Thirty-five years ago this month, Pretzel Logic, the album that alerted the world beyond LA and NYC to the thrillingly unpigeonholeable sound of Steely Dan, the hepcat bepop double-act Ian Dury would later thank for creating “the most upful music I know”, was released. To listen to it now is to be reminded how vehemently I disagreed with the euphoria that greeted it in my universe, the one presided over with dictatorial authority by Melody Maker, NME and Sounds.
Admittedly, this reaction may well have sprung from a trusty geyser of indignation, that sense of superiority a fan has over critics and members of the great unwashed who catch up on their precious idols without having supported them through the thin times. “So, you’ve finally got into ’em, eh? Took yer bleedin’ time, you Johnny Come Extremely Latelys. Think this one’s good? Hah! You haven’t lived, mate. You should hear the earlier, funnier ones. Infinitely better.” Pretzel logic? As in twisted, right?
The 16-year-old me found Pretzel Logic a severe, even savage disappointment after the one-two punch of Can’t Buy A Thrill and Countdown To Ecstasy. (And yes, England’s cricketers were in the Caribbean then, too. Given that they won the final Test to share the Test series against the odds, thrills and ecstasy were somewhat easier to find than they are now.)
After half a dozen listens – most of them competing with the radio commentary from Trinidad as Tony Greig’s newly-discovered off-breaks sent the West Indies spiralling to defeat – only “Parker’s Band” and the title track came anywhere near penetrating the steel ring of Smurfs guarding my pleasure zones. Plenty of blues, sure, but where was the rock? Where was the groove? Where was the bebop bravura of “Bodhisattva”, the irresistible salsa-esque shuffle of “Do It Again”? Look at all those skimpy two- and three-minute songs? Where were all those delicious extended solos? Why use a wah-wah guitar to ape a trumpet when you could just use a…trumpet? “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” was turgid as well as a darker shade of opaque. “Through With Buzz” and “Monkey In Your Soul” were a marginally lighter shade of awful. What in blazes were Don and Walt doing rewriting a Christmas carol (even after three and a half decades I still can’t quite decide between God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen and In The Bleak Midwinter) and calling it “Charlie Freak”? And what in the name of Charlie and John were they doing with all those damned horns?
More important was The Guitar Situation (The Dan, after all, were the ultimate guitar band: from Mark Knopfler to Sammy Cahn’s son, they all wanted to join the gang). How come the sudden obsession with pedal steel? Why all those country licks? What was that thing kick-starting “With A Gun” and “Any Major Dude Will Tell You”? An acoustic, you say? Wimps.
The confusion, bordering on anxiety, was heightened by repeated examinations of the sleeve. Both were in the band pic on the gatefold, true, but where were Denny Dias and The Skunk on the skeletal credits? Not for a couple of years did the truth reach these ears: of the band I would see at The Rainbow a few weeks later, the only members to play on the album were the guv’nors, Fagen and Becker.
Dias would later describe his bosses as “one person with two brains – they finished each other’s sentences”. They had just become Woody and Allen, ringmasters and control freaks, their acts a repertory company chockful of the finest technicians, the guest stars direct from the gods. For Diane Keaton read Larry Carlton; for Mia Farrow read Chuck Rainey; for Judy Davis read Bernard “Pretty” Purdie; for Leonardo di Caprio, Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem read Victor Feldman, Phil Woods and Wayne Shorter. Steely Dan, the band as opposed to the brand, were no more. At 16, betrayals of that order hurt bad, real bad. Fortunately, we also forgive our heroes quicker.
THIRTY-FIVE YEARS ON, as is so often the way when one reconnects with memories, the good bits of Pretzel Logic sound even better and the bad a tad more tolerable. True, I still dislike “Through With Buzz” with a vehemence no other Becker/Fagen composition remotely approaches, mostly because of those ghastly strings and because Fagen’s “dry white whine” of a voice (c. Nick Kent) for once falls the wrong side of the line separating coy from fey, but those electric piano trills are really rather gorgeous. “Monkey In Your Soul”, moreover, oozes with a skin-tight funkiness even the JBs might have envied. Similarly, re-hearing the way Fagen sets a gentle piano against arguably his tenderest vocal invests “Rikki…” with an emotional depth unusual in pop hits of the period, let alone a love(ish) song totally devoid of nudges and winks.
The passage of time, armed with technological advances, can also heal prejudices. Back in March ’74 I had about 100 albums on my exposed-concrete bedroom floor but the only one featuring so much as a burp of brass was Dark Side of the Moon; not for another month would I buy Moondance. Which is why, now, the swashbuckling guitar-and-horns swordplay on “Night By Night” sounds even more inspired on my iPod than it did on my proudly mono gramophone. Ditto the black-streaked joie de vivre of the shamelessly Nashvillian “With A Gun”.
“Parker’s Band” rocks incredibly hard for a tribute to a jazz king, powered by a drum riff capable of launching a nuclear warhead and coda’ed by a rip-roaring battle of the saxes. The guitar solo on “Pretzel Logic”, blues-fuelled and graceful, sounds even more sinuous and sensual. Drums and piano entwine on “Charlie Freak”, giving Don and Walt’s most melancholic tune a deceptively upbeat veneer, but who noticed all those Yuletide bells, much less that snaky, kazoo-like synth? And if “Barrytown” isn’t at one and the same time The Greatest Tune George Gershwin Never Wrote and The Greatest Song Never To Soundtrack A David Lynch Movie, then Dan is assuredly not your man.
THE UPSHOT of this sudden splurge of revisiting (I’ve played it six times in its entirety today, and “Charlie Freak” and “Barrytown” 10 times apiece) is that Pretzel Logic has finally shifted from bottom on my personal Dan Mk I League table (only five tracks made my “Steeliest” playlist), thus trading places with The Royal Scam. Never again would The Dan sound so economical, so jaunty, so adept at sidestepping genre-fication. Never again would Don and Walt deploy a full-time band, much less a pedal steel. Never again would their songs sound so innocent, so young. Not a big pity, just a small one.
I’m not one to look behind
I know that times must change
But over there in Barrytown
They do things very strange
They don’t do things all that different in Don ‘n’ Walt Town.