We’re still rolling along with our telephonic transgressions here at WMMCM for a while yet. No one has called it off though a few have said that they have our number and will be in touch when we get it dialed in.
And speaking of dialed in, one of the worst things that can happen – in the narrow confines of telephones at least – is losing that all important phone number.
These days, that’s not really much of a problem. When you receive a call, the caller ID shows you the number more often than not, and if it’s a blocked number; that usually means you didn’t want to take the call anyway. When you meet that new girl or guy, the first thing you do is save the number into your cellphone, so, unless you drop your cellphone to it’s untimely death from a ski lift or the 19th floor balcony of the hotel you’re staying at in Vegas, you can feel pretty safe that you won’t lose the number.
In 1974 when mobile phones were reserved for African dictators and media mogul types, it wasn’t so easy. Well, yeah – it was easy – but people being people, they tend to do silly or absentminded things with the new found, (and newly lost,) phone number. How many TV sit-coms used the accidental washing of the hands or the missing slip of paper with that cute guy or girls’ number on it? It became a bit of a plot device that will never be used again as cell phones have pretty much eliminated the “accidental” art of losing phone numbers. (These days you need to lose them on purpose.)
With the potential loss of an important phone number in mind, Donald Fagen penned what would become Steely Dan’s biggest hit.
By 1974 Donald Fagen and Walter Becker had been slowly improving the chart success of Steely Dan and with the release of the album Pretzel Logic, Steely Dan would solidify their place in rock n’ roll history. In the summer of 1974 “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” was one of those songs that you simply couldn’t escape. Radio loved the single which could be heard on all the AM stations as well as the much newer and open minded FM stations that were starting to rule rock radio.
Starting with a distinctive piano riff – openly borrowed from Horace Silver’s “Song For My Father” – “Rikki” is quite compelling. It get’s your attention from the first note, which is something Steely Dan was always quite good at. Whether you are a Steely Dan fan or not, Fagen and Becker always made certain that you paid attention to them.
“Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” starts out with a bit of pleading for the young lady to stay. All in all, very gentle for Steely Dan.
“We hear you’re leaving that’s OK.
I thought our little wild time had just begun
I guess you kind of scared yourself, You turn and run
But if you have a change of heart.”
The story of “Rikki” is presumed to be about a friend of Fagen’s from when he was attending Bard College in Annondale, New York. Fagen, true to form, won’t confirm the story. I suspect there might be something to this as Fagen and Steely Dan over the years have not proved to be terribly kind or sentimental. Because of the unusual – for Steely Dan – almost sweetness, “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” stands out quite a bit from your usual Steely Dan joyful nastiness.
“Rikki don’t lose that number, you don’t wanna call nobody else,
Send it off in a letter to yourself
Rikki don’t lose that number, it’s the only one you own
You might use it feel better, when you get home.”
As always with Steely Dan, they mesmerise musically. By 1974 and Pretzel Logic, Fagen and Becker had already gained a reputation for musical excellence bordering on perfection. (Which also logically followed into a reputation for sounding cold and sterile, which they seemed to revel in.) It’s quite likely that “Rikki” was their biggest hit because vocally and lyrically it’s far away from the usual sarcastic and arrogant style they specialized in. (Which I love by the way.)
While coming in at just slightly under the four minute mark – for the cut down single – “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” only has two verses. The rest of the song is reserved for Fagen and Becker to conduct another experiment with the best studio musicians of the day turning them loose to create another masterpiece.
Fagen sticks to vocals here while Becker runs his usual precise and fast bass work. Legendary session drummer Jim Gordon is keeping the quirky beat while Michael Omartian puts down the distinctive piano riffs. Over the top is Jeff “Skunk” Baxter’s guitar leads filling all the little spaces. Baxter’s solo gives one of the most contradictory performances in a song. He’s exuberant and flashy while somehow sounding conflicted. The solo is so out of place it works perfectly.
This brief moment of Steely Dan – near – kindness and concern didn’t last of course. But, for that short time in 1974, Steely Dan had a love song on their hands.