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Gawie Fagan Die Essay

The Nightfly is the debut studio album by American singer-songwriter Donald Fagen. Produced by Gary Katz, it was released October 1, 1982 by Warner Bros. Records. Fagen was previously best known for his work in the group Steely Dan, with whom he enjoyed a successful career in the 1970s. The band separated in 1981, leading Fagen to pursue a solo career. Although The Nightfly includes a number of production staff and musicians who had played on Steely Dan records, it was Fagen's first release without longtime collaborator Walter Becker.

Unlike most of Fagen's previous work, The Nightfly is almost blatantly autobiographical. Many of the songs relate to the cautiously optimistic mood of his suburban childhood in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and incorporate such topics as late-night jazzdisc jockeys, fallout shelters, and tropical vacations. Recorded over eight months at various studios between New York City and Los Angeles, the album is an early example of a fully digital recording in popular music. The nascent technology, as well as the perfectionist nature of its engineers and musicians, made the album difficult to record.

The Nightfly was well-received, both critically and commercially. It was certified platinum in both the US and UK, and generated two popular singles with the top 40 hit "I.G.Y." and the MTV favorite "New Frontier". Among critics, The Nightfly gained widespread acclaim, and received seven nominations at the 1983 Grammy Awards. The relatively low-key but long-lived popularity of The Nightfly led Robert J. Toth of The Wall Street Journal in 2007 to dub the album "one of pop music's sneakiest masterpieces."[1]


Donald Fagen, born in Passaic, New Jersey, in 1948, grew up with an affinity for music. As a kid, he enjoyed listening to rock and roll pioneers Chuck Berry and Fats Domino, but noticed that as rock music gained popularity, he personally felt it lost an edge. Fagen, a "lonely" kid, then turned to late-night jazz radio shows for the vitality he felt the new music lacked. As he got older, he intended to go to graduate school and pursue literature. Instead, he was "swept up" into the counterculture at Bard College,[3] where he met Walter Becker. They later moved to Los Angeles at the suggestion of their friend Gary Katz, and took jobs as staff writers for ABC Records.[4] Together, they formed Steely Dan, releasing their first album, Can't Buy a Thrill, in 1972. Over the course of the decade, the group became enormously successful on the strength of the albums Countdown to Ecstasy (1973), Pretzel Logic (1974), Katy Lied (1975), The Royal Scam (1976), and Aja (1977), the band's best-selling effort and a critical favorite. They gradually shifted from performing live to working solely in the studio, making the project a revolving selection of session musicians at the behest of Fagen and Becker.[5]

Their relationship became strained during the making of 1980's Gaucho, largely due to their insistence for perfection. In addition, Becker was in the midst of a drug problem and both, they later recalled, seemed depressed.[4] Though Fagen imagined they might "stick it out for a while," he admitted to Robert Palmer of The New York Times, in an article published on June 17, 1981, that the group had indeed separated. "Basically, we decided after writing and playing together for 14 years, we could use a change mondaire as the French say," he told Palmer.[6] After their split, Fagen worked on a song for the soundtrack of the film Heavy Metal, which got him back in the studio. He began working towards a solo album shortly thereafter. "Working on it has been interesting. The fact that it's not a Steely Dan album has freed me from a certain image, a preconceived idea of how it'll sound," he said at the time. Fagen had hoped to record music on his own "a year or so" prior to the duo's breakup.[8] The album was originally slated to be titled Talk Radio.

Recording and production[edit]

The Nightfly was recorded in 1981–82 at Soundworks Digital Audio/Video Recording Studios and Automated Sound in New York City, and at Village Recorders in Los Angeles. The producer was Gary Katz and the album engineer was Roger Nichols; both men had worked on all seven of the previous Steely Dan albums. Many of the musicians had also played on Steely Dan records, including Jeff Porcaro, Rick Derringer and Larry Carlton. Similar to the Aja and Gaucho albums, a large number of studio musicians were employed, with the liner notes crediting a total 31 musicians.[10] During a radio interview on Off the Record in 1983, Fagen revealed that though he had considered song writing one of his strengths, and that initially the album's songs came to him easily, he began to struggle without his long-term co-writer Walter Becker. This writing difficulty turned into a lengthy writer's block after the album was finished.[12] His demos for the album were mostly composed on keyboards and a drum machine and remained without lyrics, to allow for alteration when in the studio.

The Nightfly is one of the earliest examples of fully digital recording in popular music. Katz and Fagen had previously experimented with digital recording for Gaucho, which ended up entirely analog.[8] Nichols conducted experiments and found that the digital recordings sounded better than those recorded to magnetic tape.The Nightfly was recorded using 3M's 32-track and four-track recorders.[8] Nichols built a new drum machine, the Wendel II—a sequel to the original Wendel, which was employed for their work on Gaucho. The new model was upgraded from 8 bits to 16 bits, and "plugged straight into the 3M digital machines, so there was no degradation" in sound. Problems with the technology persisted in the beginning, particularly regarding the alignment of the 3M machines. Representatives from 3M had to be called to align the machines, but eventually Fagen and Nichols grew tired of this. Nichols and engineers Jerry Garsszva and Wayne Yurgelun took classes at 3M's Minnesota headquarters, and returned knowing how to align the machines themselves. "I was ready to transfer to analog and give it up on several occasions, but my engineering staff kept talking me into it," Fagen remembered.[8] They practiced an early form of "comping" Fagen's vocals—which they called "beat[ing] the computer"—wherein he would record multiple takes and the engineers would pick the best lines from each take. On "Walk Between Raindrops", they combined bass parts playing on a keyboard bass and bass guitar. Doubling bass lines would "become common practice on many records," according to writer James Sweet.

Though previous Steely Dan projects were often recorded live, Fagen opted to overdub each part separately for The Nightfly. It became enormously difficult, between this approach and the new technology, to record the album. Pianist Michael Omartian "objected strongly" when Fagen tasked him to "set the groove" of the title track on his own, with nothing but a click track. On another occasion, Fagen "demanded subtle timing differences between the left and right-hand piano parts" on "Ruby Baby". The effect he desired was achieved with Omartian and Greg Phillinganes playing together on the same keyboard.[19] For the "party noises" in "Ruby Baby", the team suspended a microphone from the ceiling of Studio 54 – just next door to the studio they were working – and recorded one of Jerry Rubin's 'business parties.' Unsatisfied with the results, the group instead held a party in the studio by themselves and included that ambience in the song. Larry Carlton performs lead guitar on much of the album, and recorded his pieces in four days. During his time with the group, he discovered a humming sound coming from his amplifier. The engineers discovered the source on the outside of the building: a large magnet "that formed part of the New York subway system." In one instance, a strange smell permeated the studio space at Soundworks. The studio staff "gutted" the studio, removing its air conditioning, carpeting, and recording console until they discovered the cause of the smell: a deceased rat in a drainpipe. Sessions often stretched long into the evening; Fagen would often refer to this as "being on the night train." In the end, the album took eight months to record, and was mixed in 10 days.


Note: The songs on this album represent certain fantasies that might have been entertained by a young man growing up in the remote suburbs of a northeastern city during the late fifties and early sixties, i.e., one of my general height, weight and build.

A message from Fagen in the liner notes of The Nightfly[10]

The Nightfly is considered more jazzy than Fagen's previous work with Steely Dan, and his lyrics are more wistful and nostalgic than biting.[3] Fagen aimed for his lyrics to have "as little irony as possible," and his goal was to make an album that was fun to listen to.[3] As many of the songs come from an adolescent viewpoint, he hoped for them to maintain "a certain innocence." Walter Becker was responsible for the more sardonic elements in Steely Dan, and many writers have considered his absence the reason for the album's "warm and nostalgic" tone.[3][24] Another difference between The Nightfly and his work with Becker is that it maintains a focus on a "certain period [or] motif," according to Fagen.[8] Though Fagen hints in the album's liner notes that it is an autobiographical piece, he downplayed this notion in a later interview: "It is not me exactly. It is a composite character of myself, what I remember and people I knew. Plus, it includes my feelings in retrospect."

According to Sam Sutherland, writing for Billboard, Fagen's songs "shimmer with jazz harmonies and alternately swing, shuffle or bounce to a samba."[8] Will Fulford-Jones, in his appraisal of the album in 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, considered it ironic in the sense that while it focuses on a simpler time, its production sounded like a modern Steely Dan album.[25] Fagen held a "propensity for the perfect drum track," and multiple drummers are credited on the album, sometimes on the same song. For example, James Gadson and Jeff Porcaro are present on "I.G.Y.", with the former playing the snare drum, kick drum, and hi-hat, and the latter performing the tom-tom fills. Even still, some songs contain the drum machine Wendel II. Fagen feared listeners finding plagiarism in his lyrics, so he altered a lyric in "The Goodbye Look"—"Behind the big casinos by the beach"—as it "reminded him of a line from a well-known poem." He was also concerned the "late line" lyrics in the title song were too close to the late-night news program Nightline.


"The Nightfly"

The title song builds its concept around a late-night disc jockey, which is also depicted on the album cover.

Problems playing this file? See media help.

The album opens with "I.G.Y.", the title of which refers to the "International Geophysical Year", an event that ran from July 1957 to December 1958.[26] The I.G.Y. was an international scientific project promoting collaboration among the world's scientists. Fagen's lyrics reference, from the point of view of that time, an optimistic vision of futuristic concepts such as solar-powered cities, a transatlantic tunnel, permanent space stations,[27] and spandex jackets. Fagen remembered being enchanted by the prospects of a "gleaming future," and hoped to give an optimistic look back at it. "Green Flower Street" is a "nod to the jazz standard On Green Dolphin Street." "Ruby Baby" is modeled after the Drifters' version of the song.[8] For his rewrite of "Ruby Baby", he listened to several records from the 1950s to "get a general atmosphere of the period." "Maxine" references the harmonies of the Four Freshmen,[8] and revolves around an "extremely idealized version of high-school romance." The music was created from an Ed Greene drum track rescued from another song, where it wasn't working.

"New Frontier" follows a "gawky teenager" inviting a girl back to his family's backyard fallout shelter for a private gathering.[3][28] "The Nightfly", the title song, was once described by American novelist Arthur Phillips as a "portrait of a late-night D.J. in Baton Rouge, taking lunatic phone calls from listeners while silently battling his own loneliness and regret."[29] According to Fagen, the song "uses a lot of images from the blues: that hair formula gets its name from Charley Patton, the old delta blues guitarist, and Mount Belzoni gets its name from another old blues lyric: 'When the trial's in Belzoni/No need to scream and cry.'" "The Goodbye Look" alludes to the popularity of bossa nova in the 1960s.[8] The song is a "tale of military upheaval on a Caribbean island." The last song, "Walk Between Raindrops", has origins in a Jewish folk tale. It was the last song to be recorded, and took form "almost as an afterthought," according to writer Sweet.


The album's cover artwork features a photo of Donald Fagen as a disc jockey, wearing a collared shirt and tie, speaking into a RCA 77DX microphone. In front of him is a turntable (16 inch '50s model, with a Para-Flux A-16tonearm), an ashtray, a matchbook, and a pack of Chesterfield King cigarettes. Visible on the table with the record player, is the cover of the 1958 jazz album Sonny Rollins and the Contemporary Leaders (one of Fagen's favorite albums). On the wall behind is a large clock, indicating that the time is 4:09. An advertisement in Billboard shortly before the album's release described the album cover: "At 4:09 a.m., silence and darkness have taken hold of the city. The only sound is the voice of The Nightfly".[32] Fagen appeared on the album cover despite his reclusive nature. "It was an autobiographical album so it seemed like I might as well go public with it," he said. The cover was shot in Fagen's apartment in the Upper East Side of Manhattan by photographer James Hamilton. Two shoots were arranged because in the first, the RCA microphone was facing the wrong direction. Gale Sasson and Vern Yenor are credited with the cover's set design.[10]

In his memoir, Eminent Hipsters, Fagen notes that the cover figure "wasn't supposed to be a stand-in for any particular jazz DJ," but noted a few personalities from the period that factored into the creation: Ed Beach, Dan Morgenstern, Martin Williams, R.D. Harlan, "Symphony Sid" Torin, and what Fagen regarded as his "main man", WEVD's Mort Fega. "He was laid-back, knowledgeable, and forthright, the cool uncle you wished you'd had." At the time of the album's release, he remembered that jazz music offered him an escape from the adults in his life: "When I saw 'E.T.,' I realized that the E.T. in my bedroom was my Thelonious Monk records. Everything that he represented was totally unworldly in a way, although at the same time jazz to me seemed more real than the environment in which I was living."[3][8]The Wall Street Journal's Robert J. Toth writes, "The cover adds another layer of autobiography. On the front, we see Mr. Fagen as a crew-cut deejay on the graveyard shift. On the back is his audience, a single lighted window in a row of tract homes — or maybe the artist as a young man, drinking in inspiration."[1] Robert Palmer, of The New York Times, continued in this line of thinking: "Inside, there's a teenager with his ear next to a portable radio. He's playing it softly, so his parents won't wake up, and he can barely make out the sounds through the static. [...] The teenager was Donald Fagen."[3]


The Nightfly was released on October 1, 1982 on vinyl and cassette.[34] It was also released in its first prerecorded digital form, via half-inch Beta and VHS format cassettes issued by Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab.[8] In addition, a matching folio for the album was released by Cherry Lane Music in February 1983.[35] It was first widely available on compact disc in 1984; a reader's poll conducted by Digital Audio magazine the following year ranked it among the best releases of the time, alongside Security (1982) by Peter Gabriel (another fully digital recording) and Bruce Springsteen's Born in the U.S.A. (1984).[36] Early CD copies, however, suffered from being manufactured from third and fourth generation masters. Nichols discovered this when he received a call from Stevie Wonder, who told him that his CD copy of The Nightfly sounded "funny." Nichols penned an essay in Recording Engineer and Producer, criticizing record companies' apparent carelessness in manufacturing the then-nascent format.The Nightfly was reissued on various disc formats four times in recent years, each time with a multichannel mix: on DVD-Audio in 2002, on DualDisc in 2004, on MVI in 2007 and on hybrid multichannel SACD in The Warner Premium Sound series by Warner Japan in 2011.[37][38]

Following completion of the album, Fagen entered therapy and more-or-less dropped out of public sight. In his memoir, Eminent Hipsters, he writes that "the panic attacks I used to get as a kid returned, only now accompanied by morbid thoughts and paranoia, big-time." He remained paralyzed for much of the rest of the 1980s, "gobbling antidepressants" and nearly unable to get through each day. He came to view The Nightfly as the culmination of "whatever kind of energy was behind the writing I had been doing in the '70s."[4] He turned down requests for television performances, opting only for radio and press interviews. Though he suggested he may do smaller concerts in New York, Fagen did not tour behind The Nightfly. He expounded upon his mental state after the album's completion:

I wanted to do an autobiographical album, and I really put everything I knew into the Nightfly album. And after that, I wasn't really inspired to do anything. I fell into a bit of a depression for a while. I think, that like a lot of artists, especially in the music business, I was young and successful, and I was basically still an adolescent. I started to address some of these things with The Nightfly, and I got really scared after it was done; I felt I'd exposed myself in a way that I wasn't used to doing, and I kind of retreated psychologically from that.[19]

In 2006, Fagen maintained that "I haven't listened to The Nightfly since I made it."[40]

Critical reception[edit]

The Nightfly was met with almost universally positive reviews. Billboard labeled it their top album pick in the first month of its release, calling it a "stunning debut" and praising its "typically blue chip crew of crack players and crisp digital production."[49]David Fricke wrote in Rolling Stone that "Donald Fagen conjures a world where all things are possible, even to a kid locked in his bedroom."[44]Robert Christgau, writing for The Village Voice, gave the album an A and commented, "these songs are among Fagen's finest [...] his acutely shaded lyrics puts the jazziest music he's ever committed to vinyl into a context that like everything here is loving but very clear-eyed."[48] Robert Palmer of The New York Times called The Nightfly a "vivid and frequently ingenious look back at a world that is gone forever. Its sound is glossy and contemporary, but references to both the spirit and the music of the years when Mr. Fagen was growing up can be found in almost every song."[3]

Charles Shaar of NME called it "an album which doesn't so much dilute the arctic smartassery of the Dan as warm it up, loosen it up, and present it in a new context."[50] The sole poor review came from Paul Strange at Melody Maker, who dubbed the album a "bummer. What made the Dan an important band of the early '70s has been replaced by ultra-slick, uninspired background mush."[51] Subsequent reviews have remained positive. Jon Matsumoto picked it for a "Classic of the Week" editorial in the Los Angeles Times in 1994, calling it an "elegant pop album," praising the album's "vivid lyrical tapestry" and "rhythmically effervescent" music.[24] Jason Ankeny of AllMusic regarded The Nightfly as "lush and shimmering, produced with cinematic flair by Gary Katz; romanticized but never sentimental... crafted with impeccable style and sophistication."[41] Bud Scoppa, in a review of the Nightfly trilogy (a reissue of Fagen's first three studio albums), wrote that they are "united not just by their sophistication but also by a sense of nostalgia for what has been irretrievably lost."[52] The album was included among the 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die in 2006.[25] In 2010, Vatican City's L'Osservatore Romano selected The Nightfly as one of its official Top 10 Albums.[53]


The Nightfly was nominated for seven awards at the 25th Annual Grammy Awards in 1983, including Album of the Year and Best Engineered Recording – Non-Classical. "I.G.Y." received the most nominations, included on lists for Song of the Year, Best Pop Vocal Performance, Male, and Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocal(s), while "Ruby Baby" received a nod for Best Vocal Arrangement. In addition, Gary Katz was nominated for Producer of the Year.[54]

Commercial performance[edit]

The Nightfly debuted on Billboard'sRock Albums chart at number 39 during the week ending October 23, 1982,[55] peaking at number 25 on November 13.[56] It debuted on the magazine's all-genre Top LPs and Tape chart on October 30 at number 45;[57] it climbed to number 11, its peak, on November 27.[58] It also charted on Billboard's Black LPs chart, peaking at number 24.[59] Internationally, the album charted higher: in Norway, it reached number seven on the charts.[60] In Sweden and New Zealand, the album peaked at numbers eight and nine, respectively.[61][62]The Nightfly performed poorer than Gaucho commercially; Fagen felt as though the label did not market the album properly or effectively.WBCN in Boston, inspired by the album cover, developed a promotion in which listeners could register to host their own radio show.[63]


The album remains a favorite among audiophiles.[25] According to Paul Tingen, from Sound on Sound magazine, The Nightfly was "for years a popular demonstration record in hi-fi stores across the globe."[40] Paul White, editor-in-chief of Sound on Sound, said The Nightfly "is always a good reference for checking out monitoring systems and shows what good results could be obtained from those early digital recording systems in the right hands."[64] In addition to its use in recording studio tests, Clive Young of Pro Sound News called Fagen's "I.G.Y." the "Free Bird" of pro audio, claiming that almost every live sound engineer uses the song to test the front-of-house system's sound response.[65]EQ Magazine rated The Nightfly as among the Top 10 Best Recorded Albums of All Time, alongside the Beatles's Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds.[66]

Track listing[edit]

All songs by Donald Fagen, except where noted.

Side one

  1. "I.G.Y." – 6:03
  2. "Green Flower Street" – 3:42
  3. "Ruby Baby" (Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, arranged by Donald Fagen) – 5:38
  4. "Maxine" – 3:50

Side two

  1. "New Frontier" – 6:23
  2. "The Nightfly" – 5:47
  3. "The Goodbye Look" – 4:50
  4. "Walk Between Raindrops" – 2:38

Bonus tracks, from The Nightfly Trilogy MVI Boxed Set[edit]

  1. "True Companion" – 5:09
  2. "Green Flower Street (Live)" – 4:24
  3. "Century's End" – 5:31


Adapted from the album's liner notes.[10]


  • Donald Fagen – lead vocals (all tracks), organ (3, 4, 8), synthesizer (1–3,5–8), synth blues harp (1), electric piano (3, 4, 8), piano (6), background vocals (3, 5–8), horn arrangements, liner notes
  • Dave Bargeron – trombone (1), euphonium (4)
  • Michael Brecker – tenor saxophone (1, 3, 4)
  • Randy Brecker – trumpet (1, 3), flugelhorn (3, 4)
  • Larry Carlton – lead guitar (2, 3, 5–7), guitar (4, 8)
  • Ronnie Cuber – baritone saxophone (1, 4)
  • Rick Derringer – guitar (1, 3, 6)
  • Frank Floyd – background vocals (1, 2, 6)
  • James Gadson – drums (1), additional drums (3)
  • Ed Greene – drums (4, 5)
  • Gordon Grody – background vocals (1)
  • Anthony Jackson – bass (1, 3)
  • Steve Jordan – drums (8)
  • Steve Khan – acoustic guitar (7)
  • Abraham Laboriel – bass (5)
  • Will Lee – bass (8)
  • Hugh McCracken – guitar (1, 3, 6), harmonica (5)
  • Leslie Miller – background vocals (8)
  • Marcus Miller – bass (4, 6, 7)
  • Rob Mounsey – synthesizer (1,2,6), horn arrangements
  • Michael Omartian – piano (3, 5) electric piano (5, 6)
  • Dean Parks – guitar (2, 7)
  • Greg Phillinganes – synthesizer (7), piano (4), piano solo (3), electric piano (1, 2, 7), clavinet (2), synthesizer bass (8)
  • Jeff Porcaro – drums (2, 3, 6, 7), additional drums (1)
  • Chuck Rainey – bass (2)
  • Zachary Sanders – background vocals (1, 2, 6)
  • Valerie Simpson – background vocals (1–3, 6, 7)
  • David Tofani – alto saxophone (1, 4)
  • Starz Vanderlocket – percussion (1, 2, 5, 7), background vocals (5)


  • Gary Katz – record producer
  • Roger Nichols – percussion, special effects, engineer, sequencing
  • Daniel Lazerus – background vocals (2), engineer, overdub engineer
  • Elliot Scheiner – engineer, mixing, tracking
  • Cheryl Smith – assistant engineer
  • Robin Lane – assistant engineer
  • Mike Morongell – assistant engineer, digital editing assistant
  • Wayne Yurgelun – assistant engineer, digital editing assistant
  • Bob Ludwig – mastering
  • Ginger Dettman – project assistant
  • Steve Pokorny – project assistant
  • Steve Woolard – project assistant
  • David Dieckmann – authoring
  • George Lydecker – authoring
  • Greg Allen – design, art direction
  • George Delmerico – art direction
  • Cory Frye – editorial supervision
  • James Hamilton – photography
  • Andrew Thomas – screen design





  1. ^ abRobert J. Toth (January 9, 2008). "'The Nightfly' Still Lives at 25". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved October 22, 2016. 
  2. ^ abcdefghRobert Palmer (October 20, 1982). "POP LIFE; Donald Fagen Returns to 50's Roots". The New York Times. Retrieved December 2, 2016. 
  3. ^ abcRichard Cromelin (November 3, 1991). "Return of the Nightfly: Steely Dan co-creator Donald Fagen resurfaces after nearly a decade of silence, with new works and a new outlook on life". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved October 22, 2016. 
  4. ^Stephen Thomas Erlewine. "Steely Dan – Biography & History". AllMusic. Retrieved December 2, 2016. 
  5. ^Robert Palmer (June 17, 1981). "The Pop Life". The New York Times. Retrieved December 2, 2016. 
  6. ^ abcdefghijkSam Sutherland (January 22, 1983). "Fagen Looks Back Via The Nightfly". Billboard. Nielsen Business Media, Inc.95 (5): 6, 68. ISSN 0006-2510. Retrieved October 22, 2016. 
  7. ^ abcdThe Nightfly (liner notes). Donald Fagen. US: Warner Bros. Records. 1982. 9 23696-1. 
  8. ^Mitchell Symons (1 Dec 2013). "Steely Dan legend Donald Fagen talks about his biography and his all-star touring band". 
  9. ^ abIrvin (ed.), Jim (2008). The Mojo Collection: 4th Edition. Canongate U.S. p. 474. ISBN 978-1-84767-020-5. 
To prepare to use the digital technology, the album's engineers took classes at 3M in St. Paul, Minnesota.
The back cover of the album depicts a house with a solitary window lit. Commentators took this as a memory of Fagen's youth.

You would expect more from a carnivore. The Muizenberg beach cottage where Cecil John Rhodes died in 1902 at the age of 49 is, of all things, modest. Originally built in 1673 as a military observation post, the dwelling (now a museum) has robust white walls and a thatch roof. When Rhodes lived there it had a tin roof.

Rhodes was no ascetic. The empire builder and oligarch first visited far-flung Muizenberg – a popular weekend retreat for Cape Town’s mink-and-manure set – in the 1880s, after entering politics. He later commissioned a lavish beach villa from his architect, Herbert Baker. But death came prematurely, leaving it to another larney, Sir Abe Bailey, to complete Baker’s design.

You don’t necessarily have to visit Muizenberg – which nowadays is more Hardluck than Hamptons – if you want to make to sense of South Africa’s aristocratic culture of leisure. Nor for that matter, discovered writer Njabulo Ndebele 17 years ago, do you even have to visit the coast at all.

Formerly the vice-chancellor at the University of Cape Town and now chair of the Mandela Rhodes Foundation, Ndebele visited a game lodge in northern KwaZulu-Natal in July 1997. The anaesthetised reality of the “leisure sanctuary” troubled him.  

“What does it mean to use the vacation house as a vantage point for which to look down on others, when we have yet to prove that the house belongs to us and that we are its rightful owners, when we still live in an environment in which we are the ones being viewed?” asked Ndebele in his 1999 essay ‘Game Lodges and Leisure Colonialists’. 

His question received scant attention in the popular media at the time, says Ndebele now. Perhaps 1999 was too soon for the culture of wealthy white leisure to be placed in the dock. Is there ever a right time to ask tough but fair questions?

“As I write, the landscape of apartheid is reproducing itself with a vengeance,” wrote Ndebele in 1999. “Townships are bursting with informal settlements, reinforcing old dichotomies in the landscape.”

Cecil Rhodes’s Muizenberg beach cottage, which is now a museum, was originally built in 1673. (David Harrison, M&G)

Fifteen years on and it is not only informal settlements that reproduce the landscape of apartheid, but also a growing number of ever more opulent beach homes along the country’s coastline. As in the time of Rhodes and Muizenberg, these power retreats are typically concentrated around particular addresses, notably Nettleton Road in Clifton and Beachy Head Drive in Plettenberg Bay.

Routinely celebrated in dwelling magazines and architectural journals, often for good reason, these idiosyncratic and usually very singular getaways remain somehow exempt from critical scrutiny. They are treated as sacred objects devoid of context. Or am I straining at things? Is it possible to think of the beach home not only in terms of its aesthetics, but also as an underlying ethic?

For all his wealth and power, Rhodes was a man of conventional tastes. In her 1989 book Historical Buildings in South Africa, architectural historian Désirée Picton-Seymour tells how Rhodes, when briefing Baker on his Muizenberg villa, instructed his architect to create “a great high terrace-wall, designed so that from the house and stoep the public road would be hidden”. Rhodes didn’t want to be gawked at by plebs – as was possible at his cottage – whenever he took in the “sweep of the blue sea and rhythm of white surf, and the two far-off mountain promontories”.

Apex predator
Being stared at by passers-by is something that Julian Treger is also very familiar with. Johannesburg-born Treger (53) isn’t an oligarch, although he is an apex predator and a captain of industry.

In 1993, armed with an MBA from Harvard Business School, he co-founded Active Value Advisors, one of the United Kingdom’s first activist funds. The fund’s business model – it targeted underperforming companies, acquired stock, and then actively lobbied for management restructuring – brought infamy and profit in equal measure. Treger’s partner, attorney Brian Myerson, once described their business as the “Rentokil of fund management”.

Since 2005, Treger, whose family immigrated to Zimbabwe from Lithuania in the late 19th century, has headed up Audley Capital Advisors, a fund with a particular focus on mining. In 2010 he brokered a $3.3-billion sale of Canadian firm Western Coal to Walter Energy.

Variously described as “opportunistic” and a “hit-and-run” investor, in 2011 Treger told the Telegraph: “You have to have had kills. You need to take people down. Barking is just not good enough.”

In person, Treger is easy-going and without airs. He is also, in a laconic kind of way, funny. Perhaps the assassin in him stays in London whenever he visits the Eden District.

“My wife said she wanted a beach cottage,” says Treger. We are seated on a wooden deck overlooking a part of his 22-hectare beachfront property in Keurboomstrand, just north of Plettenberg Bay.

Cottage is a poor noun for the asymmetrical three-storey waveform structure with a “meandering roof” that Treger had built on a dune overlooking the Indian Ocean.

“Was she satisfied with the result?” I ask. “She says it’s a bit big,” smiles Treger. Visitors, he adds, find it takes a while to adjust. “It is bit bewildering initially.”

London local
Treger has dark eyes and receding hair that he neatly combs sideways. Despite living in London for over two decades he still speaks with a local accent.

He says the house, his first building project, was never intended as a loud statement and diversion for spectators. Initially, he planned to build closer to the beach, setting the house in a subsidence among the coastal-dune fynbos. The local town office thought otherwise. He was eventually pushed back to the furthermost dune to lessen his home’s impact on the ecologically sensitive terrain.

Now visible from all sides, Treger’s museum-scale house has taken on an extrovert character. Cars routinely stop. “The locals have all sorts of names for it: first it was the teapot, then the spaceship,” he sighs.

The asymmetrical three-storey waveform structure that Julian Treger built on a dune overlooking the Indian Ocean at Keurboomstrand, north of Plettenberg Bay.

Treger’s house is nominally the work of architects Silvio Rech and Lesley Carstens. Best known for their deluxe African resort architecture, including Jao Camp in Botswana’s Okavango Delta, Rech initially proposed a “quiet two-storey” design in keeping with the trim resort modernism popular across the country. Treger had other ideas.

Seven years on and some two dozen design iterations later – including many computer models generated by junior architect Donald Takura Changwa – Treger’s beach house found its final form. “K Cottage”, as it has been christened, is an exuberant homage to the ­curvilinear optimism of mid-20th-century modernism.

Although the fluctuating coastal line is an obvious reference for what Treger refers to as his home’s “organic and curved” form, it also explicitly references the formal elegance of Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen, in particular his TWA Flight Centre at JF Kennedy Airport in New York.

Other important inspirations were Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, known for his organic modernism, and the brash Californian homes of John Lautner (whose 1963 concrete hillside home for Sheats Goldstein has featured in The Big Lebowski and a pop video for Snoop Dog).

“In a way the house links to historic views of futuristic houses,” says Treger, a trustee of the Design Museum in London. “It’s no coincidence that the typeface of the exterior signage is from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and the interiors reference what I think was some sort of heavenly place in that movie.”

Droll humour
Treger’s droll sense of humour again emerges when he explains why he named his zany beach house a cottage. The word cottage, he says, is a winking reference to the habits of 19th-century American railroad barons, notably Henry Flagler, who spent his winters in a large Victorian-style house known as Sea Gull Cottage in Palm Beach.

K Cottage has a strict no-shoes policy, which is apt for a home that is both a sanctuary and a museum. The large double-volume entertainment area at its centre includes a collectible Tom Dixon metal pylon and glass-top dinner table from 1993 and a series of elongated plastic benches by Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid (similar pieces have fetched between R800?000 and R1.4-million at auction).

It is difficult for passersby to ignore ‘African Bank House’ at Rooi-Els. (David Harrison, M&G)

By contrast, the art is local and includes work by mid-century masters Douglas Portway, Cecil Skotnes and Edoardo Villa.

And the cost? Treger is, let’s say, philosophical. “Financially, is it over-capitalised in its context, or is it cheap for a globally iconic home?” he asks. “It is what it is,” he later tells me. “When I watch Grand Designs they tend to focus on the theatrical and disastrous, people who don’t know what they are getting themselves off for. Maybe we started with the wrong budget, but it came in under budget.”

For most people, the word beach house might suggest isolated splendour. For a lucky few it means that plus luxury. For Mfundi Vundla, owner of Morula Pictures and creator of Generations, the country’s longest-running TV drama, a beach house means trouble. 

“A standalone home on the sea is too much work,” says Vundla (67), who like Treger also has an American university degree. “The sea, wonderful as it is, corrodes. This can be costly.”

Vundla’s compromise: an oceanfront apartment in Bordeaux Building, a trim, modernist residential block in Sea Point designed by architect Eddie Albert.

Penthouse apartment
Vundla’s decision to buy a lock-up-and-go penthouse apartment in Cape Town has less to do with tightfistedness than the totality of his biography.

Raised by a father who was a clerk at Crown Mines Hospital and a nurse mom, he grew up in standalone homes, the first a three-room “township matchbox”.

Two years after he was expelled from Fort Hare for political activism in 1968, Vundla went into exile. He spent 21 years in the United States, where he received a master’s degree in education and campaigned as an ANC member.

Clifford Elphick’s concrete and wood masterpiece in Plettenberg Bay.

In the 1980s he started writing theatre pieces. His 1987 drama A Visitor to the Veldt has a black Vietnam veteran meet up with two exiled liberation fighters from South Africa. A chance meeting with writer and producer David Milch, of NYPD Blue and Hill Street Blues fame, allowed Vundla to transition into TV.

It was also in the US that Vundla first started living in apartments, as well as engaging in recreational travel. “I got to see a lot of the US and Canadian West Coast,” says Vundla, a self-assured man with a clean-shaven head and keen interest in art. While living in Los Angeles he started exploring Big Sur, Monterey and Carmel, and later ventured further north, up to Oregon, Washington State and British Columbia. “The Pacific Coast Highway exposed me to the dramatic dialogue between coastal terrain and the Pacific Ocean.”

This may read as benign fluff. It isn’t. At stake is here is the prized local concept of leisure, which until very recently was unequally distributed.

“There were very few places black people could go,” remembers Ndebele. He recalls the “existential trauma” that often accompanied the simple act of travelling with family to friends or relatives, which he says is what passed as holidays then.

“You didn’t know if you would reach your destination and be imprisoned. You didn’t know if you would be stopped and the whole family told to get out the car, your parents humiliated in front of you. Travelling in those days was a hazardous undertaking. All the beauty of nature was outside of my experience.”

Predictable complexion
Vundla was, to an extent, spared these indignities. When he returned to South Africa in the early 1990s, he choose Sea Point over Camps Bay for the simple fact that it has less wind. “Sea Point is also less pretentious, more real, if you know what I mean. It has more working-class people walking the streets than in, say, Bantry Bay or Clifton.” Which is Vundla’s polite way of pointing out that most leisure enclaves locally – be they summer homes along the Indian Ocean or bush lodges in Mpumalanga – have a predictable complexion.

Not so long ago, a fabulously wealthy businessman sent a brief out to a group of shortlisted local architects. He wanted to build a holiday getaway on a promontory in Clifton overlooking the Atlantic. His brief included a key design guideline: “I want Iron Man meets James Bond.” The house is currently under construction.

This anecdote, picked up while researching Treger’s home for a British design monthly, got me wondering. Why do architects build holiday homes? What’s the reward?

It’s not really fiscal, says architect Ilze Wolff, who spends every other weekend in a retrofitted worker’s cottage owned by the Wolff family on the outskirts of Bonnievale. In part, this is because of the duration of a home build and the idiosyncratic technicalities involved.

Some practitioners, notably Stefan Antoni and Greg Wright, both Cape Town architects, have established credible careers as residential architects with a specialisation in sea-facing properties. Most architects don’t.

According to Wolff, there is an upside to working on holiday homes – and private residences more broadly. “It offers architects an opportunity to think about innovation, in terms of the craft of architecture,” she says. “It is also an opportunity for material innovation.”

Career move
As examples of this interplay between small-scale innovation and bigger career trajectories, Wolff singles out Peter Rich’s wood cottage in Wilderness, and Andrew Makin and Janina Masojada’s concrete and wood masterpiece for diamond magnate Clifford Elphick on Beachy Head Drive in Plettenberg Bay.

Treger points to English architect Seth Stein’s beach home for Lucille Lewin, also in Plett. I would add Gawie Fagan’s sunken beach home at Paradise Beach in Langebaan, a tour de force of vernacular modernism, and also the skeletal steel and wood getaway designed by Durban architect George Elphick on a rocky headland in Rooi-Els and known by locals as the “African Bank House”.

(According to a recent Sunday Times article, the property is owned by Upbeatprops 167, which until recently “listed as one of its two directors Leon Kirkinis, who resigned as CEO of African Bank [in August] after steering the unsecured lending giant into the dust”.)

Peter Rich’s wooden cottage in Wilderness.

Architect Don Albert, best known for his striking Millennium Tower at Durban harbour, agrees that, “in general, houses are indeed great incubators of ideas that can be tried out at a smaller scale, with less pressure, but which can be capitalised on later.

“Many great architects use experimentation at a domestic scale and then implement new ideas, details or materials into larger projects to extend their oeuvre – and of course [they] can profit from that ultimately.”

But beyond this, adds Albert, who now lives in Bali, he is doubtful that beach homes can offer any real substantive insights into wider issues around architecture and society.

“In principle there is nothing unethical about having a second home, or more, but the devil is in the detail of how it fits into a broader context. Is it ecofriendly? Does it encroach on public property or the Admiralty Reserve? Does it block views? Does it block rights of way?”

‘Ethics and aesthetics’
“I think architecture is about both ethics and aesthetics,” concedes Treger, when I bring up the issue in an email months after our first meeting. But, he adds, the issues of ethics are “overexposed” in the country right now.

For his part, Albert is unconvinced by Ndebele’s argument.

“I am really battling to see any causal or moral connection between township housing – or the lack thereof – and the phenomenon of a beach house, which is a worldwide thing since classical times and a reasonable human desire for those that can afford them,” writes Albert after I send him an excerpt from Ndebele’s essay.

“I get what Ndebele is saying, but it is simplistic, presumptuous, if not racist,” he offers. “People use beach houses to look out across the sea at no one, to recharge their batteries, not to look down on people. It’s absurd. The point is people want to be by the sea, and if they can pay for some privacy and safety while they are at it, why not.”

Ndebele, who has no real truck with the idea of a second home – be it a flamboyant beach home or whitewashed Karoo bolthole – agrees with Albert, up to a point.

“If it is the product of honest labour, if there was no theft or corruption, it is a legitimate thing to have [a second home] because you have worked for it,” says Ndebele, who prefers to holiday peripatetically than visit his second home in the Valley of a Thousand Hills.

“We live in an extraordinarily beautiful country, which one wishes more people could have the ability to appreciate and access what it offers.”

‘Eurocentric leisure’
But, he insists by way of a general point, the broader concept of leisure is not exempt from scrutiny.

“The administration and content of leisure in this country is very Western and Eurocentric,” he says without any hint of bitterness. A pragmatic thinker, Ndebele says that this is the outcome of white South Africans making and doing as they learnt, with what they have grown up with.

“The bigger challenge is entrepreneurial, especially amongst the disenfranchised. Since 1994, how have new entrepreneurs who are nonwhite used the opportunity to reinterpret leisure?”

A tentative answer: haphazardly. Many are still negotiating the complex primary residence, a place where leisure is a far-off concept, and a beach house is something you only ever read about.