Donald Fagen: Century’s End 30 Years On

Almost 30 years ago to the day, my brother arrived home from a Richmond shopping spree bearing strange cargo – a new Donald Fagen 12” single.

To say that this was a surprise would be an understatement. After all, it was six years since The Nightfly and the late ’80s were generally a Steely Dan wasteland apart from occasional guest spots (China Crisis, Rosie Vela, Love And Money, Yellowjackets).

‘I think we felt that a lot of the energy was missing so we kind of sat out the ’80s,’ Fagen once said.

But, in his book ‘Eminent Hipsters’, he went further, talking about ‘falling apart like a cheap suit’ towards the end of the decade, with panic attacks, antidepressants and shrinks abundant.

But at least he didn’t need the money – ‘What supported me was that when CDs came out at the beginning of the ’80s, people had to buy the albums again.’

Fagen’s movie-producing cousin Mark Rosenberg headhunted him to come up with some music for the film version of Jay McInerney’s celebrated yuppie-in-peril book ‘Bright Lights Big City’. Fagen was typically reluctant but apparently swayed by the quality of McInerney’s writing.

There was also something distinctly Steely-esque about this tale of a disillusioned twentysomething’s descent into a drug-addled, paranoid New York hell. So Fagen fashioned his version of the movie, co-writing the lyric with Timothy Meher.

There are touches of ‘Bonfire Of The Vanities’ and ‘Wall Street’ in there. AIDS too, and ‘American Psycho’ was of course just around the corner.

The opening scene finds our hungover hero lamenting the roar of the Monday-morning garbage trucks. Cut to the floor of the NY Stock Exchange, where our yuppie daydreams about a conquest of the female variety: ‘We cut to this blonde/Dancing on a mirror/There’s no disbelief to suspend….

The image brilliantly conjures up Marilyn Monroe on the subway grate. Madonna should also probably come to mind. ‘She’s the concept, more or less, of love in the city at century’s end…

Nothing and nobody is real – it’s all pose and high-concept. There’s no hope for redemption either: ‘Nobody’s holding out for heaven‘. Greed is good. But then the mystery blonde is using her ‘pirate radar’ to find a likely escort or – even better – a minor celebrity to latch onto.

But no-one materialises, so you’ll do, although you know you’re only the second choice. But still: ‘Let’s get to the love scene, my friend‘…

Musically, ‘Century’s End’ is yet another brilliant Fagen concoction, initially based around a typical minor vamp and groovy half-time shuffle groove shepherded by Yellowjackets’ ‘Jim’ Haslip on bass and drummer Leroy Clouden (submerged in one or two different bits of rhythm programming).

Michael Brecker and Lew Soloff lead the horn section, and the raft of uncredited backing vocalists sounds like it might include Patti Austin. Gary Katz co-produced the song at Chelsea Sound.

Fagen’s vocals have rarely been better – check out his phrasing in the chorus. The 12” and CD also came with ‘Shanghai Confidential’, a neat little fuzak instrumental starring Marcus Miller on bass and Steve Khan on guitar.

The movie, starring Michael J Fox, stiffed. The casting didn’t help. But ‘Century’s End’ seems to be a bit of a guilty secret in Fagen’s discography, ripe for rediscovery…


9 thoughts on “Donald Fagen: Century’s End 30 Years On

  1. I was also beyond excited when the 7″ single for “Century’s End” appeared (I don’t recall seeing a 12″ version here in the US), assuming that Mr. Fagen had permanently retired. I’ve always enjoyed the A- and B-sides, and was thrilled that they were included on the bonus disc of rarities in the “Cheap Xmas” 7-LP box set that I got last year. I think I may have seen the movie when it was released on video but recall nothing about it…other than this wonderful song. Hard to believe it’s been 30 years.

    Liked by 1 person

      • A couple of years ago Rhino/Warner Music Group released a CD box set of Donald Fagen’s four solo albums along with a disc of rarities. To the best of my knowledge none of those albums was remastered so, even though I wanted the bonus disc, I never bought it. Then last year they released it as a 180-gram vinyl box set, and thanks to a friend who works at Warner was able to get a copy for about $40. I already own all of his albums, as well as my favorite (The Nightfly) on DVD-Audio with a surround sound mix, but I really enjoyed listening to them all on very quiet vinyl pressings. Highly recommended if the price is right.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Whoa there, scury not particularly enjoying, “his last few albums”, might that [im]possibly include the sublime Morph the Cat?
      I believe the album represents some of his finest work; a career hallmark, if you will..I welcome your counterpoint, Matt. Merry Christmas to you. Your blog is a happy find.


      • I do struggle with ‘Morph’ and ‘Sunken’, I’m afraid… Lots of reasons. A few are that the grooves seem much more ‘freeze-dried’ and the compositions a lot more ‘pat’… But such high standards to maintain after ‘The Nightfly’ and ‘Century’s End’. But hey, it’s all great stuff.


  2. Hi. Can anyone identify the type of organ sound Fagen is using at the end of Century’s End, enters halfway through the last verse ? Love this track

    Liked by 1 person

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