“Your independent station,WJAZ/With jazz and conversation,” Donald Fagen croons on the title track of his 1982 solo album, The Nightfly. Indeed, the modern classic involves conversation about hope and disillusionment; the past, present, and future; and confidence and uncertainty, all set to an irresistible jazz beat.
Each track on the album stands out for its complex lyrics and arrangements, along with Fagen’s superb piano and vocals. While some of The Nightfly’s contents include echoes of Steely Dan (“The New Frontier” being a prime example), it established Fagen’s unique identity apart from the legendary group. Twenty-six years later, the impeccable album sounds as fresh today as it did in the early ’80s.
The album kicks off with “I.G.Y. (International Geophysical Year),” perhaps one of the most thematically complex—and least likely—hits of his career. Fagen narrates the piece from the perspective of a starry-eyed young man from the past, dazzled by visions of a technologically advanced future. “What a beautiful world this will be/What a glorious time to be free,” he sings. He envisions space travel, cities “powered by the sun,” and a machine “to make big decisions/Programmed by fellows with compassion and vision.” Typical of Fagen, he throws in a seemingly sarcastic line amidst this optimism: “Perfect weather for a streamlined world/There’ll be spandex jackets one for everyone.” The jaunty piano-dominated arrangement suggests this positivity .Donald Fagen’s The Nightfly Yet the cover of The Nightfly reflects the opposite of the song’s sentiment; a black-and-white image of Fagen, cigarette dangling from one hand, in an anonymous radio broadcasting studio. His downcast look suggests disillusionment and cynicism, a man who has lived through disappointments as well as upbeat times.
“Green Flower Street” further represents this disappointment, from the perspective of a man lamenting the innocent times of his youth: “Since May there’s trouble every night…Where we once danced our sweet routine/It reeks of wine and kerosene.” Instead of finding “murder in the street,” he longs for a place where he and his lover “wear neon bends in daylight sky.” The shuffling rhythm does recall such Steely Dan gems as “Peg,” but the nostalgia is all Fagen. Incidentally, he performed a live version of “Green Flower Street” during his tour with the all-star New York Rock and Soul Revue back in 1991. Their live album Live at the Beacon contains a catchy revision of this classic jam.
Reverting to his role as DJ, Fagen trots out a jazzy makeover of Leiber and Stoller’s “Ruby Baby,” which tells of teenage frustration, particularly of rejection. “I got a girl and Ruby is her name/She don’t love me, but I love her just the same,” he complains, adding that “like a ghost” he will haunt the object of his affections. In the next song, “Maxine,” the narrator gets the girl and dreams of a future with her. Featuring harmonies worthy of the Four Freshman or Manhattan Transfer, the song recounts the young man’s idealistic visions of life after graduation. “We’ll move up to Manhattan/And fill the place with friends/Drive to the coast and drive right back again,” he sings in a wistful tone. Yet certain images puncture this perfect scene—he mentions he and his lover meet at the mall and “try to make sense of the suburban sprawl.” Will they really reach this perfect state of domestic bliss? Uncertainty seeps through Fagen’s lyrics.
Next comes the standout track of The Nightfly, “The New Frontier.” A deceptively cheerful ditty, the song’s lyrics detail the hapless narrator’s attempt to seduce a woman into joining him in his bomb shelter. “We’ll pretend that it’s the real thing/And stay together all night long,” Fagen sings. The man prepares for the new frontier by stating his desires to “learn design and study overseas.” Whether the woman who has “a touch of Tuesday Weld” is buying the man’s story is unclear. Fagen even gives a shout-out to Dave Brubeck, stating that he hears that the woman likes him, too. “He’s an artist, a pioneer/We’ve got to have some music for the new frontier,” he sings. Is Fagen suggesting that jazz will figure prominently in the future, or is it just a cheesy pickup line? No matter what, Fagen’s salute to Brubeck perfectly suits the rest of the album.
The DJ returns on the title track, cutting a lonely and detached figure. He fields calls about “a race of men in the trees” and “tough legislation,” eventually sneering, “I wait all night for calls like these.” He brags that “tonight the night is mine,” but admits heartbreak: “I wish I had a heart like ice,” he laments. He recounts a long lost love, stating that despite his cool, jaded exterior, “Once there was a time/When love was in my life,” and that “the answer’s still the same/It was you.” But he immediately returns to his DJ patter about “jazz and conversation,” presumably puffing on his cigarette and awaiting that next phone call.
This jaded outlook resumes in “The Goodbye Look,” a calypso-infused track that details a man’s futile attempts to seduce a woman in tropical paradise. “I know what happens, I’ve read the book/I believe I just got the goodbye look,” he sneers. But with images of a colonel “standing in the sun/With his stupid face the glasses and the gun” and talk of “action after dark,” this hardly seems like a vacation. I love the seemingly throwaway line, “Would you pour me a Cuban Breeze, Gretchen,” evoking images of a dejected man sitting at a bar, befuddled by the world. Romance and revolution clash, prompting the narrator to complain that “the rules have changed, it’s not the same/It’s all new players in a whole new ball game.” Innocence is gone, replaced by cynicism.
Ending on a nostalgic note, The Nightfly concludes with “Walk Between Raindrops,” a charming tune which functions as a more jaded take on “Singing in the Rain.” The lovers, walking in Miami, fight but make up as they “watched the regulars rush the big hotels.” The romantic scene includes the “causeway by the big hotels,” an unlikely environment for an intimate moment. But an idealistic, romantic view returns when Fagen sings that “you opened your umbrella/But we walked between the raindrops back to your door,” hardly the jaded perspective of the other songs. Thus Fagen ends on an optimistic note, suggesting through nostalgia that there may be hope for the future after all.
The Nightfly spawned two sequels, 1993’s Kamakiriad and 2006’s Morph the Cat, both meditations on middle age and mortality. But The Nightfly remains Fagen’s solo masterpiece, an album that still entrances with its jazz and rock mix, complex lyrics, and contradictory philosophies (namely optimism versus pessimism). In other words, The Nightfly contains all the elements that make it a modern classic.
There are those who bemoan the apparent lack of sophistication in contemporary pop music, although there are plenty of examples proving that it’s not all about ‘dumbing down’ for the masses. Steely Dan—the rock group that emerged in the 1970s as a collective but ultimately whittled itself down to its two songwriting components, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen—has demonstrated it’s possible to write contemporary songs that have commercial appeal but, at the same time, possess the kind of harmonic depth that make them more than simple pop confections of the moment.
Though Becker and Fagen’s pre-Steely Dan stint as staff songwriters for ABC/Dunhill in Los Angeles was more in line with their aspiration to be professional songwriters (as opposed to performing musicians) a la New York’s The Brill Building, producer Gary Katz’s suggestion that they form a band to record their songs ended up turning them into a group with an identity. Still, after Steely Dan’s tour in support of Pretzel Logic (MCA, 1974), the group was disbanded and Steely Dan became a studio-only group, with Becker and Fagen developing a reputation as perfectionists who were prepared, after conducting sessions with a particular line-up, to discard the sessions entirely and start again from scratch.
Subsequent Steely Dan albums, most notably the outstanding triptych of The Royal Scam (MCA, 1976), Aja (MCA, 1977) and Gaucho (MCA, 1980), may have been created from lengthy sessions with a seeming cast of thousands, but what made them so successful and, thirty-plus years on, so enduring, is how they combined sharp lyrics, uncompromisingly sophisticated music that had as much to do with jazz as it did pop, and undeniable groove. One can accuse Becker and Fagen of being perfectionists, and the music certainly sounds flawless; but equally, there’s none of the sterility one might expect from work of such consideration and detail.
The Dan disbanded after Gaucho—though it would reconvene for tours with various line-ups in the 1990s, releasing Alive In America (Giant, 1995) and studio records beginning with the Grammy Award-winning Two Against Nature (Giant, 2000). But in the intervening years between Gaucho and Alive In America, Fagen released two albums under his own name—the critically acclaimed The Nightfly (Warner Bros., 1982) and less well-received but equally superb Kamikiriad (Reprise, 1993). In the midst of revived Dan activity, Fagen released his last album, Morph The Cat (Reprise) in 2006, winning a Grammy for Best Surround Sound Album. While it was well-deserved, it’s a shame the disc was recognized for how good it sounded rather than how good the music was.
While there’s really nothing conceptual to link Fagen’s three solo albums together, there are differentiators that distinguish the music from Steely Dan. The sleek production values are similar and, while Fagen’s pencil could hardly be called anything remotely resembling dull, a defining characteristic of Steely Dan’s lyrics has always been an acerbic and, at times, idiosyncratic wit. Fagen’s lyrics are no less cryptic, but there’s a greater romanticism, even as he continues to demonstrate a unique way of turning a phrase.
But what makes Fagen’s albums not Steely Dan records (despite the participation of Becker on Kamikiriad as producer, bassist/lead guitarist and co-writer of one tune), and ties them together as a small but significant body of work, is an even greater jazz-centricity than found on most Steely Dan albums, making the bringing of the three titles together as The Nightfly Trilogy a logical move.
Those who already own the three albums may wonder what this box set can possibly offer. By making each of the three releases a double-disc set—one disc a traditional CD, the other an MVI (Music Video Interactive) DVD disc with 5.1 surround and uncompressed PCM Stereo mixes, bonus audio and video tracks, complete lyrics and more—plus an added CD with all ten bonus audio tracks from the MVI discs, The Nightfly Trilogy represents the definitive versions of all three discs, plus nearly fifty minutes of additional music including demos, live material and songs found in film soundtracks.
The MVI discs also feature complete liner notes, including newly-written material by Fagen, complete track-by-track musician credits, ringtones, photos, and 192Kbps files that can be downloaded in seconds for use with an MP3 player. In a time where illegal downloads are taking a chunk out of CD sales, with MVI the label is clearly aiming to provide a wealth of features that wouldn’t be available otherwise. The individual discs have no printed liner notes or credits, so the only place to get the information is on the MVI disc. And with portable DVD players becoming more prevalent along with home theater sound systems, the MVI versions of the albums become very attractive. It’s an intriguing approach; only time will tell if it’s one that will draw at least some percentage of the music listening public back to hard media.
The only complaint is that the CD versions of the music (which are clearly the source for the MP3 download format) are not remixed, remastered or even sonically equalized across the box. This means that if you grab the MP3 files and pop them onto your MP3 player, the bonus tracks at the end of each release (three on The Nightfly, four on Kamikiriad and three on Morph The Cat are at significantly different levels, though in order to flow together on the bonus CD, the levels of the extra tracks are normalized. The best approach is to rip the audio files from the bonus CD and have them as a separate album on your MP3 player. There will still be level differences from one disc to the next, but at least there will be consistency within each.
While there are certain markers that date most albums—in particular, production values including how drums are recorded and period-specific synthesizer tones—listening the The Nightfly it becomes clear just how undated the album is, with the same applying to Kamikiriad and Morph The Cat. Fagen’s music, rather than sounding of any particular time, seems to feel comfortable in any post-1970s period, but its especially true of The Nightfly, with its avoidance of the cheesy synthesizer tones that now dates so many 1980s albums.
There are some who believe that the best pop music is played by musicians with a jazz background, and there’s plenty of support for that on The Nightfly. Fagen has always made astute choices, picking some of the best jazz/session players of the time, and there are some remarkable performances here. The line-up includes bassists Anthony Jackson, Abraham Laboriel and Marcus Miller, drummer Jeff Porcaro, a horn section featuring trumpeter Randy Brecker and saxophonist Michael Brecker, and guitarists Larry Carlton and Steve Khan. Carlton, by this time, had already established a reputation for concise solos, making only a few bars mean far more than an extended solo ever could. His fills and solos on the bright “Green Flower Street” and “New Frontier,” and the funkier title track, are marvels of economy and construction, as relevant today as they were a quarter century ago.
The Nightfly’s conceptual premise is a look back to the culture—popular and political—of the 1950s, with the title track’s tender look at the importance of radio now especially poignant, given that medium’s decreasing importance in getting new music heard. The lyrics represent a departure for Fagen in terms of content; but the music—while recognizable as coming from the Steely Dan space—is still distanced. “Walk Between Raindrops” swings in a way The Dan never has, “The Goodbye Look” has an unexpected Caribbean vibe, and “Maxine” is a pure jazz ballad, albeit one with a backbeat that features some of Fagen’s most lush vocal arrangements, and a brief but soulful tenor solo from the late Michael Brecker.
The three bonus tracks help complete the picture of 1980s Fagen. “True Companion,” from the soundtrack to the movie Heavy Metal (1981), is a largely instrumental track that features a terrific performance by Steve Khan on both acoustic and electric guitars. “Century’s End,” from the soundtrack to Bright Lights, Big City (1988), is a piece of greasy funk that features the same synth harmonica that Fagen uses on The Nightfly’s opener, “I.G.Y.” A live version of “Green Flower Street” is taken from Fagen’s New York Rock & Soul Review album, Live At The Beacon (Giant, 1991), and while Fagenâ’s group of the time didn’t have the star power of the musicians who played on the studio version, it proves he had the ability to put together a top notch live band—and that he’d gotten over the aversion to live performance that turned Steely Dan into a studio band for most of its career during the 1970s.
The MVI disc also features videos for “New Frontier” and “Century”s End.”
Kamikiriad also had a concept, this time looking into the near future rather than the near past. The songs revolve around a road trip in Fagen’s new titular car and, while it didn’t get the same critical reception as The Nightfly, time has proven it to have its own unique charms.
With Walter Becker in the producer’s chair, in addition to playing bass and lead guitar, one significant change from The Nightfly is the presence of a core group that, with the exception of the drum chair being shared by Leroy Clouden, Christopher Parker and Dennis McDermott, remains consistent throughout the album’s eight tracks. Another is that the tracks are, on average, longer—none less than five minutes and one, the ballad “On the Dunes,” over eight. Longer solo sections and lengthier fades could be criticized as excessive, but the grooves are so compelling that none of the songs ever overstays its welcome.
Harmonically, Kamikiriad may be even more complex than The Nightfly, with sharper horn and vocal arrangements. While there’s nothing about any Fagen (or Dan) album that could be considered raw, and it’s an exercise in futility to try counting the number of individual tracks used on any song, Fagen’s ability to create arrangements rich in texture but never cluttered is in sharp contrast to others, for whom the infinite possibilities of the studio result in “kitchen sink” albums, where it’s clear that they simply throw ideas at a track, hoping some of them will work.
The Kamikiriad MVI disc features twenty minutes of bonus tracks. “Big Noise New York” is a demo from 1994, originally written for filmmaker Spike Lee. It’s a window into Fagen’s writing process, with only Fagen layering synthesizers, drum programs and vocals. If his demos are this complete, it’s no surprise that finished songs on his albums sound so full. “Confide In Me,” a lively shuffle, is a publishing demo from 1994, but this time with a group of live players who were be part of the Live At The Beacon group—organist Jeff Young, guitarist Drew Zingg, bassist Lincoln Schleiffer and drummer Dennis McDermott. “Blue Lou” is an instrumental written for the film Glengarry Glen Ross (1992), with the Frank Roccisano Orchstra and ace session saxophonist Lou Marini. “Shanghai Confidential,” another instrumental, was written for a dance troupe directed by Marianne Bachmann. A rare occasion where it’s dated by the drum program, it’s still a solid feature for guitarist Steve Khan, with a band that also includes bassist Marcus Miller and percussionist Manolo Badrena.
Videos of “Tomorrow”s Girls” and “Snowbound” are included, along with a promotional audio interview with Fagen from 1993, for the release of Kamikiriad.
AAJ has already published a number of reviews of Morph The Cat, but in context of The Nightfly and Kamikiriad, it’s important to note that, like Kamikiriad, it features a consistent core group, this time with keyboardist Ted Baker, guitarists Jon Herrington and Wayne Krantz, bassist Freddie Washington and drummer Keith Carlock. Sonically it’s the best of the three, no surprise given it’s a recent recording, but still, the sound literally leaps out of the speakers. it’s no surprise that it won the Grammy for Best Surround Sound.
The three bonus tracks include an outstanding, groove-heavy version of Al Green”s “Rhymes,” for a planned revue that never materialized with Todd Rundgren as musical collaborator and co-producer. Technologically it demonstrates just how far drum programming has evolved, with a sound so natural and flexible that it’s hard to believe it’s not being played by a live drummer. “Hank”s Pad” is a swinging retake of Henry Mancini”s “Pete”s Pad,” but with added lyrics by Fagen. “Viva Viva Rock “n” Roll” is, not surprisingly, a hard-rocking live track from Fagen’s tour in support of Morph, with an uncharacteristically raw vocal performance from Fagen. A World CafÃ© interview with Fagen, promoting the album, is also included.
Assessing Fagen’s three solo albums, the additional album’s worth of bonus material, and his ongoing work with Becker in Steely Dan, there are two lasting impressions. With rare exception, The Nightfly, Kamikiriad and Morph The Cat are all remarkably enduring and fresh; with songs that will continue to sound relevant—and of no particular time—well into the future.
But perhaps most important, these albums, along with the Steely Dan catalogue, represent the craft of songwriting at its best—well-conceived songs with harmonic sophistication and polish far above most pop fare, while not losing sight of a visceral physicality. While there are many fine songwriters at work today, in the realm of popular song there are few writers—with the exception of his partner in Dan, Walter Becker—who embody the spirit and soul of Tin Pan Alley and the Brill Building as well as Fagen; honoring the tradition while bringing it forward into the 21st Century.
If you’ve ever sat down and listened to more than one Steely Dan record, you’ll probably have noticed their inescapable hurtling toward studio sterility. From 1972’s jam-band-esque Can’t Buy a Thrill to 1977’s high-art, jazz-based masterpiece Aja, they had lost members, stopped touring and unashamedly, Becker and Fagen (with the help of producer Gary Katz) had dragged their sonority into territory so sleek and crisp, it was a wonder any of the instruments were performed live. Whether for good or bad, the captious duo would relentlessly use the studio as their most powerful weapon – any sound required is possible if you have the time. Well, that was the case, until the ‘band’ collapsed in on themselves and hit a wall. Hard. That wall was Gaucho.
Both 1979 and ‘80 came down on the pair like a ton of bricks. First, their label, ABC, was bought out by MCA, who thwarted their previous plans to move to Warner Bros., leaving them in a bitter legal battle over ownership. Next, Becker, in his darkest phases of drug addiction, was struck down and seriously injured by a taxi in NYC, and soon after his then-girlfriend was found dead in his apartment of a drug overdose, landing the bassist in a costing lawsuit.
Fagen too was not without woe; with all hell breaking loose around him, with his increasingly paranoid perfectionism in the studio, he dug himself a massive hole at the same time as leaving himself with a mountain to climb. In the end, an accidental deletion of an entire track, uncooperative musicians and unrelenting personal issues amongst the two led to what can only be described as on of the most offensively clinical, toothless records ever put to vinyl. Sure, it had its moments, and it set a new standard for record cleanliness, but it had no soul.
It had no edge. All in all, it was almost a concept album centred on seedy people of the night; pretentious hipsters with faux-Chinese pastimes, who listen to late-nite musak and dabble in Class-A drugs for the f*** of it. The irony is that Steely Dan hadn’t realised that they’d accidentally made an album for those people, not about them.
Perhaps then, one of the more fascinating feature of Fagen’s 1982 solo debut The Nightfly is that it sounds more like Gaucho than Gaucho does, but in all its super-cleanliness and focussed virtuosity, it managed to set itself apart for two crucial reasons. One is that Fagen had no distractions. The studio was his to really open his mind, with no outside input, and it never got self-indulgent either; while Becker was away getting clean in Hawaii and generally taking life a bit easier, Katz and Nichols headed back into the studio again for this outing – this record wasn’t going to be a far leap from the sound of late Steely Dan. The other reason is that the refined subject matter, the subtle nuances and prosody Fagen uses are so charismatic and charming from start to finish that one can’t help but pull a wry smile or two.
For the duration of the record, relentless chimes of the Cold War, the Space Race and general 1950s blind-optimism weave in and out, some highly subtle, some not so, delving head-first into the imaginative nature of the era and capturing it absolutely spot-on. Powerfully and purposefully penned with that same naïvety that swept the house of every little boy, every bored housewife and every dead-end businessman in the US, the album creates a mirage of fantastical imagery and ludicrous impossibilities that then seemed oh-so-real. Not to say that any track has so much as a hint of remorse, regret or shame, one of the most appealing factors of the LP; it plays out like those dreams are all still in the pipeline, anything and everything is still possible, and… wait, what do you mean there’s no undersea tunnel from New York to Paris?!
On the other hand, the ‘Dan gang were never ones to stray too far from the mordant sides of society, and no song highlights the subtlety with which Fagen handles these matters better than the seemingly-one-dimensional The Goodbye Look; on first skim it’s merely a simple song about being cast aside by a callous lover on an exotic Caribbean beach. Listen again. You see? It’s about a careless, ill-informed American holidaymaker risking his life by outstaying his welcome on an island that has just undergone an overnight revolution. Cuba, anyone? It seems a running theme of The Nightfly is that within every context there are malicious subcontexts, and buried within every line are sunken, sadistic hidden meanings.
New Frontier encapsulates the joy of spending time with models whilst listening to Dave Brubeck, but every once in a while also reminds us that this is all supposed to be occurring inside a nuclear bunker. Walk Between the Raindrops has a melody so bright and radiant and a swing-band rhythm that could make Sinatra swoon, but is merely the musings of a man fondly remembering time spent with his recently-departed lover, rushing through a downpour and people-watching on a glorious Florida beach, only to cave in during the final verse and wistfully wish those moments would return.
The title track, however, is something quite special. Ironically, it has no meaning outside the existential plight of a radio DJ broadcasting through the early hours from some deserted corner of Mississippi, but its impact is so striking and sharp; amongst transcripts of listener calls discussing mysterious men residing in foliage are harsh, staccato keyboard stabs that punctuate the piece in an almost Talking Heads-esque manner, and quite honestly, it rocks. Reciting the same hitches and technicalities that he probably heard as a child, Fagen casually opens with ”I’m Lester the Nightfly, hello Baton Rouge; would you turn your radio down? Respect the seven-second delay we use.”. Already, within the first few moments, the song bursts into bloom as a remarkably nuanced reliving of an almost-expired tradition, complete with the limitations and liberations it brought for so many years.
Essentially, The Nightfly as an LP pops along from A to Z with expert craftsmanship and complexity whilst never losing its intricate, unexpected accessibility. Even to we who are not accustomed to the era mentioned are sucked in by its charm, its melancholy pseudo-credulousness. A cult classic, maybe; but this doesn’t award it with due credit. As the Wall Street Journal so efficiently dubbed it, the album truly is ”one of pop music’s sneakiest masterpieces”, and much like the protagonists of the stories and spinners of these sceptical yarns, the album itself remains sheltered firmly underground.