When I wrote about Walter Becker and Steely Dan in September, I said that I’d made a list of favorite Dan songs but then decided to leave it out of the post, partly because it didn’t seem like the proper place for it, but also because any list I make is likely to change depending on what day it is. But a couple of people amongst the readership said they were interested in seeing it, so here it is.
10. “Change of the Guard.” Included for its bangin’ piano and a stereo-speaker-spanning guitar solo/shred by Skunk Baxter, this track from Can’t Buy a Thrill is the deepest cut on this list, with the possible exception of …
9. “Snowbound.” This is a ringer; it’s a cut from Donald Fagen’s 1993 album Kamarkiriad, and co-written by Becker, who produced the album. Of all the songs Fagen has recorded as a solo artist, this feels to me like the most Steely Dan-ish, every bit as lush and beautiful as anything on Aja or Gaucho.
8. “My Old School.” The closest Steely Dan ever got to a rave-up, “My Old School” is snide and joyful at the same time, which is not an easy daily double to hit.
7. “Parker’s Band.” A track from Pretzel Logic, and a tribute to Charlie Parker (“Kansas City born and growin’ / You won’t believe what the boys are blowin'”) and the jazz players Becker and Fagen grew up on.
6. “Any Major Dude With Half a Heart.” At least one Becker tribute I read (and there were a lot of them, so I can’t recall which one) labeled Steely Dan a part of the 1970s California rock scene, which doesn’t seem accurate to me. Their music is much more New York: darker, jazzier, and less obviously cocaine-dusted than what I associate with the California sound. But if you’re looking for something in their catalog that sounds like California in the 70s—something with a peaceful, easy feeling, perhaps—“Any Major Dude” is the closest you’ll get.
5. “Midnight Cruiser.” Steely Dan songs are populated by outcasts who, if they aren’t chasing the dragon, are chasing dreams they probably won’t catch. “Midnight Cruiser” finds two of them deciding to make one last run at it, but worrying that “The time of our time has come and gone / I fear we’ve been waiting too long.”
4. “Deacon Blues.” Practically perfect in every way.
3. “Glamour Profession.” Even though the song is about a drug dealer in sunny Los Angeles, the icy electric piano texture that’s all over it makes you feel like you’re standing on a dead-white and frozen plain in the middle of winter, accompanied by a clutch of horn players who are being strangled by a howling wind. (Walter Becker once said he wouldn’t mind not appearing on his own albums. He’s famously not on “Peg,” and he’s not on this, either.)
2. “Doctor Wu.” Which includes my favorite Steely Dan lyric: “Katy lies / You can see it in her eyes / But imagine my surprise / When I saw you.”
1. “Black Cow.” This is the first track on Aja, so it was new to me when I dropped the needle for the first time. It took quite a while before I got past it to the rest of the album. (Becker isn’t on this, either.)
Like I said, this project is possibly a fool’s errand. But I’ve gone on those before.
It’s probably just as foolish, but perhaps more fruitful, to rank Steely Dan’s albums, which I will do below.
2. Katy Lied
3. The Royal Scam
4. Can’t Buy a Thrill
6. Pretzel Logic
7. Countdown to Ecstasy
8. Two Against Nature
9. Everything Must Go
10. Alive in America
If you disagree with me ranking Pretzel Logic and Countdown to Ecstasy behind Gaucho, get in line. This is how I roll. And while the top four feel solidly locked place in today, you never know what might happen tomorrow.
(Pictured: the Eagles on stage circa 1977 with a backdrop from the Hotel California album art.)
Between the last week of March 1977 and the beginning of July, the #1 album in America was either Hotel California or Rumours, a collision of giants that seems ever more remarkable as the years go by. Last spring I ranked the tracks on Rumours. This spring, Hotel California gets its turn. If you haven’t heard it all in a while, go here.
9. “Wasted Time (reprise).” Eighty-two seconds of strings reprising the main theme of “Wasted Time.” This actually works better on the CD, where it immediately follows “Wasted Time.” On vinyl, you had to walk over to the stereo and flip the record, and you were greeted with this. Dropping the needle on Side 2 and getting immediately to “Victim of Love” would have been much more satisfying.
8. “Pretty Maids All in a Row.” The most noteworthy thing about “Pretty Maids All in a Row” is how it showcases the Eagles harmonizing together without words. That sound is everywhere on Eagles records, and once you start noticing it, you realize how lovely a trademark it was.
7. “Wasted Time.” The Eagles were famous for having a high opinion of themselves, and on “Wasted Time,” you can tell they’re trying to make a Big Philosophical Statement. They nearly pull it off: the melody and the production are like nothing else they ever did, although the lyrics, which sure sound like they ought to be important, don’t make a whole lot of sense on the page. Some of the individual lines are striking, however, none more than “I could have done so many things baby / If I could only stop my mind.” Feelin’ you, man.
6. “Life in the Fast Lane.” I liked this a lot more in 1977 than I do now.
5. “Try and Love Again.” This should have been a single. That ringing lead guitar would have sounded great on the radio.
4. “The Last Resort.” A better Big Philosophical Statement, about the taking of the West and the closing of the frontier. It suggests that every generation of Americans has had the urge to start over, but that urge comes from the fact that we never change, and that we learn nothing from all of the other new starts we made, so we’re fated to keep making the same mistakes. It’s just as relevant in 2017 as it was in 1977.
3. “Victim of Love.” If you have a vinyl copy of Hotel California, you can find these words etched in the Side 2 run-out groove: “V.O.L. is five-piece live.” For a band whose studio obsessiveness would soon approach Steely Dan levels, “Victim of Love” is already a throwback, with no overdubs and solidly kicking ass. “Victim of Love” was the B-side of “New Kid in Town” and was listed with it on the Hot 100, and it certainly got some Top 40 airplay during the latter’s winter run to #1. In the summer, WHYI in Fort Lauderdale would list “Victim of Love” on the station survey by itself, at about the time “Life in the Fast Lane” was riding high. Somebody at the station had a pretty strong jones for the twin guitars of Don Felder and Joe Walsh, apparently.
2. “New Kid in Town.” I wrote about this song on the 40th anniversary of its lone week at #1.
1. “Hotel California.” When “Hotel California” first hit Top 40 radio in February 1977, nobody had ever heard anything quite like it. We’ve all heard it so much in 40 years that it’s hard to hear it well anymore. Nevertheless, if you can make yourself notice, it’s got some cool little moments. Here’s just one: at the 5:30 mark, after the Felder and Walsh guitar solos build to a peak, Randy Meisner comes in, underpinning the guitars with an urgent, stabbing bass line, like a heartbeat out of control at the horror of being trapped in a place one could never leave. But then Meisner backs off. As Felder and Walsh repeat the same theme, Meisner’s bass becomes mere punctuation again, and “Hotel California” fades with the feeling that even the worst horror is something you can get used to.
And that, too, is just as relevant in 2017 as it was in 1977.
(Pictured: Donald Fagen, whose enormous eyeglasses date this photo to the late 80s.)
When Donald Fagen released The Nightfly in the fall of 1982, it seemed to fit on the continuum with Steely Dan’s Aja and Gaucho, with the same producer and a lot of the same musicians. But the album actually revealed itself to be something far different. It’s warmer—the songs welcome you into their world rather than holding you at a distance from it. It’s more personal: in the liner notes, Fagen wrote, “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 height, weight and build.” And The Nightfly has an easy, casual swing missing from Aja and Gaucho.
Listen to the whole thing here while I rank the songs.
8. “Green Flower Street.” This is a perfectly fine song in this spot because something has to rank at the bottom.
7. “Ruby Baby.” As one of the Dukes of September, Fagen has performed lots of covers, many quite surprising. This and Duke Ellington’s “East St. Louis Toodle-oo” on Pretzel Logic are the only covers he or Steely Dan ever put on an official release. (Late edit: if you want to count the bonus tracks on the reissue of Morph the Cat, there are others. I can go either way.)
6. “The Nightfly.” Fagen has written that as a boy, he was transfixed by New York radio personality Jean Shepherd, and “The Nightfly” indicates how much time young Don spent listening to late-night radio and/or imagining himself on it.
5. “I.G.Y.” This is Fagen’s lone Top 40 hit, which hit #26 on November 27, 1982, and stayed there for three weeks. It lasted 14 weeks on the Hot 100 in all. When I started thinking about ranking these tracks, I was sure “I.G.Y.” would be close to the top, but as I listened to the album I kept hearing songs that are better.
4. “Maxine.” In which a young couple struggles to remain together long enough to reach the bright future they imagine for themselves. Apparently, happily ever after isn’t as easy as it looks.
3. “The Goodbye Look.” This breezy Caribbean idyll hides a darker tale: an American tourist on holiday decides to hire a boat and get off the island rather than attending “a small reception just for me” at which there will clearly be trouble. There’s no credit for a marimba player; that sound comes from a synthesizer in the hands of veteran player Greg Phillinganes.
2. “New Frontier.” The setting: a party in a home-built fallout shelter circa 1961. One of the young partygoers tries to impress a girl with his hip bona-fides (name-dropping Tuesday Weld, the limbo, and Dave Brubeck), but he can’t hide that his sophisticated pretense is intended solely to get over on her: “Let’s pretend that it’s the real thing / And stay together all night long . . . Prepare to meet the challenge of the new frontier.” “New Frontier” is Fagen’s deepest groove ever, thanks to pianist Michael Omartian, bassist Marcus Miller, lead guitarist Larry Carlton, , and drummer Ed Greene.
1. “Walk Between Raindrops.” A song uncharacteristic of the Donald Fagen we thought we knew in ’82. Its bright-n-bubbly organ puts a listener in mind of Walter Wanderley, or Jimmy McGriff with his lightest touch. The song is pure Tin Pan Alley, quite a switch coming from the writer of so many songs about shady characters with dark motives. And when the band members chime in together with “ohhhh, Miami!,” Fagen puts his pop-music heart right out on his sleeve.
Not ranked on this list are three songs that appeared on the super-deluxe 2007 reissue of The Nightfly: Fagen’s two movie soundtrack contributions, “True Companion” and “Century’s End” (recorded for Heavy Metal and Bright Lights Big City respectively) and a live version of “Green Flower Street” from Live at the Beacon, the 1991 album by Fagen’s all-star New York Rock and Soul Revue. “True Companion” (1981) doesn’t do much for five minutes, although fans of the Steely Dan vibe might find those five very pleasant minutes nevertheless. “Century’s End” (1988) has more going on, although it’s a better sonic fit with Fagen’s 1993 album Kamakiriad.
Fagen has released two other solo albums besides The Nightfly and Kamakiriad: Morph the Cat (2006) and Sunken Condos (2012). All are worth your time . . . but The Nightfly is the best of the bunch.
(Pictured: Andy Kim, bubblegum god, coming to take your woman, circa 1970.)
Come with me now into a young boy’s bedroom. Atop the cheap wooden toy chest next to the bed is a radio, a relatively recent addition to the room. It’s a rectangular green box with a large tuning dial on the front, an on/off/volume control on one side, and tubes inside. On this particular evening, the young boy has the radio on, tuned to WLS in Chicago, its dial position marked with a bit of masking tape. Although he hasn’t been listening long, he already knows he has to periodically re-tune the radio because it drifts. Listening at night adds an additional difficulty—the signal on 890 occasionally fades, for reasons he won’t understand for a few years yet.
We are, of course, in the fabled fall of 1970, a season firmly fixed in the mythology of this blog, the beginning of nearly everything that matters the most. It’s late that fall—December, actually, coming on Christmas, when giants walk the earth and play on the radio. Because the boy is only 10, his taste runs toward bubblegum, the Partridge Family and Dawn, and on this particular night, we find him digging on one of bubblegum’s giants, Andy Kim, and one the hottest records in the country at the moment, “Be My Baby.”
0:00: A drum kick that is not so much a kick as an explosion, then echo-drenched piano chords with little dots of bass flicking beneath, as if the guitarist is twitching a string in anticipation but holding himself back, “Now? Wait . . . now?”
0:09: The bassist is unleashed for a quick, tumbling run and the drums fall in, rat-tat-tat.
0:10: “The night we met I knew I . . . needed you so.” The singer sounds woozy from the jump, as if he’s just roused himself from romantic reverie. “And if I had the chance oh . . . I’d never let you go.” Like he has to pause and gather himself between every line.
0:27: Background singers show up, your standard garden variety oohs and aahs. But then . . .
0:45: Background singers go falsetto: “Be my . . . be my baby . . . my one and only baby . . . be my . . . be my baby . . . na-a-a-a-ow.” Years from now, the boy will think that they sound like the Bee Gees. Right now all he can think is sweet mama this is awesome.
1:02: Refrain ends, verse two begins, and the record starts to feel like a freight train at full steam on a fast track—going like hell, but under control.
1:20: “But from the day I saw you, I have been waiting waiting waiting for ya . . .” The boy knows little or nothing about girls yet, but he suspects that waiting waiting waiting is a whole lot more serious than regular waiting.
1:56: The boy does not know it, but 46 years from now, he still won’t know what this sound is, exactly. It might be a violin, double-tracked and processed. It might be a theremin. From time to time during the approximately 15 seconds it plays, it occasionally seems to disappear amidst the galloping band and Andy’s ooh-ing—but only to his future self, who is listening in futuristic high-fidelity stereo. To the boy, listening to a fading AM radio wave through a plastic speaker, it sizzles like a goddamn laser beam.
2:12: Refrain reprised twice, with the singer testifying a little harder now, background singers still falsettoing it up, punctuated by machine-gun bursts from the drummer.
2:50: Fade out.
The boy will learn, of course, that the original 1963 “Be My Baby,” by the Ronettes, is considered one of the greatest records ever made, There must have been some people in 1970 who found Andy Kim’s version to be a cheap, disposable ripoff. But not the boy then, or the old man he has become. Forty-six years later, Andy Kim’s “Be My Baby” holds up as one of the half-dozen greatest examples of the art of bubblegum.
(Pictured: L to R, Ian McLagen, Rod Stewart, Ronnie Lane, and Kenney Jones onstage, circa 1971.)
On October 2, 1971, Rod Stewart’s “Maggie May” hit #1 on the Hot 100, and Every Picture Tells a Story reached the top of the Billboard 200 album chart, nudging Carole King’s Tapestry to #2 after 15 weeks. It was the cream of a remarkable crop of albums. Also in the Top 10 during October 1971: Every Good Boy Deserves Favour by the Moody Blues, the Shaft soundtrack, Paul and Linda’s Ram, Who’s Next, The Carpenters, Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality, Sound Magazine by the Partridge Family (the latter three back-to back-to-back for the week of October 2 and damn, do I love the 70s), Teaser and the Firecat by Cat Stevens, Santana III, and John Lennon’s Imagine, which would take over the #1 slot on October 30.
On a gray and rainy morning not long ago, Every Picture Tells a Story was a very good companion on a long car trip. You can listen to it yourself while I’m ranking the tracks.
8. “That’s All Right”/”Amazing Grace.” Elvis owns “That’s All Right” and nobody else should mess with it. Rod’s “Amazing Grace,” which is not listed on the album jacket, is lovely, though.
7. “I Know I’m Losing You.” This thing rocks like crazy and you can hear how much Rod is into it, whooping and yelling as the band burns the joint down. I’m ranking it here because it doesn’t fit the intimate, unplugged vibe of the rest of the album.
6. “Seems Like a Long Time.” This is a beautiful song that ranks here because other stuff has to rank higher.
5. “Every Picture Tells a Story.” The hilariously rockin’ tale of a young world traveler who’s seen some wild shit, man: “I was arrested for inciting a peaceful riot / When all I wanted was a cup of tea.”
4. “Reason to Believe.” There was never anything else that sounded like this, with its piano chords tolling out the years like church bells; the violin, credited to London jazz musician Dick Powell, gives it a seriousness that few other AM radio hits could match.
3. “Maggie May.” Here’s how much this song means in my life: I have no children, but any daughter of mine would have been named Maggie May.
2 “Tomorrow Is a Long Time.” Elvis put this Bob Dylan song on the Spinout soundtrack in 1966 (although it’s not in the movie); Dylan
himself didn’t release a version of it until 2010, and that was released a live performance of it from 1963 in 1971. (Corrected thanks to commenter David; I misread a source.) Rod’s version is breathtaking; Powell’s violin is magnificent.
1. “Mandolin Wind.” This song has everything that’s great about Rod Stewart’s first four albums in five-and-a-half minutes. The best of those albums were an English take on what the Band was doing at about the same time, which was Americana before the term existed. On “Mandolin Wind,” Rod’s singing is sensitive and heartfelt and even funny. (“I ain’t got much but what I’ve got is yours / Except of course my steel guitar.”) The band is similarly sensitive, but they rock the hell out of it at the end. Oddly, the identity of the mandolin player on “Mandolin Wind” is unclear. Ray Jackson of Lindisfarne claimed to be the guy; he played on “Maggie May” too, but Rod, having forgotten his name, credited him only as “the mandolin player in Lindisfarne. The name slips my mind.”
Several years ago, I put together a mix tape to help a young friend appreciate the genius of the early Rod. (She knew him only as a People magazine bon vivant, Great American Songbook plunderer, and impregnator of supermodels.) The tape wasn’t necessary, though. All she really needed to hear was Every Picture Tells a Story.
(Pictured: Boston in the studio, circa 1976. Tom Scholz is seated at the right.)
Forty years ago this week (actually August 25, 1976), Boston was released. Jeff Giles told the story of its creation quite nicely over at Ultimate Classic Rock; a hyperventilating appreciation by Tim Sommer at the Observer, which is one of the finest pieces of music writing I’ve ever seen, appeared here. Michele Catalano remembers Boston as part of her “defining moment of the 70s.”
“More Than a Feeling” first appears at ARSA on a survey from WBZ in Boston (where else?) dated August 20, 1976. It picked up playlist adds in great numbers during September, but at WLS in Chicago,”More Than a Feeling” didn’t chart until October 16 (which would have been about the time I first heard it). The song became a Top-10 hit in many places during November and December, although it reached #1 only at WAVZ in New Haven, Connecticut, during the week of November 28.
“More Than a Feeling” took over three months to climb from #86 on the Hot 100 (September 18) to #5 on the chart dated December 25, 1976. The chart was frozen the next week, so the song gets credit for two weeks at #5 before starting on its way down. It would be gone from the Hot 100 entirely after the week of January 22, 1977—but it has yet to fall out of radio station playlists.
Boston hit the Billboard 200 album chart on September 18, and would rise to #3 in a run totaling 132 weeks. In addition to the three singles (“Long Time” and “Peace of Mind” followed “More Than a Feeling”), nearly every track got radio play. If I were setting up a classic-rock radio library today, all three singles plus “Rock & Roll Band,” “Smokin’,” and “Hitch a Ride” would be in the heavy rotation. That leaves only “Something About You” and “Let Me Take You Home Tonight,” neither of which is a slouch. I’d play them, too.
I remember jocks on our college radio station joking that if you segued Boston songs just right, you could make it sound like one big song. And for many years, Boston was one of the main offenders mentioned when people talked about the pernicious, homogenizing influence of corporate rock. You can still find people who hold both of those opinions today, and they’re entitled to them, provided that it’s understood that they’re wrong.
Like other obsessed artists, Tom Scholz’s passionate pursuit of his vision resulted in something utterly original. If he had trouble expanding his sonic palette on succeeding albums, give the man a pass for inventing the damn palette in the first place. And as far as the corporate part, successful inventors need backers. Were it not for Epic Records, Scholz’s unique sound may never have gotten out of his garage. (Epic ran radio ads for the album touting Scholz’s “special effects guitar.” I heard the ads before I’d heard anything beyond “More Than a Feeling.”)
Boston is a remarkable creative achievement. It’s massively heavy—the “More Than a Feeling” riff (which Bruce Springsteen noticed was a lift from “Louie Louie”), the rolling riff on “Peace of Mind,” the lead guitar on “Smokin’,” and the production on “Rock and Roll Band” have got all the rock ‘n’ roll power a teenage headbanger could ask for. But at the same time, there’s a great deal of space and lightness in it, as on “Hitch a Ride,” and even “Smokin'” makes room for a Deep Purple-esque organ solo that transforms the whole atmosphere. The album dips into prog-rock on “Foreplay” and the quiet opening of “Something About You,” and the dialed-back feel of “Hitch a Ride” is a spiritual cousin to Emerson Lake and Palmer’s “Still . . . You Turn Me On.”
This may be a fool’s errand, but here’s my ranking of the tracks on Boston.
1. “More Than a Feeling”
2. “Peace of Mind”
3. “Hitch a Ride”
4. “Rock and Roll Band”
6. “Foreplay/Long Time” (Were I ranking these two individually, I’d put “Long Time” at #4 and “Foreplay” at #9.)
7. “Let Me Take You Home Tonight”
8. “Something About You”
Your mileage may vary, however, and I crave your opinions, along with your recollections of listening to Boston, in the comments.