THE DOZENS: STEELY DAN by Marcus Singletary

 Steely Dan

While conducting research for a Steely Dan concert review that I wrote for jazz.com, I read a headline published in Wired that called Pitchfork, “the most influential tastemaker on the music scene.” Later, I discovered a Pitchfork column in which the adjectives “lengthy,” “indistinguishable,” and “putrid” describe the group’s Grammy winning album Two Against Nature. The writer, who shall remain nameless, asked readers, “Why are you even curious about Steely Dan in 2000,” continuing, “Only their 20 year absence gives them any press or assumed credibility.”

While the Pitchfork jargonistas possess zero legitimacy in the real world of trading skills for revenue, their model is of irrelevant, rambling speculation, and their scribes suffer from being affiliated with a source of dubious worth. In defense of our own efforts to bring more quality readers to jazz.com, here is a critique of the top twelve tracks in the Steely Dan CD catalog. It is a body of work which includes some of the most popular recordings in fusion history, and the discussion is open so may the spirit of criticism shine bright once again!


Steely Dan: Reelin' in the Years

Track

Reelin' in the Years

Group

Steely Dan

CD

Can't Buy a Thrill (MCA 11886)

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Musicians:

Donald Fagen (vocals, piano), Walter Becker (bass), Jeff Baxter (guitar), Denny Dias (guitar), Elliot Randall (guitar),

David Palmer (background vocals), Jim Hodder (drums)

.

Composed by Walter Becker and Donald Fagen

.

Recorded: Los Angeles, CA, early 1972

Steelydan-cantbuyathrill

Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

"Reelin' in the Years" is one of Steely Dan's most beloved songs. The antagonist portrayed within has seemingly ruined Donald Fagen's life, and he questions every stage of the person's existence, from their teenage years to their lack of success in college to infidelity that confirms that the object of his affection was neither knowledgeable nor sensitive to his needs.

Implying that his lover has stolen both his money and tears and has left him emotionally bankrupt, Fagen's negativity leads him to croon, "You wouldn't even know a diamond if you held it in your hand," and, in his self-examination, he determines that he would never commit to the individual. Without denial, he reflects upon the past and, while he cannot forget it ("The trip we made to Hollywood is etched upon my mind"), his wish is to put it away forever, claiming that the person's "everlasting sermon" is fading fast.

To the writers of this track, those who lack education who claim to be geniuses are the real problem in the world. Backed by Elliot Randall's crunchy, distorted lead guitar, this song is the place to start when discovering the music of Steely Dan.

Reviewer: Marcus Singletary


Steely Dan: Bodhisattva

Track

Bodhisattva

Group

Steely Dan

CD

Countdown to Ecstasy (MCA 11887)

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Musicians:

Donald Fagen (vocals, piano, synthesizer), Walter Becker (bass), Jeff Baxter (guitar), Denny Dias (guitar),

Jim Hodder (drums)

.

Composed by Walter Becker and Donald Fagen

.

Recorded: Santa Monica, CA, early 1973

Steely_dan_-_countdown_to_ecstasy-_front_-_www

Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

"Bodhisattva" is an excellent track dealing with a somewhat obscure topic in a Western world that, according to Steely dan frontman Donald Fagen a few years later, welcomes its citizens with "sausage and beer."

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a bodhisattva is, "a being that compassionately refrains from entering nirvana in order to save others and is worshiped as a deity in Mahayana Buddhism." However, you have to question the beliefs of the narrator here, who surely needs proof that Buddhism works to even begin to believe in it. Sarcastically, vocalist Donald Fagen instructs whomever acts as his "shakabuku" (or initiator) to take him "by the hand" and lead him to verifiable proof of the religion's powers. Amidst few lyrics, the only references that the track makes to anything at all includes mentions of Japan and china, but this "china" is not the country but an allusion to the porcelain that is manufactured in that nation. Hence, in stating that he would like to see "the sparkle of your china," the lyricist states that he basically could never believe in what he considers the "porcelain god" of organized religion. In the final verse, a note about cults and religious fanatics surfaces in the words "I'm going to sell my house in town"-a commentary which could mean that Fagen had checked out the scene and could not relate to those who sacrifice everything for religion's sake.

Exactly why the main character is so skeptical is the question; certainly, he had been led to explore the tenets of the practice, but, upon meeting those ideologies, a complete rejection seems in order. While the guitar duel between Denny Dias and Jeff Baxter creates a jazz firestorm within, it aligns with lyrics that reflect upon the piety by which the participants in Buddhism believe. The person who was termed a "Razor Boy" and one of Hollywood's "Show Biz Kids" on the very same album, though, may not be quite ready for such a major change in his life to occur.

However, on Countdown to Ecstasy, it does eventually occur; the CD's final track, "King of the World," finds the speaker assailing "assassins, cons, and rapers," which shows that, while the world peace offered by the Buddha may not have been up his alley, at least he has learned to embrace some form of morality by the end.

Reviewer: Marcus Singletary


Steely Dan: Peg

Track

Peg

Group

Steely Dan

CD

Aja (MCA 112056)

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Musicians:

Donald Fagen (vocals), Paul Griffin (electric piano, background vocals), Jay Graydon (guitar), Steve Khan (guitar), Don Grolnick (clavinet), Tom Scott (lyricon), Chuck Rainey (bass), Rick Marotta (drums), Victor Feldman (percussion),

Gary Coleman (percussion), Chuck Findley (trumpet), Jim Horn, Plas Johnson, Jackie Kelso (saxophones, flutes), Richard “Slyde” Hyde (trombone)

.

Composed by Walter Becker and Donald Fagen

.

Recorded: New York, January-July 1977

Aja_steely_dan

Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

"Peg" is a rare instance in Steely Dan's discography where the music takes precedence over the lyrics. While the storyline chronicles the life of a Hollywood hopeful, the peppy funk tune is given the royal treatment by a stellar cast of musicians including Bernard "Pretty" Purdie, Chuck Rainey, and backing vocalist Michael McDonald, a frequent contributor to Becker and Fagen recordings.

According to Rainey's interview during VH1's "The Making of Aja," Becker and Fagen were against adding slap bass to the tune but left it in after Rainey added it behind their backs. Good call on Rainey's part, because it helps the music thrive in an engaging and friendly sort of way and, with guitarist Jay Graydon placing the icing on the cake with a solo which, while technical, adds even deeper melodic twists, the track still captivates after thousands of listens.

Whether or not the subject matter is about long-forgotten actress Peg Entwistle, who committed suicide by throwing herself from the Hollywood sign's "H," is uncertain-after all, there are several actresses named "Peg" listed in the Internet Movie Database. However, you will most likely get into the groove of the recording before you consider the lyrics, which is a refreshing and welcome change in a catalog of music largely sequestered in psychoanalysis.

Reviewer: Marcus Singletary


Steely Dan: Gaslighting Abbie

Track

Gaslighting Abbie

Group

Steely Dan

CD

Two Against Nature (Giant 24719)

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Musicians:

Donald Fagen (Fender Rhodes, clavinet, vocals), Walter Becker (guitars), Tom Barney (baas), Ricky Lawson (drums), Chris Potter (tenor saxophone), Michael Leonhart (trumpet), Roger Rosenberg (bass clarinet), Jim Pugh (trombone), Lawrence Feldman (clarinet),

Dave Tofani (tenor saxophone), Carolyn Leonhart, Cynthia Calhoun, Michael Harvey (background vocals)

.

Composed by Walter Becker and Donald Fagen

.

Recorded: Los Angeles, CA, mid-1997-mid-1999

Steely_dan-two_against_nature

Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

Two Against Nature won Steely Dan a 2001 Grammy award for Album of the Year, and the recording stands out for its bouncy, upbeat nature rather than for the drab, dark undertones that colored Gaucho, its studio predecessor.

"Gaslighting Abbie" maintains Becker and Fagen's standard of twisting their bop-influenced grooves together with tales of characters whose true natures unfold as they dive into the cruder side of life. A husband attempts to drive his wife crazy with his lover's help, and, alongside joyous sounding plateaus, Fagen describes the techniques that will erase his summertime pain ("Flame is the game/the game we call Gaslighting Abbie/It's a luscious invention for three"). The trio's "game" involves spiking herbal tea with "deludin," and, from there, blood, fresh cable, and fifteen watt bulbs are incorporated into the psychological torture.

As Fagen sings of these activities, concluding, "a tweak or two and she's out of here," you have to wonder whether or not you would feel comfortable sitting alone with him in the same room. In many ways, this track could be the most explicit Steely Dan recording, as far as its subject matter is concerned. However, that does not keep it from being one of their most effective.

Reviewer: Marcus Singletary


Steely Dan: Hey Nineteen

Track

Hey Nineteen

Group

Steely Dan

CD

Gaucho (MCA 112055)

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Musicians:

Donald Fagen (vocals, piano, synthesizer), Walter Becker (bass, guitars), Hugh McCracken (guitar), Rick Marotta (drums), Steve Gadd (percussion), Victor Feldman (percussion),

Frank Floyd and Zack Sanders (background vocals)

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Composed by Walter Becker and Donald Fagen

.

Recorded: Los Angeles, CA and New York, early 1979-mid-1980

Steely-dan-gaucho-433679

Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

While the narrator in Steely Dan's "Hey Nineteen" may not be a true "Gaucho" in the South American sense, he gets his kicks from Cuervo Gold, Colombian cannabis, and a younger woman-seemingly receiving his enjoyment from sources that are definitely "south of the border" both figuratively and literally. While the pleasures he reflects upon are fleeting, the basis for his admiration is purely physical in that the two can share pleasures of an illicit (rather than intelligent) nature; she is so out of touch with pop culture reality that she has no idea who Aretha Franklin is. Her worldly vision is interesting in that, even though Ms. Franklin is best known as the "Queen of Soul" because of her vast array of rhythm and blues recordings from the 1960s, she was still a current artist and a viable record seller in 1980.

In that year, "Hey Nineteen" hit #10 on the Billboard singles chart and #68 on the "black music" chart, which proves that the woman referenced in "Hey Nineteen" is even more clueless than the "average" pop music buyer in an era when "average" generally meant disco. In fact, Donald Fagen's reference to Franklin seems to set the entire tone of the recording, as a soul chorus cascades over vague disco/R&B beats that could easily pass for pop. Riding a traditional rhythm alongside a variety of chord variations, this tale of an intergenerational love affair seems even more relevant thirty years on into an era where such trysts are more common than they were at the time of recording.

Reviewer: Marcus Singletary


Steely Dan: Do it Again

Track

Do it Again

Group

Steely Dan

CD

Can't Buy a Thrill (MCA 11886)

Buy Track

Musicians:

Donald Fagen (vocals, piano, electric piano), Walter Becker (bass), Jeff Baxter (guitar), Denny Dias (guitar), Victor Feldman (percussion),

Jim Hodder (drums)

.

Composed by Walter Becker and Donald Fagen

.

Recorded: Los Angeles, CA, early 1972

Steelydan-cantbuyathrill

Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

A #6 single and Steely Dan's highest chart entry, "Do It Again" acts as a blueprint for what would follow in their discography. The track fuses latin jazz flourishes and a light samba feel that provides the catalyst for some awesome sitar-guitar soloing by Denny Dias.

The scene is set "at the border" where the main character is "gunning" for a perceived thief of his "water." Whether or not the "water" is H2O is debatable, but what is known is that, after he is dragged by his feet into a place where "mourners" sing, his fate sees sealed. The streets are less safe for him than prison, but, back on the outside to "do it again" (whatever "it" is), he encounters even more problems living a life of normalcy. If the "it" in the title refers to reliving, this man has obviously failed; his character is so flawed that, as a liar by nature, he finds himself "back in Vegas" after claiming that he is not a gambling man.

What a shame, because Fagen describes someone who has certainly been given more than one chance at life and has spoiled them all by refusing to alter his behavior. Exactly why he cannot cope with reality is never put to task, if he was willing to "swear and kick and beg" while pleading for freedom, why didn't he change his abhorrent behavior in the first place? The judge was smart in letting him go-as a lifelong criminal, he would have been right at home behind bars, that's for sure.

Reviewer: Marcus Singletary


Steely Dan: Babylon Sisters

Track

Babylon Sisters

Group

Steely Dan

CD

Gaucho (MCA 112055)

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Musicians:

Donald Fagen (vocals), Steve Khan (guitar), Don Grolnick (electric piano), Tom Scott (alto and tenor saxophones, clarinet), Randy Brecker (trumpet, flugelhorn), Chuck Rainey (bass), Bernard Purdie (drums), Patti Austin (vocals),

DIva Grey, Gordon Grody, Lani Groves, Leslie Miller, Toni Wine (background vocals), Walter Kane, George Marge (bass clarinet), Rob Mounsey (horn arrangement), Crusher Bennett (percussion)

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Composed by Walter Becker and Donald Fagen

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Recorded: Los Angeles, CA and New York, early 1979-mid-1980

Steely-dan-gaucho-433679

Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

"Babylon Sisters" is a great reggae influenced tune which utilizes one of Steely Dan's most intricate chord charts. The tale is immediately followed by "Hey Nineteen" on the Dan's 1980 album Gaucho, so you will notice a pattern in the themes that, while plaintively referenced in the lyrics, play out much more quizzically.

Chronicling the plight of characters who have crossed the "point of no return," this particular narrator seems to possess some sort of fetish for women "so fine, so young." Of course, this leaves us wondering a) why are these pleasures "cheap" yet "not free," and why are they being linked to Tijuana when it does not sound as though the rendezvous is happening outside of L.A. ("Here come those Santa Ana winds again"), b) even though it is obvious that the character should not play with the "fire" his desire for "cotton candy" objectifies, why are the characters heading out of town for a "one-night stand" when they could simply stay in their own hometown, and c) why does the speaker characterize himself as not what he "used to be," even though his exploits seem to find him in peak form?

Well, the "Babylon Sisters" can "shake it" all they wish, but that does not resolve any of those unanswered questions. However, if all else fails, focus on the searing horn section, which punches the air with its unison riffs, the slow dirge that definitely plays as a musical oxymoron to the story, and, once again, the challenging chart, which probably features the most chord changes in their entire catalog. All of these elements drown out the vocals, which are mixed so low that it is tough to hear them. However, if you listen closely, they are clear-even if the muse's motives are not.

Reviewer: Marcus Singletary


Steely Dan: Josie

Track

Josie

Group

Steely Dan

CD

Aja (MCA 112056)

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Musicians:

Donald Fagen (vocals, synthesizer), Walter Becker (guitar), Larry Carlton (guitar), Dean Parks (guitar), Chuck Rainey (bass), Jim Keltner (drums, percussion), Victor Feldman (electric piano), Timothy B. Schmit (vocals),

Chuck Findley (trumpet), Jim Horn, Plas Johnson, Jackie Kelso (saxophones, flutes), Richard “Slyde” Hyde (trombone)

.

Composed by Walter Becker and Donald Fagen

.

Recorded: Los Angeles, CA, January-July 1977

Aja_steely_dan

Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

From the wildly successful Aja CD, "Josie" is constructed around light jazz flourishes, a horn section that keeps the group's syncopation tight as a headlock, and an infectious, celebratory energy where the cheerfully positive vibe is transparent.

Some of the band's best songs lack any real explanation of why their singer feels the way he does. "Josie" follows a pattern similar to tunes such as "Rikki, Don't Lose That Number" and "Any Major Dude Will Tell You" by avoiding an explanation of what is truly happening in the lives of the characters. While, in lead singer Donald Fagen's eyes, it is "good" that she is returning to the neighborhood because she, for some reason, is its "pride," he contradicts this by stating that it is "bad" that she has returned in her current form because, before, she was, "the best friend we never had."

Lots of emotion is voiced by the narrator when it is stated that hats, hooters, and motor scooters are going to appear during a beach party that occurs upon her arrival. Thus, the lack of further description of who Josie is still makes this a puzzle worth solving in the 21st Century and beyond.

Reviewer: Marcus Singletary


Steely Dan: Kid Charlemagne

Track

Kid Charlemagne

Group

Steely Dan

CD

The Royal Scam (MCA 112051)

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Musicians:

Donald Fagen (vocals), Larry Carlton (guitar), Chuck Rainey (bass), Bernard Purdie (drums), Paul Griffin (keyboards), Don Grolnick (keyboards), Michael McDonald (vocals),

Venetta Fields, Clydie King, Shirley Matthews (vocals)

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Composed by Walter Becker and Donald Fagen

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Recorded: Los Angeles, CA and New York, November, 1975-March, 1976

Steelydan-theroyalscam

Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

Larry Carlton's fierce solo on "Kid Charlemagne" is widely viewed as one of the most important guitar recordings in history. Its status has been cemented by the tune's inclusion in the "Rock Band World Tour" video game, but, without Donald Fagen's dire reflections of 1960s San Francisco acid culture, the tune would not exist. Seemingly in reference to Ken Kesey's novel The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, the protagonist is a chemist on the lam. Unfortunately for him, his fame has exceeded expectations, and, if he is caught, prison time is assured because of the nature of the crime-mainly, manufacturing and selling drugs.

The character referenced in the song's title is someone who exists on the fringes of the then-current 70s world which had longed for the conservatism that future president Ronald Reagan embodied. His generation, according to the narrator, has no use for a person such as an LSD manufacturer whose time in the drug scene was obviously limited in the scene of alternative lifestyles by the sheer weight of his notoriety. "You are obsolete/look at all the white men on the street," he is warned, and he is later deemed an outlaw in the eyes of the law.

At the end, when the character loosely based on the enigmatic Owsley Stanley is arrested after his car runs out of gas, a police officer tells him that even he knows of his reputation amongst the prisoners in the jail ("The people down the hall know who you are") and you get the feeling that he should have taken the officer's advice to minimize the amount of illegal items that he carries on the city streets. This is a story without unexpected twists that never ends well.

Reviewer: Marcus Singletary


Steely Dan: Pretzel Logic

Track

Pretzel Logic

Group

Steely Dan

CD

Pretzel Logic (MCA 11917)

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Musicians:

Donald Fagen (vocals), Walter Becker (bass), Jeff Baxter (guitar), Dean Parks (acoustic guitar), Michael Omartian (piano), Jim Gordon (drums), Victor Feldman (percussion),

David Palmer (background vocals), Wilton Felder, Plas Johnson, Ollie Mitchell, Jerome Richardson, Ernie Watts (horns)

.

Composed by Walter Becker and Donald Fagen

.

Recorded: Los Angeles, CA, late 1973

Pretzel_logic

Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

The hidden meaning of Steely Dan's "Pretzel Logic" will remain uncovered without asking Walter Becker and/or Donald Fagen for a direct explanation. I, however, hear a tale that longs for the simplicity of the Golden Age of Hollywood as it reluctantly accepts the entertainment industry's current condition. "Those days are gone forever," Fagen sings as he laments stepping "up to the platform" and being scrutinized for his shoes. This may be a statement on the platform shoes that celebrities wore during the 1970s; their cartoonish implications lead an obviously popular performer to retort that he "seen them on the TV-the movie show."

That his word choice is "seen" and not the proper form of "saw" is crucial to any sort of comprehension of the setting, because the very first lyrics implore that the same person would, "love to travel the Southland in a traveling minstrel show." It is unknown what kind of entertainment the person is providing, but it is certain that the person speaking either was born and raised in the southern part of the USA or knows that his roots lie there, even if he no longer benefits from the South's perceived simplicity of lifestyle.

Musically, the track is built around a rather simplistic (for this group, anyway) blues pattern. The instrumentation is spare and the vocals are abundantly multi-tracked. A horn section simmers in the background and, although it is not one of the prominent sonic aspects, its inclusion fills up the entire sound spectrum. Even with the thought provoking lyrics, without the brass, the tune would have sounded somewhat less full-and that would have subtracted from its power.

Reviewer: Marcus Singletary


Steely Dan: Black Friday

Track

Black Friday

Group

Steely Dan

CD

Katy Lied (MCA 11916)

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Musicians:

Donald Fagen (vocals), Walter Becker (guitars, bass), Michael McDonald (vocals), Michael Omartian (keyboards), David Paich (keyboards), Jeff Porcaro (drums).

Composed by Walter Becker and Donald Fagen

.

Recorded: Los Angeles, CA, late 1974-early 1975

Steely-dan-katy-lied

Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

Here's what Donald Fagen had to say about Steely Dan's Katy Lied album: "Each song is seen from a different view point. Some I imagine have an idealistic tone to them, while others are someone who is obviously suicidal. Obviously the narrator...is really in the deep stages of severe depression. And of course, I probably was when I was performing them." Such is the case with the CD's lead track, "Black Friday."

The recording features two members of Toto in keyboardist David Paich and drummer Jeff Porcaro, whose blues shuffle lurches while the main character contemplates digging a hole and crawling inside because of the impending doom of the upcoming day. Slaughter is on the way and he has already made preparations for his exit, potentially going so far as to alter his identity in order to escape the possible consequences. Ready for life on the run, he plans to "collect everything" he is owed and "let the world pass by," and, pleading for the Lord not to let disaster find him, he wants an archbishop to sanctify him but has even left himself an exit in that case ("If he don't come arcross, I'm gonna let it roll").

This dynamic singalong broke the top forty in the United States and the chart placement confirms that Becker and Fagen were able to allay intergenerational superstitions (such as those symbolized by Friday the 13th) onto wax, linking all listeners together in a sociological (and, ultimately, musical) way.

Reviewer: Marcus Singletary


Steely Dan: Rikki Don't Lose That Number

Track

Rikki Don't Lose That Number

Group

Steely Dan

CD

Pretzel Logic (MCA 11917)

Buy Track

Musicians:

Donald Fagen (vocals), Walter Becker (bass), Jeff Baxter (guitar), Dean Parks (acoustic guitar), Michael Omartian (piano), Jim Gordon (drums), Victor Feldman (percussion),

David Palmer (background vocals)

.

Composed by Walter Becker and Donald Fagen

.

Recorded: Los Angeles, CA, late 1973

Pretzel_logic

Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

Some Steely Dan fans have speculated as to whether or not Donald Fagen's composition "Rikki Don't Lose That Number" was written about a college acquaintance named Rikki Ducornet. While this link has never been verified, it is tough to confirm, because the wistful narrative never addresses any sort of actual event and, even though it urges the person to call when they "feel better," no true feelings by any of the characters are ever displayed.

The distance is rare for Steely Dan; usually, Becker and Fagen's characters are engaged in more or less obvious lifestyles, but as for those less obvious, at least there usually is some sort of gathering that occurs even if that gathering is mental. Perhaps Fagen was lusting over someone whose heart was unavailable here, but you'd never know it with lyrics such as, "I have a friend in town, he's heard your name/We can go driving out on slow hand row."

The light samba feel, the free-flowing guitar solo by Jeff "Skunk" Baxter, and the overall musical cohesion forces listeners to relate emotionally to the track, and, in that way, the recording is one of the Dan's most successful on CD. Just where is "slow hand row" anyway?

Reviewer: Marcus Singletary


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