Reelin’ Back the Years
IN November, it will be forty-five years since…
Steely Dan’s debut album, Can’t Buy a Thrill, was revealed to the public. The reason for writing this was not merely to state the case and give it a round of applause – I wanted to investigate a duo/band who have made an incredible impact on music and are still, despite their successes, one of those ‘hidden treasures’. When detailing my love of Steely Dan, I often have to start by explaining who they are. The way some people blank me would make you think I was describing the Piltdown Man – or they want me to shut up and leave them alone! We might well arrive at the day when a band like The Beatles cause a youngster to glaze over in confusion. I hope I am not alive to witness that – if I am I will be hurling myself in front of the closest lorry – but I feel aggravated when people overlook and do not recognise Steely Dan. Their debut album, perhaps, gets the most airplay but they have, until this day, recorded nine albums and toured around the world. In fact, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker will be heading to the U.K. in late-October as part of Blues Fest. Until then, they have U.S. commitments and are keeping busy.
I hope they have another album in them because it would be a shame to think their recording days are through.
My first taste of Steely Dan was hearing Can’t Buy a Thrill as a child. Listening to those incredible compositions – rich in saxophone and blissful of vibes – took me to another world and instantly impressed my fertile mind. Kings, the underrated and evocative beauty; the wistfulness of Reelin’ in the Years – if that is the correct word for it?! – and the beauty and grace of Dirty Work – again, they might plump for other terms! I always loved Midnite Cruiser (Jim Hodder on vocals) and that first song out the traps: the sensational and legendary Do It Again. At the time, critics had heard nothing like it; so the press wasn’t as positive as it should have been. Sales were not too bad but one feels Steely Dan were a bit ahead of their time – retrospective reviews have been a lot more pragmatic and seen the album for what it is.
Many debate whether Can’t Buy a Thrill is the band’s finest hour – I maintain Aja, Pretzel Logic and Countdown to Ecstasy are better – but it was a stunning start. Yes, a couple of the songs were a bit rough. The reason David Palmer did not make it onto Steely Dan’s second album was the nature of his performances – over-sung and not quite the fit Fagen and Becker were looking for. In that sense, the debut is an insight into what Steely Dan were capable of. Listen to the album and the thing that remains and shines is the incredible songwriting. Witty, caustic and intellectual: quite opposed to the rather one-dimensional and meat-headed (by comparison) songbook of many of their contemporaries (in 1972). Before we get to the Cuervo Gold and the “fine Columbian” of Hey Nineteen – the last album before Steely Dan went on a twenty-year hiatus – I want to look at the albums that really cemented their reputation: Countdown to Ecstasy (1973) and Pretzel Logic (1974). The fact the band released three albums in as many years proved how hungry and productive they were – few modern bands could keep that pace; they definitely couldn’t match the quality! Those disappointed and confused by Can’t Buy a Thrill didn’t have to wait too long before an alternative was on the shelves. The leap of quality (of Countdown to Ecstasy) reminds me of Radiohead and Nirvana – following up so-so debuts with world-class sophomore efforts.
Maybe the gulf is not THAT large with Steely Dan but their second album was at tighter, more assured and personality-driven record.
Gone were the vocal collaborations and guest spots. It was, for the most part, Fagen and Becker producing an album they wanted. Can’t Buy a Thrill was quite a smooth, seductive and chilled album for the most part. Countdown to Ecstasy, by contrast, featured hard riffs, percussion and horn flourishes – some of the most uplifting and invigorating solos that side of the Atlantic!
There was not much of a departure between albums in terms of themes – West Cost excess; drugs and youthful escapades; the female grifter of Your Gold Teeth. It is the dossier of users, (loveable) losers and oddities – the sort one might associate with ‘Steely Dan’ (if you have read William S. Borroughs’ Naked Lunch, it will make more sense!). Fagen felt (the album) represented the hubris of Hippies; the quick-fix of the times – that insatiable lure of the East. Countdown to Ecstasy was a sales disaster compared to Can’t Buy a Thrill but resonated stronger with critics – David Palmer gone as vocalist; Fagen and Becker throwing away needless bodies. It is a taut and exciting album best personified by My Old School. It only takes a single hit of that chorus – the stuttering, syncopated guitars and celebratory horns; the addictive-as-heroine lyrics and Mardi Gras excess – to hook the sternest and most rigid of listeners. Call them arty or erudite: this was music of the highest calibre. The jaded and disgruntled alumni one hears on My Old School – people who are best left in the past – and the too-cool-for-anyone else people on Show Biz Kids (you know they “don’t give a f*ck about anybody else”) presented fascinating stories and a snapshot into the bohemian lifestyle of Fagen and Becker – or the fact they didn’t fit in with a lot of the arseholes that festooned their world.
Alongside My Old School and Show Biz Kids is the exquisite The Boston Rag: a triumvirate of Steely songs that meant the rest of the album could be crap and it will still be lauded – the fact it contained diamonds and alchemy made it one of the finest albums of the 1970s.
The public only had to wait a further six months until Steely Dan’s third album, Pretzel Logic, arrived. More confident in their songwriting (Can’t Buy a Thrill’s ten songs was reduced to eight on Countdown’; here, there were eleven numbers) and winning the critical heartbeat – it was helped by the fact Rikki Don’t Lose That Number was a big hit – things started to steer in the right direction. Philosophical, poetic and ambiguous: the lyrics intrigued reviewers; the fluid and cinematic flair of the music resounded with listeners in 1974 – looking for something deep, nuanced and different.
You only have to say the word ‘musicianship’ and you’ll picture Walter Becker and Donald Fagen. From Night by Night’s warped guitars and exceptional solos; the suave and racing horns; the hands-in-the-air build-up on the chorus – it is a swaggering and incredible song. Following Rikki Don’t Lose That Number – no slouch in terms of energy and memorability – it is a perfect one-two. Throughout the album, Becker and Fagen synthesised their passion for Jazz and ventures into Rock. Any Major Dude Will Tell You is a smooth Californian story that offers help to a friend going through hard times – any world that falls apart, as it is said, will fall together again. It shows the guys were capable of sensitivity and empathy – in addition to their sardonic, witty and acid-tongued observations. East St. Louis Toodle-Oo (a Duke Ellington/Bubber Miley cover) might seem like a misstep on paper but sounds expert in the hands of Steely Dan. The confidence as high: Becker and Fagen experimenting and embracing their inner-mojo. Not to skip past Katy Lied (1975) and The Royal Scam (1976) – but they were never going to be banana skins. Katy Lied, in my view, contains two of their biggest songs: Black Friday and Bad Sneakers. Steely Dan were on a roll and this is personified in tracks such as Kid Charlemagne – and its drug dealers packing their stuff and making a run for it – and Haitian Divorce.
Some critics, at the time, felt there was little musical advancement. Retrospective common sense has led to many claiming it is Steely Dan’s greatest work – contentious but a worthy argument, none-the-less.
Becker and Fagen were used to putting out an album each year: this would not change and, in 1977, they released the peerless Aja. I often go back and forth as to whether this, Pretzel Logic or Countdown to Ecstasy is their most impressive work – many fans agree Aja is their pinnacle. It has been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame (winning a Grammy itself) and often seen as one of the finest albums of the 1970s – if not, all-time!
The title track is that, largely wordless, multi-part suite that seems Steely Dan’s equivalent of Bohemian Rhapsody – pretty apt considering the bohemian nature of the rhapsody within Aja. The song has an interesting background – a high school friend’s brother (of Fagen and Becker) married a woman named Aja whilst serving in the army – and incredible solos. I have not mentioned the array of musicians, at this time, Steely Dan employed to get their sound as good. Steve Gadd’s percussion almost steals the show – the saxophone of Wayne Shorter probably did (Shorter had played with Miles Davis so was no stranger to the demands Becker and Fagen had for the song). Simple, more straightforward tracks like Black Cow and Peg showed Steely Dan had lost none of their focus and ability to craft a catchy chorus – the latter features a particularly pleasing vocal from Michael McDonald. Josie is that vivid and scenic story of a heroine/anti-heroine coming back home to cause music, chaos and celebration in the neighbourhood – it is one of the most conventional songs but has plenty of complexities. Its open fifths and driven rhythms echo, at times, Disco but never parody it. A tight, modal tune graced with intimate and intelligent counter-rhythms; some of the band’s most-quotable lyrics and a chorus you can really get your voice around. Home at Last and I Got the News might be seen, by Steely Dan’s standards, as B-sides. They are brilliant songs but pale when compared with their career high: the majestic Deacon Blues. I could pretty much revolve an entire piece around this one song – I won’t, you’ll be thrilled to hear!
It is, as fans can attest, the greatest song from Becker and Fagen – and remains my favourite song ever.
The incredible score is only matched by the origins and lyrics. That loveable, take-a-chance loser (who will “learn to work the saxophone” rather than play it) crawls the suburban street; his back against the wall, a victim of laughing chance (…“This is for me, the essence of true romance”). One wonders how much of Fagen and Becker goes into the song – as it documents a Jazz performer rising when the sun goes down; taking every game and chance available in the hope the dream will be achieved.
It is, essentially, an anthem for life’s losers deriving its birth from Fagen and Becker learning the University of Alabama’s football team labelled themselves the ‘Crimson Tide’. That grandiose and near-biblical name seemed ridiculous for a bunch of Southern football players. Revelling in the absurdity of that proclamation – from Fagen’s Malibu residence – the duo set to work on what would become their most-famous work.
If a football team could have a jumped-up and ludicrous name like that: could there be a name for the losers in the world?!
Deacon Blues was that retort and a name/song whose influence spread beyond the time in which it was recorded – Scottish band Deacon Blue named themselves after the track. The broken man living that broken dream (a broken record, of sorts) thought he could be a famous musician but, in actuality, sips into the seediness and anonymity of the street. It is a song that sticks in my heart because, in a way, I see a little of myself in that track. By the chorus, the anti-hero, having drunk Scotch whisky all-night-long, sees himself dying at the wheel – a predicament that seems rather romantic in the context of the song. It is a glorious work of art and a song that, some five years after their debut, marks the peak of Steely Dan’s career. The chaps would produce the stunning, if patchy, Gaucho in 1980 – an album with a few exceptional numbers but some forgettable ones, too. Babylon Sisters was as suave and sophisticated as they had ever been; Hey Nineteen the tale of the older, ‘wiser’ man unable to gel with the young naïve girl (who does not know who Aretha Franklin is) – destined to watch the coke-snorting, tequila-chugging throng surrender to poor judgement and youthful recklessness (feeling awkward and lost in a generation gap; Fagen wants to be taken down with the rest of them). There are glimmers of Steely Dan’s best work but, three years after the exhausting Aja, it is understandable Becker and Fagen would not be able to replicate their greatest albums. Nevertheless, it is a fine album and one that sadly, would be the last from them – for two decades, at least.
Two Against Nature (2000) and Everything Must Go (2003) were received fondly but showed cracks and a weaker economy. The sheer gap between albums would always lead to some inconsistent results. That said, Donald Fagen created stunning solo albums in The Nightfly (1982) and Morph the Cat (2006). One hopes the duo will produce another Steely Dan album but, the more time goes on, the less likely it seems.
It is wonderful we have such a bountiful archive of music from them.
Whatever your personal preferences – if you favour the crystallisation and epiphany of Countdown to Ecstasy or the experimentation of Aja – there is an album that will suit your needs. I am not too stringent when deciding upon my favourite Steely Dan albums. To me, Steely Dan is about those songs and rich musical tapestries. I love the perfectionist tendencies and the effort expended in each album. Maybe it is not possible in today’s music – bands and artists need to have their albums out quickly who capitalise on expectation and market demands – so, perhaps, they are a product of a past (better) age for music. I do not know. All I do know is how inspiring their music is and how relevant it is right now. I hear a few artists who take bits and pieces from Steely Dan but none that have the same qualities. I feel the U.S. duo deserve more acclaim and representation. Those who will be catching them on tour know what I mean; the people who listen to their music regularly understand that – what about those unaware of Steely Dan and all they have done for music?! I opened by stating, with genuine horror, how appalling it is facing youthful ignorance – people not knowing classic acts and drawing a blank. This year, Can’t Buy a Thrill will celebrate its forty-fifth anniversary: a timely and appropriate reminder why Donald Fagen and Walter Becker are regarded as two of the greatest musicians…
WHO ever lived.