Listen to this track by jazz-rock concern and one-time aversionists to regular live dates Steely Dan. It’s “Pretzel Logic”, the title track to their 1974 album which is aptly named Pretzel Logic. This would be the last record of theirs for which they would tour during their 1970s heyday. It would mark the end of an era, and the beginning of a new one.
What this new record also meant was a return to the top of the charts for singles, after a dip in their fortunes a year before. This song was one single to get them back to where they wanted to be, along with their smash top ten hit “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number”. But, more importantly it was when they were beginning to phase into a new life as an exclusively studio-bound concern. Bassist Walter Becker and singer-pianist Donald Fagen were the principles of the band as a studio entity, and turned increasingly to sessioners to fill out the sound along with (and often instead of) full-time members Jim Hodder (drums, vocals), Denny Dias (guitar), and Jeff “Skunk” Baxter (guitar). Still, this tune hooks into what the core ensemble version of the group had always been able to deliver anyway, that being sophisticate jazz rock with a heaping tablespoon of the blues, not to mention a hefty dose of hipster irony and arch-sarcasm to tie it all up.
What were they being ironic about here?
A big part of what they were commenting on was that sore point about touring which divided opinions between various band members at the time. Under Becker and Fagen’s guidance working with producer Gary Katz and engineer Roger Nichols, the band were becoming less a band, and more like a vehicle to convey their writing, which was their original intention before the band ever formed. As serious writers and makers of records, the idea of an “act” in this song is reduced here to the minstrel shows of old; corny, outdated, grotesquely exaggerated, and ultimately ridiculous. This song is a statement about the two writers kicking the dust off of their feet where all of that was concerned; those days are gone forever. Well, they would be for the time being, anyway. They’d play their last live show of the decade on July 4, 1974 in Santa Monica, and wouldn’t play live again until the 1990s.
Their full-time bandmates would eventually see the writing on the wall where this was concerned as more and more session musicians were brought in to lay down the parts. The approach would be that the parts would be laid down multiple times with various musicians, and then those takes would be whittled down to the best ones to complete the finished track no matter which musician made the final cut, band member or guest. Becker would play guitar on this track instead of Baxter or Dias, for instance. But, he would also fire himself as bass player once he heard sessioner Chuck Rainey‘s chops. This was a departure from the straight ahead band-oriented jams of the past where everyone would stick to the chair they were given. Times really were changing, as this song and another famous song once said. It was changing for the band, but also for the culture. I think this song has something to say about that, too.
The “Napoleon” part of the song always struck me as Becker and Fagen’s way to talk about the Sixties, with a once imperial figure who had laid down a grand idea to change the course of history, yet finding himself in exile once his time had passed. There were a number of songs that seemed to deal with the passing of the hippie dream around this time, when the Love Generation turned into the Me Generation, trading Volkswagen vans for beamers, and acid tests for coke spoons. Jackson Browne’s “The Pretender”, Neil Young’s “Walk On”, and John Lennon’s “God” are good examples of songs that portray the end of ideals of the past, and focus on the self in the present.
That “self” isn’t much to write home about in this tune, as Napoleon is revealed to be a lonely figure and a pitiable one, out of date and a part of an era never to return. In a sense this song really is about time travel, in that we are all traveling in time. The things that seemed so vital and powerful to us at one time in our lives becomes passe as time marches onward, and as the values of a new world and new perspectives hold sway. All one can do when this happens is to make the best of things, adjust our own perspectives, and soldier on, often admitting that when things are gone, they’re gone, no matter how great they once were.
Becker and Fagen would do just that, of course; adapt and move on. They still had their most celebrated work ahead of them by this time in their platinum-selling 1977 record Aja, not to mention a couple of records in between that would help them consolidate their approach in being slick creatures of the studio, with an arsenal of hired musical guns at their disposal to help them define their sound. With this record as their in-between phase between one era and another, they would say goodbye to their original incarnation. It would certainly pay off for them, garnering both critical praise and commercial success, eventually taking them into a hiatus period after 1980’s Gaucho, and back onto the touring tip from the early 1990s, a routine they’d avoided almost twenty years before . By then, the songs themselves had taken on a life of their own, and demanded to be heard in live settings in front of the fans. In the end, Becker and Fagen were musicians as well as writers, with the songs always coming first.
Steely Dan are a going concern today as a live act, although currently (at the time of this writing) in between engagements after a summer 2014 tour. But, they will soon appear on the stage at Coachella 2015 of all places in April! A hipster is what a hipster does no matter what decade it is.
And for more on the Becker and Fagen guide to studio etiquette among session musicians, as well as more about the making of the Pretzel Logic album, check out this article from The Quietus.
Learn more about the band in general at steelydan.com.