Steely Dan Play “Peg”

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.  Read more

Weather Report Play “Birdland”

weather_report-heavy_weatherListen to this track by jazz-rock innovators with a rotating line-up Weather Report. It’s “Birdland”, a bona fide hit single as taken from their 1977 album Heavy Weather. The record was a smash success, selling loads while also impressing the reviewers at Downbeat at the same time.

In particular, the album showed off the dynamics of the band and where they’d pushed the boundaries of jazz as a form, coupling it with many strains of music that included rock, funk, and electronic music. This is perhaps a reflection of the group’s leadership under keyboardist Joe Zawinul and his “partner in crime” saxophonist Wayne Shorter. Both men had come up in other bands in the sixties under Cannonball Adderley and Miles Davis respectively, with each of those being musicians who also sought to escape the rigidity of jazz as a form in order to put across musical visions using a wider palette. This certainly set the stage for Zawinul and Shorter to do the same.

Here on this song and on the rest of the record, this is evident. But it’s not just about redefining the boundaries of jazz in terms of texture and style. It’s also about form, with a specific element for which jazz is known largely left out of the equation.  Read more

Steely Dan Play “Pretzel Logic”

Steely Dan Pretzel LogicListen 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? Read more

Traffic Play “The Low Spark Of High Heeled Boys”

Traffic The Low Spark of High Heeled BoysListen to this track by progressive rock collective Traffic. It’s ” The Low Spark Of High Heeled Boys”, the title track to their self-same 1971 album. It would be one of their career highlights of the second phase of their career, coming back from a break-up in 1969 that turned out only to have been temporary.

This phase of the life of the band featured an expanded line up that included Ghanaian percussionist  Rebop  Kwaku Baah who had previously played on Nick Drake’s “Three Hours”, former Family/Blind Faith bassist Ric Grech, and Derek & The Dominos drummer Jim Gordon. After a comeback record in John Barleycorn Must Die, scoring critical acclaim, this record that followed it up was a million seller as well as being critically praised. It reached platinum status by the middle of the decade. With those new members added to the talents of  core members guitarist-keyboardist-vocalist Steve Winwood, woodwind player Chris Wood, and percussionist-vocalist-lyricist Jim Capaldi, the band were able to explore the deeper territories where rock, jazz, and soul connect.

But this particular track owed something not only to those musical threads, but to another medium entirely – cinema. Read more

Steely Dan Play “The Royal Scam”

Listen to this track by jazz-rock pseuds and sly cultural commentators Steely Dan. It’s “The Royal Scam”, the title track of their 1976 LP The Royal Scam. The song would close the set of that record, and arguably also close a phase in the career of a by-then studio bound band. They’d stopped touring two years before this, and would go even deeper into that artistic head space by their next record, the highly celebrated and meticulously wrought Aja the following year.

The Royal Scam catches them at the tail-end of their more straight-ahead rock as informed by jazz incarnation, but with some of the sonic edges still apparent on the tracks. This was a sound that can be easily identified in early hits like “Do It Again” and “Reeling In The Years”. It was developed completely by the time of 1973’s Countdown To Ecstasy and on through to this record, filtered through bassist/guitarist Walter Becker’s and singer/keyboardist Donald Fagen’s love of jazz, and jazz arrangement.

All the while, their songs had been lyrically populated by a pantheon of colourful American characters, from spoiled celebrity’s kids, to pretentious debutantes, to self-obsessed rich guys dabbling in eastern religions, to affable drug dealers. Each character was a part of a landscape that helped to make a subtle comment on society, but without being too earnest or moralistic about it. Mostly, listeners were meant to engage with the irony and sardonic humour underneath the lyrics, of which there is plenty to be had.

But, this song is different. Read more

Sting Sings “The Lazarus Heart”

Listen to this song by flaxen-haired Novocastrian singer-songwriter and former Police vocalist and bassist most popularly known as Sting. It’s “The Lazarus Heart” as taken from the 1987 album …Nothing Like The Sun, his second solo record and his biggest-selling to date. Perhaps ironically, the record is less commercial than many of his albums in terms of content, with many extremely personal reflections about the nature of history, political upheaval and injustice in the modern day, and the loss of loved ones.

Sting 1988It is with the latter that this song deals; Sting’s mother Doris Sumner died the year this record was being made. In part, this has been identified as one of Sting’s motivating forces in writing it, with a dedication of the record to his mum and “all those who loved her”. But in addition to this, Sting himself had just become a father again the year previous to this tragic life event.

It’s pretty easy to conclude that when this song was recorded, the identity of ‘parent’ would have been pretty strong in the life of the songwriter behind this song on both fronts; as a father, and as a son. Yet, the song contains other elements that make it more universal, and as such, it’s less about Sting, and more about humanity and human experience in general.
Read more

Steely Dan Perform “Black Friday”

Listen to this trackSteely Dan Katy Lied of jazz-rock pseuds Steely Dan their 1975 song “Black Friday” from the album Katy Lied.  The song was a single from that record (along with another, “Bad Sneakers”) that was a part of a new approach to making music after the group as it stood had disbanded. The “band” was replaced in favour of singer-keyboardist Donald Fagen’s and bassist-guitarist Walter Becker’s preference to become a studio-bound unit, employing crack west coast session musicians to play a good chunk of the parts.

I’m being a bit cheeky here of course with the whole “Black Friday” thing. In addition to this song, Black Friday as a popular term of course refers to one of the busiest shopping days on the American calendar, with a single day’s sales putting sellers ‘into the black’.  Well, that’s the theory.  Black Friday is the Friday after American Thanksgiving, and a sort of kick off to the Christmas shopping season too.  Our Canadian Thanksgiving is in early October, in line with the liturgical calendar of the Anglican Church of Canada, so we tend to space out the chaos a little more.

Anyway,  I’m not sure there’s ever been a song in rock history about a chaotic shopping day.  But this one by the ‘Dan is also refers to economics and greed, documenting another Black Friday – this one in 1869, when the private investors manipulated the price of gold was manipulated in a bid to corner the market by buying it up in large quantities. The US government found out and flooded the market with supply, driving down the costs and curbing the return.  Of course, this being Steely Dan, we can also infer that the song isn’t so much about the events of that particular day, so much is it is about human greed in any era, and the tenuous illusion of a free market too.

The song is one of the group’s best known hits, although only reaching #37 on the Billboard 100 at the time. During this aforementioned phase in the timeline of the band, Steely Dan had become two bands in the minds of fans. The first was the dual-guitar touring jazz rock combo.  The other being Becker & Fagen as musical directors using sessioners to create a sound solely meant for studio albums.

Nineteen Seventy-Five’s Katy Lied and 1976’s the Royal Scam were in-between albums, when Becker & Fagen began to strip away the “band-ness” of Steely Dan.  The emphasis of gritty  and dominant rock guitars on these albums would soon be replaced in favour of more pristine, jazzy textures that brought the horns and keyboards more to the forefront to supplement the still-sterling guitar-work for which the band is known.  This approach would pay off nicely with a record which many would consider to be their masterpiece – 1977’s Aja.

By the early 1990s and after a very long hiatus as a live act and recording entity, the Steely Dan name was again a going concern. That’s when they resumed as a touring unit. And luckily, they’d begun to marry their love of horn-and-keyboard smooth jazz with the edgy guitar rock of their pre-1976 incarnation. It gained them a Grammy with their then-new record Two Against Nature in 2000.

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[Update: Some new written material was added to this post replacing the old on September 7, 2017. This had mostly to do with the original clip on YouTube which The Man removed, making the opening of the post kind of pointless. You understand. Also, on September 3, 2017, Walter Becker passed away. RIP, Walter. Thanks for your sardonic grooves.]