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40 Years On: "Arrogant Pricks" Steely Dan's Pretzel Logic Revisited
Valerie Siebert , February 18th, 2014 06:16

Four decades since the release of Steely Dan's Pretzel Logic, Val Siebert casts an eye backward and praises the work of a band at the top of their game

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I think that there are some people out there who have earned the right to be arrogant pricks.

There aren't many, mind you, but they all have a few things in common. Firstly, they are the best at what they do. Second, collaborators or colleagues will rise in indignant defence of their arrogant and abhorrent behavior. And lastly, no matter the experience, an encounter with said arrogant prick is still held as a point of pride among anyone in the same field.

I'm not necessarily calling Steely Dan a bunch of arrogant pricks. I'm just saying that if they are, I think they are utterly justified. After all, who is able to call in a top-rate, legendary session musician, have them roll through countless takes and endure intense scrutiny, then gut their parts without a shred of mercy, yet still have that musician come running at the next call? Becker and Fagen, that's who.

Steely Dan had already become a successful and critically-lauded act before they started work on Pretzel Logic. They had produced two albums and had a hit single with 'Reelin' In The Years'. But having succumbed to a very stereotypical sophomore slump, the core songwriters of the band Walter Becker and Donald Fagen began their loathing for touring and the studio time it flushed away. They blamed the poor sales of Countdown To Ecstasy on the rushed nature of the recording process – a direct result of the band's touring commitments. The pair proceeded to set up camp in the studio with a rolling cast of session musicians and began producing music of such compulsive perfection that they alienated the other Dan members whose purpose as a touring band was quickly becoming redundant. "We could see that there was just too much of a lie involved at one point," Fagen told Mojo in 1995, "so they had to go". By the next album, Katy Lied, even founding member – and original recruiter of Becker and Fagen – Denny Dias would find himself relegated to the position of session guitarist among five others.

Yet any bitterness, betrayal or wishes for reprisals felt by the players who Fagen and Becker replaced and subsequently sacked would be quashed by begrudged acceptance when the album was released. Pretzel Logic raked in the accolades, wooed the critics and gave the band the biggest hit of their career in 'Rikki Don't Lose That Number'.

Pretzel Logic is arguably Steely Dan's template for their innovative and unparalleled mixing of the genres of pop/rock and jazz. Cramming intricacies previously only beholden to jazz musicians into succinct pop statements, Becker and Fagen seemed to have found their perfect format. No matter their jazz influence and harmonic complexity, the band always managed to stay within the pop lines. The reasons aren't clear, whether it be about personal preference, self-limitation or just-the-way-it-turned-out, their character and expression were perhaps better suited to those spaces rather than in the world of free-form limitless roaming jazz. In fact, the challenge of squeezing their cornucopia of peacocking into tightly formed pop nuggets probably keeps their true nature from scaring off a broad audience. There is no dilution of their musical messages, and only two of the tunes run over four minutes (coincidently these are the album's two singles that were later shortened for radio play).

They would pick and choose the pop music conventions they followed only inasmuch as it served their very particular needs. And man! – were they ever particular. In fact, this seems to be the top trait that pervades both in every character assassination and glowing review the pair have ever received.

Countdown To Ecstasy at least allowed the possibility of live replication, but Fagen and Becker were over the whole realistically-reproducible thing and would subsequently use every tool and every instrumentalist (and instrument) at their disposal.

Drummers were a special obsession for Fagen and Becker. Though Steve Gadd's work on Aja might be the Holy Grail for many Danfan drummers, Pretzel Logic boasted two legends of can bashing. The album's main drummer Jim Gordon influenced the careers of many other greats including the prolific session master Jim Keltner as well as Jeff Porcaro who counts himself quite lucky to have played double drums alongside Gordon on Pretzel Logic's pairing of pop and bop 'Parker's Band'. Gordon was the writer of the famous 'Layla' coda and played on dozens of hit albums before his undiagnosed schizophrenia sent him to his mother's house with a hammer and a murderous rage. He is still serving time in a California psychiatric institution for her murder.

Later indiscretions aside, Gordon plays a key role in the fantastic feel of the album. From the funkiness of 'Monkey In Your Soul' to the bossa nova of 'Rikki…', this album would not be what it is without Gordon's right-hand driven groove.

Giving the record another interesting dimension is Jeff 'Skunk' Baxter, whose pedal steel slides in at unexpected moments and within very unexpected song-styles. A stand-out example would be the masterful reproduction of a ragtime trombone solo on the Duke Ellington homage 'East St. Louis Toodle-oo'. Its inclusion would likely cause confusion in any other setting, but its Gary Katz's bright production that instead gives a beautifully unified and warm sound to the songs, making sure that no particular instruments are coming off brash. There are no single stars in Gary Katz's vision of Steely Dan, just a seamless homogenous blend of understated virtuosity. Even Fagen's nasally voice is made to fit its container without spilling a drip over the instrumentation. Full, lush, thick, however you want to call it, no space is wasted.

The lyrics are unabashedly pretentious and really must be chocka with phrases understood only by the band. The gibbering 'Any Major Dude Will Tell You' even introduces us to the mythical Squonk, an ugly wart-covered creature that dissolves in its own tears. Cheers for that, Dan.

The title track is a particular fan favourite and probably contains the most clear genre shift on the album: one between straight blues and a rhythmically subdued jazzy swing shout chorus, complete with Gordon rounding the toms. Tellingly, 'Pretzel Logic''s first verse is inspired by the pair's disdain for touring while overall it draws from the concept of time travel. Other passages veer into politics, drugs, betrayal, and New York City sketches but for the most part are pretty impenetrable. While he has received kudos from the odd critic for the lack of defined interpretation, Fagen has mostly enjoyed scoffs and snorts from pop lovers who see him as a supercilious nobhead vogueing Dylan.

Lyrics aside, Pretzel Logic represents a peak in the popcentric incarnation of Dan. Over the following albums the songwriting would slowly become more over-thought, then more overwrought in the studio, culminating in the comparatively cold and inaccessible Gaucho.

No one could argue that Dan and their fans have a propensity for pretentiousness, but it is a position that they have earned. Despite the horror stories and suggestions of a mean streak that sent countless pros packing, many musicians reveled in the challenge of pleasing Becker and Fagen. The satisfaction of making the grade was delectable and the test itself was enough to make a session player's CV swell. Their pressure continually dragged the best out of the best and – with a track record like theirs – any player would have to be a fool not to endure.

In a 2003 interview Fagen muses on the band's lack of visual presence. The group has never made a music video and has consistently downplayed everything that doesn't have to do with the music immediately being made. The reasoning behind this, explains Fagen, is to not give away a hint of their own true artistic interpretations. Arguably, it's not really possible to keep things in the abstract when you are doing interviews and writing memoirs that explain your art, but the conscious effort at keeping the music itself purely within its medium (especially at their level) is an admirable thing. However, most of all, the desire to keep their work concentrated and overlook indulgences shows how the egotism of Becker and Fagen is rooted firmly behind the mixing board – right where it belongs.

It's been 40 years since Steely Dan's core hunkered down in the studio to create this melodic masterwork and refined a reputation for striking fear into the hearts of session musicians. You may love or you may hate their particular brand of jazz influenced pop/rock, or you might believe them to be the arrogant pricks their behavior may suggest. But you cannot deny that this pair's mutually fully realized vision is a marvel. In fact, Pretzel Logic in its complexity and concentration is a validation of every unpopular decision Fagen and Becker made and of every toe they trod upon.

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Paul
Feb 18, 2014 12:35pm

A bit odd to learn that PRETZEL LOGIC is considered a landmark. As a teenaged fan of progressive rock, I loved CAN'T BUY A THRILL and COUNTDOWN TO ECSTASY, but PRETZEL LOGIC left me cold, and the I regarded the Top-40 Hit from that lp, RIKI DON'T LOSE THAT NUMBER, as a cheesy teeny-bopper sell-out... a sign of the apocalypse. It was not again until AJA that I found myself able to listen to a DAN lp from start to finish, over and over, again.

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Jake
Feb 18, 2014 1:04pm

"Beholden". Look it up in a dictionary.

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Kev
Feb 18, 2014 1:32pm

Agreeing with Paul below. I've been a huge Dan fan since I stumbled upon them in the mid-80's- have obsessed over them at times- but Pretzel Logic is probably my least favourite record of theirs. Sure it's still better than 95% of released records (and my gods, that guitar solo in Any Major Dude) but for me- overall- least consistent. Anyway...if you dig this record I highly recommend you check out this guy who tracked down the location of the cover shot- a bit anorak but I love it:
http://www.popspotsnyc.com/pretzel_logic/

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Feb 18, 2014 1:44pm

'cold and inaccessible Gaucho'
It must just be me, but Gaucho is my favorite album of theirs, and because of its overexposure Aja probably my least favorite.
Thanks for the article, I'll give Pretzel Logic a spin tonight

Andy Bamber

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K
Feb 18, 2014 2:21pm

Good album P.L. My Favs are:

1 Aja
2 Gaucho
3 The Royal Scam
4 Can't buy a thrill
5 2 against nature
6 Pretzel Logic
7 Countdown to ecstasy
8 Katy Lied
9 Everything must go

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danmac
Feb 18, 2014 5:28pm

Katy Lied has to be my favourite. Pretzel probably the least. Though as others have said it's still streets ahead of so much else. Interesting how hard it seems to be for people to like this band - something to do with the assumption that 'smooth' equates with bland perhaps? Anyway, nice to see someone taking them seriously

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holerbot6000
Feb 18, 2014 10:28pm

It's a sign of how rich and varied the Dan's music is that no one can agree on what might be the best album. I remember when both Aja and Gaucho were dismissed as overly slick and yet, they have each held the test of time beautifully. I don't think there is a Dan album I don't love. Even their recent stuff is quite good. And talk about an argument for listening to things on vinyl...

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Biff
Feb 19, 2014 3:58am

Steely Dan: second only to that grunting abomination Springsteen as the worst thing to happen to music. The only thing these corporate stooges are "masters" of is self-important twaddle. They only innovation they pioneered is the marriage of the pomposity of Styx with the anonymity of wallpaper. They are the textbook example of knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing.

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Glenby
Feb 19, 2014 10:43am

In reply to Biff:

Biff...your the one who sounds like the arrogant prick,and you certainly have not earned it.The rest of us just might have a Beef with Biff!

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Corky
Feb 20, 2014 7:10am

I consider Pretzel Logic the Dan's biggest career departure. Many great songs, but many short, odd songs. The music is the least jazz like and most pop/rock like.

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Feb 20, 2014 8:08am

Woah, woah, woah...don't be dissing Styx!

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Scholarship bot
Feb 21, 2014 6:31am

Vogueing Dylan? I don't think I've ever heard that complaint re: Fagen's lyricism. God willing, I never will again.

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John
Mar 18, 2014 1:56pm

Meticulously constructed but very beautiful music. Still getting into the albums but think my favourites may be Pretzel Logic, Aja and Gaucho so far!

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Rick
May 30, 2014 12:08pm

Excellent write up. But Bubber Miley was a trumpet player, not a trombonist. The Ellington tune solo was originally performed on a trumpet with a plunger mute. I think Fagen/Becker (if nobody else) would care about the correct attribution

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xer2
Feb 21, 2015 5:37pm

I was online today searching for interpretations of the Pretzel Logic song lyrics and found this article at Quietus. One interpretation was "Sarcastic nostalgia = Pretzel (Twisted) Logic", which kind of fits in with this article. Paul, loved your post. I'm a consistent Steely Dan fan over the years but not finely in tune with album progression, but yes I have never been too happy with Rikki, except perhaps for the recognition it generated for the band. But to perhaps influence your view of the Pretzel Logic song itself, check out this great live recording from Rainbow Theatre in London on May 20th, 1974 on Wolfgangs Vault at http://www.concertvault.com/steely-dan/rainbow-theatre-may-20-1974.html?utm_source=CVNL&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=150221 For anyone else, I recently picked up Showbiz Kids, a nicely crafted composite, which I would recommend for filling in gaps in one's Steely Dan catalog.

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pfgpowell
Feb 28, 2015 9:51pm

I avoided listening to Steely Dan during the Seventies because it was trendy to do so. Then one day, in 1977/8 in a the god-forsaken down-at-heel steel town in South Wales called Ebbw Vale where I was working as a reporter, I was going through the bargain bin in a newsagent's chain - of all places, not even a record shop - and came across Aja. It was on sale for 50p (half of £1, about £2.71 in 2015), and at that price I bought it. Even if it was complete shite, at least it was cheap. I loved it immediately and over the next few months I bought all the other albums, which I also loved. The Gaucho came out and I bought that and loved that, too.

I still like the music, though I only play intermittent tracks, and went on to buy Fagen's first solo album - great - then his second, not at all so great, Becker's first - great and even his weedy voice somehow works, and then SD's comeback albums, in turn. I like those tunes, too, but something had gone missing.

I think it was their age and possibly because by then they were pretty much at the centre of New York's art establishment, which whenever I've come across it, almost always on TV - I have no personal experience of it one little bit - strikes me as far to self-regarding for comfort, as in 'Christ, aren't we cool.' A good example is David Byrne and his band who are fine as popsters but who seemed to think they and their acolytes are somehow 'art'. No, you're not kids, you were just another generation of popsters.

Becker and Fagen strike me as the same: pop/rock dies when some pretentious fuckwit wants to promote it to the status of art and all that 'art' brings with it: significance, importance, morality and loads of other crap. And Becker and Fagen seem to have bought into the whole pop as art notion completely.

In the early 1980s I heard an interview with them on Radio 1. I had tuned in eagerly but was left distinctly disappointed: my then heroes came over as such self-conscious clever dicks that I wanted to puke.

More recently I and a friend went to see them play the Wembley Arena. It was (I've just looked it up) in 1996. And once again my one-time heroes showed themselves to have feet of clay: Becker, to his eternal shame, supposedly cool as shit Becker began with that corny old standby 'hello, London, we love your fish and chips' and received, as I suppose he expected and wanted, whoops and cheers from the faithful. I felt ill.

A little later - we were in about row three right at the front of the stage - I mischievously shouted to Fagen 'why don't you play Hotel California', and boy did he hate it. This was right just as another song was going to start and it must have preyed on his mind throughout cos when it finished he - rather lamely, I thought - came out with 'bad things happen to people who say that.'

But oh well, there's still the music, especially the early music, and nothing can detract from that: music is music is music. But as for 'the Dan' and 'cool' and arty Becker and Fagen, er, I'll happily leave the adulation to someone else.

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Randall
Jun 11, 2015 1:32pm

Valarie,

You article is so on point....Nice work Val! This music "Rocks"....

Randall

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Forrest Greene
Aug 10, 2015 8:16pm

Irony is odious.

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lancey
Oct 9, 2015 8:14am

i'm sure they have heard worse and i'm sure a lot of its true. Who gives a shit...not me. I like the Dan for their music and lyrics. No other band comes close to what they have achieved over the decades. So please don't
stop producing your brand of magic you arrogant pricks.

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Glyn Rhodes
Jun 29, 2017 3:27pm

I am 55 years old, soon to be 56. I still remember with absolute clarity the evening I sat in my bedroom and heard Steely Dan for the first time. It was 1976 and I had borrowed a copy of 'Pretzel Logic' from a friend. I had no idea who Steely Dan were and the loan was based purely on the interesting album cover.
I didn't realise it at the time but over 40 years later I still have not heard anything as amazing as that album.
AND NOW - after all that time, I will be there at the end of October at the O2 in London.
Bring it on .........

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James
Sep 12, 2017 2:51pm

Yes i agree Pretzel Logic is my favorite and their best. even though The royal scam and Aja are great too.

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