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

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

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

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.]

Donald Fagen Sings “I.G.Y”

Listen to this track by Steely Dan piano man and pop sophisticate Donald Fagen. It’s “I.G.Y”, a hit for him outside of the Steely Dan catalog, featured on his first solo LP, The Nightfly  in 1982.

The album isn’t too far afield from what Fagen had done with The Dan; a jazzy kind of soft-rock with a lot of lyrical irony. But, Fagen’s album was something of a concept record, the concept in question being the optimism of growing up in the 1950s and early 60s. And the key tune on the album which illustrates this best is this radio hit; ‘I.G.Y’.

Donald Fagen the Nightfly

To me, what makes the themes in the tune interesting is that the kind of optimism Fagen is talking about in the song was not too far off from the attitudes in the early ’80s when the song was released. Specifically, the idea that technology can save us by helping us to create a golden age is prominent – “what a beautiful world this will be/what a glorious time to be free”.

Yet both eras shared the spectre of a third world war, beneath a veneer of universal contentment. This puts a bit of a darker spin on things, and underscores a kind of cultural self-delusion that puts our destiny in the hands of autonomous technology; a just machine to make big decisions/programmed by fellows with compassion and vision. Beneath this happy go-lucky exterior lies a sort of technological fascism that seems like an ideal means of eradicating social ills, but is ultimately dehumanizing. Pretty heady stuff for a radio single, huh?

The title I.G.Y is a reference to the International Geophysical Year (aka 1957-58) which was a scientific collective organized to observe geophysical phenomena around the globe. A faith in science as a means to shape our collective destiny was a characteristic that would mark the time. The science fiction of the pulp magazines and the beginnings of the Mercury space program around this time helped to fuel the fires of imagination and vision, and it’s that which Fagen is exploring here.

By 1982 he had the benefit of hindsight. And so the lyrics of the tune which paint a bright, worry-free future as envisioned from the mind of someone in the ’50s give the song a sort of melancholic, nostalgic air. This ultimately becomes a song about false hopes.

For more information about Donald Fagen, be sure to check out Donald Fagen’s Facebook page, where announcements of all kinds are made about his artistic movements.


[UPDATE December 2013: also, check out Donald Fagen’s new book Eminent Hipsters, a musical biography that traces his influences in the 1950s and early ’60s, beyond the optimism found in this song.]