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In our 'Re:View' section, in which our writers look back at albums from the past, Neil Swift reflects upon Steely Dan frontman Donald Fagen’s 1982 debut solo album ‘The Nightfly’.
A personal favourite go-to album that often rears its sleeve from my collection is Donald Fagen’s 1982 debut solo album ‘The Nightfly’.
This highly acclaimed jazz-themed work does not arguably carry the same ‘gusto’ in the UK’s bleak midwinter than it would if finding yourself motoring along the US interstate network in the warm Florida sun. Here, it would most certainly come alive and be the perfect driving accompaniment!.
An autobiographical offering by Steely Dan’s front man was inspired by the musician’s love of late-night radio. He developed this interest having resettled in New Jersey suburbia with his parents as a child. Fagen didn’t take to the humdrum of the quiet life and yearned to go back to city life, evidenced in lyrics taken from the New Frontier track: "I can’t wait til I move to the city where I can finally make up my mind, learn design and study overseas."
The front cover depicts the usually reclusive Fagen as a late night DJ hosting a phone-in programme taking calls from numerous insomniacs . The studio clock displays the time 04.09 as he puffs on another Chesterfield King. The reverse cover shows the same suburban home with a solitary upstairs light showing: a memory of the writer’s youth.
Eight beautifully crafted tracks kick in with the superbly produced ‘I.G.Y.’ (aka ‘International Geophysical Year’). Not known for a side-splitting sense of humour, Fagen outlines a futuristic picture of life comprising amongst other things: undersea rail, Spandex jackets and travel from New York to Paris in 90 minutes!
‘Green Flower Street’ - a recognition of the jazz standard ‘On Green Dolphin Street’ once mastered by Miles Davis flows into ‘Ruby Ruby’. This once-recorded Drifters’ song was rewritten after having listened to several other similar 1950s tunes that gave Fagen a clearer picture of this period.
Side one concludes with ‘Maxine,’ an extensive range of harmonies influenced by a US ‘barber shop’ quartet called ‘The Four Freshmen’ and carries a high school romance theme.
It’s back to an upbeat tempo for ‘New Frontier’ where the "nerdy" teenaged Fagan invites his sweetheart to an evening in his parent’s fallout shelter built at the time of The Cold Warn- as the lyrics go: "In case the Reds decide to push the button down."
The title track was once described as a "portrait of a late night DJ in Baton Rouge taking lunatic phone calls from listeners whilst silently battling his own loneliness and regret," an opinion endorsed, perhaps, when considering lyrics such as: "I’ve got plenty of java and Chesterfield Kings, but I feel like crying."
A bossa nova based ‘The Goodbye Look’ has a real 1960s feel and tells of a military upheaval on a Caribbean island. The concluding track, ‘Walk Between The Raindrops’ is a punchy ditty based on an old Jewish folk story - Fagen’s family having Jewish roots.
The dependable Gary Katz offers a production masterclass.’The Nightfly’ was an early example of a fully-digitalised recording that brought with it many technical obstacles that had to be overcome which delayed its completion. It is said that, on occasions, Fagan was a stone’s throw from reverting to analogue options.
Ably supported by guitar gurus Larry Carlton and Rick Derringer, Fagen manages to fuse a diverse mix of uptempo jazz with subtle and melodic harmonies that befit perfectly the 1950s era on which they had been modelled.
The album received 7 Grammy nominations in 1983 including “Best Album and Best Engineered Recording” and is included in Robert Dimery’s ‘1001 Albums You Must Listen To Before You Die’.
Post-album release, Fagen drifted away for the rest of the 1980s, wallowing in depression referred to more graphically in his memoirs ‘Eminent Hipsters’. He claimed in 2006 that he had not listened to the album since recording it!.
Since the sad passing of his longtime Steely Dan partner, Walter Becker, Fagen has been known to include tracks from the album on his touring playlist and actually performed the whole album live in both New York and Boston.
If you stumble across a copy of ‘The Nightfly’ whilst sifting through rows of vinyl, don’t just tilt the sleeve to one side...lift it out immediately and place in your shopping basket.
Have a Listen:-