Editor’s Note: From 1987 through 1994, diehard Steely Dan fans turned to a small fanzine called Metal Leg for information about Donald Fagen and Walter Becker. Published first by England’s Brian Sweet (who went on to write the unofficial band biography Steely Dan: Reelin’ In The Years) and later by New Yorkers Pete Fogel and Bill Pascador, Metal Leg set high standards by providing solid information without resorting to paparazzi-style tactics.
Metal Leg 9 Articles:
Hello again. Welcome to the third year of Metal Leg. Of all the correspondence received here at Metal Leg, by far the biggest portion is simply requesting details of — or despairing of ever actually surviving long enough to hear — a new Donald Fagen album. Well, as far as I’m aware there’s still nothing on the horizon, but I for one am certainly hoping it will be third-year-lucky in 1989. Seven years between albums is certainly stretching fans’ patience and loyalty to the extreme.
Meantime, Donald Fagen did make an unheralded appearance at a small New York club called Elaine’s on Monday, March 13th. The outside billing advertised a Dr. John gig, and during his set Donald Fagen climbed on stage unannounced and proceeded to jam with Mr. Rebennack, along with Carly Simon, who went up to sing a number or two.
Commenting on the Hoops McCann Band album, Donald Fagen said, “I like their “Green Earrings” and “Black Cow,” and I thought “Babylon Sisters” was really good. What they heard in the structure and chords were things I never thought of. Also, the things they do with harmonics and solos compensate for hearing it without lyrics, which is an equal component in the original recordings.
“A few years before, Woody Herman had done an album, with Chick Corea’s tunes on one side and ours on the other. And it had mixed results. The more adventurous arrangements were pretty good, but the less adventurous were … not so great.
“But (McCann conductor) Joe Roccisano took the originals as a starting point and did something different with them.”
Reflecting on Steely Dan, he said, “Our things weren’t jazz. There wasn’t much improvisation and it was too rigidly constructed. But it’s a great side effect of our success that it got a lot of people to listen to jazz who ordinarily had no contact with it. People have told me they started listening to jazz after listening to our records, which is nice.” XTC’s Dave Gregory, interviewed by Guitarist cited Countdown To Ecstasy as one of his favorite guitar albums of all time. He said: “The exemplary skill of Jeff Baxter and Denny Dias enhances Becker and Fagen’s compositional genius. What a great band.”
May 2nd saw the release of China Crisis’ new Walter Becker-produced album, Diary of a Hollow Horse. It features guitar work by Walter on one track, “Day After Day,” and a solitary synth contribution from him on the title track. Roger Nichols engineered and his wife, Connie Reed, sang background vocals on a couple tracks. Ex-Dr. Strut man Tim Weston also guested on guitar.
Larry Carlton’s new solo album, On Solid Ground, contains a version of “Josie.” He has recovered from his shooting ordeal, but I’m told his fluid playing style has been inevitably affected by the very severe injuries he received. He cites his faith in God and his second wife’s devotion as helping him to overcome this very traumatic period. “I’m not afraid to die now,” he says.
Here’s another in the series of “What was your most gruelling session” questions. Veteran sessionman Michael Omartian, interviewed in Keyboard, was asked precisely that. “Steely Dan was really demanding. In fact, on the title cut to Donald Fagen’s Nightfly album, they gave me a click — no drums, no nothing, just a click — and had me play the piano part before they added anything else. Let me tell you, it’s not easy to do that with just a quarter-note click going in your head. The end result is always cool, but you sit there and say, ‘Why are they doing this to me? Seventeen pages of notes and only a click track! I can’t feel anything!’ ”
What kind of charts do they give you? “In the early days, especially on the Katy Lied album, they’d give me the tape and say, ‘Go home and write a chart.’ As the years progressed, though, they got more exacting, so you’d see three or four bars of chord symbol changes, then all of a sudden there’d be a raft of chord voicings written out. After that, you’re back with the symbols.”
On the title cut to Aja you played a lot of piano fills. Were they written out? “Those were off the top of my head. We practiced that one for about three hours, then rolled the tape, did two takes, and kept the first one.”
You didn’t punch in anything later? “No. The way it went down was what I hear on the record.”
Meaning of lyrics, in their own words
When considering Walter Becker and Donald Fagen’s songwriting, critics have paid an unnatural amount of attention to their lyrics, especially the unraveling thereof. The composers themselves have always played down the importance of the lyrics, claiming that the music was equally — if not more so — as important, and have never been too keen to “interprety” their songs on the listener’s behalf. Nonetheless, they have often succumbed to interviewer persistence and given either hints or veiled explanations about the direction of the story in certain songs.
To begin, here are some of their general observations on their lyric writing techniques.
DF: Well, when you’re trying to cram a lot of information into what is basically a popular song form, you have to leave some holes. It’s impossible to add that many details. We always have a story in mind and try to present it in the most entertaining way we know how. Sometimes we leave a few holes, that’s all.
DF: We don’t like to spoil the game by divulging exactly what the lyrics are about. If someone doesn’t understand them already — because people have to understand that for us there’s quite a clear story being sprung in each of the songs — and if somebody doesn’t get it and comes up with their own interpretation that’s fine, but we’re not about to tell them exactly what’s going on. It’s really no fun for an artist to make an exegesis of his own work.
WB: We have a million laughs writing these songs.
DF: It takes a great deal of thought and work and energy and so forth, but there is an awful lot of hysteria and general jocularity while we’re composing these songs, as you can imagine. I mean, these things are crazy, these songs should be locked up and put away.
DF: We try to not be morbid. We may cover some subjects that aren’t all sweetness and light and so on, but we’re never morbid and if we are we try to inject some humor into the subject. It is rock ‘n’ roll and I think if you get too serious with it, it’s going to be pretentious.
WB: They’re not cryptic to us. We know what we had in mind when we wrote them and they’re not perversely cryptic just to confuse or dismay members of our audience, but they may be cryptic all the same — in other words they may be open to various interpretations. I don’t like lyrics that are over-simplistic, ’cause they really don’t make you think twice. It’s just something that’s evolved that way.
WB: I would like to take this opportunity to dispel any rumor that Don and I ever use code. We use the English language as we understand it.
WB: We think of ourselves as comparatively detached from our writing, especially compared to other rock artists who seem to merely bare their souls to the screaming masses, but it may be that we’re not as detached as we think, and there isn’t an observer or chronicler to add flavor to what we do. I mean, when a song is written in the first person neither one of us is really the person but I think it still probably reflects things that we actually feel and think.
WB: Our songwriting is not unlike the creation of junk sculpture.
DF: We more or less put both our names on all the songs but I’ve written a few myself. I can’t recall any one specifically except “Barrytown” on the Pretzel Logic LP. I don’t think it came off so great anyway, so I don’t know if it’s a good idea to do stuff by myself. Ninety-five percent of our songs are collaborative.
DF: We don’t necessarily try to communicate any specific thing to the listener. It’s more or less we try to communicate an impression and the listener has the freedom to interpret as he wants.
DF: Because of the lack of input, experience in the US of A, or the world in general these days, we more or less rely on pure imagination for song ideas. And we like to make them original, and we’ll set up a framework, no matter how bizarre it may be, and proceed to write a song on that basis.
DF: I’ll come up with an idea and he’ll come up with a scenario and we’ll decide what we think the song is about, and which part of the exposition of what’s happening is in each verse, and get a title together, and no matter how strange the idea may be we just go along and hope that we can finish the song and that it actually emerges as something.
Both of us in concert write the music and the words. You know, it’s a lot of pacing around the living room. Whenever Walter has some free time he’ll drop over, show me what’s got, I’ll show him what I’ve got and kick it around a little bit. It’s very informal.
WB: We’re very much concerned with the sound of the words and the music. There are times when we’re writing lyrics when we’ll sacrifice literal meaning or linear storytelling for sound effects. That’s the way we’ve been writing for a long time.
King of the World
WB: Typical devastation. Like what you do at the end of the world. We wrote it after watching Ray Milland in Panic in the Year Zero.
DF: When it says “I stepped up on the platform/The man gave me the news” we conceived the platform as a teleportation platform. 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 I plan to find the time in which he lived.
Rikki Don’t Lose That Number
WB: I remember just yesterday some interviewer asked us something about whether the word “number” in the song Rikki referred to a marijuana cigarette. I think that’s San Francisco slang — or was originally — but we didn’t know that.
DF: Well, the fact is that we were referring to a phone number, so I think people should take the lyrics more literally and it’ll be on the safe side. That’s a very simple love song to a young lady. I always thought it was a rather erotic, decadent sort of thing. Here you find a guy — a rather rich gentleman — living in a resort, and somehow he manages to capture this young lady.
DF: That’s some sort of parody on the way western people look at Eastern religion — sort of over-simplify it. We thought it was rather amusing — most people don’t get it.
DF: Yeah, I’d say that’s a good example of a song that sets a mood without actually saying anything.
Brooklyn Owes The Charmer Under Me
WB: Well, the charmer was a guy who lived under Donald’s apartment when we were in Brooklyn. And the song is just a bunch of things that the guy and his wife had coming to them, you know, for the indignities that they suffered living in Brooklyn, sitting on the stoop and just shooting the shit about the Mets and that kind of thing for 20 years. So, you see, the song does yield to a valid interpretation.
Through With Buzz
DF: … was just about more or less a platonic relationship between two young people. There’s nothing really sexual about it until one of the young people in the relationship realizes he’s being used and starts having paranoid fantasies and breaks off the relationship. There’s no symbolism or anything. We never use puns. It’s a very saccarine-sounding track with a very cynical lyric. We often do that for an ironic purpose. That is, to juxtapose a rather bitter lyric against rather sweet music.
Questioner: Pretzel Logic seems your most accessible album.
DF: We really don’t think about it. The record company was starting to get annoyed with us because they couldn’t get a single off Countdown To Ecstasy. The only thing we did was tighten up the arrangements. The songs weren’t quite so long. And “Night By Night” was basically written for commercial purposes.
East St. Louis Toodle-Oo
DF: There are about four recorded versions of “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo.” We took the best part of each and made a composite version. We changed horn parts to a piano solo, but we didn’t change it very much. Walter and I are such jazz fans and this composition stood up so well, we wanted to hear it with all the expertise of modern hi-fi. Most of the great jazz compositions have been neglected.
WB: Incidentally, we record every show we play live on tape — I’m not kidding. If we wanted to we could put out a live LP, but there is only one song that we play on the road that hasn’t been recorded before, and that’s This Mobile Home which is a song about a trailer. We tried to record it for Countdown to Ecstasy and Pretzel Logic and if it was like it is now we might have succeeded.
The Royal Scam
Questioner: So what’s it about?
WB: About four-and-a-half minutes!
DF: No, Puerto Rico and New York City both figure in the fabric of that lyric. You’ll have to construe the rest for yourself, ’cause we don’t want to ruin it for you. The mystery is what makes it interesting, isn’t it?
WB: If we were to tell you what that song is about, it would be doing a disservice to the song and we would always be lending credence to the notion that in order to enjoy the song you have to know exactly what it means. Or that it does mean exactly one thing. And it doesn’t really. None of those things are true.
(From a different interview) Questioner: Is the “Royal Scam” about Puerto Ricans trying to settle in New York?
DF: Because the interpretation is so accurate I wouldn’t even want to comment any further.
WB: In other words, you already know more than is good for you.
DF: To tell you the truth, we tend to refrain from discussing specifics as far as lyrics go because it is a matter of subjective interpretation and there are some things that are better that man does not know. You are on the right track and whatever you make of it will suffice really.
(A different interview again)
DF: Of course, the royal scam would mean a confidence trick on a grand scale. That’s about all I’d like to say about that song.
WB: ‘Cause that Puerto Rico nonsense that someone over here invented is … I don’t know, I think it’s gotten out of hand. And it’s not really to the point, as far as I’m concerned.
DF: See, that song does have a topical aspect — and because of that it’s dangerous to give specifics, and it is an allegory and it is written in rather Biblical argot, I can tell you that. The song does have a rather poetic way of expressing what we wanted to express. I’m very fond of that lyric.
WB: The Royal Scam isn’t the key song. It’s regrettable that if you name an album after one of the songs, which is something we don’t do all the time, people take it for more than it is. We like each song to be listened to individually without relating to the whole album, although if you record a certain selection of songs the album will have a certain character. Generally, the cheese stands alone.
DF: Gary’ll tell you what that song is about. But what do you think it’s about?
Questioner: A dealer.
Gary Katz: You’re in the right house. We’re talking about a man of science. A maker…
DF: An artist.
GK: A chemist, a chef.
WB: Someone who makes consciousness-expanding substances of the most dramatic sensational type, no longer in vogue.
DF: The exact nature of the drug isn’t important, but you have the right idea.
WB: We didn’t have a particular guy in mind. There’s no model for the song.
DF: I think it’s about the age, the late Sixties. The record starts in 1968 or something and ends up in 1976.
WB: The reflections of one particular type of person who finds himself transposed into a decade where he’s no longer of any use.
(A different interview) Questioner: Is it about a Leary or a Manson?
DF: I think it would be about a person who’s less of a celebrity than those people.
Questioner: Did you have a definite person in mind?
WB: Well, there is a particular individual, whom we naturally can’t name…
DF: … for legal purpose…
WB: … who hovered over the composition like a sword of Damocles, like Hamlet’s father.
Don’t Take Me Alive
DF: In Los Angeles and through the world in general, terrorism is a way of life, actually, for a lot of people. The song was inspired by a run of news items in Los Angeles where people would barricade themselves inside an apartment house or a saloon with an arsenal of weapons. It’s about individual madness rather than political situations.
WB: The fact of the matter is when we put together some of these songs we’ll decide on a story that we lay for ourselves as a framework to write a song about. It may very well turn out that very little of that story actually makes it into the song in a clearly identifiable form, so that story or concept we have is not essential to the song. Even in the simplest song, that no one would accuse us of being obscure with, there may be things that we had in mind that were not evident.
DF: I think the important qualities come through. You can only do so much with a song. It’s not a novel. And because we’re more literary, we use more literary techniques.
WB: That’s true. In many cases, we’re writing short story-type plots into our songs.
DF: We can’t put all the details in or we’d have a lousy or pretentious song. And we certainly don’t want to do that.
DF: He (Paul Griffin) wrote the main theme.
WB: I wouldn’t call it the main theme. He wrote a melody that is featured. At least, he says he wrote it.
DF: We set up a riff and Paul started noodling around with a little melody, so we developed that.
Questioner: So that was written in the studio?
WB: No but there is an instrumental melody which Paul started playing in the session, and when we decided to build that melody up into a greater position, since we had some suspicion that perhaps this melody wasn’t entirely Paul’s invention, we decided to give him composer credit in case later some sort of scandal developed, he would take the brunt of the impact.
Questioner: Do you think a situation will arise where you may not even play on your albums at all?
WB: I wouldn’t exclude it.
DF: If we ever received an award for something we’d like to receive it for songwriting. At least we’d rather be recognized for that than our musicianship, although we both feel we have interesting styles as musicians.
Sign In Stranger
Questioner: That’s almost like a school for gangsters.
DF: That’s true. Of course, it does take place on another planet. We sort of borrowed the Sin City/Pleasure Planet idea that’s in a lot of science fiction novels, and made a song out of it. But indeed, you’re right.
The Boston Rag
Questioner: How about Lady Bayside?
WB: Ah! In Queens, there is a community called Bayside, where I culled numerous members for my first rock ‘n’ roll band, and Bayside had a particular character to the community, which ranged from politically, rabidly conservative to absolute congenital mind-damage among its younger citizens. So the young women growing up in this community had a particular kind of character.
DF: It would be like saying Lady Knightsbridge.
WB: It may not mean anything to anyone, but it sounded good.
Questioner: How are you different as writers?
WB: I’m less concerned with tying everything up. I like swatches of color, images that don’t necessarily make so much sense. But, of course, Donald makes me tell him how it makes sense when we write it. He’s gotta make it all come together, and that’s good. And Donald has a more organized mind than I do.
DF: It’s just that if there’s something in a first draft that sounds like it shouldn’t be there and doesn’t lend unity to the song, I will argue endlessly to exclude it or replace it.
WB: It works out pretty well, actually. When I consider how difficult the collaboration actually is I’m amazed that we’re as single-minded between the two of us.
DF: We rarely have disagreements about any part of a song. The only thing, in fact, is the way Walter sometimes perceives. If I have some kind of — usually — vamp, Walter will perceive it in another key than I do. Sometimes we have problems in song structure. But that also leads to some interesting constructions.
WB: In other words what Donald thinks of as a one-chord, I will think of as a five-chord; and what Donald thinks of as a strong beat in a bar, I will think of as a weak beat.
DF: In other words, sometimes he’s thinking of the song backwards as far as I’m concerned.
Questioner: Do you have a working routine?
DF: I wish we did, I wish we did! I am able to get up at a certain time and proceed to write. I spring awake in a great burst of guilt and anxiety and commence to come up with whatever I come up with. And then after several foolish calls to Walter, in which I make a fool of myself (mock French accent), finally he comes over and we finish what I’ve begun.
WB: It’s a divorce you get in Haiti, and they’re not hard to come by, I can tell you.
DF: It’s a fierce and terrible ritual, I’ll tell you that. You wouldn’t want your sister to have a Haitian divorce, believe me. It was the quick divorce, without too much red tape. If you can say “incompatibility of character” in French, you’re as good as gold. But we added a few moments to the ceremony itself.
WB: The thing is now, I know a lot of people don’t believe in voodoo and all that, but people like that shouldn’t go to Haiti. Because they’ll just nail you with that stuff. That’s powerful medicine. We did a lot of research.
DF: If you’ve been paying attention you’ll know she’s in a drugged stupor and probably doesn’t know anything about it. She is later … er… impregnated by this exotic gentleman. Later she is reunited with Clean Willy and they have some rather bizarre offspring.
DF: And what was that about Ayida?
WB: “Ayida is not joking with you.” That’s what we’d like you to say about Haitian Divorce. You can simply write that “Donald and Walter are well aware of the fact that Ayida is not joking with you.”
My Old School
Donald Fagen concedes it may be about a drug bust spearheaded by local constable G. Gordon Liddy. Donald, Walter, and 42 other likely suspects were rounded up in an election time raid, but the charges were eventually dropped.
DF: “Doctor Wu” is about a triangle, kind of a love-dope triangle. I think usually when we do write songs of a romantic nature, one or more of the participants in the alliance will come under the influence of someone else or some other way of life, and that will usually end up in either some sort of compromise or a split. In this song the girl meets somebody who leads another kind of life and she’s attracted to it. Then she comes under the domination of someone else and that results in the ending of the relationship, or some amending of the relationship. In “Dr. Wu” that someone else is a dope habit, personified as Doctor Wu. In Haitian Divorce it’s a hotel gigolo.
Becker, for instance, takes enormous glee in the impenetrability of a modulatory blues from Katy Lied.
WB: No one will ever come close to “Chain Lightning.” No one will ever touch “Chain Lightning.”
DF: Even the clue wouldn’t have helped. I’ll tell you what the clue was. In the guitar break just before the second verse I was going to say “40 years later,” but we decided it wasn’t a good musical idea.
A lot of time when a relationship ends or there’s some sort of a crisis in a relationship one particular incident will stand out in your mind as you remember it; in this case, we thought that particular scene of this woman downing a black cow in a small luncheonette — the place where the shit hit the fan, so to speak — is what stood out in the narrator’s mind. It was probably in Brooklyn, I would imagine.
WB: It’s not another way of spelling A-s-i-a.
DF: Aja is a young Oriental girl.
WB: Donald claims he knew a girl named Aja once. I doubt it.
DF: That song is basically an attempt to refute the idea that in this life, there’s no rest for the weary. In a New York Times interview, Randy Newman said he doesn’t see any reason why songs have to have strictures on what they’re about. Why they have to be of a personal nature. Randy sometimes takes historical situations and writes about those, ’cause his own personal feelings at the time are drawn into those songs, but subject matter is really limitless. Things you hear in the news, or parallels, science fiction…
And after all that, the final say has to come from Donald Fagen: “The bottom line for us is effective sound, and whatever associations may spring in the listener’s mind, well, uh, Godspeed, you know? Like, Stravinsky wrote several cantatas where the words were basically meaningless; they were mainly for the sound, which is what we basically are after.
Reviews of Pretzel Logic and Katy Lied
By Dave Edney
I like composition. I like arrangement. And Walter and I have always felt that there was a place for intelligent lyrics in well-played music. — Donald Fagen.
People laughed at these songs for years, but in my heart I always knew we’d written good songs and someday people would like them. — Walter Becker.
I’ll tell you what I like about our group. What I like about us is that our music scares me more than anybody else’s. — Donald Fagen.
After the success of the Dan’s first two albums, the band had now established themselves as major recording artistes and had gained much critical acclaim whilst doing so.
They had taken their successful stage show across the Atlantic to Europe and had emerged from this move triumphant.
Their touring days, however, were numbered and their lifespan as a “group,” in the true sense of the word, was to be voluntarily curtailed severely because of this.
At face value, the Dan’s machine was seemingly still functioning with consummate ease, but the mechanism of the band was subtly shifting a few gears.
In March 1974, the band released their third album, Pretzel Logic. On the inside of the album’s sleeve, the same fivesome that had been at the helm for the first two records were still in attendance, but 15 extra musicians were employed — among them three drummers and five guitarists.
Walter Becker later denied that Pretzel Logic was a “Steely Dan” record, stating: “The list of names on the sleeve is really the truth of the matter. You can figure it out from there.”
Recently, Jeff Baxter has contradicted Becker’s comments, and on listening to the album it certainly sounds like a group effort, though without detailed sleeve notes, the responsibility of each of the musicians is uncertain.
What is known is that after a short British tour in May, which was cut short by Donald Fagen’s illness, the group embarked on another trek across America with the same extended line-up that had played the U.K. — Steely’s 5-piece became eight strong with the addition of Mike McDonald, Royce Jones and Jeff Porcaro.
On July 5th, the band played their last gig together at the Santa Monica Civic Center.
The group, by now, had become Fagen and Becker’s responsibility and a “no-tour” policy apparently was the reason for Jeff Baxter and Jim Hodder’s eventual amicable split from the band, though the announcement of their departure did not appear in the music press until August/September.
Among countless “Dan to split” rumors, other press items from this period suggested that Baxter and Hodder would continue playing within the band’s framework, but only in the studio. This never happened and Pretzel Logic contained the duo’s last moments as Dan musicians.
And fine moments they were, too.
Their third album found them consciously returning to a simpler and more commercial song structure, with only two tracks weighing in at four minutes-plus.
Some of the old trademarks were still there, but a wider range of musical themes were explored as Becker and Fagen worked their way through a gamut of styles. From the soul pastiche of “Monkey In Your Soul” to the dirge-like “Charlie Freak,” through to the modified blues of the title track and the tight funk of “Night by Night.” The band’s affinity for jazz found its strongest voice yet — lyrically in “Parker’s Band” and musically in Ellington’s “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo.” The band had obviously come a long way since their “Dallas” days, and an accurate summary of their music career to date was offered by Ian MacDonald of the New Music Express:
“Thrill was recorded soon after the group formed and sticks closely to Becker and Fagen’s song arrangement concept. On Ecstasy the numbers are chordally simpler, more open and less orientated to the instrumental “fill” techniques of the initial outing. Solos are longer and generally less opaque.
“Pretzel Logic unexpectedly about-faces the trend towards spaciousness and single-line thinking.
“On the new album, Becker and Fagen have pulled in the reins once more, producing their most commercial songs yet, constraining their guitar virtuosi to become part of the overall picture again, on several numbers beefing up the sound with horns or stings.”
In other reviews, opinion seemed divided concerning the group’s apparent attempt to simplify their music.
Records and Recordings, for example, admitted that the album was “easily one of the five best albums released this year to date” but then added “that says more about the other releases than it does about the Dan’s.”
The reason for this disappointment?
I question that the policy for opting for more shorter tracks has really paid off. A certain similarity becomes apparent. Is it commerial pressures — because this is certainly the album which will get their name around — or a rush job to meet a deadline? Rolling Stone’s Bud Scoppa admitted that “while Steely Dan, for the most part, succeeds in its efforts to force its character into the strict limitations of the short pop song, the music would benefit from more elaboration. Here they can only begin to convey the moods and textures that made Countdown to Ecstasy their most impressive album.
Stereo Review felt that “the trouble with the effort here is that most of the tunes seem to be working prototypes. Maybe an idea used in one of them will result in a gem two or three albums hence, but for the moment Steely Dan is treading water.
Whether they were “treading water” or simply walking upon it — depending on one’s opinion — Logic was again regarded as a triumph by most people, despite the odd reservation.
Throughout these reviews, it becomes apparent that at this stage in their career the Dan had obtained an excellent reputation amongst the journalists of the day.
Even so, one feels that increasingly the critical expectation was for Steely Dan to “deliver the goods,” which meant that their output was being scrutinized more thoroughly than ever before.
Record Mirror seemed concerned about the “increasing sophistication in their music,” while Rolling Stone lamented their visual identity: “as pop personalities go, they’re practically anonymous.”
Meanwhile, the Dan’s penchant for obscurity in the lyric department obviously left some journalists floundering.
“The lyrics baffle me. Maybe THEY know what they’re talking about, but I can’t get a clue.” — Stereo Review
“Even though the words create an emotionally charged atmosphere, and at best are quite affecting, there is an almost arrogant impenetrability to them. It is sometimes disconcerting to be stirred by language that risks comprehension. — Rolling Stone
“As if of natural consequence, the words have returned to the hermetic, collegiate inscrutability of Can’t Buy A Thrill.
The subsequent release of “Rikki Don’t Lost That Number,” which was a hit single and seemed to have an obvious commercial potential, was countered by the inclusion on the album of “Parker’s Band” and “East St. Louis Toodle-oo,” which raised a few bewildered eyebrows.
Becker and Fagen’s enthusiasm for jazz is now common knowledge, but in 1974 for a “rock group” to pay musical homage to an idiom that was largely misunderstood by the mainstream was a bold move.
” ‘East St. Louis Toodle-oo’ is an unusual choice. It’s a marvelous tune, complete with slightly loopy sax ensemble, here interpreted by what sounds like a synthesizer and horns. It will be interesting to find out why they picked this particular classic as rock musicians have tended to ignore the storehouses of jazz.” — Melody Maker.
“How many of today’s rock fans are likely to appreciate the subtlety of their arrangement of Duke Ellington and Bubber Miley’s ‘East St. Louis Toodle-oo’? Or the wicked-wise mythological tribute to Bird and the beginnings of bop in ‘Parker’s Band’? — Downbeat
For Pretzel Logic another frustrating habit was employed in describing some of the album’s finer moments. Whereas on the first LP that well-known guessing game “spot-the-influence” was used by scribes who should know better, on this occasion it was “spot-the-song.”
” ‘Barrytown’ is a Dylanesque filtering of McCartney’s ‘Tell Me What You See’.”
“Pretzel Logic is akin to Dylan’s ‘It Takes A Lot To Laugh’ and ‘Rikki Don’t Lose That Number’ is both a bossa nova by ‘Razor Boy’ out of Wayne Shorter’s ‘Tom Thumb’ and an example of AM radio with an intro appropriated from Horace Silver.”
This track also receives the most obscure cross-reference from Bud Scoppa of Rolling Stone: “It jumps in mid-chorus from ‘Hernando’s Hideaway’ into ‘Honky Tonk Women’. Great transition!
Elsewhere, other journalists were still to be found beating their chests in frustration at the public’s inability to take the group to their collective hearts.
Downbeat offered the following: “The band’s third and most impeccably conceived album finds the Dan with a low profile on the rock scene, quite improper when one considers that there are no better rock recording groups in America, and damn few worldwide. They’re bound to either take off completely or become cult heroes. The latter seems more likely. Steely Dan’s chief problem is that of being a great rock band in the ’70s. I’m afraid they don’t have much company.”
In the NME of 25th January, 1975, Pat Simmons from the Doobie Brothers said: “Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, the writing team within Steely Dan, are still working together as a songwriting unit. They’ll continue to make records, but will not perform live. Apparently, they’re a little difficult to work with. Their musical genius is just a little too surreal for even themselves to cope with.” The press office at Anchor, their UK company, confirmed Simmons’ story, but had not received any confirmation from the USA on the exact situation, short of the fact that they were currently remixing their fourth album, Katy Lies (sic).
Steely Dan were now a studio band, and despite the fact that, in years to come, stories of their touring activities proliferated in the music press, they all came to nothing. From the NME article above, a European tour was promised and several others were suggested in the years that followed, but none reached fruition.
In an interview with Richard Cromelin in 1977, Walter Becker, in answer to the perfunctory tour question, answered sarcastically: “The is the same Richard Cromelin who wrote the article ‘Steely Dan to tour imminently’ almost six months ago?’ “
With all of the duo’s efforts now concentrated entirely on songwriting and recording, their next album was eagerly anticipated.
After about a month’s delay, due to studio equipment problems, it eventually appeared in mid-1975.
Katy Lied’s sleeve suggested another “group effort” with the reverse of the album’s striking front cover showing a few new faces, and some unfamiliar heads on well-known shoulders.
Roger Nichols and Gary Katz were given photo credits for the first and only time alongside the “new boys” in the band, Jeff Porcaro and Mike McDonald.
These two musicians were to play an important part in the making of this album, just as they had done in the group’s final concert performances, but the LP took Becker and Fagen’s concept of hiring crack session musicians to play their music one step further.
Personnel-wise, Katy Lied was a forerunner of the shape of things to come and one astute journalist picked up on this: “Donald Fagen and Walter Becker appear capable of becoming Steely Dan themselves, if such a crunchpoint ever comes to pass.”
The album certainly sounded better than any of its predecessors, due to the state-of-the-art recording equipment used on the sessions, though the recording jargon written on the sleve, in what seems like a rather tongue-in-cheek manner, suggests that the problems encountered with this equipment caused many a headache.
Unfortunately, either due to a lack of group identity or a sudden loss of direction, Katy Lied disappointed. Most of the songs seemed at the time (and still seem today) inferior to past efforts.
Good, but perhaps not good enough.
As if to highlight this, headlines such as:
“Dan Losing Some Steel,” “Steely Dan — No Surprises” and “Are The Dan Getting Desperate?” accompanied the reviews of this album.
Not everyone disliked it, of course, but for the first time in their careers Becker and Fagen were facing something of a critical backlash.
Nick Kent, one of Britain’s most respected writers, wrote a good review for the NME… but he didn’t like the album. He said: “This album worries me. It worries me because so much of the music here is so blatantly lackluster compared with the exhilaratingly high standards already set by Steely Dan. The lyrics are often perplexing and inconsequential, the musicianship just as often tardily professional in the appreciably arch-sessionman style. The fragmentation in terms of personnel is such that Steely Dan as a group no longer appears to exist. All of which is simply to say that something has distinctly gone missing, or at least has had the edges worn away.”
Kent then goes on to explain in no uncertain terms just why he didn’t like the LP on a track-by-track basis:
“Black Friday”: “Heavily diluted retread.”
“Bad Sneakers”: “Sublime melody, awful lyrics.”
“Daddy Don’t Live In That New York City No More”: “Typically middleweight Dan R&B.”
“Doctor Wu”: “Perplexing in its apparent shallowness.”
“Your Gold Teeth II”: “Lyrically facile.”
And so on, and so forth.
Some of his comments may seem a little harsh, but he didn’t even like the album sleeve (in fact, he also did not understand its significance).
He was not alone in showing his disappointment.
“On first listening, tracks like ‘Chain Lightning,’ ‘Dr. Wu’ and ‘Any World,’ in fact, most of the tracks on the album, just don’t make the grade. Later, with repeated listening, they approach average.” — Disc.
“Just a few years ago, Steely Dan was one of the most promising groups around. Today, four albums later, they appear to be one of the least promising.” –Anonymous.
“The problems the band experienced during the recording of the album are reflected in a loss of energy and a sense of meandering.”
“It doesn’t strike one as a complete long player.” — Melody Maker.
“A Dan outing usually includes one outstanding tune. This time they get close but never quite make it.” — Stereo Review.
Rolling Stone, not to be outdone, not only slated the album, but the Dan’s music in general. John Mendelsohn wrote the following:
“Steely Dan sounds like a million dollars but only next to at least 26 of their co-residents of the top 30 when they are in it, but also in comparison to three-quarters of the stuff with which they share FM needle time. Why, then, do I find myself not caring if I ever hear any of Steely Dan’s music up to and including Katy Lied? It has to do primarily with the fact that however immaculately tasteful and intelligent it all may be, I personally am able to detect not the slightest suggestion of real passion in any of it.”
Mendelsohn does not actually review the LP at all. Only briefly does he mention the Dan’s lyrics and just one track gets a name check. He completes his review with:
“While I can scarcely help but be at least grateful for it in this year of Barry White, Steely Dan’s music continues to strike me essentially as exemplarily well-crafted and uncommonly intelligent schlock.”
Whereas one cannot entirely blame Mendelsohn for disliking the band’s music, one wonders why he reviewed the album in the first place.
At least Nick Kent gave an honest opinion based on previous knowledge of the band’s output. He concludes:
“Even laying aside one’s expectations for the album that would follow up the incomparable Pretzel Logic, Katy Lied fails to pull out any real aces from its sleeve, and that’s tragic, because we need a Steely Dan far more than a Lennon or McCartney to sculpt out a sturdy aesthetic for a music scene that currently needs it more now than at any previous time. By most other standards this album would be brilliant, but for Steely Dan Katy Lied is easily their worst album to date and unless a group identity is solidified, things may deteriorate further.”
Thankfully, things got better. Much better.
From this moment on, Don and Walt were to put their collective heads together three more times, and on each occasion they produced an album of great quality. The Royal Scam and Aja will be discussed in the next article in this series.
Before that, let’s give Gramophone magazine the final word on the Katy Lied album:
“We start off with some country music this month. Very popular are the less traditional Steely Dan, and Katy Lied is already receiving a great deal of acclaim by those who like their country sounds rocking, bright and sunny.”
Tune up the Dan, the Eagles are listening!
Back to the top