Steely Dan Pretzel Logic

Those Days Are Gone Forever: Steely Dan’s ‘Pretzel Logic’ at 50

Steely Dan’s 50-year-old third album, Pretzel Logic, conceals its dark satirical vision of modern society beneath immaculate studio production.

Pretzel Logic
Steely Dan
20 February 1974

Steely Dan‘s third album, 1974’s Pretzel Logic, marked the transition between their beginnings as a conventional rock band and their later incarnation as a studio collective under the leadership of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen. Founding guitarists Denny Dias and Jeff “Skunk” Baxter performed on Pretzel Logic, while original drummer Jim Hodder got bumped in favor of session men Jim Gordon and Jeff Porcaro. This perfectionism, involving 16 studio musicians, made Becker and Fagen infamous as rock’s geekiest dictatorship.

Best known for the hit single “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number”, Pretzel Logic pushed Steely Dan into the mainstream while triggering a fierce critical backlash. “Hippie Muzak” was the term Joe Goldberg applied to Steely Dan in a scathing review in Creem magazine. Phrases like “unparalleled pretentiousness” (Dave Marsh in The Rolling Stone Record Guide), “art and cheese” (Robert Christgau in The Village Voice), and “glossy bop-pop” (Brent DiCrescenzo in Pitchfork) typified the response to Steely Dan from rock’s critical elite.

Marsh and Christgau liked Steely Dan (Marsh rated Pretzel Logic four out of five stars, while Christgau gave the album a rare A+ in his Consumer Guide). But their reviews also sounded the bell of suspicion that Steely Dan weren’t really a rock group. As the canon of rock took shape in the 1970s, critics reified the idea of rock music as intrinsically ragged, urgent, rebellious, and dangerous. Artists on the wilder end of the spectrum (Iggy Pop, the Velvet Underground, the Who, and John Lennon) scored better ink than those on the smoother end (Neil Diamond, Supertramp, the Eagles, and Paul McCartney).

Nobody was smoother than Steely Dan, at least among accomplished California-based rock bands. It didn’t help that their music contained a lot of jazz—not avant-garde jazz, like Frank Zappa or Captain Beefheart—something closer to jazz fusion, another genre derided in the press.

The backlash against Steely Dan intensified as punk became the new standard by which to measure rock’s bedraggled credibility. Marsh demoted Steely Dan’s 1980 album Gaucho to one star in the next edition of the Rolling Stone Record Guide (“the kind of music that passes for jazz in Holiday Inn lounges”). A generation later, Pitchfork‘s Brent DiCrescenzo, in a hilarious if sophomoric takedown, characterized Steely Dan as “the indifferent aristocracy to punk-rock’s stone throwing”.

Were Steely Dan rock’s version of the Illuminati, looking down their noses at the brave iconoclasts of rockabilly and punk? Or was the group’s music simply operating on terms different from what the Maximum Rock’ N Roll crowd was willing to accept?

Steely Dan’s detractors often downplay the irony and satire inhabiting the group’s work. “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” may sound like a tepid jazz-pop song about unrequited love, but scrutiny reveals a darker subtext – the ravings of a possessive, possibly sociopathic narrator. The rest of Pretzel Logic reveals similar tensions between the surface slickness of the music and the underlying darkness of Becker and Fagen’s lyrical worldview.

This tension has not gone completely unnoticed. Alex Pappademas and Joan Lemay’s 2023 book, Quantum Criminals: Ramblers, Wild Gamblers, and Other Sole Survivors from the Songs of Steely Dan, focuses on a hypothetical “Mr. Steely Dan” – a composite character meant to personify the “preoccupation with human frailty and delusion” running through Becker and Fagen’s lyrics. Even the most innocuous-sounding songs, such as Pretzel Logic‘s “Any Major Dude Will Tell You” and “Mr. Parker’s Band”, reflect Mr. Steely Dan’s jaded views of human folly and temptation.

A funnier acknowledgment of Steely Dan’s darker impulses appears in the tenth episode of J.D. Ryznar’s mockumentary video series Yacht Rock (currently on YouTube). The episode parodies Steely Dan’s “dark, sarcastic lyrics” and “studio perfectionism” in opposition to fellow California-based hitmakers (the) Eagles. Actors caricaturing Glenn Frey and Don Henley bully the nerdier Becker and Fagen until the latter get revenge with baseball bats and the lure of their irresistibly “smooth” music.

Ryznar and company’s Steely Dan parody (of which Fagen himself is a fan) recognizes how “dark sarcasm” offsets “dork static” in the group’s music. Steely Dan remain the epitome of so-called “yacht yock” – slickly produced music by the likes of Kenny Loggins, Hall and Oates, and the Doobie Brothers. However, none of those artists would have touched Steely Dan’s darkest material. “Charlie Freak”, a song on Pretzel Logic about an addict who sells his last possession to buy the heroin fix that kills him, would never have appeared on a Michael McDonald or Christopher Cross record. Steely Dan’s worldview was gnarlier than their yacht rock brethren as shards of black humor tore through the musical sails.

In his book Anatomy of Criticism, the Canadian literary critic Northrop Frye defines satire as “militant irony,” adding that “its moral norms are relatively clear, and it assumes standards against which the grotesque and absurd are measured.” A satirist knows the difference between right and wrong but pretends to ignore it in the interest of exposing the follies and ugliness of human nature. A classic example is Jonathan Swift’s satirical essay “A Modest Proposal” (1729), in which the narrator purports to advocate cannibalizing Irish children as an ironic protest against injustices wrought against the Irish by their British oppressors.

Popular music has its share of satirists, from the situational absurdism of many of Frank Zappa‘s lyrics to the politicized humor of the Fugs. Steely Dan’s satire, however, is more subtle, concealed within the studio slickness of the music. Casual listeners – or caustic critics – can easily miss the “militant irony” in Steely Dan’s music. But a deeper dive into Becker and Fagen’s lyrics reveals “grotesque and absurd” elements lurking within.

After a few scattered notes by Victor Feldman on a flapamba (an instrument that sounds like a marimba with a wet towel across it), “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” kicks in with a piano riff played by session man Michael Omartian. The riff is a note-by-note copy of the intro to “Song for My Father”, a 1965 composition by the jazz pianist Horace Silver. One of several jazz references on Pretzel Logic, the intro to “Rikki” is both audacious plagiarism and a playful allusion to classic jazz.

In other ways, “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” is a conventional pop song, reflected in its number four peak on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1974. The singalong chorus is brutally infectious, the kind of earworm even haters find themselves humming. Casual listeners might even hear “Rikki” as a love song, an impression more complicated than it seems.  

The real Rikki is Rikki Ducornet, Fagen’s schoolmate during his years at Bard College in New York State during the mid-1960s. Fagen claims he met Ducornet at a party, discovered she was married, but gave her his phone number anyway. Ducornet, later an award-winning poet and novelist, recalled the innocuous encounter in an interview with Steven Moore, describing “Rikki” as “philosophically… an interesting song.”

“Interesting” indeed – but also much weirder and subversive than it lets on. The lyrical narrator is an obsessed admirer or ex-lover of Rikki, who tries everything – coercion (“we could stay inside and play games”), gaslighting (“you don’t even know your mind”), and veiled threats (“You don’t want to call nobody else”) – to get Rikki to change her mind and return to him. Both characters satirically displace the real Fagen and Ducornet as the song explores the wages of unrequited lust. The narrator sounds possessive (“It’s the only one you own”), perhaps even predatory (“I thought our little wild time had just begun”) towards a woman he barely knows.

The “number” of the title has been interpreted as everything from a phone number to a marijuana joint – or, as Ducornet suggests, “a cipher for the self”. Becker denied any drug allusions in the song, but authorial intention can be deceptive. In any case, “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” demonstrates Fagen and Becker’s mastery of artistic subversion. It sounds like the perfect pop song in the era of commercially attuned corporate rock. But lyrically, it comes across as a faux-love song about obsession, which managed to creep into the Top 10.

“Any Major Dude Will Tell You” is one of Steely Dan’s mellower songs, closer in style to the group’s early work on 1972’s Can’t Buy a Thrill than anything else on Pretzel Logic. Pappademas places the song in the tradition of other “major dude giving advice songs”, such as Kenny Rogers’s “The Gambler” and the Beatles‘ “Hey Jude,” where a concerned narrator tries to help an interlocutor out of some personal bind. The song wafts along pleasantly until one line in the second verse slips in a grotesque allusion: “Have you ever seen a squonk’s tears? Well, look at mine.”

A squonk is an obscure mythical creature, first described in William Thomas Cox’s 1910 book, Fearsome Creatures of the Underwoods. An illustration in the book depicts the squonk as a large lumbering quadruped, like a wildebeest with the head of a giant insect. Is the narrator of “Any Major Dude” a squonk? Perhaps not literally, but by conflating the “squonk’s tears” with his own, the “major dude” appears to be signifying his “grotesque and absurd” essence.

Another musical reference to a squonk occurs in “Squonk” by Genesis, from their 1975 album A Trick of the Tail (the first Genesis album to feature Phil Collins as lead singer after Peter Gabriel‘s departure). Bizarre creatures have a surreal logic in the world of Genesis. The group’s third album, Nursery Cryme (1971), features a musical epic, “The Return of the Giant Hogweed”, about a sentient vegetative beast terrorizing the English countryside.

Genesis were not satirists so much as full-blown fantasists – a typical stance in progressive rock of the early 1970s (think of albums by Yes sleeved in the fantasy worlds of Roger Dean). However, in the tweedier world of Steely Dan, the squonk becomes a stark anachronism, a pebble disturbing the otherwise placid surface of “Any Major Dude Will Tell You”.

Even Becker and Fagen’s beloved jazz contains notes of satire, including their cover of “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo”, a 1927 standard by Duke Ellington and Bubber Miley. Steely Dan’s version features Walter Becker on wah-wah guitar, mimicking Miley’s muted trumpet solo from the original recording. Skunk Baxter follows suit, using a pedal steel guitar to replace the original trombone. The cover version is respectful but also playful, mimicking horn parts that could more easily be reproduced by the session horn players employed elsewhere on Pretzel Logic.

Skunk Baxter claims in a recent Mojo magazine interview that “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo” was meant to be a faithful tribute: “We were all fans of the Duke.” But the cartoon lunacy of guitars pretending to be horns also situates the song in Steely Dan’s satirical universe. The effect is musically impressive – “a real challenge to learn,” in Baxter’s words – but also comical as the band winks at their reputation for appropriating jazz.  

The next track, “Parker’s Band”, is a tribute to the late jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker. Things rollick along nicely until the bridge, with its backhanded line: “We will spend a dizzy weekend smacked into a trance.” Becker and Fagen were avowed Parker fans, but the allusion to Parker’s addiction to heroin is so tactless it can hardly be in earnest.

Pappademas interprets “Mr. Parker’s Band” as a self-reflexive song in which Becker and Fagen acknowledge their “culturally white and fundamentally suburban view of jazz.” The exuberant tone of the lyrics and the offhanded remark about “smack” satirize the jazz pretenders’ enthusiasm for a genre they can only appreciate from the outside.

An ironic appreciation of the past continues in the album’s title track, “Pretzel Logic”. A slow-burning song indebted to the blues, the lyrics depict a time travel fantasy as imagined by yet another of Steely Dan’s arch narrators. He dreams of joining “a traveling minstrel show” in the Old South, hoping for stardom that eludes him in the present. Later, the narrator wishes he could “find the time” when Napoleon Bonaparte was at his peak of military power.

This yarn corresponds with what Frye calls the “comedy of escape, in which a hero runs away to a more congenial society without transforming his own”. The narrator’s “congenial society” belongs to the past, yet he ignores the implications of racism (the minstrel show with its caricatures of Black folk) and militarism (Napolean’s voracious conquest of Europe) in his sentimental ambition of “dying to be a star”.

The closest the narrator gets to any other era is a “platform” – interpreted by Fagen as the launching pad for the time machine – where a man asks him, mockingly, “Where did you get those shoes?” The narrator babbles a reply about TV and “the movie show”, but his fantasy of joining a minstrel show and meeting Napoleon comes to nothing. The repeating refrain – “Those days are gone forever / Over a long time ago” – is an admission of defeat by a reactionary narrator trapped in the present.   

Another song on Side Two, “With a Gun”, plays out a gunslinger revenge fantasy in much the same way. Backed by a chicken-picked guitar, the narrator relates the story of a man obsessed with vengeance against those he perceives as doing him wrong. The only (inadequate) explanation for the character’s rampage lies in violent movies: “Any you’ve seen all the western movies / Woe to the one who does you wrong.” Blaming old westerns for a man’s wanton psychopathic rage is, in effect, no explanation at all, turning the song into a satire about America’s senseless lust for violence.

The bleakest of all songs on Pretzel Logic is “Charlie Freak”, an urban tragedy with satirical overtones. Charlie is a street junkie who loses everything except a prized gold ring of significant value. Broke and starving, he tells his story to a false sympathizer, who cons Charlie into selling him the ring “for chicken feed.” Charlie uses the money to buy his last fix, triggering a fatal overdose. Wracked with guilt over “the ring I could not own,” the narrator deposits the ring next to Charlie’s lifeless body – a pathetic attempt at moral absolution.

The satire of “Charlie Freak” dwells in the ironic contrast between its tragic lyrics and polished music. Lyrically the song resembles the urban jungle of William S. Burroughs’s Junkie or Lou Reed‘s “I’m Waiting for the Man.” Musically, it conveys the same high-gloss production (albeit with a touch of melancholy) as the rest of Pretzel Logic. Empathy for Charlie gets displaced amid ringing guitars and layered harmonies – like the din of indifference that led to his death.

Satire is not always funny as it probes the follies and weaknesses of humanity. The satirist is often a social outsider accustomed to drawing insights from an ironic vantage point. Becker and Fagen were born satirists whose nerdy disposition and withdrawal from the trappings of rock stardom during their most productive years refined their ironic outlook.

In his 2013 memoir, Existential Hipsters, Donald Fagen recalls with some vehemence his “prison-like” upbringing in a New Jersey suburb: “I’d been framed and sentenced to a long stretch at hard labor in Squaresville.” Decrying the “mendacity” of the postwar generation, Fagen sought refuge in Mad magazine and the jazz clubs he began frequenting once he was old enough to ride a train into Manhattan. Jazz had the grit and honesty he found missing in the blanched world of the suburbs – where, like many Black Americans, his Jewishness made him an outsider.

Later, at Bard College, Fagen found his ideal musical accomplice in Walter Becker – another misfit from the suburbs. Some of the duo’s earliest performances included a “compulsively funny” drummer named Chevy Chase, the same Chevy Chase who would later find comedic stardom in the initial cast of NBC’s Saturday Night Live.

After a post-graduate stint as staff songwriters at New York’s Brill Building, Fagen and Becker teamed with Denny Dias, relocating to Los Angeles, where Steely Dan got their start. The name derived from “Steely Dan III of Yokohama”, an anthropomorphized dildo in William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch – another signifier of dark comedy in the group’s conception.

Fagen reflects on satire in a 2019 podcast interview with Leo Sidran. He laments his current inability, especially since Becker’s death in 2017, to recapture a satirical essence that once came naturally: “The problem now is that the satirical element in our work has been outstripped by reality.… What happens every day in the news is just so much more outrageous that it seems kind of impotent.”

Satire always risks “impotence” because it relies on an audience having a consensus about what “moral norms” (in Frye’s estimation) entail. If the audience cannot agree that certain behaviours are right and others are wrong, satire loses the ethical foundation on which it depends. Satirical works of art expose violations of morality, but only if the audience recognizes them as violations.  

Suppose critics of Steely Dan fail to acknowledge that stalking a romantic partner, joining a minstrel show, shooting one’s enemies, and cheating a drug addict out of his last penny are morally atrocious acts. A literal reading of the songs robs them of their power to provoke moral reflection, turning Steely Dan into just another classic rock act with unusually fussy production.  

Works Cited

Burroughs, William S. Naked Lunch. 1990 ed., Grove Press, 1959.

Christgau, Robert. “Not Alone with Steely Dan.” Village Voice, 1 Nov. 1995.

Cox, William Thomas. Fearsome Creatures of the Lumberwoods. Judd and Detweiler, 1910.

Fagen, Donald. Eminent Hipsters. Viking Press, 2013.

Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays. PrincetonUniversity Press, 1957.

Goldberg, Joe. “The True Inside Story of the Steely Dan Review.” Creem, 1 Aug. 1976, p. 64.

Marsh, Dave. “Steely Dan.” The New Rolling Stone Record Guide. Edited by Dave Marsh and John Swenson. Random House, 1983.

Moore, Steven. “Reveries of Desire: An Interview with Rikki Ducornet.” Bloomsbury Review, January/ February 1998.

Pappademas, Alex, and Joan Lemay. Quantum Criminals: Ramblers, Wild Gamblers, and Other Sole Survivors from the Songs of Steely Dan. University of Austin Press, 2023.

Ryznar, J.D. “Yacht Rock Episode 10.” YouTube, uploaded by JD Ryznar, 14 Mar. 2007.

Sidran, Leo. “Donald Fagen.” The Third Story. Podcast, 30 July 2019.

Swift, Jonathan. “A Modest Proposal.” Project Gutenberg, 17 Oct. 2019.