Steely Dan Sunday, "Century’s End" (1988)

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*** STEELY DAN SUNDAY INDEX ***

After The Nightfly Donald Fagen continued to work in music but over the next decade, he lowered his profile. For the remainder of the 80s, he contributed a song or his keyboard playing skills for an album here and there for jazz-leaning artists ranging from The Yellowjackets to Rickie Lee Jones. Fagen and Becker actually attempted a reunion in the mid-80’s but couldn’t come up with anything they thought met their standards. Fagen was experiencing writer’s block on his own, too.

The lone recordings credited under either the Fagen solo or Steely Dan names between 1982 and 1993 was a single that came right in the middle of that dry period. Fagen wrote “Century’s End” with Timothy Meher and recorded it for the Michael J. Fox movie, Bright Lights, Big City. Rightly or wrongly, this Fox movie vehicle didn’t catch on like the Back To The Future series, and really, neither did “Century’s End.” I passed on the soundtrack album (even though there’s also a Prince song on it) and opted for the Fagen single instead, listened to it about a dozen or so times, loaned it to my cousin and never saw it again. I forgot about the song for many years.

I suspect a lot of people did; like “True Companion,” it sort of came and went in the night without much of a ripple. The song later ended up on a couple of compilations: an expanded edition of Steely Dan Gold issued in 1991 and The Nightfly Trilogy from 2007. Listening to “Century’s End” twenty-four years later with the benefit of some perspective, it sure seems to have held up better than most other pop songs of the time. Fagen bucked the prevailing trends by using a real drummer, a real bass player, and even had the audacity to write in a bridge for the song. The only obvious nod to the times sonically is a synth that badly approximates the sound of a Wurlitzer. The lyrics seem to tie in with the late 80s urban decadence depicted in the movie, a topic that begged for Becker’s input. Instead, there’s the more pedestrian prose of making “a bid for romance/While the dollar stands a chance/Dumb love in the city at century’s end,” but the poetry is no disaster, it’s just not up to the usual grade.

Yet, for all it’s got going for it, the song now — just as it did then — leaves no lasting impression on me, and I can’t put my finger on the reason for that. Fagen must have thought too that he didn’t have enough of his mojo back, because it would be another five years still before he’d make another record. There, the time is also set at the end of the century, but that’s for another Sunday.

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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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  • Doc Mu

    That’s a real horn chart, too…courtesy of Rob Mounsey.

    Deceptively jazzy and surprisingly organic – the bridge and particularly the instrument break shine with the horns and magnificently shiny blues synth harp dancing and chatting around each other – it’s an ear party!

    The lyrics fit well within the Nightfly umbrella, although I suspect much of them are Meher’s. Dumb love in the city at Century’s End.

    It’s an(other) out of place classic, and more than holds its own within the Fagen lexicon.

  • Doc Mu

    …I should add the song’s lyrics indeed fit well into the movei…the Death of Romance and “The Cute Meet,” a classic Mike Royko column.

  • madpanic

    Did Fagen’s version of “Bright Lights, Big City” ever get released? It played over the end of the film just before the credits (and End of the Century) but I don’t remember it on the soundtrack. You can hear it at this link starting just after 4 minutes (when Michael J. Fox walks out of the party): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d5xYvjXV_qk&feature=channel&list=UL

  • Dave M

    Being a late-80s song, I always thought the lyrics dealt obliquely with AIDS:

    “Which means look, maybe touch, but beyond that, not too much. Dumb love in the city at century’s end.”

    Says it all.

  • Don Rocko

    “Fagen and Becker actually attempted a reunion in the mid-80’s but couldn’t come up with anything they thought met their standards. Fagen was experiencing writer’s block on his own, too.”

    Well Becker sure got over his writers block with “Eleven Tracks of Whack”, still the best Steely Dan album never made by Steely Dan!

    • gun_clutcher

      …oooo no no…disagree

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