On this date forty years ago, Steely Dan released their third long-player Pretzel Logic, widely regarded as a pinnacle achievement for the premier jazz-pop rock band and one of those great classic rock albums of the 70s. We decided to commemorate the date and gave some thought to doing some sort of review from the perspective of judging how well it’s aged over the years. But that’s been done a billion times already. Besides, we’ve dissected this album song-by-song a few years ago, if that’s what you’re looking for.
Instead, we’re going to raise a glass to Walter Becker and Donald Fagen’s masterpiece by picking out five sweet little things they did on this record that no other rock band of their time would have ever thought of doing. Why? Because, Becker and Fagen are smarter than those guys.
They did a lot more than these things listed below to make Pretzel Logic an ideal for sophisticated rock that was more daring and wider ranging than anything they’ve done since (and this is coming from a huge Aja fan). We just want to show a few examples of the genius they put into this album. Feel free to add your own favorite Pretzel Logic moments in the comments section.
1. The electric marimba intro. (“Rikki Don’t Lose That Number”)
The radio intro to “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” the one that 95% of everybody assumes is the real beginning of the song, is Steely Dan famously borrowing from Horace Silver’s “Song From My Father.” But the radio edit removed the passage before that, a dark, eerie and dissonant solo electric marimba passage by Victor Feldman. So instead of the song (and album) being ushered in by post-bop, it’s actually kicked off by avant-garde jazz. We already knew those guys listened to a lot of Blue Note records but evidently, a few ESP-Disk LPs made it into their rotation, too.
2. The tightly syncopated groove. (“Night By Night”)
OK, so this isn’t so much a moment, it’s almost the entire song. But it bears pointing out, because since Billy Preston dropped “Outa-Space” on us in 1972, the clavinet became the most potent weapon for discharging funk over the next four or five years. Stevie Wonder (“Superstition”) and Herbie Hancock (“Chameleon”) did some wonderful things with that instrument, too, but a couple of white guys from NYC had constructed this groove using it with Jeff Porcaro’s circular drum figure and Denny Dias’ rhythm guitar in contrapuntal perfection. The whole thing works together so well, the clav’ (played by another Toto co-founder, David Paich) only needs to play one chord over and over again. Less is more, in this case.
3. Referencing an obscure, mythical creature? Check. (“Any Major Dude Will Tell You”)
Plebeians talk about unicorns when they want to discuss imaginary animals, Becker and Fagen use a squonk. A squonk? Yeah, you know, an ugly forest creature that dissolves completely in its own tears when cornered. “Have you ever seen a squonk’s tears, well look at mine…”
4. Making an electric guitar mimic a plunged trumpet. (“East St. Louis Toodle-Oo”)
On the only cover song ever included on a Steely Dan album, this also marks Becker’s introduction on lead guitar. He makes his first impression with a dead-on impersonation the song’s co-composer Bubber Miley’s plunged horn using a wah-wah pedal. Other aspiring rock guitarists in the sixties were picking apart Jeff Beck’s and Eric Clapton’s solos. Meanwhile, Walter Becker was following along to Duke Ellington records from the late 1920s. By looking way back, he was looking way forward.
Skunk Baxter’s turn on pedal steel is pretty damned cool, too.
5. The fuzzy, ornery bass. (“Monkey In Your Soul”)
When this song’s turn came up in the Steely Dan Sunday series, we said that the dominant, over-amped bass guitar from Becker was a “love it or hate it” kind of thing. But on second thought, if it wasn’t for that growling noise emanating from the bass raining down frayed funk, the song would have sounded rather ordinary by this band’s standards. So kudos to the boys for going for the jugular in making “Monkey” a danceable ditty that stays in your cranium long after the final note is played and the needle has traversed toward the runout groove of the vinyl. Or in whatever form you listen to Pretzel Logic today.
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