One Track Mind: Steely Dan "Babylon Sisters" (1980)

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by S. Victor Aaron

As a nation is transfixed on the destructive fires going on in Southern California, the fate of millions living there seem to rest on something Man has no control over: those Santa Ana winds. Hot, dry gales that blow in from the desert to the east help to create dry conditions optimal for wildfires and fan the flames. And at speeds of 35 knots, it can be a general pain in the ass, too.

That’s why people there fret over it:

Here come those Santa Ana winds again…

Gaucho. Since Becker and Fagan thrived on writing about dapravity in the human condition, they found much lyrical fodder in the heavy-partying L.A. scene of the seventies. “The Glamour Profession” is relatively explicit about this, but “Babylon Sisters” covers much of the same territory.

In broad terms, Steely Dan explained the subject matter for this song within the liner notes for 1995’s Alive In America: “Late-seventies L.A. noir. Apocalyptic. Burned out. Slide into decadence or healing regression? Cool beat.”

The details of what exactly is being sung about are a little sketchy but it sure sounds a lot like a middle-aged man whose moral compass is broke and playing with fire with girls young enough to be his daughter (a favored theme revisited twenty years later on “Janie Runaway”). But as the narrator relishes in anticipation of a weekend of debauchery, he’s still worried about those Santa Ana winds.

This is the also the song where I was introduced to the term “kirschwasser” and twenty-seven years later I’m still waiting for the right time to use it, much less drink it. Becker and Fagan compositions are always good for learning cool new words and phrases that might never apply to the real world. So what, it all sounds hip as hell, anyway. That’s one of the things people love about The Dan.

Inevitably the lyrics are just a sideshow, albeit an interesting one. Musically, “Babylon Sisters” is a tightly-played nimble groove nailed down by drummer Pretty Purdie’s precise, beautifully subtle shuffle that propels a knotty progression of jazz chords blurted out on an electric Wurlitzer piano. There’s no guitar solo here, as the horn section take the front line. An all-star female backup vocalist team of Valerie Simpson and Patti Austin belts out the “Babylon Sis-tahs…shake it” chorus. The attention to detail is evident everywhere on this track.

Some say the production went so extreme as to sterilize the soul out of it. That’s a fair argument for the other tracks on Gaucho, but “Sisters” just swaggers too much to be souless.

And what did the Boys from Bard do on this recording? Not much, really…Fagen handles lead vocals as usual, but that’s about it from those two. It’s all about the set up and execution and here, they do it to perfection.

In all, it’s a bodacious beginning to an album that overall failed to measure up in the impossible task of following Aja. But as the fires currently rage around San Diego and Los Angeles, I’ll be hoping that those Santa Ana winds don’t come again for a while.

Listen: Steely Dan “Babylon Sisters”

Purchase: Steely Dan – Gaucho

“One Track Mind” is a more-or-less weekly drool over a single song selected on a whim and a short thesis on why you should be drooling over it, too.

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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