Songs Everybody Should Know
“Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” by Steely Dan (1974)
Welcome to the funky bohemia that is Steely Dan. Building a complex musical web around lyrics that run the gamut about anything from love to bandits, to greed, lust, and glory and back again. The jazz-infused mosaic of life is almost parody-like. A thinking man’s funk, Steely Dan delivers a diverse, rich sound while taking you to some of the weirdest places you could ever go – and yet they seem familiar in some strange way…
From peddling their songs door-to-door in the famous song-writer Brill building in the late ‘60’s in NY to becoming song writers in L.A., to having their own band, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker are a blend of malicious sinister cynicism and perfectionist rock-jazz fusionists’.
The name ‘Steely Dan’ seems like a left over remnant of a past age – the beat poets. That is because it is. William Burrough’s novel, "Naked Lunch" refers to ‘Steely Dan’ – it is a dildo. Thus begins the quiet, yet persistent anarchy that is Steely Dan.
Donald Fagen and Walter Becker met at ‘Bards College’ in NY 1969 (yes it does sound like something out of ‘Skyrim’ kids) and shared interests in jazz, blues, pop music and contemporary literature. Their shared enjoyment of dark or ‘gallows’ humor would underpin their work and their lives.
As song writers, they worked on the side to put together a great little band with Denny Dias (Guitar), Jeff "Skunk" Baxter (guitar), Jim Hodder (drums) and David Palmer (vocals). They release “Can’t Buy a Thrill” which as far as first efforts go, is astonishing! They hit big with “Reelin’ In the Years”, Dirty Work”, “Do It Again”, “Only a Fool Would Say That” – a great flowing, fantastic album; one of my favorites to this day. They thought the engineering could have been better. Really, and ruin the flavour?
Remarkably they followed it up with “Countdown to Ecstasy” in 1973. Hitting us with more eclectic, darker songs they are off into the abyss – a cool abyss. “Countdown” spun out ‘Bodhisattva’ which actually means someone bound for enlightenment, morally or spiritually in buddhahood - with a gung-honess motivated by deep compassion for others. O.K. so they are a bit sarcastic about it in the blaze of Becker riffs and Fagen tongue-in-cheek.
1974’s “Pretzel Logic” continues the cynical tour of the seedy West Coast but leaves us the brilliant “Rikki Don’t Lose that Number”. An instrument called a ‘flapamba’ (a variant of a marimba) introduces the song. The solo by Skunk Baxter soars on this, their most successful single of their career at number 4. They never even had a top 1, 2 or 3 single. Weird. - O.k. yes they can be that and maybe that is part of the explanation. Their popularity just grew and grew like a bad weed in a Los Angeles sidewalk.
It is said that the keyboard riff for “Rikki Don’t Lose that Number” was lifted from "Song For My Father," which was released in 1964 by Jazz composer and pianist Horace Silver – the opening is very similar. They did seem to ‘borrow’ quite freely at times for ideas, but hey I’m not a lawyer. .
In 2006 ‘Entertainment Weekly” speculated that a Rikki Ducomett was the subject of “Rikki Don’t Lose that Number”. Apparently Fagen knew Doucmett while attending Bard. Doucmett was pregnant and married at the time, but apparently recalls Fagen gave her his number at a party.
“Any Major Dude Will Tell You” – one of the first and best uses of ‘dude’ in popular music- with the exception of “All the Young Dudes” by David Bowie which of course was more popular, but more about a “dude” revolution than the SD evolved form of “Major Dude”.
By the time they toured they had a stellar band including Michael McDonald (vocals and piano), Jeff Porcaro (drums) and Royce Jones (percussion and vocals).
“Countdown to Ecstasy”, “Pretzel Logic” and then 1975’s “Katy Lied”, have been described as a weird sort of trilogy. The trilogy is kind of like the 70’s equivalent of ‘Grand Theft Auto’ with its cast of bad characters featuring Fagen and Becker’s studio perfection obsession and their so-L.A. mentality.
“Katy Lied” was done with session players as Becker and Fagen become more private figures and concentrate on the studio work. I love the song “Black Friday” with its dooms day scenario that seems to be somewhat prophetic.
“The Royal Scam”, “Aja” and “Gaucho” all produced good FM fodder and SD remained in high radio rotation with songs like “Kid Charlemagne”, “Green Earrings’. “The Royal Scam”, “Deacon Blues”, “Peg”, “Josie”, “Babylon Sisters’ and “Hey “Nineteen”.
Fagen was the first to do a solo album with “Nightfly” in 1980 to huge success. He hit us again with "Kamakiriad” (Japanese for ‘praying mantis’) in 1993, again successful. Meanwhile Becker moved to Hawaii and became a gentleman avocado farmer. He released his solo project “11 Tracks of Whack” in 1993 with Fagen producing. Becker would not record again solo till 2008’s “Circus Money”.
By 1994 the “Citizen Steely Dan” band was touring with Becker and Fagen. The result was “Live in America”, which the critics don’t like but I found very good. It was not the usual polished studio stuff – it was a bit rough – “they did not cross a diamond with a pearl and turn it on the world” like they had done on the Royal Scam. I found it refreshing.
Since then, 2 more studio albums, “Two Against Nature” and “Everything Must Go” sees the old SD snarky charm shine through.
One hell of a career by anyone’s measure; Steely Dan is with us everyday – you pretty much just need to snap on the radio!
My Top 10 Steely Dan Songs:
1) Rikki Don’t Lose That Number
2) Any Major Dude Will Tell You
3) Bodhisattva (also check the live version from ‘Citizen Steely Dan’)
4) Only a Fool Would Say That
5) Do It Again
6) Reelin’ In the Years
7) Dirty Work
8) Deacon Blues
9) Babylon Sisters