Steely Dan albums always start strong, but “Babylon Sisters” might be their strongest intro track of all time. Four and half years ago, as the fires raging in Southern California at the time consumed the news, I was reminded of this song of which I wore out the grooves on my Gaucho vinyl long player for two years until The Nightfly finally appeared to consume my Steely Dan fetish in its place. But I never, ever get sick of this song. There might not be even a feeble suggestion of rock anywhere near it, but insofar as the pursuit of co-opting the jazz swing of Ellington and Basie into a severely tight, precise contemporary groove, they perfected that right here. The rest of the album doesn’t quite sustain the momentum begun by “Babylon,” but how could it? There’s only one direction to go after beginning at such a high point. Here are my thoughts on this song I posted here on October 26, 2007:
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…
Steely Dan principals Walter Becker and Donald Fagen have resided in the Los Angeles area during the 70s long enough to know this all too well. Gradually since their 1972 debut, their songwriting shifted from being East Coast-centric of their formative years to a having firmly West Coast focus by the time they recorded Gaucho. Since Becker and Fagan thrived on writing about depravity 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 soulless.
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.
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These musings on “Babylon Sisters” by Steely Dan are originally from October 26, 2007.