When Steely Dan Got Twisted on ‘Pretzel Logic’
The very notion may sound absurd today, but there was actually a day when Steely Dan’s career longevity seemed anything but guaranteed — until all doubts were quashed with the arrival of their almost universally acclaimed third studio opus, Pretzel Logic, on Feb. 20, 1974.
But as 1974 got under way Donald Fagen and Walter Becker were looking to overcome something of a sophomore slump caused by the previous year’s Countdown to Ecstasy, which had seen the accessible-but-complex pop singles of their 1972 debut ("Reeling in the Years," "Do It Again,") replaced with denser – both musically and lyrically – fare like "Bodhisattva" and "The Boston Rag." While Ecstasy still reached the Top 40, its two singles didn't make much of a dent in the charts.
So it was with a new-found focus on remedying this state of affairs that Fagen and Becker had settled into Los Angeles’ Village Recorders, where they began to painstakingly assemble the pristine collection of jazzy rockers that would make up Pretzel Logic. To accomplish this, the pair expanded their practice of bringing in first call session musicians with serious jazz and R&B chops to satisfy their increasingly demanding expectations.
Jeff “Skunk” Baxter and Denny Dias – with some help from Becker – handled most of the guitar work, but drummer Jim Hodder was relegated to background vocals near his kit in deference to studio legend Jim Gordon and rising young gun Jeff Porcaro.
Listen to Steely Dan's 'Rikki Don't Lose That Number'
Not even the two principle members were exempt. Becker dished off most of the bass playing to Wilton Felder and Chuck Rainey, while Fagen brought in Michael Omartian and David Paich to help out on keyboards. This may have been an unorthodox approach for a band to record, but no one could argue with the results.
Pretzel Logic’s lead-off track, "Rikki Don’t Lose That Number," would storm to No. 4 – the biggest pop hit of Steely Dan’s career, while popular album cuts like "Barrytown," "Any Major Dude Will Tell You" and the title track helped to hone and define the trademark Steely Dan sound — as sweetly infectious as it was deceptively intricate, dark and witty — for the remainder of the decade.
Rock critics didn’t hesitate to lavish praise upon Pretzel Logic with almost unfailing enthusiasm. They hailed the album as a future classic in the taste-making pages of Creem, Rolling Stone, the Village Voice, and even across the pond in U.K. weekly, the NME, which named it Album of the Year for 1974.
For Becker and Fagen, this combination of critical and especially commercial acclaim confirmed that their seemingly unconventional, and certainly difficult, decisions regarding Steely Dan’s modus operandi had been entirely vindicated. Following their tour in support of Pretzel Logic, which saw future five-time Grammy winner Michael McDonald join as a background singer, Becker and Fagen decided to stop performing to devote more time in the studio. This led to the departure of Baxter, Dias and Hodder, permanently cementing the concept of Steely Dan as a duo.