“The Royal Scam”—last song, side two of The Royal Scam (1976)

I bought this record, The Royal Scam, Steely Dan's 5th, the year it came out, 1976, and I don't think I was appalled by the gnarly album cover until many years later. I'm not going to describe it, except to say I had the feeling my eye was drawn, for some reason, to the hole on the bottom of the guy's shoe, and that struck me as particularity disturbing. But then, looking at the back cover, it's just a close-up of part of the image on the front—the part with the bottom of the shoes. So it must have been after I saw the back cover that I became more focused on that part of the front cover. Many things in life are like this. Anyway, it's a great record. Every song is good. The song, “The Royal Scam,” is the last one on the record, and also the longest. It makes me think of a movie, for some reason—maybe it's the horns popping in and out—very cinematic. Also, it's kind of repetitive. There are three verses, no chorus—though each verse ends with: “See the glory of the royal scam.” This very well could be a fairly well known reference that I don't know, but I don't know it, if it is. I have no idea what this song is about. Is it terrible if I say I don't care enough to research it? I mean, I feel like what you need to know should be there, but it sounds like some reference from history involving immigrants coming to New York City. The third verse, however, is very specific, and without knowing the origin of the text it's drawing from, it's impossible to know what it's about. At any rate, what I particularly like about it is how the last line of the song (before repeating the royal scam line three or four times) is the same as the first line: “And they wandered in from the city of St. John without a dime”—which both gives the song a circular feeling and also the feeling that we have just come in on on something that's just going and going endlessly—we're just getting a glimpse of it and then leaving, while it keeps going on without us.

—Randy Russell 11.11.18

Current Ranking: No. 33

“Throw Back the Little Ones”—last song, side two of Katy Lied (1975)

This song has suffered a little bit as far as my affections go simply because it follows a really strong track (“Any World”)—a very daunting task—also, it doesn't sound anything like the kind of song you'd end an album with (as “Any World” does). I was also always a little put off by this song for no other reason than the first line: “Lost in the Barrio, I walk like an Injun”—which, I know, was not as politically incorrect in 1975—and also, I know it's the voice of a character—but still, the last person I recall using that term was John Wayne, who used it a lot—and while John Wayne was a moving part of a lot of really great movies, as an actor, he's just about the opposite of what I like in an actor. The character here finds himself in a Spanish speaking neighborhood in NYC, at odds with someone named “Carlo”—but—and even more so in the next two verses—it's layer upon layer of metaphor—the underworld character using the metaphor of the Old West, and then the hipster writing the song using the metaphor of the underworld character—with a little angler mixed in.

It's a much better song than I previously ever gave it credit for. “So I pawn my crown for a ride uptown, and buy it back tomorrow” is a great line. And, of course, it's hard to argue with the advice: “Throw back the little ones and pan fry the big ones”—I find myself repeating that a lot more than I would have thought possible. There are these smooth horns, I guess horns, very subtle, and a kind of catchy to the point of being annoying what sounds like a synthesizer part at the beginning of each verse, and then a kind of flawlessly smooth guitar solo, followed by some other odd bits, tempo changes, and jazz nerd complexity. Then at the very end it gets really quiet and there's just piano—it's own thing, for less than half a minute—and it sounds like anything but the end of a record—more like the beginning of something, like if it was a TV show theme song (though no TV show has a song that pretty). That just might be another Steely Dan joke—end the record with something that sounds like a beginning. That's the kind of thing that makes me like them so much.

—Randy Russell 11.4.18

Current Ranking: No. 32

“Your Gold Teeth”—last song, side one of Countdown to Ecstasy (1973)

Anyone who knows me knows that I consider 1973, with few exceptions, to be the pinnacle of movie/literary/music/popular 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 the six killer songs that are, strangely enough, all but the first and last songs on the record (which I don't like quite as much, but are still good). This song, “Your Gold Teeth,” is over seven minutes long, and not even close to too long, never boring, and ends Side One quite epically. It's another one of their sick, sleazy feeling, underworld, lowlife, gambler/lover short stories with enough odd references to make you think they know something you don't. It's not really a chorus verse structure—each of the first two verses end with the lines: “You throw out your gold teeth / Do you see how they roll?”—musically kind of feeling like you're... just... hitting... a... wall. I don't know how to describe it in musical terms, but it makes me think of a tail-end of a jingle for a parallel universe sit-com called The Hapless Hopeless Hucksters. Then... the song goes into what's more like a bridge than a chorus that sounds almost like a sunny commercial break, but ends with a really simple and great line with an internal rhyme: “Dumb luck my friend, won't suck me in, this time.” Then... when you expect it to go back to a verse, there's an extended electric piano solo, followed by an extended guitar solo, and then it repeats the bridge! Only then does it go back to the verse, at first sounding like it's just going to repeat the first verse, because it repeats the first line of the first verse: “Got a feeling I've been here before”—but then it goes on with a totally new verse, as inexplicable as the rest of them. I have no idea what it's about, ultimately, but there is a very strong reference, in the bridge section, to Cathy Berberian—a singer and fascinating figure from the past—but I'll leave you to look her up to your heart's content.

—Randy Russell 10.11.18

Current ranking: No. 39

“Dirty Work” — second song, side one of Can't Buy a Thrill (1972)

When I first made a ranking of my favorite 40 Steely Dan songs, this one was number one. It no longer is—these things change over time—but it's still up there, which is kind of odd considering a lot of Dan-heads and Steely-bots barely consider this a SD song at all. A lot of the appeal for me is due to, after having gone for several years without actively listening to the records, then hearing “Dirty Work” in someone's mix and “rediscovering” it. That kind of context can be a powerful thing. Also, it may be one of the least Steely Dan sounding SD songs, and it's just like me to gravitate to the oddity—that's just the kind of person I am. Also, it's undeniably a super catchy, memorable pop song. I'll leave you to your own devices (I'd suggest “the internet”) to look up other artists covering this song—they're all pretty good, and especially The Pointer Sisters' version. Sometimes I wonder what Steely Dan would have been like if they'd gone all the way with the studio musicians thing and even hired various singers for all the songs instead of Donald Fagen singing them. Was that something they considered? This album gives you an idea, since David Palmer and Jim Hodder sing lead on three of my favorite songs, but ultimately I love Donald Fagen's voice; I think it makes the band what it is as much as anything, and this song would probably be even better had he sang it. Anyway, I love the organ sound, first of all, and then the smooth horns that aren't overbearing. It's another classic “back-door man” lyric—not exactly my favorite category of story—the whole celebration of this kind of thing kind of creeps me out, if not outright nauseates me. This take on it, though, is pretty sordid, infused with shame, and ends with the classic line: “I foresee terrible trouble and I stay here just the same”—which, in or out of context, describes one of the most universal human failings—and presents you this song, if you want it, as a kind of ultimate loser anthem.

—Randy Russell 9.20.18

Current ranking: No. 5

“Do It Again” — first song, side one of Can't Buy a Thrill (1972)

This is the very first song from the very first Steely Dan album, so the pressure was on (how do you pick the song order?)—but for all they knew, of the future, they were Dan Fogelberg and Tim Weisberg who had a flash of insanity/inspiration and were no doubt able to name their band after a dildo in a William Burroughs novel only because the executives at ABC Records had absolutely no idea it was a dildo in Naked Lunch—and it sounded better than “The Becker-Fagen Fusion.” I was 12 at the time and didn't care. I don't think I bought this record until later, until well after I had fished their next LP from the cut-out bins, probably having heard someone rave about it in Creem magazine. This song was one of their most played singles, and I'd probably like it more if I hadn't heard it over the years more than any Steely Dan song. There's a fascinating 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, especially to watch Denny Dias on guitar. The album recording features an electric sitar solo by Dias, and a “plastic organ” (Yamaha YC-30) 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. I'd also like the song a lot more if the lyrically terrible chorus was close to as good as some of the inspired rhymes in the verses: “gunnin'” and “done in”—“high climber” and “two-timer”—and my favorite: “beg us” and “Vegas.”

—Randy Russell 9.13.18

Current ranking: No. 40

“Night by Night” — second song, side one of Pretzel Logic (1974)

I may have purchased this record in 1974, when I was 14, the year I first smoked pot, and was maybe most impressed with the giant, stretched photo of the band on the inside of the gatefold cover—turned vertically, standing in front of what looks like a giant version of the Maltese Falcon—particularly Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, in the foreground, who just looks a lot cooler than the rest of the guys and may as well be wearing a red neon sign that says “weed.” The outside cover folds out to a NYC winter panorama, featuring a gnarly street cart pretzel salesman (this guy had to be a real guy, and I wonder how this affected his life). It's their best album cover. I have to add, one of those pretzels made me sick once. I've always overlooked this song, as it sits between two of my very favorite songs, so it's nice to isolate it and really listen for once. The lyrics are a little general, kind of corny hardboiled, and include the overused idiom, “Until my ship comes in,” which, still, I like a lot, and I actually incorporate into my everyday conversation. The album has no liner notes and very few specific credits, so I have no idea who's playing on what, but there is a list of “thanks” that include a lot of Los Angeles session musicians—I guess this is when SD was transitioning from being a band to more of a recording project. Not that I really care so much about who played what on what, but a lot of people are obsessed with that kind of thing. Before and after the last chorus, someone sounds like they're inventing the 1970s “blistering guitar solo” right there—all in a day's work. I sometimes wonder if musicians feel like they don't get the credit they deserve, though. As the song says: “Everywhere around me I see jealously and mayhem / because no men have all their peace of mind to carry them.” But if you're in that world, I guess you need a thick skin, and just have to take it day by day—etc.

—Randy Russell 8.13.18

Current ranking: No. 34

“Turn That Heartbeat Over Again” — last song, side two of Can't Buy a Thrill (1972)

This is one of many, many songs about minor underworld losers who make the wrong choices and would probably make no mark on the world—save an unflattering police lineup or crime-scene photo—but whose actual good fortune is to be immortalized in a song with an intriguing title that I'm going to do my best, from this day on, to use in casual conversation as a slippery, metaphorical, slang expression. I never gave this song much attention, honestly, until I realized one day that the beginning of the chorus—“Oh Michael, Oh Jesus”—was coursing through my head, not so much as a curse or a prayer, but... I don't know what, actually. Listening more closely, then, I rediscovered how much I like the seemingly simple guitar during that part (though nothing is really simple with Steely Dan). Going deeper, then, lyrically, I have especially come to love the lines: “Now the food here ain't so good no more / And they closed the package store” as a kind of brilliant, concise short story setup that is all you need to describe this shadowy place—and its tipping point that puts a set of doomed characters on their tragic path.

—Randy Russell 8.9.18

Current ranking: No. 37

“Peg” — first song, side two of Aja (1977)

Aja is 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 glamour 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.

—Randy Russell 7.31.18

Current ranking: No. 38