(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.
(Pictured: Entwistle, Moon, Townshend, and Daltrey in the summer of 1971.)
In the fall of 1971, I bought the Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” on a 45. As a young record buyer, I’d memorize the details not just of the songs but the labels, and my copy of “Won’t Get Fooled Again” said that the song was from the motion picture Lifehouse. Lifehouse, of course, is one of rock’s most famous failed projects—as David Hepworth puts it in Never a Dull Moment: 1971, the Year That Rock Exploded, Lifehouse “was supposed to be a film, a multimedia epic, a unique collaboration between performer and audience, and, on some level, a ‘crowd-sourced’ piece of art in which the band would facilitate the audience in reaching a new level of consciousness.” Even accounting for Hepworth’s tendency to snark, his description of Lifehouse seems pretty accurate based on what I’ve read about it—yet very much in keeping with one spirit afoot in the moment.
Elsewhere in Hepworth’s book, he tells of the gentle, confessional, personal music of Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and James Taylor (in early 1971, Tapestry and Blue were recorded in adjacent studios at A&M in Los Angeles, and Taylor was working on Mud Slide Slim just down the street), refitting the hippie idyll for those who were growing older, starting families and/or contemplating single adulthood, and coming to grips with the 70s as a different place than the 60s had been. But in other precincts, rock was reaching for grandiosity. Led Zeppelin’s rock-godliness certainly was; Alice Cooper’s theatrics were the same thing, only different. Similarly, Hepworth writes, Lifehouse was the product of a feeling that the art of rock could and should transcend mere singles and albums in favor of prestigious long-form works. The Who’s manager, Kit Lambert, was a fan of classical music, even more committed to long-form than Pete Townshend was. Tommy had been a success in 1969 and Jesus Christ Superstar was the rage of 1970, so why would the Who want to take a step backward in 1971?
But the Who was in a volatile position at that same moment. Hepworth quotes Roger Daltrey as saying the band was never closer to breaking up than at the dawn of the 70s. Townshend felt the pressure of producing a whole ‘nother rock opera, but at the same time, Hepworth says, “he had too many ideas rather than not enough.” Lifehouse may have “seemed the only proper vehicle for [Townshend’s] seriousness,” but not if it never got off the ground.
Enter producer/engineer Glyn Johns. He’d made many great singles in the 60s, including the Who’s own “My Generation,” so Lambert invited him to work with the Who on Lifehouse. One of the first things he did was to tell Townshend that nobody would ever get the Lifehouse idea (Hepworth says neither the rest of the Who nor Lambert fully understood it themselves), and they should just make an album. They repurposed some of the songs from Lifehouse, went to work in a studio in New York, and the result was Who’s Next. Hepworth writes, “Who’s Next is way better than Lifehouse could ever have hoped to be,” and people are still listening to it and stealing from it “long after the likes of Tommy and Quadrophenia have grown tiresome.” He considers it “the best recording in the best year in the history of recording.”
Hepworth reserves a couple of paragraphs for “Baba O’Riley,” a song written for Lifehouse, as a remarkable innovation in its use of a synthesizer, as well as a click track to keep Keith Moon steadily on the beat. (“In years to come all records would be made like this.”) He notes how perfectly it stands directly between the psychedelic 1960s and what the 1970s were about to become.
Although “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and “Behind Blue Eyes” were the singles in the UK and US, “Baba O’Riley” is the best thing on the album, and despite years of play and overplay on classic-rock radio, millions of people still love it—even if they have no idea what it’s really called. On the campus radio station circa 1980, we rotated our music with a card file, one 3-by-5 card for each song in the library’s various categories. On the “Baba O’Riley” card, someone helpfully wrote, “Often requested as ‘Teenage Wasteland,'” which it universally was. And, I am guessing, it still frequently is.
(Pictured: Paul plays live in California while “Silly Love Songs” sits at #1.)
Forty years ago this week, “Silly Love Songs” by Paul McCartney and Wings hit #1 on the Hot 100. I asked my Facebook friends for their unfiltered impressions of the song, and here’s some of what they said:
—“Passable dreck. Until you square it with the knowledge it’s from the same person who wrote ‘Eleanor Rigby,’ ‘Maybe I’m Amazed,’ ‘Hey Jude,’ ‘Lady Madonna,’ etc., etc., etc. Then it becomes unlistenable dreck.”
—“Stupid song that only got airplay because it was Paul McCartney.”
—“Not then, not now.”
—“In a word, sappy.”
—“A man in love with his wife taking a simple song premise and turning it into a six-minute trademark Macca pop epic. Not a personal favorite, but I appreciate it. As an occasional bass player, I can say this does have a fun bass line to bop along to.”
—“It’s a fine pop song with a great arrangement. The part where it picks up again after slowing down is fabulous. The lyrics aren’t exactly ‘Gimme Some Truth’ though, and McCartney sounds a bit constipated.”
—“I still enjoy it.”
—“Hated it when it was on the radio. Just detested it. I still don’t like it much, but I appreciate the craft more now than I did back then.”
—“I’ve come back around to a lot of his 70s stuff I didn’t like the first time out. Not this one, though.”
—“Superb bass line. Otherwise, good work from someone who had done far better. The Beatles were a tough act to follow.”
—“I’ve always thought that might have been one of those thrown-off songs. Catchy but senseless.”
Another friend said, “I could do without the sound of the milking machine at the beginning.” (It’s never been clear to me precisely what that sound is, but “milking machine” is a good guess.) Although it seems sensible to start the record with the thump of McCartney’s bass, the milking machine creates a feeling of expectation, like the overture before the show begins. Therefore, all versions of “Silly Love Songs” without that noise are inferior. (Another comment: “The full LP version: glorious, if a bit much. The single version: not as good.“) When Wings played the song on the Wings Over America tour in 1976, it started with the recorded noise.
That Paul McCartney’s songcraft is brilliant is something that’s just true, like the sun rising in the east every morning. The contrast between the milking machine and the opening bass thump is an example of that craft. Songcraft is often expressed best in little moments: where the horns come in at the end of the bridge, for one; the breakdown in the middle (“How / Can I tell / You about / My loved one”); and after the breakdown when the horns return (“the part where it picks up again after slowing down”)—each one is evidence of a creator with a sure grasp on what sounds pretty great. And listen to the string arrangement. (Did you remember that there was a string arrangement?)
One friend says that “Silly Love Songs” is “Paul getting back at his critics by giving them exactly what they’ve criticized him for—silly, sappy love songs.” Another friend reminds us that it was John Lennon who famously criticized McCartney’s lightweight solo output. And that makes “Silly Love Songs” the greatest burn in the history of burning. Damn right my songs are silly—and I’m going to buy a few thousand more acres of Scotland with the money the world pays me for them.
The comments quoted above are not the only ones I got; among my friends, positive and negative opinions seem about equally divided. Probably more divided than they were across America 40 years ago this week, however. By the time “Silly Love Songs” topped the Hot 100, it had already hit #1 in Tulsa, Tucson, Kansas City, Buffalo, and Washington, D.C. It would reach the top in many other cities across the country by the end of June. “Silly Love Songs” would be #1 in Billboard for the week of May 22, spend the next two weeks at #2 behind Diana Ross’ “Love Hangover,” and then ascend to the summit for four more weeks, knocked out for the week of July 10 by “Afternoon Delight.” It would be Billboard‘s #1 single for all of 1976, as it was at WFIL in Philadelphia, WHB in Kansas City, WYSL in Buffalo, and KOLA in San Bernardino, California. Millions of people couldn’t get enough of it, and it’s one of the songs I most closely identify with my favorite year.