Listen to this track by sardonic studio-bound jazz-rock duo Steely Dan. It’s “Peg”, a joyous hit single as taken from their 1977 album Aja, their sixth. The song is one of their most recognizable singles, spending several weeks in the top twenty on the Billboard charts.
By this time in their development, Steely Dan had reached the pinnacle of the artistic mountain they’d been climbing since the cessation of their life as a stable touring band. From 1974 to the time they were recording tracks for Aja, they’d created a meticulous workflow for themselves as a studio-bound concern, hiring studio musicians to supplement their own parts and to help them achieve the results of some very ambitious arrangements. They’d certainly displaced the contributions of former members who had played on their early hits. In this, we catch The Dan just where they wanted to be at the time, and with successful placements in the charts to justify their efforts.
“Peg” is one of the greatest expressions of Steely Dan’s approach to making records, just bursting with life, full of optimism and musical effervescence. It’s downright happy and life-affirming! As usual though, all is not necessarily as it seems here when the lyrics are considered. If one thing hadn’t changed in the modus operandi of principals Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, it was that what we find on the surface of a made for radio pop song by Steely Dan isn’t the whole picture.
Even though Becker and Fagen were known at this time for recording parts, and then discarding them, one of the elements that makes “Peg” such a gem in their catalog is that it’s bursting with personality. Specifically, the players on it are able to leave their signatures on it while still presenting it soundly to be a Steely Dan song. Michael McDonald’s multi-tracked backing vocals are a stand-out, and very much a part of his musical personality. Go-to brass guy Tom Scott’s irresistible horn part, played on a lyricon (kind of the horn equivalent of a synth, and artifact of the 1970s) provides one of the central musical hooks here. Chuck Rainy’s burbling bassline is imbued with a life of its own, and very much reflective of the melodically-oriented musician behind it. And the winner of the “who’s lead guitar part will make the final cut?” contest was Jay Graydon, one of many guitarists to record a solo for “Peg”, with his part now inextricably tied to its musical anatomy forever after a purported six hours of working on it.
But what about the personality of Peg herself, the heroine at the center of the story? Who is she, exactly? Well, as per usual, Steely Dan leave that pretty open-ended. On the surface, she’s an ingenue who’s about to finally make a name for herself, lauded in congratulatory tones by the narrator. There’s a supposition out there that the name “Peg” actually refers to a real ingenue from the early 1930s, Peg Entwistle, a Welsh stage actor who made her film debut in 1932’s Pre-Hayes Code Thirteen Women starring Myrna Loy and Irene Dunne. It was Peg’s big debut on the big screen. But, due to studio interference (hey, even in the thirties …) her part was largely cut. The film was released posthumously. Peg jumped off the big “H” of the “Hollywoodland” (as it was then known) sign a month before it was released, leaving a scantly-worded suicide note that was found by a hiker. Entwistle was a casualty of fame, or the lack of it, with her final act being symbolic of that even without the note.
Whether Becker and Fagen were referring directly to Entwistle’s story or not, they are certainly talking about western culture’s obsession with glamour and fame, of which their “Peg” is a symbol. Here, she offers herself up to the masses. The narrator of this song is more mysterious still, with his initial motives seeming to be that of a fan; I know they’re gonna love it! But there is something unsettling about this narrative, too. On repeated listens, and especially working against the joyous musical backdrop they’ve created here, it begins to seem as though it’s fame itself who is the narrator, full of optimism that is not designed to encourage so much as to deceive. It will come back to you. When the shutter falls, you’ll see it all in 3-D; you’ll know what it is you’ve really got yourself into. There’s just something sinister in those lines, an allusion to the price one pays for greatness being more than most can afford in the end. Sometimes, it can devour one’s soul, either through crushing disappointment, or by granting the wishes that one makes in every detail in blueprint blue, leaving nothing left outside of it but emptiness.
So, classic Dan, then.
With this song being cut in the very city in which Peg Entwistle made her jump is a very dark tip of the hat for a radio single, and all the more ironic. That’s what Becker and Fagen have done so well since they started. But maybe too, it’s a reminder of the absurdity of that which so many people pursue as they go west to find their fortune and fame, even possibly to result in their own destruction. As always, it’s a sense of perspective and of identity, and of being grounded in something outside of the promises of fame that protect the strongest of those living within the confines of celebrity. And even then, it doesn’t ever cease to be dangerous.
In September of this year, bassist, guitarist, and co-chief Steely Dan songwriter and creative head Walter Becker passed away at the age of 67. You can read his obituary at The Guardian.
The Steely Dan banner is now taken up by his musical partner Donald Fagen.
For more about how “Peg” was recorded, here’s a video that talks about the individual parts of the song and how it all came together, including interviews with musicians that included drummer Rick Marotta, Michael McDonald, Chuck Rainy, engineer Roger Nichols, and of course Becker and Fagen.
You can also watch this video in which Fagen examines “Peg” as a musical composition, showing that underneath all of the smooth production and slick playing, it’s really a gospel blues tune with jazz chords taking the place of a standard 12-bar blues progression.