The Steely Dan 64 Project, Songs 16-13

Posted March 10, 2020 by swanshadow
Categories: Listology, Reminiscing, Soundtrack of My Life, Steely Dan 64 Project, SwanStuff, That's Cool!

[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

Posted March 7, 2020 by swanshadow
Categories: Listology, Reminiscing, Soundtrack of My Life, Steely Dan 64 Project, SwanStuff, That's Cool!

[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

Posted March 2, 2020 by swanshadow
Categories: Listology, Reminiscing, Soundtrack of My Life, Steely Dan 64 Project, SwanStuff, That's Cool!

[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

Posted February 25, 2020 by swanshadow
Categories: Listology, Soundtrack of My Life, Steely Dan 64 Project, SwanStuff, That's Cool!

[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.

The Steely Dan 64 Project, Songs 48-41

Posted February 21, 2020 by swanshadow
Categories: Listology, Soundtrack of My Life, Steely Dan 64 Project, SwanStuff, That's Cool!

[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.]

Here’s where it begins to get tough.

I feel pretty strongly about the songs in the bottom one-fourth of the ranking — that is, the sixteen (or, if you’d rather, the two groups of eight) that we’ve already covered — being correctly positioned (at least, for me — your mileage may vary). I don’t believe that any amount of listening and reconsideration would move any of those songs out of my virtual basement. I feel similarly strongly about my top ten or twelve. Those will be my favorites all day, every day.

In between, however, there’s so much excellent music (and so little to nitpick about it) that it’s really difficult to differentiate what makes one song appeal to me more or less than the several others around it. There’s a league of space between songs #12 and #48, to be sure. But between, say, #48 and #24…? Not quite so much.

Let’s just do our best, shall we?

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48. “Glamour Profession” (Gaucho)
Brut and charisma
Poured from the shadow where he stood
Looking good
He’s a crowd-pleasing man

Speaking as a lifelong basketball fan, this song that’s partly about a basketball superstar has always sounded to me as though it was written by people who weren’t really interested in professional sports, or even knew very much about them. I suspect that’s probably true — Becker and Fagen never seemed much like hardcore spectators. On the other hand, “Glamour Profession” is also all about that drug life, and that I do believe Walter and Donald knew something about.

As a song, it’s just alright — as close to slick late-disco-era sheen as the Dan ever got. My main memory of it is that my original vinyl LP of Gaucho had a tiny scratch in one of the long instrumental breaks that caused the record to skip and repeat. Even now, when I listen, I hear that spot replaying over and over again in my head.

47. “I Got the News” (Aja)
Broadway Duchess
Darling, if you only knew
Half as much as
Everybody thinks you do

Proof that Michael McDonald really does make everything better. The slightest song on arguably the Dan’s finest album (we’re not going to hit another Aja track on this list for a good long while, friends), “I Got the News” bounces along just cool and innocuously catchy enough, until the bridge kicks in with those soaring McDonald vocals. All of a sudden, a merely decent tune becomes magical for just a few seconds. I spend the rest of the song waiting for McDonald to come back. He never does.

46. “Everything You Did” (The Royal Scam)
Turn up the Eagles — the neighbors are listening

I’ve never been certain whether the reference to the Eagles here was supposed to be affectionate or derisive. I suspect that when Henley, Frey & Co. returned the favor the following year, in their hit “Hotel California” (the line “they stab it with their steely knives, but they just can’t kill the beast”), they probably weren’t entirely sure, either. But that’s always been part of the Steely Dan mystique — the lyrics can often mean whatever you want them to mean.

45. “Everyone’s Gone to the Movies” (Katy Lied)
Kids, if you want some fun
See what you never have seen
Take off your cheaters and sit right down
Start the projection machine

Becker and Fagen never shied away from the seedier elements of modern urban life. That’s nowhere more evident than in this sordid little vignette about a man who screens pornographic films in his home for innocent youth to watch. Hopefully Mr. LaPage either got busted or cleaned up his act somewhere along the line.

The musical highlight here comes from the sparkling vibraphone of Steely Dan stalwart Victor Feldman. (Seriously, when’s the last time you heard a vibraphone on a pop-rock record?)

44. “Monkey In Your Soul” (Pretzel Logic)
Won’t you turn that bebop down
I can’t hear my heart beat
Where’s that fatback chord I found?

The Dan’s unique twist on mid-’70s funk, “Monkey” features some down-and-dirty riffs by an all-star horn section led by saxophone legend Plas Johnson, who’s best known for his solo on Henry Mancini’s “Pink Panther Theme.”

As the final track on Pretzel Logic, this song marks the end of the ride for the original “band” version of Steely Dan (although Jim Hodder was still officially the group’s drummer, he doesn’t play a single lick on this album; he does, however, contribute backing vocals to “Parker’s Band”). Skunk Baxter would head off to the Doobie Brothers; the Dan’s other regular guitarist, Denny Dias, would continue as a session player all the way through Aja.

43. “Green Earrings” (The Royal Scam)
Greek medallion
Sparkles when you smile
Sorry, angel
I get hungry like a child

If the white-hot drumming of Bernard “Pretty” Purdie on this track doesn’t get your attention, check your pulse. Elliott Randall spikes some searing guitar work throughout, and Denny Dias slides in for a sweet solo midway through. This is another song I feel as though I’m ranking much too low, but only because so much greatness has to get crammed in ahead of it.

42. “Razor Boy” (Countdown to Ecstasy)
Will you still have a song to sing
When the razor boy comes
And takes your fancy things away?

“Razor Boy” is noteworthy in the Steely Dan catalog mostly for the presence of veteran jazz player Ray Brown on string bass. By the early 1970s, one didn’t hear a lot of upright bass on rock records outside of what remained of rockabilly. But Brown’s the perfect fit on this jazzy number that hinted at the musical direction Becker and Fagen would fully embrace by the time of Aja. Things would only get jazzier from here.

I still wish the razor boy would keep his grubby mitts off my stuff.

41. “Your Gold Teeth II” (Katy Lied)
Who are these children
Who scheme and run wild
Who speak with their wings
And the way that they smile

Speaking of jazzy, Donald and Walter’s predilection for the genre is writ large all over this one. I’ve never quite understood why this song is labeled as a “sequel” to “Your Gold Teeth” from the band’s second album; aside from the lone repeated lyrical hook, the two tracks could hardly be more different. Denny Dias, who just might be the real unsung hero of the Dan’s classic period, delivers yet again with a simmering, shimmering guitar solo.

The Steely Dan 64 Project: Songs 56-49

Posted February 17, 2020 by swanshadow
Categories: Cinemania, Listology, Soundtrack of My Life, Steely Dan 64 Project, SwanStuff, That's Cool!

[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 the beginning of the ranking, HERE.

As stated elsewhere, your own perspective on how these songs compare to one another may — and most likely will — be different. That’s absolutely okay. There’s no right or wrong, just individual taste. What matters is celebrating the legacy of Donald Fagen, the late Walter Becker, and their host of collaborators, and the incredible music they created.]

56. “Throw Back the Little Ones” (Katy Lied)
Hot licks and rhetoric
Don’t count much for nothing

A jazzy little (no pun intended) number featuring another of the many spectacular guitar solos that Elliott Randall contributed to Steely Dan records over the years, starting with “Reelin’ In the Years.” Not one of my favorite Fagen vocals, but a decent tune overall.

55. “Fire In the Hole” (Can’t Buy a Thrill)
A woman’s voice reminds me
To serve and not to speak
Am I myself, or just another freak?

Fagen doesn’t often get enough credit for the brilliance of his piano playing. He’s razor-sharp on this track. Nothing in popular music sounded quite like this in the early ’70s, except maybe Marvin Hamlisch’s Scott Joplin-tribute soundtrack to The Sting.

54. “East St. Louis Toodle-oo” (Pretzel Logic)

In compiling this ranking, I despaired of where to place “East St. Louis Toodle-oo.” At one point, I considered omitting it altogether. It’s an unusual item: the only instrumental number in the Steely Dan catalog, and the only track not written or co-written by Becker and Fagen. Composed by Duke Ellington and Bubber Miley in the 1920s, it exists only to showcase the boys’ affection for jazz — an affection that would morph into an obsession, starting with their next album — and, I suppose, to fill a bit of space on Pretzel Logic, which contains a number of short songs.

The unusual guitar work is fun — Becker’s talk-box and Jeff “Skunk” Baxter’s pedal steel make for interesting twists on the original arrangement’s muted trumpet and trombone, respectively — but I don’t know that it really adds much to the Dan legacy outside of a footnote. Well played, gents, but I can’t slot it any higher than this.

53. “My Rival” (Gaucho)
I was the whining stranger
A fool in love
With time to kill

I actually remember listening to “My Rival” for the first time and thinking, “That’s kind of a creepy song.” I didn’t know until decades later that Becker and Fagen had created this weird little number for the soundtrack of a horror film: Phobia, directed by the legendary John Huston. Knowing its origins explains the song’s gooseflesh-raising vibe, but doesn’t make me love it any better.

52. “Pearl of the Quarter” (Countdown to Ecstasy)
She loved the million dollar words I say
She loved the candy and the flowers that I bought her
She said she loved me and was on her way
Singing “Voulez-vous”

I’m already on record [see “Brooklyn (Owes the Charmer Under Me)” at #62] as not being enamored with the Dan’s occasional dabbling in the countrified end of the musical pool. Still, there’s something ineffably sweet about hearing Fagen sing a more-or-less straightforward love song… okay, he’s in love with a streetwalker here, but in love nevertheless. Skunk Baxter and his pedal steel guitar get an opportunity to shine.

51. “Only a Fool Would Say That” (Can’t Buy a Thrill)
Unhand that gun, begone
There’s no one to fire upon

One of the brighter, bouncier tracks on the Dan’s debut album, “Fire” showcases some deft-fingered guitar by The Skunk, and a vocal by Fagen that actually sounds as though Donald was in a good mood that day. The fact that a song this cool checks in this far down in the rankings is testimony to just how much excellent stuff lies ahead.

50. “Third World Man” (Gaucho)
Smoky Sunday
He’s been mobilized since dawn —
Now he’s crouching on the lawn…

The final song of the Dan’s classic period is something of a ringer: an emergency fill-in for another, allegedly better number entitled “The Second Arrangement,” most of which was accidentally erased by a studio assistant. Becker and Fagen made several attempts to rerecord the lost track, but couldn’t recreate the magic to their satisfaction. Instead, they dusted off a piece they’d written for (but not used on) an earlier album, swapped out most of the lyrics, and gave it a new title. There’s some awesomely gritty, snarling guitar by Larry Carlton here, but “Third World Man” remains an odd fit against the ultra-smooth pop-jazz that makes up the rest of Gaucho.

49. “King of the World” (Countdown to Ecstasy)
Show me where you are
You and I will spend this day
Driving in my car through the ruins of Santa Fe

Most of Steely Dan’s music has a timeless feel to it; songs that were recorded more than 40 years ago still sound fresh today. “King of the World” is an unfortunate exception to this rule. The electronic keyboards that feature so prominently here have “cheesy 1970s exploitation flick” stamped all over them. Which is too bad, because the post-apocalyptic storyline of the lyric is intriguing, and the rest of the band contributes some super-tight playing, drummer Jim Hodder in particular.

The Steely Dan 64 Project: Introduction and Songs 64-57

Posted February 14, 2020 by swanshadow
Categories: Listology, Soundtrack of My Life, Steely Dan 64 Project, SwanStuff, That's Cool!

After months of listening, pondering, arranging and rearranging, my Steely Dan 64 Project is ready for prime time.

What is the Steely Dan 64 Project? So glad you asked. I will explain. Or at least, I will sum up.

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As many longtime readers know, the musical partnership Steely Dan — it’s not quite accurate to say “band,” at least not for most of the Dan’s history — holds a unique place in my consciousness. I’ve often remarked that Steely Dan got me through college, and that’s true. No other recording act spent as much time in my speakers during those critical years as did Donald Fagen, the late Walter Becker, and the ever-changing cast of superlative musicians they assembled to make a series of uniformly splendid albums.

There are many, many groups, bands, and solo artists whose work I adore. But the seven studio albums released by Steely Dan from 1972 through 1980 stand out for me in a special way. I wouldn’t claim that those seven records are the greatest ever. Music, like all art forms, is subjective — it’s a fool’s errand to make objective comparisons about anything so dependent on the individual tastes of the observer. And there are plenty of specific songs and performances that I treasure as much, if not in some cases more than, anything in the Dan’s catalog. Suffice it to say that these seven albums form a body of work that has resonated with me deeply for decades. Over the past few months, I’ve spent a fair amount of hours revisiting these records, and considering each component in a way that I never had in my 40-plus years of Dan fandom.

Which is where the Steely Dan 64 Project comes in.

The seven studio albums of Steely Dan’s prime period — beginning with 1972’s Can’t Buy a Thrill and ending with 1980’s Gaucho — comprise a total of 62 songs. During this same timeframe, the Dan released two additional tracks: one, a film soundtrack theme; the other a bonus track on a “Greatest Hits” package. These two songs bring the total to 64.

It’s my contention that none of those 64 songs sucks.

That’s a statement that I don’t believe can be made about many other popular music acts with discographies of similar size.

The Beatles were arguably the most important band of the rock era — without question I consider them so, and in my mind, there isn’t a close second. But you and I both can name some undeniably terrible songs the Fab Four released for public consumption. (Including at least a third of the White Album.) When I think of all of the other bands I particularly enjoy, every single one of them put out at least one truly embarrassing clunker. In most cases, several such clunkers.

It’s a credit to the notoriously anal-retentive Becker and Fagen that they never let a single stinker clutter up their published repertoire during their prime years. This is not to say that they weren’t capable of making a stinker; the first single released under the Steely Dan name, “Dallas,” is unabashed dreck. (Its B-side, “Sail the Waterway,” is marginally better… but only marginally.) But Walter and Donald were savvy enough never to allow that horror to deface one of their albums. (“Dallas” does appear on an early Japanese compilation, the content of which I suspect the boys never personally authorized.)

However, the fact that I find all 64 songs in the core Steely Dan repertoire worthwhile doesn’t mean that I love all of them equally. The Steely Dan 64 Project is my attempt to rank these songs in order of my personal preference, and to talk a bit about the reasons why each song lands where it does on my list.

I want to emphasize that this ranking is purely a subjective, individualized analysis. Your mileage will, and should, vary. I also want to note that my ordering makes no real attempt to be qualitative; the fact that one track occupies a higher slot on my list than another does not mean that the musicianship, songwriting, arranging, or production on either track is better or worse. It just means that I like the higher-ranked song better. Or at least, I did at the exact moment when I pronounced this list closed. If I rewrote the list again, no doubt things would move up or down. That’s how music works. It’s about how it connects with you in the moment.

Note also that this ranking does not include any of the songs from the Dan’s two later albums, Two Against Nature (released in 2000) and Everything Must Go (2003). Both albums are worthy additions to the Dan discography (the former being somewhat more worthy than the latter, in my opinion). I don’t, however, have the same long-term relationship with that material that I have with the classic-period recordings, so it’s tough for me to judge it on the same level. Therefore I didn’t try. (You should absolutely check out these two albums, though.)

Enough introduction. Over the next several posts, I’ll present my ranking of the Steely Dan 64. Think about where each song would rank on your personal chart. Again, we’ll disagree on the numbers — that’s totally cool. There’s no right or wrong here. It’s just me sharing what I think and feel about this music that has meant so much to me. What you think and feel is just as valid. Where I hope we agree is that it’s fun to revisit these legendary tracks, relive some memories, and reflect on the unparalled, uncompromising genius of Becker and Fagen.

So let’s begin with the bottom eight. (Since 64 is the square of eight, I’ve decided to break the ratings into eight-song groups. As we get closer to the top, the groups may get smaller.)

64. “Through With Buzz” (Pretzel Logic)
You know I’m cool, yes, I feel alright
‘Cept when I’m in my room and it’s late at night

Well, something had to be at the bottom of the list. Fortunately, it doesn’t take long to be through with “Buzz” — at a hair over a minute and a half, it’s by far the shortest song in the Steely Dan catalog. It’s a bit of a throwaway; I wonder whether there was, at some point, more to the song than this, but maybe Becker and Fagen decided to strip it down to bare essentials. Still, it’s a great vocal by Fagen, and a rare use of strings on a Steely Dan record. (I think “FM” is the only other Dan track with violins.) One cultural note: Fagen’s tossed-off homophobic slur hasn’t aged well.

63. “Daddy Don’t Live In That New York City No More” (Katy Lied)
Lucy still loves her Coke and rum
But she sits alone ’cause her daddy can’t come

The mystery of Daddy’s departure from the Big Apple remains unsolved. I suspect he’s doing hard time upstate.

62. “Brooklyn (Owes the Charmer Under Me)” (Can’t Buy a Thrill)
The whole of time we gain or lose
And power enough to choose

My antipathy for country music (an oxymoronic phrase if ever there was one) is well documented, and the instrumentation on “Brooklyn” veers ever so slightly too far in a country direction for my taste. There’s something weirdly dissonant about this Nashville-lite arrangement butted against the smooth, soulful vocal trio of Venetta Fields, Clydie King, and Sherlie Matthews. (That said, the pedal steel work by Jeff “Skunk” Baxter is choice.) Like most Dan fans, I don’t really dig David Palmer on lead vocals, but I think he’s fine here. And no, I have no idea why Brooklyn owes anyone anything.

61. “Charlie Freak” (Pretzel Logic)
Poor man, he showed his hand
So righteous was his need
And me so wise, I bought his prize
For chicken feed

A solid song, tightly written and performed. Donald Fagen’s pulsing piano riff alone makes it worth the price of admission. For me, “Charlie Freak” ranks this low mostly because it’s dark, angsty, and depressing — the sordid tale of a youthful drug addict, who’s dead by the final verse. Granted, the Dan did a lot of material that’s not exactly cheerful or uplifting, but most of their more morose numbers are redeemed by an arch joke or a witty turn of phrase here or there. “Charlie Freak” is just sad.

Also, the title reminds me of “Charlie X,” one of my least favorite episodes of Star Trek — which is, coincidentally, also about a kid named Charlie who could be accurately described as a freak, and who also comes to a rather unfortunate (albeit not fatal) end. That mental connection probably doesn’t help me love this song any better. Sorry, Charlie.

60. “Turn That Heartbeat Over Again” (Can’t Buy a Thrill)
My poison’s named, you know my brand
So please make mine a double, Sam

Mentions my name and Jesus in the same phrase repeatedly, so it can’t be all bad.

59. “Rose Darling” (Katy Lied)
With only you and what I’ve found
We’ll wear the weary hours down

Steely Dan didn’t perform many unapologetic love songs. “Rose Darling” is about as close as they got. I hope Snake Mary enjoyed a good night’s sleep.

58. “With a Gun” (Pretzel Logic)
Did you pay the other man with the piece in your hand
And leave him lying in the rain?

High Noon, Becker/Fagen style. Side 2 of Pretzel Logic (for those of you who remember when albums had sides) includes several shorter selections that represent the Dan’s last genuine attempt at being an actual band that recorded radio-sized (that is, three minutes or less) pop-rock tunes. “With a Gun” is one such tune.

57. “Chain Lightning” (Katy Lied)
Don’t bother to understand
Don’t question the little man
Be part of the brotherhood
Yes, it’s chain lightning
It feels so good

The groove on this track is so laid-back that I’m surprised the record didn’t slide off the turntable. Rick Derringer contributes a tasty guitar solo.