The Nightfly Revisited

September 28, 2008 (updated August 2020)

For his 40th birthday, graphic artist Dave Bamundo (daveB) planned the details of a party with a nod to his love of music. Nothing too elaborate: buffet, beer, a live band, and a favorite album cover recreated for the invitation. His pick was Donald Fagen’s classic, The Nightfly released in 1982. I knew the vinyl sleeve well from working in a music store that year.

The original Nightfly album cover (1982) | Photo by James Hamilton

The Nightfly, back cover (1982)

We began piecing together ideas for the shoot and assessing the necessary props. It took a while to find a suitable microphone. Bill Donnelly from Laughing Dog Studios recommended Dreamhire on West 38th Street in Manhattan. Chris Dunn knew exactly which mic was used for the original cover—an RCA 77DX, first introduced to the broadcast industry in 1954. The RCA was a bit expensive to rent; instead, Chris offered a Japanese replica which wasn’t as large but suited the budget and time frame.

Next were the cigarettes, ashtray and matches. A neighbor brought in a soft pack of unfiltered Luckys with accoutrements. They were close enough to the Chesterfield Kings in the original. No one had ever smoked in my studio so we planned on leaving the cigarette unlit and Dave would modify the tip in post.

Dave (like Fagen) wanted to use one of his favorite albums in the shot. He chose Moving Pictures by Rush. (The original Nightfly cover features Sonny Rollins and the Contemporary Leaders, from 1958). Dave also supplied the clock, clipboard and papers, and turntable. I implemented a snack table and a Remo djembe as the base of the DJ desk which was completed with a sheet of black foamcore.

For the background, we knew we couldn’t reproduce the soundproofing tiles from the original shot but I could construct a wall corner. The Set Shop in Manhattan sells 4x8 foot black and white foamcore for about $75 a sheet. From the forums on someone recommended the Home Depot option, the same size pieces for $20. Instead of black, one side is silver, the other light blue with text stamped all over. The sheets were dented up and wavy since they’re meant to go inside walls, not to look like walls. I painted one side of each sheet flat black which stood as the walls of our studio booth.

The lighting for the Fagen photo looked to be one key light 45 degrees off the subject. The closer we studied the original photo, the more the lighting and perspective didn’t make sense. The turntable is huge and the background looks kind of fake. Perhaps they were composited after the shoot. At that point we decided to go with the general idea and not worry about our version differing slightly from the original.

The Nightfly was a seminal album for Donald Fagen, his first solo recording. Largely autobiographical, it conjures Fagen’s childhood memories of listening to his favorite DJs at night before he slept. A challenging period ensued after the record release, one where Fagen struggled with anxiety and depression and dropped out of the performance scene for several years. It’s an album of depth and reflection, fitting for a music aficionado reaching a milestone birthday.

The images shown here are the original unretouched plus the final image with a cigarette mod and background texture dropped in by daveB.

Color version before graphics

Black and white version before graphics

The Nightfly Revisited (2008)