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« Front-to-Back Album Friday: Lake Street Dive | Main | Front-to-Back Album Friday: St. Paul & the Broken Bones - Half the City »
Oct 17 2014

Front-to-Back Album Friday: Donald Fagen - The Nightfly

Scottish Indie punks have a new album, Unravelled , out this month. I like the band, but I love the name. Because quite frankly, we were promised jetpacks, and according to the movies, all those rotten nasty teenagers who hang out with the Biff's of the world should be riding through the town square on hoverboards this time next year. It's all lies. Frankly, the most modern thing we have is the Smartcar and the smartphone. Both have promised us a better life, but seriously, neither has delivered.

I arrived on the planet at the very tail end of the Baby Boom. Through my childhood in the 60s we were promised, no we expected , to be adults in a cool world filled with all kinds of fun scientific innovations. Think Disney's Carousel of Progress with better hair. Again, it's all lies. I had eggs for breakfast this morning and they were cooked in a pan. On a stove. I might as well have eaten breakfast like a caveman. No space pack liquid eggs infused with lots of niacin and other science-y things. Ironically, people are actually opposed to science doing things like sticking GMO's in our food. Imagine that. In short, my life (and yours') is one giant disappointment.

There are no jetpacks.

We still have music even if science is rapidly trying to destroy it for us by making it sound all small and impotent and what-not. But back when science was still actually trying to make our lives better, Donald Fagen recorded The Nightfly , one of the first commercial (and certainly commercially successful) records to be recorded completely digitally.

Released on Warner Brothers Records, October 1982.

Produced by Gary Katz, Robin Hurley

Engineered by Roger Nichols, Elliot Scheiner, Daniel Lazerus, Cheryl Smith, Wayne Yurgelun, Rogin Lane, Mike Morongell

Recorded at Soundworks, NYC, Automated Sound, NYC and Village Recorder, Los Angeles

Mixed by Elliot Scheiner

Mastered by Bob Ludwig

Length: 38:46

Reached Number 11 on the Billboard Pop Album Chart (1982)

Singles I.G.Y. reached #8 (Adult Contemporary) and #17 (Rock) and New Frontier reached #70 (US Singles - 1983)


  • Donald Fagen - Harmonica, Horns, Keyboards, Vocals
  • Dave Bargeron - Horns
  • Daniel Bazerus - Vocals
  • Michael Brecker - Saxophones
  • Randy Brecker - Horns
  • Larry Carlton - Guitars
  • Ronnie Cuber - Horns
  • Rick Derringer - Guitars
  • Frank Floyd - Vocals
  • James Gadsen - Drums
  • Ed Greene - Drums
  • Anthony Jackson - Bass
  • Steve Jordan - Drums
  • Steve Khan - Guitars
  • Abraham Laboriel - Bass
  • Will Lee - Bass
  • Hugh McCracken - Harmonica, Guitars
  • Leslie Miller - Vocals
  • Marcus Miller - Bass
  • Rob Mounsey - Keyboards
  • Michael Omartian - Keyboards
  • Dean Parks - Guitars
  • Greg Phillinganes - Keyboards
  • Jeff Porcaro - Drums
  • Chuck Rainey - Bass
  • Zachary Sanders - Vocals
  • Valerie Simpson - Vocals
  • David Tofani - Horns
  • Starz Vander Lockett - Percussion, Vocals

The credits are proof that it takes a good number of talented people to make a great record. But what also makes this record such a classic is that it was recorded with the assistance of machines and computers, not with reliance on machines and computers. Back in the Digital Dark Ages of 1982, digital audio was a new technology, generations removed from what we are capable of doing today, yet this album speaks to the listener with all the subtlety and grace of a record recorded with analog technology, or with great care in today's digital world. That is a credit to the producers and engineers who were operating on the vanguard of the coming technological revolution.

In my life as a studio and FOH engineer I have heard the songs (or at least snippets of) I.G.Y. and New Frontier more times than I could count. To this day, those two songs are used by many, many audio engineers to get a feel for the sound of a room or venue. I still use the two to check the sound of a new loudspeaker in a new environment, or as a reference when setting up a mix in the studio. In fact, I'll go as far as to say that a person who considers themselves a serious audiophile who does not have easy access to either of these two songs needs to re-think their description of themselves.

Setting the brilliant music aside for a moment, this is one album you should own if not for anything else other than to make sure your system sounds as good as it should.

1. I.G.Y. (6:04): I suppose the hipsters might call this Adult Contemporary of Old Person Rock or whatever phrase the kids are using today, but that narrow-mindedness is kind of sad. From the arrangement to the performance to the engineering, this song is very nearly flawless (even at 6+ minutes). iTunes classifies this as "Jazz" but since when did iTunes become the arbiter of all things music (I mean besides 2004)? " Undersea by rail, Ninety minutes from New York to Paris " seemed a certain reality in the 1950's, except it obviously turned out to be just a dream borne of a time when lots of things seemed possible. We live in an age where basically nothing seems possible and the dream has become ironic, but that's okay because irony is a language Fagen has always spoken fluently.

2. Green Flower Street (3:43): From the fabulous reverb on the Fender Rhodes in the beginning to the dueling guitars in the left and right channels, this is a very cool song to listen to. The music moves in waves under a story about parochialism and racial tension, a la West Side Story for the pre-politically correct generation.

3. Ruby Baby (5:39): The only song on the set not penned by Fagen (Lieber and Stoller), this arrangement of a basically very bland song is stellar. Listen hard for Valerie Simpson's unmistakable voice in the chorus. I really don't ever want to like this song, but then I listen to it – in context – and I am sucked in. You can hear the brilliant Jeff Porcaro lay down a rhythm that's a subtle echo of Toto's massive hit Rosanna which was released earlier the same year. The hi-hat work is worth the time alone.

4. Maxine (3:50): Ahh, the naive dreams of youth. Fagen perfectly captures the blaze of young love, which when combined with youth and a little smarts, invariably winds up over-stating the possibilities of the future. Do college-aged kids still have dreams like this, or have they all been dispensed with like our hopes of ever having jetpacks? But forget my cynicism, the vocal arrangement on this song should be required listening for everyone. Period. The vocals aren't particularly complicated or intense, but they are amazingly lush and, well, beautiful .

5. New Frontier (6:22): John Kennedy spoke of the New Frontier as a frontier of positive change and possibility, but there was always a dark side to it. If you're old enough to remember Fallout Shelters and practicing hiding under your desk at school because the expected nuclear annihilation was upon us, you'll know what I mean. If you were a little kid like me in the early 1960s, every time you heard a fire siren you figured the Russkies had finally decided to off us all. Of course, it wasn't all dark: There was still sex and music and beer (for the older kids anyway). If your dad had a bomb shelter in the backyard, wouldn't your New Frontier be slightly different than the one JFK talked about?

6. The Nightfly (5:47): Some of Fagen's best lyrics live in this song. He's bored, he's tired, he's washed up, but it's the music that keeps him from being swallowed whole by it all. I feel sorry for people today who will never know the sheer joy of finding some far off radio station, with some overly-hip, overly-cool DJ spinning records from another planet. Pandora and Spotify just don't have the same ability to connect on a human basis like a DJ like Lester the Nightfly does. Technology is a good thing, until we let it steal things from us that matter.

7. The Goodbye Look (4:50): Deep, resonant marimba notes over a gentle shuffle open this one that's unlike anything you've heard before yet also comfortably familiar at the same time. You can picture actual real adults doing actual real adult things that none of us regular people ever get to do. Who among us has ever dreamed of being able to say to some mysterious barmaid in a politically unstable resort, Won't you pour me a Cuban Breeze, Gretchen? You know you have. This song is also a perfect example of the ability to arrange with space, allowing the instruments and melody to breath without choking them off with cleverness. Our 2014 brains may need some time to adjust to all of this space and air between the notes, but give it a try, you might just find that lack of clutter is a good thing.

8. Walk Between Raindrops (2:39): If you don't smile during this song you are either truly tragically stuffy or you still have unresolved issues with your parents because they were far too cool for your own good. A simple 2-beat shuffle, replete with cheesy organ and cheery walking bass, this little love song turns out to be exactly how sweet life can be, even without those damned jetpacks.

The Nightfly is best listened to:

  • While wearing non-ironic skinny jeans (for men) and for the gals a liberal amount of Aqua-Net
  • Your dad's cruise wear is probably a good choice too
  • Whilst drinking a Martini or Manhattan and talking to your more intellectual, and ironic, friends
  • Driving around the old neighborhood while falsely remembering everything as being peachy-keen
  • On as good a stereo system as you can get hold of with at least one lava lamp and a few large artificial plants

Jack Sharkey for KEF America

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