Making unusual connections and applying them to learning about an issue or problem is a relatively well-established creativity exercise. So it was with huge excitement that I set a break-out challenge to a recent action-learning group with whom I am working on city development, to find the relevance of one of my favourite songs – ‘Rikki don’t lose that number’ by Steely Dan – to stimulating growth and regeneration in their local economy.
The group divided into three teams. The first team clearly had some musical talent and understanding, and listened repeatedly to the track on a Youtube channel on their laptop. They appreciated the beautiful crafting of the piece. The song’s shape is fairly traditional and disciplined – verse/chorus twice; solo; a short middle linking section; reprise of the chorus. However the melody line and chord structures are distinctive, the vocal harmonies are simple yet attractive, and the guitar solo is an interlude of virtuoso brilliance. The lyrics tell a very human story to which we can all relate in an interesting and memorable way – that of desperately hoping someone we find attractive whom we have just met at a party will keep the phone number we have given them and that they will make contact with us again in the future.
“We need to develop a city strategy which is distinctive, where key players work together in harmony, with some elements that are strikingly brilliant, and which all our communities regard as intelligent and insightful. We need to implement the strategy in a disciplined, structured way…” the group reported back to some applause and appreciation from both me and the rest of the cohort.
The second team had spent their time looking at whether the song had some sort of ‘meta-meaning’. Their research turned up that the ‘Rikki’ in the title was probably Rikki Ducornet whom Donald Fagen – the Steely Dan vocalist/keyboard player and co-composer – had met at a party as a student, whom he had found particularly ‘cute’. Rikki, however, was married at the time and had not reciprocated his interest. However she remembers the incident with great affection. She had gone on to become a major US post-modernist author publishing many books, short stories and poems – winning a number of literature prizes and awards. The amazing guitar solo was played by Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter, a hugely respected guitarist. His impressive CV includes bands like Steely Dan, Doobie Brothers, Elton John, Eric Clapton, and a vast array of session experience. However, by the mid-1980’s his interest in musical recording technologies led him, almost by accident into a highly successful second career as a defence consultant on missile technology systems.
“Team One have laid out the basics, but our city growth strategy must take a long-term approach to nurturing our creative and cultural, and our science and technology assets. These are the USPs where English cities can have a comparative advantage in the post-industrial, post global financial crisis world”, they reported.
The third team took a more contextual approach – looking at the song in its wider context, as the opening number of Steely Dan’s third album, Pretzel Logic. “Pretzel Logic”, they explained, “has been defined as twisted, circular (i.e. pretzel) reasoning (i.e. logic) that does not really make sense. And, isn’t that the position we face vis-a-vis government’s approach to local growth – that public sector cuts and job losses can stimulate private sector growth; that localism is progressed by renationalising most of DBIS’s skills, enterprise and innovation functions; and so on. Our key challenge is how to make sense of the pretzel logic of government policy”.
Well-structured interventions, that prioritise creative and technological development, understand and interpret national policy – a good session with a great song and ‘city leaders’ whom one suspects will do their place proud. I love it when these type of exercises work so well, and when I get a chance to listen to a favourite classic! Let me know any of your great song ‘stories’, and any pieces I should try this exercise with next time…