track. I never got bored of hearing it; with every pass, I heard some nuance or technique that I’d never picked up on before. For example, did you ever notice that Carlton plays the last few notes of his solo by tapping the strings on his guitar’s fretboard, the style that Eddie Van Halen would make famous years later? Sheer brilliance.

Equally brilliant is the way the other musicians line up to support what Carlton is doing. In particular, the rhythm section of Chuck Rainey (bass) and Bernard Purdie (drums) digs into the groove so snugly that you couldn’t pry them out with a crowbar. The electric keyboards — a collaborative effort involving Fagen on organ, Don Grolnick on the Fender Rhodes, and Paul Griffin on clavinet — alternately push forward and swirl underneath, but never get in the way. And Fagen, with stellar support from his cast of backing singers, delivers one of his most gleefully sardonic vocal performances ever.

The result is a quintessentially Steely Dan track that isn’t stereotypical Steely Dan, if that makes sense. “Kid Charlemagne” forms, I believe, the nexus between what Becker and Fagen had been doing from the very beginning — this song fits just fine alongside early Dan numbers like “Reelin’ in the Years” — and what the Dan would morph into from this point forward. It’s an ideal blend of the Dan’s past and its upcoming.

Plus a metric boatload of Larry Carlton.

That’s why “Kid Charlemagne” wins the grand prize trophy for me.

So, that’s it, then. Sixty-four amazing songs, ranked as I hear and feel them. How did your own ranking — I presume you were (at least mentally) doing your own, for the sake of comparison — turn out? What was your #1 in the Steely Dan 64?

The Steely Dan 64 Project, Song 2

March 23, 2020

[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; songs 12 through 9; songs 8 and 7; songs 6 and 5; song 4; and song 3.]

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2. Deacon Blues (Aja)
You call me a fool
You say it’s a crazy scheme
This one’s for real
I already bought the dream

If music can be described as “glossy,” then “Deacon Blues” is glossy.

It shimmers and shines in a way that almost feels visual, even though the experience itself is entirely auditory.

Perhaps more than any other single track in the Steely Dan catalog — with the possible exception of its album mate, the title tune “Aja” — “Deacon Blues” represents the fullest realization of the Becker/Fagen aesthetic. This is that “thing,” for lack of a more effective word, that the duo had been driving toward since the beginning of their collaboration, and with stronger force since their disassembly of the core band post-Pretzel Logic.

Like “FM,” which it greatly resembles — right down to the Pete Christlieb tenor saxophone solo — “Deacon Blues” feels very much “lived-in” for me personally. The imagery of a man coming to grips with the intangibility of his hopes and dreams resonated powerfully with me when this song first hit my turntable (it was a thing, kids; look it up). The teenage angst of my early college years fit right alongside the midlife-crisis vibe. I listened to “Deacon Blues” frequently during that period — and by “frequently,” I mean several times back-to-back on days when I felt the yearning.

As Steely Dan songs go, “Deacon Blues” feels more transparent and accessible than many. The lyric dances through plenty of Becker and Fagen’s signature obtuse wordplay, but even when the references seem muddled — is “Deacon” a shout-out to the Wake Forest Demon Deacons, or to NFL Hall of Fame defensive end David “Deacon” Jones? (hint: it’s the latter) — the thematic thread is crystal clear. Doubtless, this played some part in the tune’s chart success: it climbed to #19 (there’s that number again) on the Billboard Hot 100, making it the fifth Steely Dan single to hit the Top Twenty.

Part of what makes “Deacon Blues” so compelling for me is the rich musical tapestry over which Fagen and the female backup vocalists (the ineffable trio of Venetta Fields, Clydie King, and Sherlie Matthews once again) weave their story. Longtime Dan sideman Victor Feldman opens the proceedings on electric piano. Three superlative guitarists (Larry Carlton and Lee Ritenour on electric, Dean Parks on acoustic) counterbalance a smooth-as-satin Tom Scott horn chart. Becker on bass and drummer Bernard “Pretty” Purdie lock down an easy-swinging rhythm. It all just melds. Like a perfectly grilled ham and cheese sandwich.

I’ve already mentioned the Pete Christlieb sax solo — at the time of the session, the Bard brothers only knew Christlieb from his work in the house band on the Tonight Show. The veteran jazzman came into the studio and laid down two improvisational runs — a rarity in working with the persnickety Becker and Fagen, who were notorious for demanding endless retakes before finding one acceptable. Christlieb’s second shot is the one that appears on the recording.

So, yeah. I love “Deacon Blues.” Love, love, love “Deacon Blues.”

Why, then, is it #2 in my rankings, and not #1?

Because #1 has many of the same benefits, but it also adds one other key element that makes it an exceptional track.

You already know — assuming you’ve been keeping tally — what #1 is.

We’ll talk about it in our next post.

The Steely Dan 64 Project, Song 4

March 20, 2020

[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]; songs 12 through 9; songs 8 and 7; and songs 6 and 5.]

Thanks (but no thanks) to COVID-19, the NCAA has no March Madness this year. Here at the Steely Dan 64 Project, however, we’re plunging ahead with our own Final Four. It starts here.

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4. FM (No Static At All) (FM Soundtrack)
Give her some funked-up Muzak, she treats you nice
Feed her some hungry reggae, she’ll love you twice
The girls don’t seem to care tonight
As long as the mood is right

As you’ve surmised by now, there are some Steely Dan tracks that I’ve lived with rather deeply. There are, however, few that I’ve lived with to the degree that I’ve lived with “FM.”

I’ve mentioned here before that, for the better part of two years, I worked at a college radio station in Malibu. Over the course of that time, I wore a number of hats: traffic manager (the person who organizes the schedule and identifies when commercials run); associate music director; baseball play-by-play broadcaster; and chief engineer for sports broadcasts. In and around all of the above, I was a disc jockey — originally on Saturday nights, then mid-mornings a couple of days per week. Plus, I filled in often when other on-air talent didn’t show. (We’re talking about college kids here, so that happened a lot.)

Unlike many college stations, which lean into alternative music genres that don’t get played much on commercial radio, our station’s daytime format corresponded to what most radio stations called “adult contemporary” or “light pop-rock.” Quite a few local businesses used our feed as background noise, so we couldn’t play anything too loud or aggressive in tone during daylight hours. And thus, whenever I went on the air in the morning, I kicked off my shift with Steely Dan’s “FM.”

To this day, I can still improvise a DJ break that exactly fills the 26 seconds of this track’s instrumental intro, and land the station ID a hair’s breadth before Donald Fagen’s vocal kicks in. The Pirate Queen — like a major dude — will tell you. I do it in the car every time “FM” comes on the radio.

“FM” occupies an unusual place in the Steely Dan catalog. It’s the only Dan single that didn’t come from one of their albums; it was recorded during the Aja sessions — and is stylistically similar to the material on that album — but was not included on that release. It’s the only official Steely Dan song recorded specifically for a movie soundtrack; Becker and Fagen produced the music for an independent film, You’ve Got to Walk It Like You Talk It, but that happened before the band’s formation. It’s the only track from the Dan’s classic period on which Becker (guitars and bass) and Fagen (piano) play most of the primary instruments (frequent collaborator Jeff Porcaro plays drums, while Pete Christleib adds the saxophone solo). It’s also one of only two Dan tracks that uses strings (“Through With Buzz,” on Pretzel Logic, is the other).

Worthy of note: three members of the Eagles — Timothy Schmit (who made guest appearances on several other Dan tracks), Don Henley, and Glenn Frey — chime in with backing vocals here. We’ve noted previously that Becker and Fagen name-checked that legendary SoCal band in “Everything You Did” on The Royal Scam, only to receive a callback in the Eagles’ “Hotel California.” The two groups shared common management, and I shudder to imagine what else.

I always enjoyed spinning “FM” on my strictly formatted FM station precisely because the lyrics torpedo the blandness of that era and style of radio, and I knew that almost no one else would get the joke.

So far as was ever communicated to me, no one in the station hierarchy ever did.

Next up: Song #3.

The Steely Dan 64 Project, Songs 6 and 5

March 18, 2020

[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]; songs 12 through 9; and songs 8 and 7.]

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And then there were six.

6. Any Major Dude Will Tell You (Pretzel Logic)
Have you ever seen a squonk’s tears?
Well, look at mine
The people on the street have all seen better times

For the longest time, I had no idea what a squonk was. Okay, full disclosure: for the longest time, I had no idea what Donald Fagen was even saying in that line. Was it skunk? Spark? Spock? And why would any of those shed tears? (Especially Spock.)

Only decades later would I discover that the actual word was squonk. And only quite some time after that, when my buddy Tom Galloway explained it to me in detail, would I understand the significance of a squonk’s tears. Fortunately for you, there’s Wikipedia. (I’ll save you a click: a squonk is a grotesque mythical creature, allegedly native to Pennsylvania, that literally cries itself into a puddle of tears when frightened.)

When I say that Steely Dan got me through my college years, “Any Major Dude Will Tell You” is one of two songs — the second of which we have yet to cover in this ranking list — that played the largest role. There were days (and nights) when I played this track over and over, and over again, as a reminder to myself that things that seem horrific in the moment — as they often do, when one is in one’s salad days; young and green — eventually get better. True, sometimes they don’t get better. But that would make for a far less repeatable song.

Compared to the majority of tunes in the Steely Dan catalog, “Any Major Dude” (I’m just going to start conserving keystrokes now) is a simple song with a simple message. That’s part of its beauty; you don’t expect anything this direct and uplifting from the two guys Jay Black (of Jay and the Americans) referred to as “Manson and Starkweather,” so it comes as a pleasant surprise. It’s also a surprise that this track, one of the catchiest and most accessible in the Dan’s oeuvre, wasn’t released as a single; instead, it featured as the B-side (look it up, whippersnappers) to “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number.”

Dean Parks opens the song with a light acoustic guitar riff, followed by both Fagen and David Paich (later of Toto) on electric piano. Denny Dias handles the brief guitar solo. Those are the highlights. Sometimes, as in this instance, that’s all you need.

Given everything that’s going on in the world at the time of this writing, we all could benefit from the refrain: “When the demon is at your door, in the morning it won’t be there no more… any major dude will tell you.” Let’s all hope the major dudes have this one pegged.

5. Hey Nineteen (Gaucho)
It’s hard times befallen
The Soul Survivors
She thinks I’m crazy
But I’m just growing old

Those of you who know me in the real world know that 19 is a special number to me. Both my birthday and my late first wife KJ’s fall on the 19th of their respective months; we chose as our wedding date the 19th of the month in between them. I was 19 when KJ and I began dating, in a year whose digits added up to 19. Our daughter, whose birthday does not fall on a 19th, still chose a 19th as her wedding date to honor both her mother and me. It stands to reason, then, that “Hey Nineteen” would be one of my favorite songs by my favorite musical act. If you think I’m kidding about that, know that I drove around with these license plates on my car for a lot of years.

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(And no, COVID-19 certainly does not count as “special.”)

Today, “Hey Nineteen” would probably be entitled “Okay Boomer” and written from the perspective of the young woman. But this is Steely Dan, and it was 1980, so instead the lyric follows the mindpath of a man approaching middle age who finds himself on a date with a teenager just a year past legal, and discovers that the two of them have nothing to say to one another. (Becker and Fagen were both in their early 30s when Gaucho was released, but I’ve always envisioned the protagonist of “Hey Nineteen” as somewhat older than that; late 30s or early 40s.)

Of course, for a lot of men of a certain age, the prospect of hooking up with a girl still young enough to warrant the use of that word would be a fantasy come true. Typical of the Dan, however, this song serves as musical reinforcement of the ancient maxim, “Be careful what you wish for — you might get it.” Our hapless narrator has to come to grips with the fact that his companion doesn’t relate to any of the things that are important to him, including music: she doesn’t even know who Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, is. (For a contemporary parallel, think of today’s 18-year-old pop music wunderkind Billie Eilish, who, in a recent interview with Jimmy Kimmel, didn’t know who Van Halen were.)

Fagen’s character pushes past his middle-aged angst with chemical assistance from “the Cuervo Gold” and “the fine Columbian,” and by focusing on the fact that his young companion “sure looks good” when she dances. But listening along, we know this interaction won’t end happily. Miss Nineteen will move on to more age-appropriate social connections — or perhaps won’t; patterns sometimes become habits — and our narrator will resign himself to loneliness until the next Nineteen comes along… because again, patterns sometimes become habits.

“Hey Nineteen” slides perfectly into the pocket of Gaucho‘s easy-rolling soul-jazz groove. A couple of musical choices catch my attention upon repeated listening. One, while Steely Dan frequently made sterling use of female backup choruses — at least, when not exploiting the talents of Michael McDonald — this song employs a pair of male vocalists (Frank Floyd and Zachary Sanders) in much the same way. Contextually, this makes sense; the male voices subtly echo the insecurities spinning in the narrator’s head. Second, the rhythm section plays a particularly vital role here. Becker on bass and Rick Marotta on drums lay down a deceptively casual floor for the rest of the instruments — most memorably, Fagen’s synthesizer — to glide over.

Peaking at #10 on the Billboard Hot 100, “Hey Nineteen” marked Steely Dan’s third and final foray into the Top Ten (following “Do It Again” and “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number”). For an act that produced so many enduring radio staples, the Dan rarely managed a major chart splash.

But when they hit, they hit.

The Final Four arrive next. And in all honesty, any of these last four could be #1, depending on my mood. (The same is true of both of the songs covered in this post, each of which was #1 at various points.) This ranking will represent the mood I was in the day I pronounced this project completed.

The Steely Dan 64 Project, Songs 8 and 7

March 16, 2020

[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?

The Steely Dan 64 Project, Songs 12-9

March 13, 2020

[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.

The Steely Dan 64 Project, Songs 16-13

March 10, 2020

[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.]

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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?

The Steely Dan 64 Project, Songs 24-17

March 7, 2020

[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. Songs 40 through 33, HERE. And songs 32 through 25, HERE.]

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We’ve reached the Top 24. Onward and upward, my Steely friends.

24. Time Out of Mind (Gaucho)
Tonight when I chase the dragon
The water may change to cherry wine
And the silver will turn to gold

“Time Out of Mind” is perhaps as glorious a missed opportunity as exists in the Dan catalog. Becker and Fagen brought in Dire Straits’ Mark Knopfler, fresh off the radio-ubiquitous “Sultans of Swing,” to play lead guitar on this track. They recorded endless takes of Knopfler’s six-string stylings. And then, in the final release, they buried the lead so far down in the mix that you can barely hear him play. Seriously. There are only a handful of guitarists in the rock universe whose technique is as distinctive and immediately recognizable as Knopfler’s, and yet I’ll bet there are some of you who’ve heard this track dozens of times and didn’t realize he played on it.

That this tune remains a magnificent little slice of pop-jazz heaven despite the above is phenomenal. (For what it’s worth, Michael McDonald — who makes everything better — is criminally underused here, too.)

23. Midnite Cruiser (Can’t Buy a Thrill)
Felonius, my old friend
Step on in and let me shake your hand
So glad that you’re here again

This one stands out in the canon in part due to the lead vocal by Jim Hodder, Steely Dan’s founding drummer. It’s not clear why Fagen handed the singing chores to Hodder rather than to David Palmer, who was ostensibly in the band at the time specifically as a vocalist. For that matter, it’s unclear why Fagen didn’t just sing the song himself, given that Hodder’s voice is not all that distinct from Fagen’s own. But Hodder’s bitter nasal delivery fills the bill, and the song itself percolates right along.

This was actually my favorite number on the entire debut album when I first bought it on vinyl way back when. Four-plus decades later, on any given day, it might flip-flop places with…

22. Do It Again (Can’t Buy a Thrill)
Your black cards can make you money
So you hide them when you’re able
In the land of milk and honey
You must put them on the table

The first Steely Dan tune most of the world heard, “Do It Again” didn’t sound like anything else on the radio in 1972. Interestingly, it doesn’t sound all that much like anything else on a Steely Dan album, apart from Donald Fagen’s now-unmistakable vocals. There’s that weird sitar solo by Denny Dias, the even weirder organ solo by Fagen, the Latin-flavored percussion that’s atypical for the Dan’s style — it’s a strange brew that somehow comes together in delicious fashion.

On top of the music itself, we get a bizarre Western gunslinger-slash-gambler narrative that hints at the lyrical oddities to come throughout the succeeding years.

21. Home At Last (Aja)
Well, the danger on the rocks is surely past
Still I remain tied to the mast

Ah, the Purdie Shuffle. Legendary drummer Bernard “Pretty” Purdie gets to showcase his trademark licks on this bluesy track that’s as cool and smooth as a malted milkshake on a summer day. Although Larry Carlton’s stinging guitar winds its way all through the song, it’s Steely Dan co-mastermind Walter Becker who steps forward to take a rare solo. And yes, that’s the familiar tenor of Timothy B. Schmit harmonizing behind Fagen on the chorus. I guess Randy Meisner was sick that day. (Some of you will get that.)

The Pirate Queen and I saw a modern theatrical interpretation of Homer’s Odyssey a couple of summers ago at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. This song buzzed in my skull the entire evening afterward.

20. Haitian Divorce (The Royal Scam)
She takes the taxi to the good hotel
Bon marché as far as she can tell
She drinks the zombie from the coco shell
She feels alright, she get it on tonight

I’ll confess: I’m a sucker for talk box guitar. (Thank you, Joe Walsh, for getting me hooked.) “Haitian Divorce” is built around what might be the most unusual talk box guitar riff ever recorded: according to the album credits, the actual lead guitar part was played conventionally by Dean Parks, then Walter Becker performed the electronic effect using Parks’s guitar track.

The Dan often gets dragged for obscure lyrical content, but the story line is crystal clear here: Babs, in splitsville mode with soon-to-be-ex Clean Willie, heads to Haiti for a quickie divorce, only to get pregnant during a drunken romp with a local dance machine named Charlie. Word to the wise, Babs: Put. The zombie. Down.

19. The Fez (The Royal Scam)
That’s what I am
Please understand
I wanna be your holy man

Sometimes the simple things in life are best. “The Fez” is as simple a song as one can find in the Dan canon, but man, it’s a wicked cool tune, isn’t it?

This irresistably funky ode to prophylactics (well, what did you think “No, I’m never gonna do it without the fez on” meant?) marks the sole occasion where Becker and Fagen shared composing credit without the impetus of a lawsuit (I’m looking at you, “Gaucho”); pianist extraordinaire Paul Griffin gets the complementary byline here.

True confession: To my admittedly inexpert ear, the intros to “The Fez” and “FM” sound remarkably similar. Despite the fact that I’ve listened to each song literally hundreds of times, I still mistake one for the other.

18. Bad Sneakers (Katy Lied)
Do you take me for a fool?
Do you think that I don’t see
That ditch out in the valley
That they’re digging just for me?

When I say — and you’ll notice that I say it quite a bit when discussing Steely Dan — “Michael McDonald makes everything better,” “Bad Sneakers” proves me correct. This is the song that unleashed the golden vocal tones of the Bearded One on an unsuspecting world, and popular music would never be the same again.

Try to think of another backup singer who can completely launch a song into the stratosphere just by slipping in a well-placed line or two. I’m not talking about a stunt guest appearance by a recognizable existing superstar — Sting’s “I want my MTV” on Dire Straits’ “Money For Nothing,” say, or Michael Jackson’s sneaky chorus on Rockwell’s “Somebody’s Watching Me,” to cite a pair of famous examples. I mean background vocals by someone no one ever heard of before, but that made people’s ears prick up and say, “What the heck was THAT?” Then-unknown Michael McDonald did that on “Bad Sneakers.”

Oh, yeah… the rest of the song is cracking good, too.

17. Aja (Aja)
Chinese music always sets me free
Angular banjos
Sound good to me

Audiophiles have long known Steely Dan’s Aja as an ideal recording for testing — and showing off — the quality of one’s home sound system. The album’s title track is a prime reason why. Most Dan tracks grab your ear and pull you in to listen and try to comprehend what’s going on, musically and lyrically. With “Aja,” you can simply sit back and allow the magic spun by world-class players to wash over you for the next eight minutes.

“Beautiful” and “spectacular” might seem like odd words to attach to a Steely Dan track, but “Aja” certainly merits both. In many ways, it’s the apotheosis of the Dan’s music; the place where all of the elements come together in perfect harmony, from Denny Dias’s sublime guitar solo (the last appearance by an original Steely Dan member other than Becker or Fagen on a Dan album) to the brilliant saxophone-drum duel between Miles Davis veteran Wayne Shorter and Steve Gadd (Gadd, making his first Steely Dan appearance here, contributes the first drum solo on any Dan recording) to the celestial vibraphone playing of Victor Feldman and sweet piano stylings of Michael Omartian (on the acoustic instrument) and Joe Sample of the Crusaders (on the electric).

So, now that I’ve lavished all of that praise, why doesn’t “Aja” rank higher? Well, first off, 17th is mighty doggoned high, when you consider everything that’s still to come. And second, as amazing as “Aja” is musically, it’s not quite that memorable a song (it’s actually a kind of patchwork of three brief song segments, interspersed with extended solos). When it comes to assessing the collective works of Becker and Fagen, lyrics and earworminess (it’s a word; look it up) matter a great deal to me.

Stellar stuff, all. But, oh my goodness, that Top Sixteen. More to come.

The Steely Dan 64 Project, Songs 32-25

March 2, 2020

[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.]

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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.

The Steely Dan 64 Project, Songs 40-33

February 25, 2020

[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.]

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40. Any World (That I’m Welcome To) (Katy Lied)
I’ll be ready when my feet touch ground
Wherever I come down
And if the folks will have me
Then they’ll have me

Proof that Becker and Fagen were capable of writing a straightforward pop song when they were of a mind to do so. Of course, it stops being straightforward when you realize that the tasteful backbeat is being supplied by perhaps the greatest session drummer in the history of recorded music, the one and only Hal Blaine. If you have to find a last-minute fill-in for Jeff Porcaro, who handles the drumming duties on the rest of Katy Lied, you could do worse than Hal Blaine. In fact, pretty much anyone else you asked would have been worse than Hal Blaine.

I’ve always identified with the sense of wistful alienation embodied here, that feeling of not quite belonging and longing for a place where one truly could. I keep hoping that I’ll find that world where I’m welcome.

39. Bodhisattva (Countdown to Ecstasy)
Can you show me
The shine of your Japan?
The sparkle of your China?

I know that a lot of you will have “Bodhisattva” much higher in your personal rankings, and that’s fine. But I come to Steely Dan in large part for the lyrical creativity, and there’s not much of that in this song. That said, for what it is — basically, a riff-off between the band’s (they were still an actual band at the time of this second album) two guitarists, Denny Dias and Jeff “Skunk” Baxter — “Bodhisattva” is still pretty darned good. I would just enjoy it a little bit more had Becker and Fagen squeezed just a couple more verses in between the jams.

38. Change of the Guard (Can’t Buy a Thrill)
If you wanna get thru the years
It’s high time you played your card
If you live in this world
You’re feelin’ the change of the guard

As we’ve discussed in earlier installments, at the time of the band’s debut album, Donald and Walter were still figuring out exactly what they wanted Steely Dan to be — and no doubt, their record label had some ideas about that as well. So we get a lot more compact, potentially radio-friendly rock numbers on Can’t Buy a Thrill than the Dan would serve up later in their career. But when you can turn Skunk Baxter loose to rip a couple of guitar solos to shreds, there’s nothing wrong with just letting it rock. Skunk serves up a taste here of the licks he’d later make famous as the Doobie Brothers’ lead guitar slinger.

37. The Boston Rag (Countdown to Ecstasy)
Any news was good news
And the feeling was bad at home
I was out of my mind and you were on the phone

It ain’t no drag, that’s for certain. I appreciate the songs from the Dan’s early albums that open a window into the musical direction that Becker and Fagen would ultimately pursue. There’s just enough smooth jazz floating through this mishmash of a track to hint at what lay ahead. And by mishmash, I mean there’s a lot going on here, and not all of the pieces seem as though they were intended from the start to fit together. (Where does that weird guitar — at least, I think it’s a guitar — bridge come from? Certainly not Boston.) In retrospect, however, you can listen to this tune and say, “Okay, now I see where this is going.”

36. Sign In Stranger (The Royal Scam)
And who are you?
Just another scurvy brother…

A round of applause, please, for the piano man. Paul Griffin, probably best known for his contributions to Bob Dylan’s Highway 61, Revisited and Don McLean’s American Pie, takes a seat at the keyboard and lets his fingers dance all over this bouncy little number. Griffin’s piano solo alone merits the price of admission, but his easygoing background propels the verses just as nicely. This is not the last time we’ll hear from Mr. Griffin on The Royal Scam — we’ll hear him rock the clavinet on “Kid Charlemagne,” and man the electric piano (and earn a rare co-writing credit alongside Becker and Fagen) on “The Fez.”

35. Your Gold Teeth (Countdown to Ecstasy)
Even Cathy Berberian knows
There’s one roulade she can’t sing

Back in my college days, when a Steely Dan album was spinning on my turntable practically all the time, I expended a fair bit of pre-Internet effort trying to track down the various references that pop up in Dan lyrics. I still recall trekking to the library to listen to a recording by Cathy Berberian, out of curiosity born from endless listening to “Your Gold Teeth.” It was an exercise I did not feel compelled to repeat. But I was happy that the song now made sense.

34. Dirty Work (Can’t Buy a Thrill)
Like the castle in its corner
In a medieval game
I foresee terrible trouble
And I stay here just the same

“Dirty Work” serves as a prime example of how musical perspective evolves over time. When I was first developing an affinity for Steely Dan, “Dirty Work” was one of my least favorite tracks, mostly because I despised David Palmer’s simpering, quavery lead vocal. As a more mature listener, however, I gained the ability to get past my distaste for the specific performance and appreciate the underlying song on its own merits. In particular, hearing “Dirty Work” as Fagen’s current version of the band now performs it live on tour, with the group’s trio of female backing vocalists taking over the leads, gave me renewed affection for it.

I’m still not a David Palmer fan — his label-enforced presence remains for me the weakest element of Can’t Buy a Thrill — but I’ve grown to like this charming, subtly subversive little ditty quite a bit.

33. The Royal Scam (The Royal Scam)
And they wandered in
From the city of St. John
Without a dime

For me, The Royal Scam — the album, not just its titular song — represents the moment when Steely Dan first achieved its full potential, when Becker and Fagen’s mad vision completely coalesced. Every album prior to this one moved a step forward, away from the quirky, eclectic pop-rock band of Can’t Buy a Thrill and toward the jazz-rock, session-legends-melange powerhouse that peaked with Aja. On The Royal Scam, the Dan arrived.

This track, which closes the album, is Walter and Donald saying — like the Caribbean immigrants whose tale the lyrics tell — “We’re here.” See the glory, indeed.

And with that, we’ve reached the halfway mark of this project. 32 songs down, 32 to go. It just keeps getting better from here on up.