Still brilliant after all these years

Ah yes, 1969 — a pivotal year for me, and a pivotal year for the record business.

I was turning 14, starting to pay more attention to the world outside my safe neighborhood surroundings.  I was suddenly more interested in the opposite sex, and I 1969was being introduced to the intriguing, horizon-stretching music of bands with peculiar names I’d never heard of before.

At the same time, the record-buying public at large was starting to pay attention to complete albums instead of just hit singles.  By year’s end, for the first time, the total number of albums sold eclipsed the number of singles sold.  My generation was no longer willing to settle for what the Top 40 stations were willing to broadcast.  We started going on deep dives through the record stores of America — at Woolworth’s and other major chains, but more often at independent hippie-type stores — to discover much, much more.

There’s no question that 1969 brought a stunning breadth of albums that, even fifty years after their release, are among the finest rock LPs ever produced.  Readers might take exception with the obviousness of my 12 selections here; there are at least a dozen others, listed as “honorable mentions” at the end, that might easily make your own personal Top Dozen list.  But that’s my point:  1969 offered an embarrassment of riches.  As we commemorate the 50th anniversary of these records, let us relive the thrill that the music within them still brings us.

Enjoy!

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“Santana,” Santana

44085-santana-1969When San Francisco area concert promoter Bill Graham was asked to become involved with the not-yet-legendary Woodstock Music and Arts Fair, he did so on the condition that Santana, an unknown Latin-infused rock band he had been championing, be added to the bill, even though their debut LP hadn’t come out yet.  Santana’s high-energy instrumental music, most notably “Soul Sacrifice,” was a revelation to the festival crowd, and their performance played a big part in the 1970 film.  “Santana” was released a few weeks later and, thanks to radio play for the instrumental track “Jingo” and even more for the #9 hit “Evil Ways,” climbed to #4 on the album charts.  Six of the album’s nine tracks are instrumentals, a rarity for a Top Ten LP.  Santana’s winning formula was a bubbling mix of white-hot percussion, Gregg Rolie’s Hammond organ and vocals, and, interlaced throughout, Carlos Santana’s biting, soaring guitar playing.

“Led Zeppelin (I),” Led Zeppelin

5ba3db1f638a5You’d be hard pressed to find a debut album more game-changing than this one.  Rising from the ashes of the great blues group The Yardbirds, “Led Zeppelin” is a combination of heavy and light, by turns thunderous and delicate.  “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” beautifully demonstrated this dichotomy, with gentle acoustic and fiery electric passages in the same track.  The explosive “Good Times Bad Times” and “Communication Breakdown” set new standards in condensed hard rock, and eclectic pieces like the acoustic instrumental “Black Mountain Side” and the organ-dominated “Your Time is Gonna Come” offered something different.  But it’s the blues covers like “You Shook Me” and “I Can’t Quite You Babe,” and the lengthier album side closers “Dazed and Confused” and “How Many More Times,” that really dominate the proceedings.  Guitarist Jimmy Page wrote, arranged and produced most of the album’s nine tracks, with help from keyboardist/bassist John Paul Jones, while singer Robert Plant and drummer John Bonham cemented reputations as among the best at their respective positions.

“Stand Up,” Jethro Tull

96830fb240e5aa15c2d9be9f44388c7dAlthough this band began as a ragtag blues outfit in 1968 with guitarist Mick Abrahams sharing leadership with flutist-singer Ian Anderson, it wasn’t long before Abrahams split to form Blodwyn Pig, and Anderson took over the Tull reins for good.  By adding superb guitarist Martin Barre and writing ten wonderfully eclectic tunes, Anderson steered Tull to the top of the British charts with “Stand Up,” an album that remains a favorite of mine and millions of others.  Witness the cornucopia of styles:  blues (“A New Day Yesterday,”), folk (“Fat Man”), hard rock (“We Used to Know,” “For a Thousand Mothers,” “Nothing is Easy”), acoustic balladry (“Reasons for Waiting,” “Look Into the Sun”), even light jazz (the instrumental “Bourée”).  Tull went on to great achievements over the next three decades, but this LP continues to delight, and was a high point of 1969 album releases.

“Chicago Transit Authority,” Chicago

220px-CTA_albumThere had been horns used in rock music before (Blood, Sweat, and Tears, The Buckinghams), but not quite like what Chicago attempted with this brazenly ambitious double-album debut.  With three talented singer-songwriters in the lineup (keyboardist Robert Lamm, guitarist Terry Kath and bassist Peter Cetera), plus a meaty horn section of trumpet, trombone and sax, Chicago had the goods to deliver well over an hour of catchy, energetic music right out of the gate.  So much great material:  the effervescent “Beginnings” and “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is,” the bluesy “South California Purples,” the riff-laden “Introduction” and “Questions 67 and 68,” and a politically timely medley (“Prologue/Someday”) and a 15-minute jam (“Liberation”).  The group’s original lineup kept things interesting for another five or six years before succumbing to a more puerile commercial style that wore thin.

“Blind Faith,” Blind Faith

61cLZhu5npL._SX355_Eric Clapton was looking for some new musical chemistry following the demise of Cream, and he found it with Steve Winwood, the amazing singer/songwriter/keyboardist on hiatus from his own band Traffic.  Cream drummer Ginger Baker showed up at their informal rehearsals, hoping to get involved, and despite Clapton’s apprehensions, joined the recording sessions, along with Ric Grech on bass and violin.  Sadly, the group was hyped beyond belief as a “supergroup” that was almost the antithesis of what Clapton and Winwood had originally conceived, and the group disbanded in a matter of R-391938-1394741346-1051_jpeg_896d3227-53aa-4a3e-aef6-75de64548006months.  Although the resulting album features only six tracks (one of which was a 16-minute jam on Baker’s “Do What You Like”), the musicianship is exemplary, particularly on the Winwood tunes, “Can’t Find My Way Home,” “Sea of Joy” and “Had to Cry Today.”  Clapton also contributed his first top-shelf song, the lovely “Presence of the Lord.”  The album reached #1 on the UK and US album charts, but it turned out to be the only record they’d make (although it had two covers!).

“Yer Album,” The James Gang

JamesyerCleveland had been the city where legendary DJ Alan Freed got his start, hosting what is considered the world’s first rock concert back in 1952.  But there hadn’t been much else on the city’s music scene to gain national attention until The James Gang — fortified by the addition of newcomer Joe Walsh taking over for the departing Glenn Schwartz — burst out with the eye-opening “Yer Album” debut LP in April 1969.  It wasn’t until the following year’s “James Gang Rides Again” and its hit single “Funk #49” that the group became commercial successful, but guitar legends like Pete Townshend, Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page all sang the praises of Walsh as a talent to reckon with, based on the tracks on “Yer Album.”  On original songs like “Take a Look Around,” “Collage,” “I Don’t Have the Time” and “Fred,” Walsh showed a flair for melody and vocal arrangement, and on excellent covers such as “Bluebird,” “Stop” and “Lost Woman,” he demonstrated his considerable guitar prowess.

“Abbey Road,” The Beatles

abbey-roadBy mid-1969, the best band of them all concluded it was time to call it quits, but the album they recorded in January, “Let It Be,” had left a bad taste in their mouths (and it sat unreleased for another 15 months).  Instead, they decided to regroup in July and record “a proper swan song,” as Paul McCartney put it.  And what a farewell it was.  George Harrison weighed in with “Something” and “Here Comes the Sun,” two of his finest songs yet; John Lennon had already checked out mentally, but brought “Come Together,” “Because” and “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” to the party.  McCartney did the lion’s share of the writing, and arranged the spectacular medley (“You Never Give Me Your Money,” “Sun King,” “Mean Mister Mustard,” “Polythene Pam,” “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window,” “Golden Slumbers,” “Carry That Weight” and “The End”) that comprises most of Side Two and is, in my opinion, the best-ever 15 minutes of Beatles music.

“Tommy,” The Who

The+Who+Tommy-1From 1965 onward, Pete Townshend and The Who had enjoyed plenty of chart success in England with a string of brash yet melodic singles, but their penchant for destroying their instruments in live performances kept them in debt and in danger of losing their record contract.  In late 1968, Townshend put his songwriting talents into overdrive and came up with a sprawling “rock opera” about a deaf, dumb and blind boy who becomes a pinball god with a fawning audience who eventually turn on him.  The exceptional music he built around these story-lyrics is the real attention-getter here, with amazing melodies and arrangements that singer Roger Daltrey, drummer Keith Moon and bassist John Entwistle (and guitarist Townshend himself) could really sink their teeth into.  “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” “The Acid Queen,” “Pinball Wizard,” “I’m Free,” “Amazing Journey,” “Go to the Mirror,” “Christmas,” “Underture” — just a marvelous spread to feast upon.

“Crosby, Stills and Nash,” Crosby, Stills and Nash

220px-CrosbystillsandnashThis pretty much perfect LP is largely the work of Stills, who had been biding his time since the imploding of Buffalo Springfield a year before.  “Captain Manyhands,” as he was nicknamed, played most of the instruments and produced all the tracks, and wrote the amazing “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” “Helplessly Hoping” and “You Don’t Have to Cry.”  He also had the wisdom to recruit superb harmonizer David Crosby from the Byrds, who brought “Guinnevere,” “Long Time Gone” and “Wooden Ships” to the project.  The icing on the cake was the addition of the high harmonies of ex-Hollie Graham Nash and his great tunes “Marrakesh Express,” “Lady of the Island” and “Pre-Road Downs.”  The summer and fall of 1969 were far more pleasant because of these wondrous songs floating out of radios and home stereos across the country.

“Bayou Country,” Creedence Clearwater Revival

ba4fbc91b8b39aea2458d15021dcb8c8Although singer-songwriter John Fogerty hailed from El Cerrito, California, he conjured up a type of rock music that seemed steeped in Louisiana humidity.  His band, Creedence Clearwater Revival, offered a mesmerizing brand of “swamp rock” that showed influences of roots rockers like Little Richard, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and The Big Bopper.  Fogerty ran the group with an iron hand, which eventually alienated his bandmates, but it was his musical vision that led Creedence to great commercial success with five hugely popular LPs in 1969 and 1970, beginning with “Bayou Country” in January ’69.  “Proud Mary” was the flagship tune, but for me, “Born on the Bayou” is the band’s finest moment, followed closely by “Bootleg,” a scintillating cover of “Good Golly Miss Molly” and a relentless jam-boogie, “Keep on Chooglin’.”

“Led Zeppelin II,” Led Zeppelin

5ba3ddc04249dExcitement and momentum had been building all year long in the wake of Led Zeppelin’s incredible debut LP (see above), and the band toured relentlessly in support of it.  It is to Jimmy Page’s everlasting credit that he was somehow able to write, arrange, record and produce the band’s sensational follow-up album, “Led Zeppelin II,” released only nine months after the first one.  Written on the fly in hotel rooms and recorded/mixed in five different cities along the way, the nine songs remain lasting, much-loved prototypes of heavy metal (“Heartbreaker,” “Whole Lotta Love”), blues-based rock (“Lemon Song,” “Bring It On Home”) and the occasional lighter moments (“Ramble On,” “Thank You,” “What Is and What Shall Never Be”) that represent the “zeppelin” to go with the “led.”  The album pushed “Abbey Road” out of the top spot by year’s end and ushered in a new era where Zeppelin was the band everyone else was trying to top.

“Let It Bleed,” The Rolling Stones

t45849630-b656479919_s400Any album that kicks off with a song as seismic as “Gimme Shelter” and concludes with a song as anthemic as “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” is clearly a shoo-in for any “Best Of” list.  Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were firing on all their songwriting cylinders in the spring and summer of ’69, in the wake of the accidental death of Brian Jones, who appears only nominally on the finished LP.  New Stones guitarist Mick Taylor joined too late to contribute much, but session virtuoso Nicky Hopkins adds superb piano to “Midnight Rambler,” “Monkey Man” and “Live With Me.”  Just as previous LP “Beggar’s Banquet” had included several acoustic-based tracks, “Let It Bleed” featured “Love in Vain,” “You Got the Silver,” the title track and a country arrangement of concurrent hit single “Honky Tony Woman” called “Country Honk.”

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Honorable mention:

“Everybody Knows This is Nowhere,” Neil Young;  “Stand!,” Sly and the Family Stone;  “Happy Sad,” Tim Buckley;  “Free,” Free;  “In the Court of Crimson King,” King Crimson;  “Volunteers,” Jefferson Airplane;  “Clouds,” Joni Mitchell;  “A Salty Dog,” Procol Harum;  “Nashville Skyline,” Bob Dylan;  “Arthur,” The Kinks;  “A Little Help From My Friends,” Joe Cocker;  Moby Grape ’69,” Moby Grape;  “I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again, Mama!,” Janis Joplin;  “Green River,” Creedence Clearwater Revival;  “Songs for a Tailor,” Jack Bruce;  “Then Play On,” Fleetwood Mac.

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There are two Spotify playlists here.  The first includes three or four selections from each of the featured LPs; the second offered one or two tracks from each of the honorable mentions.  Happy listening!

 

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Are you with me, Doctor Wu?

This is the tenth and final (for now!) in a series of posts that feature analysis and commentary about some of my all-time favorite albums and artists.

To recap:  The following albums and artists have been singled out:  Crosby, Stills and Nash (and Young)’s “Crosby Stills and Nash” and “Deja Vu”;  The Who’s “Tommy” and “Who’s Next”;  Jethro Tull’s “Aqualung” and “Thick as a Brick”;  Bruce Springsteen’s “The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle” and “Born to Run”;  The James Gang’s “Yer’ Album” and Joe Walsh’s “The Smoker You Drink, the Player You Get”;  The Beatles’ “Rubber Soul,” “Revolver,” “The White Album” and “Abbey Road”;  Dire Straits’ “Making Movies” and “On Every Street”;  Joe Jackson’s “Night and Day” and “Blaze of Glory”;  and Led Zeppelin’s “Led Zeppelin” and “Led Zeppelin II.”  This final installment lauds Steely Dan’s “Countdown to Ecstasy” and “Katy Lied.”

At some point, several months from now, I will again offer analysis and commentary on more of what I consider some of my all-time favorite albums, but I felt it was time to get back to addressing other topics and milestones in the world of rock music of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s.  Rock on! 

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My introduction to the wondrous talents that comprise the curious musical entity known as Steely Dan came as it did, I suspect, for most rock music listeners:  the hypnotic salsa beat of the hit single “Do It Again,” which reached #6 on the US pop charts in late 1972/early 1973.  (I was a senior in high school then, and our basketball team featured a hot shooter named Jack, and whenever he made a basket, those of us in the stands would cheer, “Go back, Jack, do it again…”)

Six months later at graduation time, Steely Dan returned to the charts with “Reelin’ in the Years,” which provided a marvelous soundtrack for us to reminisce about our transition from high school to college.  At that point, I decided the band was worthy of d324f5cc4a16c309e75b5bc4200c6079.1000x1000x1further exploration and bought the debut LP, “Can’t Buy a Thrill.”  I was pleased to find a very appealing array of styles, textures, arrangements and lyrics contained in the ten tracks, especially “Dirty Work,” “Only a Fool Would Say That,” “Brooklyn” and “Kings.”

Soon enough, though, I turned my attentions elsewhere for the next year or so, concentrating on other stuff, mostly progressive rock, as I recall.  It was freshman year, after all, and I lived in a dorm full of like-minded stoners.

Then in May of 1974, I became aware of a new single by Steely Dan called “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” and, remembering how much I had enjoyed the first album, I raced to the record store to pick up their new LP.  To my surprise, I found not one but two “new” Steely Dan albums in the bins.  There was the just-released “Pretzel Logic,” featuring “Rikki,” but there was also “Countdown to Ecstasy,” their second album which had apparently been released with little fanfare, and no hit single, nine months earlier in  July 1973.

What a treat to suddenly have two Steely Dan LPs to delve into!  I found the accessible three-minute pop songs on “Pretzel Logic” to be instantly likable, catchy and captivating, especially “Night By Night,” “Parker’s Band,” “Barrytown” and “Charlie Freak.”  Donald Fagen’s enunciated vocals, embellished with rich harmonies behind them, brought the quirky lyrics to life, and the songs seemed to gallop along on the strength of sizzling guitar parts, sax solos and horn sections packed into each arrangement.

But I was much more intrigued by the longer tunes heard on “Countdown.”  Here, I thought, were some really substantive tracks on which the musicians could really stretch out.  Fagen and songwriting partner Walter Becker had come up with some more cover_4538717112009-1diversely challenging material that was at once accessible and more sophisticated, and the band members responded with obvious enthusiasm.

Take, for example, “My Old School,” an exuberant number about the duo’s days at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, where they met in the late ’60s.  They weren’t exactly fond of the place (hence the line, “California tumbles into the sea, that’ll be the day I go back to Annandale”), but nonetheless, many college reunions I’ve attended in the years since have featured old friends joyously singing this track at the top of their lungs.  The horn charts are, to my ears, among the most spectacular you’ll ever hear on a pop tune, expertly captured by producer Gary Katz, who manned the boards for all of Steely Dan’s albums.

Another impressive track is “Bodhisattva,” basically a blues-rock structure with jazz

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Baxter (left) and Dias from a 1973 TV appearance

underpinnings and a swing beat, and lots of room for some amazingly fluid guitar solos from Steely Dan’s original axemen, Denny Dias and Jeff “Skunk” Baxter.”  Baxter also shines on the delightful “Pearl of the Quarter,” an irresistibly heartfelt tribute to Louise, a New Orleans hooker, where he offers some sweet pedal steel guitar.

 

The song I can never get enough of is the album closer, “King of the World,” which utilizes Dias’s dexterous guitar and Fagen’s middle-break synthesizer on which to build a riveting work about what it might feel like to survive a nuclear apocalypse.  Few bands have ever come up with lines like these:  “No marigolds in the promised land, there’s a hole in the ground where they used to grow, any man left on the Rio Grande is the king of the world as far as I know…”

Although “Countdown to Ecstasy” really grew on me, to the point where it stands as one of my all-time favorites, none of its eight songs grabbed the denizens of 1973 pop radio.  “My Old School” and the celebrity-centric “Show Biz Kids” stiffed at #63 and #61, and the album managed to reach only #35, although earning gold-record status eventually.

Said Baxter at the time, “I think the diversity you hear on ‘Countdown’ makes it much more interesting for us and, we hope, for the people who buy the albums.  There are a lot of things you can grab on to, but that doesn’t mean we’re so predictable that you can instantly associated one cut with the next.  We’d rather have people looking forward to a song that might be completely different than looking forward to a song they know is going to sound the same as the last song.  It’s not the accepted commercial formula, which we think is usually a big mistake.”

As most observers now know, Steely Dan began in 1972 as a six-piece rock group that

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The original lineup (L-to-R):  drummer Jim Hodder, vocalist David Palmer, guitarist Denny Dias, keyboardist/vocalist Donald Fagen, guitarist Jeff “Skunk” Baxter” and bassist Walter Becker

could take the embraceable music and profoundly weird lyrics that Fagen and Becker were writing and turn them into solid recordings and play them convincingly in concert. And for two years, they did just that.  Fagen on keyboards and vocals, Becker on bass, Dias and Baxter on guitars, Jim Hodder on drums, and second singer David Palmer worked reasonably well as a unit, and racked up the early hit singles.

 

But Palmer proved to be an unnatural element and was dismissed, and Fagen and Becker quickly found that they loathed touring, largely because, as fussy perfectionists, they couldn’t rely on the notoriously unpredictable sound quality of concert venues and their often sketchy equipment and technicians.  Steely Dan soon became the first major pop group to openly defy their record label by refusing to tour at all, and rarely doing interviews, concentrating all their efforts instead on songwriting and recording.

That decision may have irked the guys in the suits, but it fascinated critics and fans, who liked what they heard and were satisfied to let the music on the albums do the talking.  The other casualty was Baxter, who made his money from touring and couldn’t afford to hang around for the periodic studio gig, and instead joined The Doobie Brothers, a hard-working touring band for the remainder of the ’70s.

Fagen and Becker, who both tended to prefer jazz music over rock, thought they could AR-AK759_DEACON_8S_20150904180010bring that sort of loose-formed sensibility to what they were doing in the studio.  In a 1975 article, Fagen described it this way:  “We find that we want to pick musicians we think will fit a particular song.  Sometimes we’ll hear somebody on a record and hire them for the date, and if it works out, great.  Jazz musicians are always playing with different people, and I don’t see why that can’t happen here.  Of course, some rock musicians don’t like that.  We might have chords that constantly modulate, and they don’t know what’s going on, and they freak out and leave.  That’s okay.  We find somebody else.”

Beginning in 1975 with the stunning “Katy Lied,” that’s exactly what transpired.  Seven different guitarists are used on the album’s ten tracks, from Becker and Dias to jazz greats Larry Carlton and Elliott Randall and rock stalwart Rick Derringer.  Future vocal superstar steelydan~~_katyliedj_101bMichael McDonald beefs up the background voices, and eventual Toto founders Jeff Porcaro on drums and David Paich on keyboards bring muscle to the arrangements as well.

Even though there were technical problems in bringing the album to realization, and Fagen still has regrets with the final mix, I was among those who was completely floored by how amazing it sounded through a good sound system in 1975.  And Side One (remember when the songs were divided into Side One and Side Two?) remains, for me, one of the all-time best album sides ever recorded.  “Black Friday,” “Bad Sneakers,” “Rose Darling,” “Daddy Don’t Live in New York City No More” and “Doctor Wu” are five back-to-back killer Fagen-Becker masterpieces, each expertly performed by some of the best musicians in the business.

Which is not to detract from Side Two’s fine moments, including Derringer’s solo on the bluesy “Chain Lightning,” McDonald’s prominent voice on “Any World That I’m Welcome To,” and the cheesy funk of Fagen’s keyboards on the perverse “Everyone’s Gone to the Movies,” wherein a local weirdo delights in showing stag films to the neighborhood kids in his den.  Such a motley stew of sounds and themes coming at you in Steely Dan’s albums…

The trend toward multiple guest musicians and lyrics about fringe outcasts continued with 1976’s “The Royal Scam,” hailed by some critics as Steely Dan’s finest achievement, and there are certainly tracks found there that rank among the true gems of Steely Dan’s catalog, like “Kid Charlemagne,” “Don’t Take Me Alive” and the harrowing title track.

Their commercial peak was “Aja,” which reached #3 on the album charts and sold many millions of copies on the strength of its three hit singles (“Deacon Blues,” “Peg” and “Josie”), and it often served as the go-to album played at concert venues as the roadies changed equipment from the warm-up act to the headliner.  Its impossibly slick production values were held up as the gold standard by many, while others criticized that perfection as the antithesis of what rock’s dirty rebel soul was supposed to sound like.

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“The Dan,” circa 1974

And sure enough, the tipping point came within the next couple of years, as the sound that eventually became pejoratively known as “yacht rock” gave way to a quirkier New Wave vibe, injecting fresh ideas into what had become a relatively ho-hum scene.   “Gaucho,” Steely Dan’s last album for three decades, explored the decadence of LA like never before on ear-candy tracks like “Babylon Sisters” and “Glamour Profession,” more slick sounding than even anything on “Aja.”  It’s unquestionably a worthy entry in the Dan catalog.

But I will always prefer, and invariably return to, what I heard from the Fagen-Becker team in their 1973-1975 period than what followed.  There was something so radical and yet comforting, so inventive and yet familiar, in the songs they made at that point in the evolution of their song crafting.  I invite you all to wrap your heads around these albums and breathe deep.  This is amazing stuff.

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The Spotify list below offers “Countdown to Ecstasy” and “Katy Lied” in their entirety, but I couldn’t resist sneaking in another couple of tracks from “Pretzel Logic” in between, just to remind you of the stellar quality of Steely Dan’s work found elsewhere during that period.