How Steely Dan Wrote “Deacon Blues,” the Song Audiophiles Use to Test High-End Stereos

Every Steely Dan fan remembers the first time they listened to their music — not just heard it, but listened to it, actively taking notice of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen’s complexly anachronistic lyrics (long scrutinized by the band’s exegetes), jazz-and-rock-spanning compositional technique, ultra-discerning selection of session musicians, and immaculate studio craft which, by the standards of the 1970s, raised popular music’s bar through the ceiling.

Often, that first real listening session happens in the neighborhood of a high-end stereo dealer. For me, the album was Two Against Nature, their turn-of-the-21st century comeback, but for many more, the album was Aja, which came out in 1977 and soon claimed the status of Steely Dan’s masterpiece. At the end of side one comes “Deacon Blues,” one of their best-loved songs as well as a production that puts audiophile listening equipment to the test. You can see a breakdown of what went into it in Nerdwriter’s new video “How Steely Dan Composes a Song” above.

“There’s a reason why audiophiles use Steely Dan records to test the sound quality of new speakers,” says host Evan Puschak. “The band is among the most sonically sophisticated pop acts of the 20th and 21st centuries,” in both the technical and artistic senses. He goes on to identify some of the signature elements in the mix, including something called the “mu major cord”; the recording methods that allow “every instrument its own life” (especially those played by masters like guitarist Larry Carlton and drummer Bernard Purdie); the striking effect of “middle register horns sliding against each other”; and even saxophone soloist Pete Christlieb, whom Becker and Fagen discovered by chance on a Tonight Show broadcast.

Puschak doesn’t ignore the lyrics, without a thorough analysis of which no discussion of Steely Dan’s work would be complete. He mentions the band’s typically wry, sardonic tone, their detached perspective and notes of uncertainty, but in the case of this particular song, it all comes with a “hidden earnestness” that makes it one of the most poignant in their entire catalog. “‘Deacon Blues’ is about as close to autobiography as our tunes get,” admits Fagen in the television documentary clip just above, which puts him and Becker back into the studio to look back at the song track by isolated track.

“We’re both kids who grew up in the suburbs. We both felt fairly alienated. Like a lot of kids in the fifties, we were looking for some kind of alternative culture — some kind of escape, really — from where we found ourselves.” Becker describes the song’s eponymous protagonist, who dreams of learning to “work the saxophone” in order to play just how he feels, “drink Scotch whiskey all night long, and die behind the wheel,” as not a musician but someone who “just sort of imagines that would be one of the mythic forms of loserdom to which he might aspire. Who’s to say that he’s not right?”

You can learn even more about the making (and the magic) of “Deacon Blues” in Marc Myers’ interview with Becker and Fagen in the Wall Street Journal last year. “It’s the only time I remember mixing a record all day and, when the mix was done, feeling like I wanted to hear it over and over again,” says Becker. “It was the comprehensive sound of the thing.” Fagen acknowledges “one thing we did right” in the making of the song: “We never tried to accommodate the mass market. We worked for ourselves and still do.”

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Noam Chomsky Defines What It Means to Be a Truly Educated Person

There may be no more contentious an issue at the level of local U.S. government than education. All of the socioeconomic and cultural fault lines communities would rather paper over become fully exposed in debates over funding, curriculum, districting, etc. But we rarely hear discussions about educational policy at the national level these days.

You’ll hear no major political candidate deliver a speech solely focused on education. Debate moderators don’t much ask about it. The United States’ founder’s own thoughts on the subject are occasionally cited—but only in passing, on the way to the latest round of talks on war and wealth. Aside from proposals dismissed as too radical, education is mostly considered a lower priority for the nation’s leaders, or it’s roped into highly charged debates about political and social unrest on university campuses.

This situation can seem odd to the student of political philosophy. Every major political thinker—from Plato to John Locke to John Stuart Mill—has written letters, treatises, even major works on the central role of education. One contemporary political thinker—linguist, anarchist, and retired MIT professor Noam Chomsky—has also devoted quite a lot of thought to education, and has forcefully critiqued what he sees as a corporate attack on its institutions.

Chomsky, however, has no interest in harnessing education to prop up governments or market economies. Nor does he see education as a tool for righting historical wrongs, securing middle class jobs, or meeting any other  agenda.

Chomsky, whose thoughts on education we’ve featured before, tells us in the short video interview at the top of the post how he defines what it means to be truly educated. And to do so, he reaches back to a philosopher whose views you won’t hear referenced often, Wilhelm von Humboldt, German humanist, friend of Goethe and Schiller, and “founder of the modern higher education system.” Humboldt, Chomsky says, “argued, I think, very plausibly, that the core principle and requirement of a fulfilled human being is the ability to inquire and create constructively, independently, without external controls.” A true education, Chomsky suggests, opens a door to human intellectual freedom and creative autonomy.

To clarify, Chomsky paraphrases a “leading physicist” and former MIT colleague, who would tell his students, “it’s not important what we cover in the class; it’s important what you discover.” On this point of view, to be truly educated means to be resourceful, to be able to “formulate serious questions” and “question standard doctrine, if that’s appropriate”…. It means to “find your own way.” This definition sounds similar to Nietzsche’s views on the subject, though Nietzsche had little hope in very many people attaining a true education. Chomsky, as you might expect, proceeds in a much more democratic spirit.

In the interview above from 2013 (see the second video), you can hear him discuss why he has devoted his life to educating not only his paying students, but also nearly anyone who asks him a question. He also talks about his own education and further elucidates his views on the relationship between education, creativity, and critical inquiry. And, in the very first few minutes, you’ll find out whether Chomsky prefers George Orwell’s 1984 or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. (Hint: it’s neither.)

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Peter Frampton Plays a Tiny Desk Concert for NPR, Featuring Acoustic Versions of His Classic Songs

Having recently released a new album featuring acoustic versions of his big hits, Peter Frampton is now back on tour, playing in some smaller venues across the U.S. But no venue–not the Gillioz Theatre in Springfield, Missouri, nor the Tobin Center for Performing Arts in San Antonio, Texas–is quite as small as the one we’re featuring today. Above, watch Frampton perform at the desk of NPR’s All Songs Considered. The performance is part of NPR’s Tiny Desk series, and the setlist includes acoustic versions of “Baby, I Love Your Way,” “Lines On My Face,” and “All I Want To Be (Is By Your Side).” Other recent Tiny Desk performances include Graham Nash, Wilco, Natalie Merchant, and Ben Folds. Enjoy.

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Young Patti Smith Rails Against the Censorship of Her Music: An Animated, NSFW Interview from 1976

The latest installment from Blank on Blank‘s series of animated videos drops us inside the bohemian Portobello Hotel in London. It’s May, 1976, and we hear a young Patti Smith railing against the censorship of her music, using some colorful–that is to say, NSFW–words. She talks Rimbaud. The poetry and combat of rock. The dreams and hallucinations that feed her music. The stuff that would eventually earn her the cred to be called The Godmother of Punk.

The audio is part of a longer, two-hour interview with Mick Gold, which is available through Amazon and iTunes. Enjoy.

Follow Open Culture on Facebook and Twitter and share intelligent media with your friends. Or better yet, sign up for our daily email and get a daily dose of Open Culture in your inbox. And if you want to make sure that our posts definitely appear in your Facebook newsfeed, just follow these simple steps.

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The “Brain Dictionary”: Beautiful 3D Map Shows How Different Brain Areas Respond to Hearing Different Words

We’ve all had those moments of struggle to come up with le mot juste, in our native language or a foreign one. But when we look for a particular word, where exactly do we go to find it? Neuroscientists at Berkeley have made a fascinating start on answering that question by going in the other direction, mapping out which parts of the brain respond to the sound of certain words, using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to watch the action on the cerebral cortices of people listening to The Moth Radio Hour — a popular storytelling podcast you yourself may have spent some time with, albeit under somewhat different circumstances.

“No single brain region holds one word or concept,” writes The Guardian‘s Ian Sample on the “brain dictionary” thus developed by researcher Jack Gallant and his team. “A single brain spot is associated with a number of related words. And each single word lights up many different brain spots. Together they make up networks that represent the meanings of each word we use: life and love; death and taxes; clouds, Florida and bra. All light up their own networks.”

Sample quotes Alexander Huth, the first author on the study: “It is possible that this approach could be used to decode information about what words a person is hearing, reading, or possibly even thinking.” You can learn more about this promising research in the short video from Nature above, which shows how the team mapped out how, during those Moth listening sessions, “different bits of the brain responded to different kinds of words”: some regions lit up in response to those having to do with numbers, for instance, others in response to “social words,” and others in response to those indicating place.

You can also browse this brain dictionary yourself in 3D on the Gallant Lab’s web site, which lets you click on any part of the cortex and see a cluster of the words which generated the most activity there. The other neuroscientists quoted in the Guardian piece acknowledge both the thrilling (if slightly scary, in terms of thought-reading possibilities in the maybe-not-that-far-flung future) implications of the work as well as the huge amount of unknowns that remain. The response of the podcasting community has so far gone unrecorded, but surely they’d like to see the research extended in the direction of other linguistically intensive shows — Marc Maron’s WTF, perhaps.

via The Guardian

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Watch a Shot-by-Shot Remake of Kubrick’s The Shining, a 48-Minute Music Video Accompanying the New Album by Aesop Rock

In this increasingly atomized world of music, how does one get a new record release noticed above the hum of the internet? If you’re Beyoncé, you just drop the whole thing unannounced and watch the media play catch up. If you’re not Beyoncé you might consider rapper Aesop Rock’s tactic.

This week, the wordsmithiest of hip hop artists and animator Rob Shaw released a shot-by-shot remake of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, created with miniatures and made with what looks like spare change as a budget. All of which plays as background video to a full stream of The Impossible Kid, Aesop Rock’s seventh album and his first in four years.

Rob Shaw created the hipster rats skits for Portlandia as well as videos for They Might Be Giants and previous Aesop Rock tracks, but this Shining remake is something else. First you notice the gleeful cheapness of the production, but then as Aesop Rock’s rap lyrics flow over the visuals, memory starts to fill in the gaps of the images. Shaw’s handiwork is literally in the video: we can see his hand in the bathtub scene, or his body’s shadow as he moves the wooden Jack Torrance down the Overlook’s halls. And the tiny camera replicates the film’s Steadicam shots well, creating a work that is like a delirium of the actual movie.

Now, does this have anything to do with The Impossible Kid, really? Well, the rapper did go to live in a Portland barn after divorce and the death of a friend, and instead of writing “All Work and No Play…” over and over wrote this album, and nobody got hurt. Either way, by the time you’ve finished watching you’ll have heard the album, and that’s just one way to play the new music game.

via Noisey

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Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the artist interview-based FunkZone Podcast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at and/or watch his films here.

The Cover of George Orwell’s 1984 Becomes Less Censored with Wear and Tear

1984 before

In 2013, Penguin released in the UK a series of new covers for five works by George Orwell, including a particularly bold cover design for Orwell’s best-known work, 1984. According to Creative Review, the designer, David Pearson, made it so that the book’s title and Orwell’s name were debossed, then almost completely obscured by black foiling, leaving just “enough of a dent for the title to be determined.” (Get a glimpse here.) No doubt, the design plays on the whole idea of censorship, “referencing the rewriting of history carried out by the novel’s Ministry of Truth.”

Three years later, you’ll have difficulty buying new copies of Pearson’s design. They’re in pretty short supply. But anyone with a well-worn copy of the book might discover what one Redditor has also observed–that the cover design “becomes less censored with wear.” Compare the “before” image above to the “after” image down below. Was this all part of Pearson’s long-range master plan? Or something of a design flaw? We’ll probably never know. But if you’re looking for a book that gets better with age, then this is one to add to your list.

1984 after

Looking for a free, professionally-read audio book version of Orwell’s 1984? Here’s a great, no-strings-attached deal. If you start a 30 day free trial with, you can download two free audio books of your choice, and that can include 1984. Get more details on the offer here.

via Reddit

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What Makes the Stradivarius Special? It Was Designed to Sound Like a Female Soprano Voice, With Notes Sounding Like Vowels, Says Researcher

What makes violins made by the Stradivari and Guarneri families as valuable to musicians as they are to collectors? And how do we measure the optimal sound quality of a violin? One answer comes from violin maker Anton Krutz, who speculates that these highly-prized classical instruments sing so sweetly because they are “made with proportions and spirals based on Golden Ratio geometry.”

Perhaps. But Joseph Nagyvary, a professor emeritus in biochemistry at Texas A&M University, discovered another, less lofty reason for the distinctive sound of these coveted instruments. As Texas A&M Today reports, during his 25 years of research on Stradivarius and Guarneri violins, Nagyvary found that the two makers “soaked their instruments in chemicals such as borax and brine to protect them from a worm infestation that was sweeping through Italy in the 1700s. By pure accident the chemicals used to protect the wood had the unintended result of producing the unique sounds that have been almost impossible to duplicate in the past 400 years.”

Though violins have always been made to imitate the human voice, the uniqueness of the Stradivari and Guarneri violins, Nagyvary set out to prove, results in especially humanlike tones. In a recent 2013 study published in the stringed instrument science periodical Savart Journal, Nagyvary presented research showing, writes Live Science, that these prized Italian instruments “produced several vowel sounds, including the Italian ‘i’ and ‘e’ sounds and several vowel sounds from French and English.” Whether by chemical accident or grand geometric design, “the great violin masters were making violins with more humanlike voices than any others of the time.”

Seeking, as Nagyvary says in the short video above, to “define what was the standard of excellence for the violin sound,” he decided to measure the Stradivari and Guarneri-made instruments against the original model for their timbre: the female soprano voice. To compare the two, he had Itzhak Perlman record a scale on a 1743 Guarneri violin, then asked Metropolitan Opera soprano Emily Pulley to record her voice while she sang various vowel sounds. Nagyvary analyzed the harmonic content of both recordings with a computer program and mapped the results against each other.

His project, writes Texas A&M Today, effectively “proved that the sounds of Pulley’s voice and the violin’s could be located on the same map… and their respective graphic images can be directly compared.” The Guarneri violin does indeed exactly mimic the tones of the singing human voice, replicating vowel sounds from Old Italian and other European languages.

Nagyvary thinks his findings “could change how violins may be valued”—for their sound rather than for the label inside the instrument. A violin maker himself, the former biochemistry professor also suggests a more practical application for his research findings: they might teach violin makers how to improve the quality of their instruments. Nagyvary’s scientific approach may offer luthiers the exact chemical composition and the measurable tonal qualities of the Stradivarius, enabling them to finally duplicate these beloved Renaissance instruments.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Hear Oscar Wilde’s “The Happy Prince,” Performed by Orson Welles & Bing Crosby on Christmas Eve 1944

The most beloved fables have survived for ages, passed down from generation to generation in one form or another since time immemorial. It speaks to the genius of Oscar Wilde that his children’s story “The Happy Prince” has attained that status despite having existed for less than 130 years. In that time it has captivated readers, listeners, and viewers (including the likes of Patti Smith) in the original text as well as in a variety of adaptations, including an orchestral performance, an animated film, a reading by Stephen Fry, and a rock opera. It also provided material for a number of radio broadcasts in the 1930s and 40s, including the one above, a reading by Orson Welles, Bing Crosby, and Lurene Tuttle.

Welles takes the Wildean role of the narrator. Crosby plays the titular prince immortalized in statue form without having ever, ironically, experienced happiness in life. Tuttle, a prolific actress of not just radio but vaudeville, film, and television, gives voice to the swallow who, left behind when his flock migrates to Egypt for the winter, alights on the prince’s shoulder. In their shared lonesomeness, the bird and the statue become friends, and the prince asks the sparrow to distribute his decorations to the people of the impoverished town around them. What comes of these selfless deeds? The answer resides, with the rest of the story, in the hallowed realm of myth.

Welles, Crosby, and Tuttle’s performance of “The Happy Prince” debuted on the Philco Radio Hall of Fame on Christmas Eve 1944. It proved popular enough that two years later, Decca commissioned the actors for another performance of the story and put it out as a record album. In becoming something of a holiday tradition, Wilde’s immaculately crafted tale of companionship, sacrifice, and redemption has surely turned a few generations on to the work of one of the sharpest wits in western history. The prince and the swallow may come to an unfortunate end on Earth, but they enjoy the recognition their deeds have earned them in the kingdom of heaven. Wilde’s own short life closed with a series of difficult chapters, but now we all recognize the preciousness of what he left behind.

Find more readings of Oscar Wilde classics in our collection, 700 Free Audio Books: Download Great Books for Free.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Prince Plays Unplugged and Wraps the Crowd Around His Little Finger (2004)

Google the words “Prince” and “shade.” Go ahead. It’s worth it. Or just click here, lazybones. Listicle after article on how the departed genius was the “King of Shade.” And seriously, check out the memes. What the hell am I rambling on about? What’s “shade”? If you’re feeling unhip, look no further than the video above, which has the added bonus of featuring The Artist in a solo acoustic performance at New York’s Webster Hall for an MTV Unplugged episode, doing a kind of highlights reel of some of his best-loved songs.

He is, of course, brilliant. You don’t need me to rhapsodize about what an amazing musician Prince was. You already knew that, and if you didn’t, the Internet has told you so several hundred times over and, for once, it didn’t exaggerate one bit. But back to the shade. In Prince’s case, the subtle side-eye, the withering looks of disdain and disapproval, the WTF sneers…. When you take in the full range of the man’s expressions, you’ll see why Miles Davis compared his stage persona to Charlie Chaplin—he wasn’t just a musical genius, benefactor to many, film star, sexy MFer…. He was also a physical comedian.

Watch him toy with the audience above. He invites them to sing along as he starts with “Cream.” They do so badly off-key, Prince stops and throws shade. Audience shuts up, suitably shamed, then cracks up. Repeat. It’s fantastic crowd interaction from a man who could put on a Broadway-worthy production with all the smoke and pyrotechnics and a cast of thousands, or who could sit onstage alone with an acoustic guitar and wrap the crowd around his little finger. (Later during “Sweet Thing” he turns the mic around and lets the audience take over completely.) And his acoustic blues chops ain’t bad either. See the full performance here.

As an added bonus, above, see Prince’s very first televised interview, broadcast on MTV in 1985 and shot on the set of the “America” video. Watch him answer prescreened questions and explain to us how, “I’m just like everyone else. I need love… and water.”

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness