Steely Dan (2) – They Got the Steely Dan T-shirt

I have never met Napoleon
But I plan to find the time
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

Those days are gone forever
Over a long time ago
Oh yeah

The downside of success – especially in the music business – is that you have to keep topping yourself. And so Steely Dan by now had not one but two hits, the previously mentioned “Do it Again,” and the fabulous “Reelin’ in the Years.”

But the record company wanted more singles, more hits, more touring. (I could never understand why labels said they wanted an underground band yet at the same time, wanted hit singles. FM radio wasn’t about hit singles per se. But the executives at these companies still maintained a Top 40 mentality no matter what.)

I mentioned in the first post of this series that while Becker and Fagen did in fact tour with Jay and the Americans, they not only had no fondness for touring, they actively hated it. But the Dan did tour, even to Europe where they were just starting to gain a reputation.

And the pressure to continue touring was on not only from their label, but also from members of their band. So there was a growing internal tension between studio creativity and road warriors like Jeff Baxter. (Becker and Fagen were introverted, intellectual loners in a profession filled with working-class guys who liked to party.)

In 1973, the Dan released their seminal album Countdown to Ecstasy which, while failing to have that elusive hit single, garnered great critical acclaim and plenty of FM (“no static at all”) radio play. The buzz about this band was starting to grow as people realized that there was no one anywhere either playing or writing anything like this type of music. It was sophisticated yet catchy, singable, if often lyrically ambiguous and indirect.

A great track from this album is “Bodishattva,” which according to Fagen, was “sort of a parody on how Western people look at Eastern religion – sort of oversimplify it.”

What’s amazing about this blisteringly fast tune is that Denny Dias whips out a straight jazz be-bop solo in a rock context. Jeff Baxter answers at the end of the song with a more straightforward rock solo, the end of which I don’t think anybody can figure out how to play. (There’s a live version of this song wherein they get introduced by a guy in their entourage who in a drunken two-minute rant, refers to them as “Mr. Whatever, Mr. Stevie Dan”):

Another dynamic at work in the band was Donald Fagen’s continued lack of confidence in his voice and his great reluctance to sing. (A guy named David Palmer, who sang on “Dirty Work,” had been handling vocals when they played live.)

But Palmer was ultimately asked to leave and Fagen eventually took over the vocals. Which, thank God because what other voice could convey the world-weary cynicism of these songs? (Which is exactly why everybody else in the band pushed him towards it.) Another guy named Royce Jones sang on their live tours for a while but near as I can tell, never recorded with them.

In their ceaseless quest for perfection, Becker and Fagen started slowly incorporating session musicians into their recordings. And studio musicians increasingly saw the Dan’s albums not only as a good place to play cool music, but as an impressive accomplishment on their C.V. Becker’s argument was that the jazz bands they grew up listening to rarely had the same musicians, but rather an ever-revolving cast of characters which kept things fresh. Seen from that perspective, it makes sense.

By the time of the release of their third album, 1974’s Pretzel Logic, they were well on their way to becoming a studio-only band. Jim Gordon, studio-whiz drummer and previous member of Derek and the Dominos, played on this album.

The song “Rikki Don’t Lose that Number” – with a nice, lyrical Jeff Baxter solo – returned the Dan to the beloved Top 40. It peaked at number 4 in the US. However, I prefer to here present a couple of deeper tracks. (Because frankly, they don’t get as much attention and I like them better).

“Parker’s Band” is a flat-out tribute to saxophonist Charlie Parker. One of the duo said that music – or at least jazz music – peaked with Parker and everything after him was just a variation. The beat is great, the lyrics telling:

We will spend a dizzy weekend smacked into a trance
Me and you will listen to
A little bit of what made the preacher dance

Bring your horn along and you can add to the pure confection
And if you can’t fly you’ll have to move in with the rhythm section
Either way you’re bound to function
Fifty-Second Street’s the junction
You got to come on man
And take a piece of Mr. Parker’s Band.

Becker and Fagen were at a loss as to what to call the album so they simply decided to name it after one of the finest tracks. Is “Pretzel Logic” really about – as Fagen once said – time travel? Does he really want to meet Napoleon or just read about him?

The inscrutability of the Dan’s lyrics became a real issue for some rock critics who wanted to know what every lyric of every song meant. Fagen advised them that they liked to tell a story but left a lot of holes. A reviewer at Stereo Review said that “the lyrics baffle me; maybe they know what they’re talking about, but I can’t get a clue.” Well, dude, if it’s literal translation you want, stick to reviewing The Carpenters and Neil Diamond.

Great, bluesy tune, terrific solo here by Walter Becker:

Due to the combination of Becker/Fagen wanting to work with other musicians and lack of touring, Pretzel Logic was to be the last Dan album Jeff Baxter was ever to play on. He moved on to join the Doobie Brothers (and weirdly, due to a combination of events, is now a consultant to the US Department of Defense on security matters.)

And 1974 would be the last time Steely Dan would tour for 19 years.

Next: Henceforth, Steely Dan is listed on their albums as Becker/Fagen with all other musicians being listed as “additional.” Along with the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac, they continue to dominate the Seventies. 

 

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