40 Years On: “Arrogant Pricks” Steely Dan’s Pretzel Logic Revisited

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

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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