By Jim Clayton
Bad Monkey X
I missed the Grammys this year, since they aired while I was out on a gig. But my sources (one drunken friend watching a delayed satellite feed at 2 a.m.) described the momentary hush and murmur that fell over the audience before they burst into applause for Album of the Year. Usually, the cheers begin before the name’s even half-read. This year, I’m pretty sure a lot of the audience hadn’t heard of Steely Dan.
And when Donald Fagen and Walter Becker strolled onstage to accept Steely Dan’s Grammy for Two Against Nature, the confusion only increased. “Which one’s him?” Fifty-ish, greying, and perpetually dishevelled, Fagen and Becker seemed out of place.
Understandable, I suppose… They defined jazz-based pop for the 70s and very early 80s, in a manner approached by only Joni Mitchell. But then in 1982, keyboardist/vocalist Fagen released his solo debut, and he and guitarist Becker announced that the band was dissolved. And Steely Dan disappeared for much of two decades. Hence the confusion among those rooting for Beck, Eminem, and Radiohead. (The Paul Simon fans had gone to bed.)
Now, about that 1982 album: Fagen took the technical team behind Steely Dan (producer Gary Katz and engineer Roger Nichols) and made the CD that stereo buffs would use to test new gear in audiophile shops. The Nightfly was one of the early all-digital recordings, and certainly the best sounding. Much has been written about the weaknesses of early analog-to-digital converters; suffice it to say that they made the best with what they had. EQ Magazine listed The “Nightfly” in their 10 best-recorded albums of all time, alongside the better-known “Sgt. Pepper,” “Pet Sounds,” “Thriller,” and “Dark Side of the Moon.”
Fagen writes in the liner notes: “The songs on this album represent certain fantasies that might have been entertained by a young man growing up in the remote suburbs of a northeastern city during the late fifties and early sixties, i.e., one of my general weight, height, and build.” If you think that’s strange, consider that his next solo effort was a concept record about a futuristic car which was a biosphere on wheels.
The first track, “I.G.Y.,” was familiar to me as a staple of the Adult Contemporary FM station in my hometown. I didn’t know that it stood for “International Geophysical Year.” And I didn’t know who played on it. Now, looking at the liner notes, I see that it’s a who’s who of session musicians. Of particular note is Greg Phillinganes, playing electric piano just as he had on Quincy Jones’ projects. (On Q’s “Find One Hundred Ways,” the James Ingram best-new-artist hit, Phillinganes also added the famed synth solo.) And both Brecker brothers are in the horn section.
The only track not composed by Fagen is the third track, “Ruby Baby,” a Lieber-Stoller classic. Fagen’s arranging is apparent; it’s a bluesy tune to begin with, and reharmonizing the blues is a Fagen trademark (listen to anything on Steely Dan’s “Aja” for more instances, and the earlier track “Chain Lightning” for the most obvious case). Guitarist Larry Carlton and the late drummer Jeff Porcaro do some of their best work here. Phillinganes shows up again for a stunning piano solo that became integral to the song. He told Keyboard magazine that when he performed it live, he started his otherwise improvised solo with its signature beginning (it hints at “You Really Got Me” by the Kinks).
“New Frontier” cropped up on the “Bright Lights, Big City” soundtrack, which gave it a mild resurgence later the same decade. The synths date this track more than others, but it may now be the most recognizable tune from the album. “The Goodbye Look” is built on a burbling (yes, burbling) Latin-ish groove, and was musically interesting enough to wind up in the jazz-lead-sheet collection “The New Real Book,” alongside Sonny Rollins and Coltrane standards.
“Walk Between Raindrops” is more pop than most Steely Dan work. In fact, most of Fagen’s solo work is less rock than his seventies repertoire. Nonetheless, “Raindrops” grooves like crazy, and it has a lot to do with the rhythm section that shows up solely to close the album, Will Lee and Steve Jordan (who would meet again in the David Letterman band).
To me, it’s the title track which defines the whole package. It’s sung from the point of view of a late-night radio DJ, complete with harmonized call-letters in the chorus. Plus, Fagen gets to rhyme “WJAZ” with “Mt. Belonzi.” The host is Lester the Nightfly, and he beckons from Baton Rouge. I don’t know if there was such a person, but he certainly exists now. Fagen, even while singing in the first person, gives a characterization as full and clear as Billy Joel’s patrons in “Piano Man.”
Stephen Thomas Erlewine in the All Music Guide says “The Nightfly” “covered the same ground” as Fagen’s last two efforts, “yet surpassed it in terms of ambition and achievement.” That’d be flattery for any artist, but for Fagen, those two efforts were Steely Dan’s “Aja” and “Gaucho.” High praise, indeed.