A recurring feature in which I look at something I enjoy but have never thought deeply about, and force myself to clearly state five reasons why I like it.
Today’s subject: Track Two, Side One, from Steely Dan’s second album, Countdown to Ecstasy. Released July 1973. Also released as the B-side to the “Show Biz Kids” single (peak: No. 61) the following month.
And here’s why I like it:
1. The groove. What … exactly … is that groove? It’s laid-back and vaguely Latin — sort of a dejected, rain-soaked cha-cha. Or maybe it’s bossa nova; the mellow vibraphone licks would support that diagnosis. But then Jeff “Skunk” Baxter’s swooping pedal steel guitar fits more perfectly atop it than any pedal steel has ever fit atop a Latin jazz groove. I have no idea what this shotgun combination is in the long run, but I love the way it kicks its tin can down the street.
2. The players.Even in their earliest days, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen weren’t shy about calling top guns to bring their songs to life. “Razor Boy” gets its pulse in part from Ray Brown, one of jazz’s greatest upright bass players and an absolute rock, whose handiwork is briefly audible at the very end of the song. Also, Victor Feldman, one of Becker and Fagen’s first-call session men, plays the vibes parts (and possibly some of the percussion, as well.) The song is subtly but noticeably better for their presence, and I’m glad Becker and Fagen had the cojones — and the budget — to augment their core rock n’ roll band with some jazz aces.
3. The subject. “Razor Boy” is one of those songs that leaves you wondering who the narrator might be singing to — and what they’ll do when the razor boy comes to take their fancy things away. I tend to prefer the “Like a Rolling Stone” theory: In “Razor Boy,” like Dylan’s masterpiece, the singer is addressing the baser, more materialistic side of his own personality:
You’d gamble or give anything to be in with / The better half
But how many friends must I have to begin with / To make you laugh?
(The later line “You think no tomorrow will come when you lay down / You can’t refuse” echoes Dylan’s “Go to him now, he calls you, you can’t refuse,” too.)
4. The harmony. I would rather hear Fagen sing harmony with himself than hear the hired studio guns do it. (I like to hear the studio cats play, but the sound of Steely Dan is Fagen’s voice.) The arranging touch that lifts this song at the chorus and opens it up is as simple as a second track of high harmony in that distinctive Passaic drawl.
OK, I guess the entrance of the triangle helps too.
5. The chart placement. You knew my inner chart geek was going to make its way into this somewhere (he usually sneaks in at the end.) And sure enough, the ARSA database of local radio play turns up an interesting nugget: “Razor Boy” is listed on exactly one survey, from WLRA-FM in Joliet, Illinois, where it reached No. 18 on the local chart the week of Sept. 10, 1973.
The standard disclaimer applies: The ARSA database is not comprehensive. It consists only of surveys that people have not only saved, but scanned and submitted. “Razor Boy” might have snuck onto other surveys, on other weeks, at other stations that took the liberty of playing a B-side, as Top 40 stations used to be able to do.
I kinda like the thought of “Razor Boy” being a rare treasure, though.
Sure, Steely Dan’s following is large enough that no officially released song of theirs is truly obscure. But some are better-known than others. And I like to think of “Razor Boy” as a less-traveled street — a pleasure reserved for people who really know Countdown to Ecstasy, and people in one particular city in the late summer of 1973 who recognized the subdued genius of a song about “a cold and windy day.”