Steely Dan’s Original ABC/Dunhill Reissue Notes, Part 3: Pretzel Logic

Reprinted–nay, stolen from the band’s website whole cloth, out of fear it will be taken down there. (Hopefully they won’t force it to be taken down here. This is Dan Fan gold.)

In the 90s, Andy Mckay of ABC/Dunhill Records asked Donald and Walter if they’d write liner notes for a reissue of the their Dunhill albums. The notes appeared in sequence on each album as it was released. They are now collected here: 

THE ORIGINAL ABC/DUNHILL REISSUE NOTES by Walter Becker & Donald Fagen

PRETZEL LOGIC 

Comfort to the soul Inspiration to the senses Sustenance from one moment to the next These are the morsels we all crave – 

Takashimaya Catalogue, Volume 6 

Hey Andy – We’ve been working on the liner notes for the new reissues and we were wondering: What is the new series going to be called? Steely Dan Millennium Reissue Series? How about a sticker that reads: Special Repackaging for the New Romantic Generation? Or maybe the best thing to do would be to rename the tunes and the albums and reissue them as new product. 

Because, let’s face it, they still sound pretty fresh, we were years and years ahead of our time (you said so yourself) and it’s not getting any easier to write and record these suckers, you know, in this, the post-postmodern era, when the average third grader is a bigger wiseass than we ever were. If you like this idea, let us know and we’ll start working on the changes immediately. As it happens, we’re years and years behind our time in royalties, so the advances would come in handy. 

“Cross Collateralization”: This was not one of the terms we had mastered as we lurched down Laurel Canyon in Gary Katz’s Buick on our way to work back in ’72. 

Not that Gary himself was unaware of the concept back then. Indeed, he had scrupulously avoided it, as witnessed by the fact that he was now, in 1973, driving not a humble Buick but a swank tomato-red Mercedes Benz roadster. At the time, Messrs. Becker and Fagen, whose publishing and recording deals were cross collateralized to a fair-thee-well, having been issued valid California driver’s licenses, were respectively driving a 1966 Chevelle and a late model Mazda RX-7 econo-sport-sedan with a fuel-gobbling Wankel rotary engine. It’s not that we were completely ignorant of sophisticated politico-economic concepts. We had, unfortunately for us, heard of democracy, and also socialism, and had organized the financial structure of the fledgling Steely Dan organization along the lines of the European-style social democracy we so admired. 

Our aspiration toward socioeconomic justice was overdetermined as much by the heady egalitarian 60s zeitgeist as by some fierce internal Robespierre who demanded that we share the wealth, such as it was, equally with our fellow musicians. This utopian economic scheme, in stark contrast to the harsh despotism to which we subjected our bandmates in the province of aesthetics, promoted a feeling of fellowship and community. This pecuniary benevolence, in conjunction with the oppressive contract we’d struck with our corporate masters at ABC/Dunhill (not to mention the shamelessly colluding legion of middle men – personal manager, business manager, lawyer, agent – that we’d been forced to retain) had, as yet, produced uniform poverty. When, in 1974, we took on teenage session ace Jeff Porcaro as a second drummer, he became, at a cool $400 a week, the highest paid player in the outfit. The rest of us had to get by on a pittance. 

By the time we were ready to start work on our third album, we were no longer the enthusiastic amateurs of the Can’t Buy A Thrill period, champing at the bit to get in the studio and record. Nor were we the shell-shocked road warriors of the Countdown sessions, shepherding our little troop through the jazz-rock underbrush. Rather, we had settled into a comfortable, frankly schizotypal songwriting groove. Fortunately, the vestiges of these same isolating tendencies and not a little gallows humor served to protect us from the relentless, soul-flattening sunny clime, the jive robo-culture in which we now found ourselves. We had our songs, some dandy axes, cool girlfriends, the shiny new drivers’ licenses, plenty of 24-track studio time and a warm place to compose. In other words, Miles was in his heaven and all was right with the world. 

“Oh Lord, give me a bastard with talent…” Morris Levy 

For us, there were no grander epithet in the English language than “session player” (“skin like milk” and “flavor-straw” were close runners-up). We often reminisced about our early session experiences in New York, especially the dates we played for our college chum Terence Boylan, who had somehow scored a miracle recording contract with Columbia Records. It was in the fabled studios of midtown Manhattan – A&R, ODO, Mayfair, Jerry Ragovoy’s Hit Factory – that we got to play with such icons as the legendary (if somewhat dyspeptic) drummer Herb Lovell, who showed us what professional musicianship was all about. Pianist Paul Griffin, bassists Chuck Rainey and Harvey Brooks, guitarist Hugh McCracken, drummer Bernard “Pretty” Purdie – these were names that were mentioned in hushed and reverent tones. Observing a session at ABC’s little in-house studio, we were mightily impressed by the awesomely steady pulse, the soulful forward motion of studio drummer Jim Gordon, even though the vanilla Dunhill staff producers had him playing the most moronic bubblegum music imaginable. 

And, to be sure, during the making of our first two albums, we had on numerous occasions taken the liberty of bringing in a ringer when we felt we needed one. Naturally, there had been some resistance expressed by our bandmates to the notion that the earnest labors of one of our own faithful musketeers could be equaled or even bettered by the efforts of a mere hireling. But the pharaoh’s heart was hard, and feeling as we did that the facts spoke for themselves (Elliot Randall on Reelin, Victor Feldman on Do It Again, etc.), we could not be moved. Plus, there was the precedent of groups such as the Byrds or the Beach Boys or even the Beatles, who (we had heard) mercilessly replaced band members with session aces, and in doing so obtained outstanding results – not to mention the scrupulous meritocracy enforced by the rigorous past masters of the swing era and beyond. 

Thus we hear the dynamic double-drum artistry of Jim Gordon and Jeff Porcaro on Parker’s Band, Michael Omartian’s crystalline piano on Rikki, Chuck Rainey’s sweet soulful bass on Any Major Dude, Dean Parks’ plangent banjo on East St. Louis Toodle-oo (and let’s not forget Victor Feldman’s plangent flapamba, also on Rikki), and so on. Once the neural floodgates had been opened to the possibilities of recording with any and all of our favorite studio cats, there was no turning back. 

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