Posts Tagged ‘Jeff Porcaro’

Its introduction is unlike any other. Silence. Waiting. Turning up the volume to see if anything is coming out, waiting some more. Then those gurgling low notes, followed finally by a catchy piano figure, pristinely captured, perfectly balanced. Just like that, Steely Dan has invited—no, wrangled—you into their world of freaks, creeps, lost love and suspended time.

Steely Dan was three years into their professional career when “Pretzel Logic” hit shelves on February 20th, 1974. They’d made a name for themselves with “Can’t Buy a Thrill”, gone from studio band to touring outfit with Countdown to Ecstasy, and found chart success along the way. For their next move, the band retreated into Village Recorder in L.A. with Gary Katz again presiding over the sessions. There they tracked what might be the most concise album of their career.

Call this a time-travel blues. (How Steely Dan is that?) Becker makes his debut as a guitar soloist, weaving in guttural answer lines to Fagen’s vocals on the second verse. But what’s he talking about? “When it says, ‘I stepped upon the platform, the man gave me the news,’ we conceived the platform as a teleportation device,” Fagen said in Steely Dan: Reelin’ in the Years. “And there are other key lines like, ‘I have never met Napoleon, but I plan to find the time.’ What we’re actually saying is that I plan to find the time that he lived in.” The solo is classic Steely Dan, too: Becker painstakingly pieced it together from a number of earlier takes, searching for the perfect combination of sounds. An engineer later estimated that this process took as long as “one hour per bar” to complete. (They got so far out into the weeds that at one point Becker reportedly asked: “Did I play that?”) Of course, this being Steely Dan, the chorus on “Pretzel Logic” isn’t really bluesy at all. Still, this song provided a signature early showcase for Becker, who’d principally worked before this as a bassist. He was always at his best when Steely Dan took rootsier sideroads.

On Pretzel Logic, Steely Dan honed their wryly humorous lyrics; perfected their luscious arrangements that straddle rock, pop, jazz, blues, carnival music and everything in between; and they’d set aside the lengthy jams. The classic line up was still intact and with backing from L.A.’s best session musicians, there was no way it wouldn’t be sonic perfection. The core duo of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen had progressed as writers, too. They introduce us to even more beguiling characters—Charlie Freak, Buzz and many that went unnamed. But the world of Pretzel Logic begins with Rikki. 

“We hear you’re leaving, that’s okay,” Fagen sings, a certain resignation in his delivery. Our narrator speaks of a romance cut short, but is it really OK? It seems as if he’s faking it. He wryly lists off activities the pair could do in an effort to win her back, followed by a flippant, protective “I don’t know.” But by the middle he lets his true intent show: “You tell yourself you’re not my kind/but you don’t even know your mind/and you could have a change of heart.” Will she? He knows she’s leaving, and it’s not OK, but what can he do, really?. It’s unexpected to see this role reversal in pop storytelling. It wasn’t often that a ’70s pop record would centre around a man’s fight to retrieve lost love, especially with such a “whatever” attitude. It’s a dejected, resigned cousin of those old “how do I make him love me?” pop successes of the previous decade. Here, the solution isn’t in a kiss, in telling him you’re never gonna leave him or in wishing and hoping. Rikki is moving on, though their little wild time had only just begun, and all our narrator can do is leave behind his number and hope she’ll come back around.

“Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” which became Steely Dan’s highest-charting single was more than the opening salvo of the album, it’s a tightly packed, four-minute hit single that demonstrates the band’s shift into bite-sized yet filling song-craft. It also introduces another theme—loneliness and social isolation.  The bulk of Pretzel Logic, which itself peaked at #8 on the Billboard LP chart,  deals with outcasts. Whether in the rube town in “Night By Night,” or the other side of the tracks in “Barrytown,” we’re dealing with people who know they’re trapped in a certain social or economic status within a disorderly world, wishing to “cash in their 10-cent life for another one.”

Underpinning the story on “Night By Night” is a tight and funky arrangement featuring a young Jeff Porcaro on drums. He’d go on to fame with Toto in the decade to follow, but here he was covering for Jim Gordon, the Wrecking Crew member and one-time Domino who features on the rest of the album. Add to it the syncopated chop of the rhythm guitar courtesy of Denny Dias, the alternately swirling and stabbing horns and Jeff “Skunk” Baxter’s note-perfect shredding solo, and you get all the ingredients that make Steely Dan great band they are.

But while the Dan prove they can rock on “Night By Night,” “Any Major Dude Will Tell You” (released as the B-side to “Rikki”) shows a gentler, more comforting side, supported by a fluid electric guitar riff and bridged with a memorable country-inspired guitar solo. A similar breeziness makes its way to “Barrytown,” with its jangling pedal steel, guitar and tambourine combo.

This commentary on class and social differences is a clear Dylan pastiche, from the “Times They Are A-Changin’” reference to Fagen’s nasally drawl. Yet it’s also a careful meditation on belonging, prejudice and the challenge of adjusting to surroundings. The narrator concedes in the beginning, “I’m not one to look behind, I know that times must change.” Yet, the folks over in Barrytown represent a shifting tide—their hair and their clothes just aren’t proper. For all the acceptance he claims to have at the start, the narrator “likes things like they used to be.” His love interest? More progressive and clearly from Barrytown. She’s got that “special lack of grace,” he says, and she won’t be treated kindly in the world outside of the Barrytown bubble. Whether she represents a societal change he can’t handle or simply a threat to his street cred, he has to break off their relationship.

Sides one and two are bridged by convincing odes to jazz. “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo” revamps the old Duke Ellington/Bubber Miley composition. Skunk Baxter’s pedal steel takes the place of the original trombone, Becker’s wah-wah guitar emulates the muted trumpet line and Fagen not only shows off his stride piano chops, but also contributes saxophone.

The jazz nods continue with “Parker’s Band,” a tribute to legendary saxophonist Charlie Parker. The angular backing, weaving chordal movement and the jabbing horns take a page from bebop, while Fagen sings of “Groovin’ High,” a song Parker performed, and “Relaxing at Camarillo,” Parker’s jazz-blues standard inspired by his stay at a Ventura mental hospital.

The time-hopping continues on the title track. With a snarling vocal once again by Fagen, horn jabs galore, a ferocious guitar solo and some of the most abstract lyrics on the album, “Pretzel Logic” remains a fan favourite and a staple of live shows over the decades. While the original recording smokes, recent live performances with Steve Winwood on vocals bring the song to another level.

“Charlie Freak” and “Through With Buzz” see Becker and Fagen returning to character studies, delivering observations on unsavory people.  Buzz seems to have no redeeming qualities: “He takes all my money, he’s not very funny,” Fagen declares before switching tenses once again and revealing what’s really bugging him: “I remember when he stole my girl/Drug her all around the world/You know I’m cool, yes I feel alright/’Cept when I’m in my room and it’s late at night.”  That sense of paranoia lingers on through the murder ballad “With a Gun” and “Charlie Freak,” a tale about a desolate man with instrumentation so sinister you can almost see him walking alone on a winter’s night.

The album wraps with another highlight, “Monkey in Your Soul” propelled by a slinky horn line and a brief tale of leaving love behind. It might just be the funkiest song on the album.

After Pretzel Logic, Steely Dan would effectively escape the fishbowl of concert touring (at least until 1993) and retire into their playground, the recording studio. They went on to create more examples of slick, jazzy pop that would bring them even more acclaim. But here on Pretzel Logic, the band managed to synthesize all the things that made them great—observant storytelling, humour, inventive instrumental breaks and sleek production—all in a digestible, radio-friendly package that no doubt helped make their later experiments possible.

‘Pretzel Logic’ Released (1974)

It’s been almost 40 years since Rolling Stone magazine dubbed Steely Dan “the perfect musical antiheroes of the Seventies” in assessing the band’s sixth album Aja. But while the Walter Becker and Donald Fagen-led band named after a dildo in William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch may seem more establishment than anti-establishment these days, it’s amazing how fresh the music remains, even after decades of repeated plays on classic-rock and adult-contemporary radio stations. Even now, their albums still have plenty of riches left to uncover in their inventive mix of jazz and rock, complex chord progressions, intricate arrangements, and endlessly enigmatic, bitingly cynical lyrics.

Steely Dan announced that the band will return to The Beacon Theatre, New York stage for a nine-night residency of themed performances starting October 17th, 2018. Included among the highlights of this year’s extraordinary concerts are: performances of Steely Dan’s Countdown to Ecstasy (1973), The Royal Scam (1976), Aja (1977), Gaucho (1980), plus Donald Fagen’s solo album The Nightfly (1982), plus “By Popular Demand” and “Greatest Hits” nights. Each and every night, Steely Dan will also treat audiences with selections from The Dan’s extraordinary catalog, packed with infectious tunes, bodacious harmonies, irresistible grooves, blazing solo work, rich ensembles and sleek, subversive lyrics.

Becker died from complications of esophageal cancer on September 3rd, 2017. In a note released to the media, Fagen remembered his longtime friend and bandmate, and promised to “keep the music we created together alive as long as I can with the Steely Dan band

Fagen group is mostly a touring band these days, and their latest tour, which they dub “The Dan Who Knew Too Much” on their website, has now brought them to New York’s Beacon Theatre for a series of concerts, some of them devoted to live performances of particular albums. With this in mind, it’s as good a time as any to revisit and reassess their nine-album discography. Steely Dan has explored so many different musical styles and moods over the course of their more-than-four-decade-long. Whether you gravitate more toward Pretzel Logic or Aja or even Two Against Nature may all depend on how you’re feeling at a given moment.

Everything Must Go

This is Steely Dan’s last album to date, released in 2003. It feels like a final statement and a world-weary one at that. Its opening cut, “The Last Mall,” sets the tone: the music set in an ironically innocuous C major even as Fagen sings of an apocalyptic “cancellation sale” at seemingly the only mall left in the world. Much of the album progresses in a similar deceptively laid-back fashion until the concluding minute of the final title track ruefully fades out with what else? a wailing saxophone solo. In Everything Must Go, it’s as if Steely Dan, discovering they have nothing much left to say, decided to make that sense of resignation the subject of the album. The result lacks the lyrical and musical complexity of their best work, but there’s something strangely affecting about it nevertheless. Plus, it’s the only album that features Walter Becker singing lead (on “Slang of Ages”).

Gaucho

Speaking of world-weary, a similar air of ennui blows throughout this, their last album of Steely Dan’s ’70s heyday. “She thinks I’m crazy / but I’m just growing old,” Fagen sings in the album’s biggest hit, “Hey Nineteen.” That sense of being out of time extends to the record as a whole, with Fagen and Becker doubling down on the coolly relaxed vibe of their preceding Aja, while dispensing with anything resembling seductive emotional warmth. Instead, a kind of slick disillusionment peeks through Gaucho, most evident in the album’s longest track, “Glamour Profession,” which chronicles a day in the life of a drug dealer in Los Angeles with electronic keyboard lines that chill to the touch and brass lines that blare with ironic joie de vivre.

Naturally, the near-funereal “Third World Man” sees Steely Dan riding off to the distance in a fatigued daze. It may be a difficult album to warm to, but it’s nothing if not committed to its dispirited languor.

Two Against Nature

For millennials, this much-belated Becker/Fagen reunion album may well be known more as the album that beat out, among other nominees, Radiohead’s more progressive-sounding Kid A for the Album of the Year Grammy in 2000. As much of a confirmation as that may be as to the Recording Academy’s backward-leaning taste, that shouldn’t detract from the genuine pleasures of Two Against Nature, which allies the easy-listening jazz of Aja with some of the hard-rocking spirit of their earlier albums. Their dark-humored perversity remains intact here, too; among the album’s nine songs are various tales of, well, aging men basically trying to get some. But unlike in Gaucho’s “Hey Nineteen,” at least they approach this potentially unsavory subject matter with more youthful vitality this time.

Katy Lied

If 1974’s Pretzel Logic laid the groundwork for a jazzier sound than Can’t Buy a Thrill and Countdown to Ecstasy did, its follow-up, Katy Lied, ran with it while still keeping to its predecessor’s concision. To some degree, that makes this very fine album feel a bit like more of the same after Pretzel Logic. That, however, is not to deny the gleaming brilliance of the many of the songs here, especially the mid-album one-two punch of the strangely dreamy “Doctor Wu” (which the 1980s punk band Minutemen covered in their masterpiece Double Nickels on the Dime) and the calypso-infused “Everyone’s Gone to the Movies” (a song about a child molester, in case you weren’t paying attention to the lyrics). This is also the first album to feature Michael McDonald  who Steely Dan’s former co-lead guitarist Jeff Baxter would later tap to front the Doobie Brothers as a backing singer.

The Royal Scam

Whatever warmth there was in the jazz-rock fusion of Pretzel Logic and Katy Lied was basically obliterated by 1976’s The Royal Scam, in which bitterness and sarcasm run rampant through blasting horn lines and driving rhythms. From the struggles of a drug dealer in “Kid Charlemagne” to the sneaky plea for abstinence in “The Fez” to Dean Parks’ brutal voice-box-amplified guitar solo of “Haitian Divorce,”

it all culminates in the epic title track, with its repetitive, near-Sisyphean structure and cynical chronicle of folks “[wandering] in from the city of St. John” into a glittery wasteland. Perhaps, in hindsight, the sophistication of Aja and subsequent Steely Dan albums was simply natural after this atom bomb of cynicism, with Fagen’s snarl sounding more potent than ever.

Can’t Buy a Thrill

In some ways, Steely Dan’s debut LP is an anomaly in its discography, featuring an expanded line-up that included the more conventionally pretty-sounding David Palmer singing lead vocals on two of the songs (“Dirty Work” and “Brooklyn (Owes the Charmer Under Me)”) and drummer Jim Hodder singing on another (“Midnite Cruiser”). But even if the more overtly soft-rock style of Can’t Buy a Thrill is different from what the band’s more concentrated line-up in subsequent albums would explore, it’s remarkable to hear how much of the band’s sound was already fully formed here.

Right off the bat, “Do It Again” features a Latin beat that marked as it strikingly different from just about anything else at the time, and assorted jazz flourishes pop up here and there in later cuts. Becker and Fagen would refine their style further in their subsequent albums, but Can’t Buy a Thrill is still a striking beginning for the band.

Aja

This, still the band’s most commercially successful record, represented Steely Dan’s first full-on venture into the kind of sophisticated jazz-rock that would characterize their music from then on. In many ways, it remains Steely Dan’s finest in that realm. Like its sophomore album, Countdown to Ecstasy,

Aja is rife with songs that have lengthy instrumental solos, akin to a jazz jam session. But while the Steely Dan of Countdown was mostly still rooted in a rock idiom, there’s no rock at all to be found in Aja, just some of the lushest textures and most relaxed music of their career. The album has some of the most openly empathetic lyrics, most notably in “Deacon Blues,” which is still one of the most touching songs about the yearning that arises out of a midlife crisis.

Pretzel Logic

After the extended jams of Countdown to Ecstasy, Steely Dan’s follow-up, Pretzel Logic, saw the band reverting back to the mainstream concision of Can’t Buy a Thrill. The longest songs on this album (“Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” and the title track) are roughly four-and-a-half minutes. But there’s nothing conventional at all about these tunes, which pushed the jazz flourishes in their first two albums further both musically and even lyrically. After all, how many rock albums would feature, of all things, a note-for-note cover of Duke Ellington’s “East St. Louis Toodle-oo?” Or a joyous tune about basking in the music of “Mister Parker’s band,” with “Mister Parker” no doubt referring to the legendary jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker? Ranging from bluesy vamps (the title track) to lyrical ballads (“Any Major Dude Will Tell You”) to hard rockers (“Night by Night”), Pretzel Logic supersedes Steely Dan’s most commercial album with this fascinatingly unpredictable 33 minutes of music.

Countdown to Ecstasy

Countdown to Ecstasy is, in its deliberate sprawl, arguably the exhilarating Steely Dan experience. Becker and Fagen may have hemmed in their jazzy tendencies for the sake of wider accessibility in Can’t Buy a Thrill, but they let it all go for their sophomore effort. No major hits on the level of “Do It Again” and “Reelin’ in the Years” emerged from Countdown to Ecstasy, but there’s a stylistic variety to this set of eight songs—from the “Rock Around the Clock”-like beat of the opening cut “Bodhisattva” and the ragtime of “The Boston Rag” to the balladry of “Pearl of the Quarter” and the apocalypse of “King of the World”—that remains unparalleled among the band’s studio albums. At the very least, this album has the ever-irresistible “My Old School,” in which its raucous horn arrangements and up-tempo beat mask a deep cynicism toward college life. In other words, it’s quintessential Steely Dan.

thanks to Paste Magazine for the words