I Don't Want To Be A Dick
...but I removed my list of favorite Steely Dan songs, and I am replacing it with a countdown—from 40 to 1—posted one at a time—as I slowly write a bit about each song.
First of all, I'm going to try to keep this intro—as well as the paragraphs about the songs—brief—not an easy task, as Steely Dan music inspires verbosity. One of my brevity strategies will be to dispense with words of hyperbolic adulation such as: great, awesome, groundbreaking, seminal, transplendent, and rad—as these words all apply to every one of these 40 songs—why of course! Also, please remember, this list—made, a couple of years ago, while re-listening to all known Steely Dan songs—are my personal favorites, based heavily on the bias of nostalgia—and will probably change by the time I finish writing this paragraph. If you don't agree with my assessment, you are welcome to make your own list at your own venue, or argue with me via email (see contacts page) or over coffee (preferred). These rankings aren't worth losing friends over, but in my opinion, robust re-examination serves to enrich one's life.
Number 40 – Do It Again
The very first song from the very first Steely Dan album, Can't Buy A Thrill (1972)—I was 12, not old enough for the sophistication of this music (am still not?) and I didn't buy this record until a little later on. Over the years this is one of their more overplayed numbers, so it's hard to hear it with fresh ears, but you can find a wonderful artifact on YouTube: a live version of the band playing the song on Burt Sugarman's The Midnight Special (don't fall for the video someone made with that footage and the album sound slapped on) where Jeff “Skunk” Baxter is playing congas and vocalist David Palmer sings lead (it's Donald Fagen on the record)—it's worth watching for the 1973 fashions alone, but also great to see the band playing live this early, especially to watch Denny Dias on guitar. The album recording features an electric sitar solo by Dias, and a “plastic organ” solo by Donald Fagen. It's one of their mini-noir, livin' on the edge stories, told in second person, about a guy who runs into trouble in a foreign land, with an unfaithful muse, and finally in the casino, and includes a rhyme of “beg us” and “Vegas.”
Number 39 – Your Gold Teeth
Anyone who knows me knows that I consider 1973, with a few exceptions, to be the pinnacle of movie, literary, and music pop culture, and this record—Countdown to Ecstasy (while I'm unable to name my favorite Steely Dan album)—is no exception. This may have been the first Steely Dan record I bought, as it was always available in cut-out bins for like a dollar (cut-out bins, in old record stores, contained poor-selling records that were heavily discounted and usually had a hole punched in the cover or a corner cut off). It's generally considered not one of SD's best, but it is close to my favorite, on the strength of six killer songs, strangely enough, all but the first and last songs on the record, which are weaker. (Only 8 songs on this record—not unusual for the 1970s—and I'm aware that a lot of people lament the length and number of songs on albums in the CD era, and why? Not so much because people don't like getting a lot of music for their money, but because most pop bands can get pretty damn boring.) To get down to it, this song, my 39th favorite SD song, is over seven minutes long, not even close to boring, and ends Side One on a strong note. It's another one of their slightly sleazy feeling, kind of underworld, lowlife, gambler/lover short stories with enough odd references to make you think they know something you don't. Also, it has a really simple and great line with an internal rhyme: “Dumb luck my friend, won't suck me in, this time.”
Number 38 – Peg
The first song on the second side of Aja (1977)—an album that for many is the pinnacle of Steely Dan's career, but which I considered for many years to be their first record that sucked. For a lot of bands I used to notice a decline, and there was often the record I considered the last good one, and then the record I considered the first bad one. At the time I felt alienated by the glossy, minimalist album cover, and the glossy, slick production, and what I felt was the coldness of the whole venture. Then I rejected Steely Dan entirely, ridiculed them and their fans for many years, and eventually returned to them with an ironic appreciation (much the same as Led Zeppelin) which then evolved into a guilty pleasure, and finally blossomed into full-on love. I have come around to Aja, and while it's not my favorite SD record, I now consider it to be the last album before they sucked. I figure if I keep trying, I might one day come around to Gaucho, but it hasn't happened yet. Anyway, “Peg” is one of their cinema and glamor imagery songs, very upbeat, sounding like a walk in the park by someone with the world by the balls, but if you listen closely, by the end everything is a little off—the background singers are voicing something you can't understand, almost a little demonic. The last two lines are: “You see it all in 3-D / It's your favorite foreign movie”—which, while still being cinema references, could be taken as 3-D meaning harsh reality, and foreign movie implying something dark, possibly tragic. I've heard speculated that the song refers to Peg Entwistle, an actress who, in 1932, killed herself by jumping off the Hollywoodland sign, and if I squint, I can totally see that in this song.