[Review] Steely Dan: Pretzel Logic (1974)

Eleven twisted songs that fold in elements of jazz, rock and everything else to create what many consider the band’s first masterpiece.

Kronomyth 3.0: A knot by every stretch of the imagination.

For Steely Dan’s third album, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen maintained only the thinnest pretense of a band (one group photo on the inside gatefold cover) and instead created a studio monster of hired hands who were allegedly tortured into providing numerous takes for each song. The result isn’t their most perfect album, despite copious praise to the contrary by wiser scribes than I. It is, however, their most perfectionist album to date. Cramming eight minutes of music into two- and three-minute songs produces some indelible moments in pop music—and more than its share of indigestion.

It’s easy to hear why critics and fans love this album. The smart jazz references, obtuse yet incisive lyrics and boundless creativity bespeak the peak of pop. And while their humor remained intact, the sweetness had been bled out of them. You won’t find anything as joyful as “Pearl of the Quarter” or as sympathetic as “Your Gold Teeth” on Pretzel Logic. What you get here instead is the sarcastic, cynical Bard College students run wild in a candystore of canned genius. The record might just as well have featured Victor Frankenstein as Victor Feldman, fusing as it does so many different parts together—rock, pop, country and all manner of jazz—and holding them in place by sheer force of will.

The opening Rikki Don’t Lose That Number might be the most charming monster in the bunch. It ambles at you coolly, confidently, a book by Bukowski peeking out of a backpack, humming a jazz song with an electric guitar slung over one shoulder. Night By Night continues the unnatural fusion, a bric-a-brac of flute, funky guitar and James Dean desperation. For my money, Any Major Dude is the album’s peak, a ray of light on an otherwise dark album. My favorite moments from Steely Dan are those where Becker and Fagen actually allow themselves to be (or at least appear to be) human. Barrytown is another inside joke from their Bard College days, smart but more than a little smug. The collection of songs ends with a completely unexpected tiptoe through the toodles, East St. Louis Toodle-oo.

Becker and Fagen put on their jazz nerd party hats for Parker’s Band, which sounds like equal parts Frank Zappa and pretentious jazz weenie (or a Bird Weenie Sandwich, I guess). The tantalizing Through With Buzz is one of the album’s most intriguing experiences, pop music played at a drunken stagger, which appears to be another one of those inside jokes at someone’s expense; the use of strings reminds me of early ELO. Pretzel Logic is a blues-based number with horns that burns at a low, cool flame. It’s never been one of my favorites, but as a mood-setting piece it’s pretty effective. The songwriters then trot out a quick country-rock song, With A Gun, before delivering an early Christmas present with the depressing tale of Charlie Freak. Although it’s terribly dark, “Charlie Freak” is a touching story and arguably the album’s most moving moment. Behind every cynic, I suppose, is a wounded heart. The funky, fuzzed-out Monkey In Your Soul is the last candy left in the box. Most Steely Dan albums don’t come to any meaningful conclusion; they just end.

Pretzel Logic and Katy Lied are the only two occasions where Steely Dan favored the short-song format. I think Katy Lied is the better album, but most would flip that judgment. Becker and Fagen seemed more confident as songwriters on Katy Lied; here, it seems as though they’re trying to show off their range, and the result is an album that feels forced and unnatural at times. I have the sense that Becker and Fagen are trying to run away from the audience on Pretzel Logic, as though they need to stay one step ahead of them, but running toward them on Katy Lied. That probably doesn’t make any sense. Few things are what they seem in the Steely Dan universe, and yet it’s that shared sense of being outside of Becker and Fagen’s world looking in, and inside the world of Steely Dan looking out at the rest of the mundane musical world that attracts me to their music like a moth.

Original elpee version

A1. Rikki Don’t Lose That Number (4:30)
A2. Night By Night (3:36)
A3. Any Major Dude (3:05)
A4. Barrytown (3:17)
A5. East St. Louis Toodle-oo (Duke Ellington/Bubber Miley) (2:45)
B1. Parker’s Band (2:36)
B2. Through With Buzz (1:30)
B3. Pretzel Logic (4:28)
B4. With a Gun (2:15)
B5. Charlie Freak (2:41)
B6. Monkey In Your Soul (2:31)

All songs written by Walter Becker and Donald Fagen unless noted.

Original 8-track version
A1. Pretzel Logic
A2. Rikki Don’t Lose That Number (beginning)
B1. Rikki Don’t Lose That Number (conclusion)
B2. Night By Night
B3. Through With Buzz
B4. Monkey In Your Soul
C1. Any Major Dude Will Tell You
C2. Parker’s Band
C3. Charlie Freak
D1. Barrytown
D2. With a Gun
D3. East St. Louis Toodle-oo

The Players

Jeff Baxter (lead guitar, pedal steel guitar), Walter Becker (bass, guitar, backing vocals), Denny Dias (guitar), Donald Fagen (keyboards, saxophone, lead vocals, background vocals), Jim Gordon (drums) with Ben Benay (guitar), Wilton Felder (bass), Victor Feldman (percussion), Jimmie Haskell (orchestration), Jim Hodder (backing vocals on B1), Plas Johnson (saxophone), Lew McCreary (trombone), Ollie Mitchell (trumpet), Roger Nichols (gong on A5), Michael Omartian (piano, keyboards), David Paich (piano, keyboards), Dean Parks (guitar, banjo), Jeff Porcaro (drums on A2/B1), Chuck Rainey (bass), Jerome Richardson (saxophone), Tim Schmit (background vocals on A1/A4/B3), Ernie Watts (saxophone). Produced by Gary Katz; engineered by Roger (The Immortal) Nichols.

The Pictures

Cover photo by Raenne Rubinstein. Art direction and inside photo by Ed Caraeff. Design by David Larkham.

The Plastic

Released on elpee and 8-track on February 20, 1974 in the US (ABC, ABCD/C 8022-808) [rainbow boxed logo label], on March 2, 1974 in the UK (ABC, ABCL 5045), and in 1974 in France (ABC/Carrere, 68.023), Israel (Probe, BAN 16441), Italy (ABC, ABC 491) and Japan (ABC, YW-8051-AB) with gatefold cover; reached #8 on the US charts and #37 on the UK charts.

  1. Re-issued on quadrophonic elpee in October 1974 in the US (ABC/Command, QD-40015) and in 1974 in Japan (Probe, IPZ-82002) with gatefold cover.
  2. Re-issued on elpee in the US (ABC, ABCD-808) [sunburst label] with gatefold cover.
  3. Re-issued on elpee in the US (MCA Coral, MCA-37042).
  4. Re-issued on elpee in Germany (MCA, 201.432) [black rainbow label] with gatefold cover.
  5. Re-issued on 8-track in 1979 in the US (MCA, ABT-808).
  6. Re-issued on elpee in 1980 in the US (MCA, MCA-37042).
  7. Re-issued on elpee and cassette in February 1984 in the US (MCA, MCA/MCAC-1593).
  8. Re-issued on compact disc in 1985 in the US (MCA, MCAD-37042).
  9. Re-issued on compact disc in the US (MCA, MCAD-31165).
  10. Re-released on super audio compact disc on August 24, 2016 in Japan (Geffen, UIGY-15004).

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