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50 years later, Steely Dan's 'Pretzel Logic' still sounds fresh

TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Rock critic Ken Tucker has noticed that there are a number of significant albums that are celebrating their 50th anniversary. And he's decided to devote a summer series to celebrating a wide variety of them. First up is Steely Dan's "Pretzel Logic." Released in 1974, it was the band's third album, one that yielded a big hit single, "Rikki Don't Lose That Number." For reasons, he's about to explain, Ken thinks "Pretzel Logic" is Steely Dan's best album. Here's their song, "Any Major Dude Will Tell You."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ANY MAJOR DUDE WILL TELL YOU")

STEELY DAN: (Singing) I never seen you looking so bad, my funky one. You tell me that your superfine mind has come undone. Any major dude with half a heart surely will tell you, my friend - any minor world that breaks apart falls together again. When the demon is at your door, in the morning it won't be there no more Any major dude will tell you. Any major dude will tell you.

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: Coolly detached, ironic and arch, Steely Dan has always stood apart from their contemporaries. The songs written by singer-keyboardist Donald Fagen and guitarist-bassist Walter Becker didn't sound like what was popular at the time. This was not heroic rock 'n' roll in the manner of Rod Stewart or Bad Company. Steely Dan's music of profound uneasiness erased any trace of macho egotism. And that's another reason it continues to sound as fresh and inviting as it does.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NIGHT BY NIGHT")

STEELY DAN: (Singing) It's a beggars' life, said the Queen of Spain, but don't tell it to a poor man. Because he's got to kill for every thrill the best he can. Everywhere around me, I see jealousy and mayhem. Because no men have all their peace of mind to carry them. Well, I don't really care if it's wrong or if it's right. But until my ship comes in, I'll live night by night.

TUCKER: In 1974, "Pretzel Logic" found Steely Dan at a crossroads. Their first two albums had done what Fagan and Becker had set out to do - establish the band as a viable business proposition. Having proved they could make hits - such as "Reelin' In The Years" and "Do It Again" - they were able to take more creative control of their career. Fagen and Becker would no longer need to answer to record company bosses about their obtuse lyrics or justify their intricate arrangements. With "Pretzel Logic," they began a new quest for studio perfectionism that would carry on through the rest of the act's existence.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PRETZEL LOGIC")

STEELY DAN: (Singing) I would love to tour the southland in a traveling minstrel show. Yes, I'd love to tour the southland in a traveling minstrel show. Yes, I'm dying to be a star and make them laugh, sound just like a record on the phonograph. Those days are gone forever, over a long time ago. Oh, yeah.

TUCKER: That's the album's title song, a blues tune that says trying to become a star is a fool's errand. In retrospect, you can hear the song as a statement of goals. Instead of trying to, quote, "sound just like a record on the phonograph," the touring that's mentioned is what Becker and Fagen wanted to stop doing. After this album, Steely Dan wouldn't perform in public again for decades. Indeed, after "Pretzel Logic," there was no Steely Dan band. It was just Fagen and Becker as creatures of the recording studio, employing an endless variety of esteemed session musicians to execute their tricky compositions.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RIKKI DON'T LOSE THAT NUMBER")

STEELY DAN: (Singing) We hear you're leaving. That's OK. I thought our little wild time had just begun. I guess you kind of scared yourself, you turn and run. But if you have a change of heart, Rikki, don't lose that number. You don't want to call nobody else. Send it off in a letter to yourself. Rikki, don't lose that number. It's the only one you own. You might use it if you feel better when you get home.

TUCKER: Becker and Fagen's ceaseless pursuit of pristine perfection would, in later years, sometimes result in bloodless sterility. Yes, I'm thinking of you, 1980 album "Gaucho." But on "Pretzel Logic," they were just insecure enough to make sure they included a radio friendly single. "Rikki Don't Lose That Number" peaked at No. 4., while showcasing a range they would never display again. The song "With A Gun" is a Steely Dan version of a Western, more Roy Rogers than "The Wild Bunch."

"Through With Buzz" is the shortest song they ever recorded and contains the ultimate Steely Dan sad hipster couplet. Quote, "you know I'm cool - yes, I feel all right, except when I'm in my room and it's late at night." Two cuts touch on Becker and Fagen's love of jazz. "Parker's Band" is one of the rare Dan songs whose lyric is straightforward. It's a salute to the saxophone great Charlie Parker. And "East St. Louis Toodle‐oo" is a cover of a jaunty 1920s instrumental by Duke Ellington.

(SOUNDBITE OF STEELY DAN'S "EAST ST. LOUIS TOODLE‐OO")

TUCKER: The cover of "Pretzel Logic" is a black-and-white photograph of a pretzel vendor snapped in New York City's Central Park on a cold, slushy winter day. In the pretzel logic context of this album, that harsh image is a perfect analog for the paradox of Steely Dan. They were hitmakers who acted like obscure cult artists, creators of crowd-pleasing pleasure with songs about joyless obsessions. What an unlikely, great album.

MOSLEY: Rock critic Ken Tucker. Steely Dan's album "Pretzel Logic" was released 50 years ago. Susan Nyakundi directed today's show. With Terry Gross, I'm Tonya Mosley.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THROUGH WITH BUZZ")

STEELY DAN: (Singing) He takes all my money. You know, I'm through with Buzz. Yes, I'm through with Buzz. All right. Oh, yeah. He's not very funny. You know, I'm through with Buzz...

(SOUNDBITE OF JOSHUA REDMAN'S "HIT THE ROAD JACK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ken Tucker
Ken Tucker reviews rock, country, hip-hop and pop music for Fresh Air. He is a cultural critic who has been the editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly, and a film critic for New York Magazine. His work has won two National Magazine Awards and two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards. He has written book reviews for The New York Times Book Review and other publications.