Steely Dan: “Night By Night” (Pretzel Logic, 1974)

Every Cold Cassette has four or five songs I’d love to do a post on, but I only allow myself to do one, mostly because I’d like to keep this place a haven for variety.

Steely Dan is a band, or a studio project that resembled a band, that I have never had an easy relationship with. Certain things about them I love, such as the fact that Chevy Chase played drums for them early in their career. Chevy Chase! On drums! For Steely Dan! Who would have played the third amigo if he’d stuck with that career path?!

More pertinently, I think they wrote a lot of really fantastic songs, which is not the same thing as saying they wrote a lot of great lyrics, because they often didn’t. They wrote the kind of lyrics that are mostly a jumble of things that are shaped into meaning only through arrangement and performance. Which, really, is an even greater tribute to their prowess for melody and finding the perfect chord progression chord progression to give a couplet like “I never seen you looking so bad my funky one/you tell me that your superfine mind has come undone” emotional heft. 

They also were studio perfectionists, and the studied slickness of their music, especially on a lot of the instrumental breaks, was always the thing that kept them at arm’s length for me. I tend to like rougher, or at least more atmospheric, sounds, and raw sound is important to me as a listener, more than anything else. So these very up-front mixes, with every instrument pristinely preserved and the vocals all bunched up together usually didn’t do much for me, to say nothing of the tone of the saxophone solos. 

Getting into Steely Dan, to the limited extent that I am into them, was a long, slow process of letting the best of their songs gradually dismantle the sonic barrier between me and them. “Do It Again” is nice and rough, so that helped. It was the first song of theirs I ever liked. “Night By Night” was perhaps the second. 

It was a deep cut that turned up on WAQY once in a great while, but it always caught my ear for being considerably grittier in its approach to funky pop music than anything else I associated with Steely Dan. To embrace “Peg” and “Deacon Blue” and “The Caves of Altamira,” I had to first embrace “Night By Night.”

It’s still probably my favorite Steely Dan song. Preferences change at the margins, but the core is pretty stable. I liked hearing it again in the context in which I first become aware of it, surrounded by classic rock hits and sounding just different enough to stand out.