Steely Dan are a band renowned for three things: a unique blend of infectious jazz-rock, flawless sound production and their tongue in cheek irony. As an example of the latter, you may think the band’s name sounds like some nonsensical neologism on first hearing, but a little research will enlighten you: it actually derives from a fictional William S. Burroughs’ sex toy! And that’s a big part of the intrigue with these guys – the subject and tone of their songs often seem to suggest a happy-go-lucky sentimentality but dig deeper and you’ll generally find a starker, more lurid reality.
It’s these three ingredients that give the Dan their panache and singles them out as a unique, compelling band. They are a markedly singular band – no one else has been able to fully replicate their style. This is mainly down to the countless hours and musicians Becker and Fagen – the group’s core duo – drew on in the recording studio. There are a reported fifteen ‘additional musicians’ listed on the Wikipedia page for this album… outside of the actual five-piece that comprised the band at the time! Indeed, the pair’s obsessive drive for studio perfection impelled them to demand their highly regarded session players re-record a piece multiple times before they accepted it. However, ultimately this attention to detail, an insistence that also extended into the sound production and engineering of their music, forms an enduring part of their legacy. To this day, their high fidelity records are still lauded by audiophiles.
Throughout their career, the Dan have stubbornly retained an understated media presence, giving rise to a cult following. This lack of engagement only seemed to increase their mystique – they actually decided to cease touring and become just a studio outfit from 1974 up until they disbanded in 1981 in order to focus all their energies into the production of their records.
Becker and Fagen embody a certain debonair nonconformity – the band name asserting a clear link between them and the beatnik scene. Their lyrical delivery is glibly plainspoken while the content can at times be a bit obscure in a Dylanesque fashion – there’s even a whole website now dedicated to unravelling their veiled references (The Steely Dan dictionary). While the odd song may be difficult to fathom, the process of pondering and unravelling its meaning does inspire an itching curiosity.
On ‘Pretzel Logic,’ the Dan’s compositions are as easy on the ear as they are masterly crafted – condensed, glossy, pop nuggets that belie complex, rich arrangements. Clocking in at just under thirty-five minutes total running time, nine of the eleven tunes featured are under four minutes – short, direct, fluid jams are the order of the day, most packing tasty hooks that will nestle in your inner ear long after the last note fades.
The album opens with the band’s most commercially successful hit, ‘Rikki, Don’t Lose That Number.’ Effectively lifting that lovely, opening, lounging bassline from the Horace Silver jazz classic ‘Song For My Father,’ the tune apparently refers to a college party where Fagen brazenly invited a the wife of a faculty professor to call him up. Boasting a memorable hook and nifty guitar solo, it’s easy to see how it climbed to #4 in the US charts in 1974.
‘Night By Night’ is equally excellent; the narrator seems to have led a questionable life and is contemplating changing for the better, ‘Yes, I’m cashing in this ten-cent life / For another one.’ There’s a lovely, meandering guitar with terrific little horn flourishes. Cracking tune!
I also have a soft spot for the warm, uplifting sentiment of ‘Any Major Dude Will Tell You.’ In effect, it’s the Dan embracing the well-worn Irishism ‘sure, it’ll be grand!’
‘Any major dude with half a heart surely will tell you my friend
Any minor world that breaks apart falls together again
When the demon is at your door
In the morning it won’t be there no more
Any major dude will tell you.’
‘Barrytown’ is another frisky, melodic antic. One interpretation sees it as a gibe at the ‘Moonies’ – religious recruiters for the Unification Church in Barrytown, New York. Fagen adopts a fairly nasally tone here, a clear nod to Dylan.
‘East St. Louis Toodle-Oo’ is a faithful cover of a Duke Ellington track, the Dan wearing their jazz influences proudly on their sleeve on this record as another salute is hailed – this time to saxophonist Charlie Parker – on ‘Parker’s Band.’ This one’s a straight-up, rollicking jam all the way through.
We return to the more saccharine, pop-oriented focus on ‘Through With Buzz,’ the Dan sounding not very unlike four certain Liverpudlians – its strings lending the tune a taut air akin to ‘Eleanor Rigby.’ A common reading translates ‘Buzz’ as drugs although Fagen has shed a different light, explaining that it’s about a draining friendship – perhaps based on a roommate he had in college.
The title track swings in next with a typically jazzy Steely Dan saunter. There’s yet another killer hook,
‘Yes I’m dying to be a star and make them laugh
Sound just like a record on the phonograph
Those days are gone forever
Over a long time ago, oh yeah.’
Love the nonchalant ‘oh yeah’ thrown in at the end – really underscores the song’s breezy, carefree tone, the surreal lyrics also sparking mellow vibes.
‘With A Gun’ is a livelier number with a hint of a country twang, telling the tale of an outlaw on a murder spree.
‘Charlie Freak’ is downright brilliant; it manages to express a really vivid, heartrending story about drug addiction and homelessness in just 2 minutes and 45 seconds. I’ll save giving you a dry rehash here and let you listen yourself. There’s a solemn piano, weeping guitar and sleigh bells that are deftly timed to heighten the emotive effect. A real encapsulation of the Dan’s genius which sees them embrace more of a sombre mood than they typically do.
Closer ‘Monkey In Your Soul’ bows the record out with a dose of funky bass. The trumpet on this sounds great too. The speaker appears to be finding it increasingly difficult being in a relationship with a partner who has some form of addiction.
Some fans claim this is Steely Dan’s greatest achievement; others would contend it’s ‘Aja’ although there are those who make admirable cases for ‘The Royal Scam,’ ‘Kathy Lied’ or even ‘Can’t Buy A Thrill’ being more deserving of that hard-won honour. Whichever one you personally choose, this record still stands tall as a shining monument to the Dan’s brilliance – music with a lustrous sheen indicative of the passion of the perfectionists that conceived it.
Favourite Dan album anyone?