Almanac Music: ‘Not Quite Bob’ – Contested Space OR Are Steely Dan Any Good

 

 

 

Not even remotely Bob this time.  Into the pond of strummers, croakers and yodellers I drop Steely Dan, named after a dildo featured in a William Burroughs novel, probably the cause of more dissent as to worthiness in music fandom.  For clarity I’m amongst the apostles.  Have all the first 7 albums on vinyl.  And on CD.  And in two overlapping collections as downloads.  And the two relatively crummy albums issued this century.

 

Which pretty much indicates bias.  Which might cause some readers to leave at this point.

 

For the (potential) acolytes remaining and the doubters with nothing better to do here is the rundown.

 

Steely Dan were formed in 1971 by college buddies Donald Fagen and Walter Becker.  As a duo they’d stumbled across one another in 1967 and found a shared interest in the songs of the Stones, Moby Grape and Willie Dixon; sort of disparate influences but not really.  They meander along in clouds of cigarette and dope smoke trying to peddle their songs to the denizens of the Brill Building and other places with various other nascent musos including at one point Chevy Chase on drums.  Yeah that one.  Along the way they hook up with a producer at ABC Records called Gary Katz, who along with engineer Roger Nicholls, produces all their albums from the 1970’s until 2001.

 

 

Can’t Buy A Thrill

 

Their first album in 1972.  On this the vocals are shared between Fagen and other band members which include David Palmer who is the onstage vocalist on everything.  Here on ‘Do It Again’, one of the two main hits on the album.  ‘Dirty Work’ is the other.

 

 

 

 

Good not great but a solid debut.  Let’s call it a B+/A-.  The songs vary and a few of them now date a bit, West Coast rock/soul but what is clear from the outset is the impeccable playing with a crack band supported by great LA session musos including Venetta Fields and Sherlie Matthews who both later emigrated to Australia and appeared with many local acts in  the 80’s and 90’s.

 

 

Countdown to Ecstasy

 

In 1973 they follow up with this one and while their self-assessment is that it is a hasty sophomore set and that it shows, I think it’s still full of great songs including this one, ‘The Boston Rag’.

 

 

 

 

By now David Palmer has been shown the door (courtesy Katz) and Fagen sings everything.  They’re also tiring of the grind of touring and shortly they’ll cease that altogether as the two main men push for studio perfection.  Longer songs, leaning into the jazz artists they both admire I think it’s a step up.  A solid A for me.

 

 

Pretzel Logic

 

This one in 1974, by now they’re making albums that are miles away from anything else being done at the time.   I’ve tracked the scene around at the time, Jackson Browne, David Lindley, the Eagles, all the other icons of the form. This ain’t that.  It opens with what proves to be their biggest hit to date in ‘Rikki Don’t Lose That Number’, the melody of which, if you were my age then and now is burned into the memory banks as soon as you read the words.  My favorite from this is the title track and this clip at least gives us something to look at even though I’m pretty sure it’s mimed to the track on the album.  Their distaste for live performance extending it would seem to tricking up a ‘live’ performance.

 

 

 

 

The album includes further jazz nods to Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker with ‘East St Louis Toodle-oo’ (an Ellington composition) and Parker’s Band and then those tracks are followed with a 1:34 piece of utter pop perfection called ‘Through With Buzz’.

 

 

 

 

It’s their most accomplished album to date.  Another A.

 

 

Katy Lied

 

In 1974 they’ve stopped touring and will do so for nearly 20 years.  In 1975 they release Katy Lied.  More great songs but maybe … maybe … a step back from Pretzel Logic.  Still by now I’m lapping up everything they produce and of interest is that in the opening track, ‘Black Friday’, they name check Muswellbrook in NSW.

 

 

 

 

I’ve read lots of conjecture about why that happened but the most plausible is that Fagen needed a word to rhyme with ‘shoes’ settled on ‘kangaroos’ and then looked up a map to find a town to locate an Australian town to place the ‘roos in.  Which could be bullcrap but I like it anyway.  Let’s call this one an A-.

 

At this point Steely Dan are comprised of just Becker and Fagen with every other musician on the album being listed as additionals but once again, they’re the cream of the LA and now include stellar folks like Larry Carlton, Wilton Felder, Jeff Porcaro and Victor Feldman.  Often musicians are now brought into the studio for a particular solo on one song such is the perfectionism sought by the two Dans.

 

 

The Royal Scam

 

Their 5th album comes out in 1976 and if perfection was the aim, this is really, really close.  Underrated by critics at the time, more recently it has been regarded as the first in a trio of peerless Dan records which show significant advances on their earlier I would suggest impressive records.

 

I really like this one, ‘The Caves of Altimira’.  Clunky title, great song.

 

 

 

 

Now the direction is crystal clear, it’s jazz tinged LA sound with the help of the best and brightest.  On this album they’ve added to the already star-studded retinue in the studio by drafting in the incredible Bernard Purdie on drums.  He shines here, takes it all to another level on the next one.  The Royal Scam = A+.

 

 

Aja

 

I have no trouble labelling this album as perfect.  From start to finish.  In every way.  It won’t be new to anybody reading here but in case your memory has been erased here it is.

 

 

 

 

Only 7 songs but at nearly 40 minutes running time they’re all extended workouts.  It stands up today in any company.  If you want to hear drumming in this kind of music at it’s absolute peak listen carefully to what happens at around the 7 minute mark until the end in the title track by Steve Gadd.  It’s a masterclass.  On the same track Wayne Shorter, a prominent Blue Note artist, supplies a brilliant, memorable trumpet fill that is part of the songs signature.

 

The album is so eulogised that there is a doco on it’s creation.  Probably only for Dan nerds but still worth a look.

 

 

 

 

A++

 

 

Gaucho

 

Aja is a high water mark, a hard act to follow.  It takes a few years but in 1980 the 3rd leg in the trifecta of perfect is released – Gaucho.  I rate it maybe slightly ahead of Aja but that’s contested space time amongst the fan base.  My reason.  This.  ‘Third World Man’.

 

 

 

 

A live recording from 1994, a year after they returned to the stage, it lends a lie to any suggestion there might have been that they were incapable of reproducing their pristine studio recordings on stage.  There were some such suggestions.  Fooey to that.  I’ve seen them live twice and they were great both times.

 

A+++ (because of ‘Third World Man’).

 

A mate back in the day suggested that they really couldn’t follow Gaucho up such was the level of the craft.  And really?  They didn’t.  They put the cue in the rack for 20 years, Fagen releases some pretty good solo albums, Becker takes to producing and nicks off to Hawaii to grow avocados.   Lot’s of nothing from the Dan then Two Against Nature in 2000 and Everything Must Go in 2003.  Not bad records, just not great ones.  Call them B- although my Steely Dan mania (it is) might have lead me to over egg the pud.

 

But between 1972-1980 they made 5 good to greats and 2 perfect albums, a hit rate without peer except for early Bob (and often since) and the Beatles more sporadically than is imagined.  Neil, Bruce, Van and Joni all made great albums in clutches and a slightly later  artist in Elvis Costello had a glorious run from My Aim Is True until at least Spike (with some quibbles in between) but he’s also a subject for another day.

 

Cancer brought down Walter Becker in 2017 but Fagen still tours as Steely Dan (on the advice of management when he wanted to ditch the name after Becker’s demise.)

 

There’s any amount of compilations available (some dodgy af) and a really good live set from 1993 but to collect those first 7 crackers there’s Citizen Dan which I bought from iTunes even though I’ve got them anyway.

 

 

 

A tragic, me.

 

I can’t sum them up in NQB terms because they don’t fit but I couldn’t leave them out.  A fork in the road I suppose.  Steely Dan are a very divisive group in my experience.  Noone kinda likes them.  Some loathe them.  I called their fans apostles.  I’m in that group.

 

 

You can read more from Trevor Blainey HERE.

 

 

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Comments

  1. Colin Ritchie says

    I lived in Kew most of the 70s to early 1980. Often, Saturday morning was a trek down Glenferrie Rd to Readings to check out the books, and then over the road to the import record shop (can’t remember the name) where a fantastic selection of albums whetted one’s appetite; heavy vinyl, thick cardboard covers, and sealed, with a hole punched into one of the corners to indicate it was an import. I bought many LPs there including ‘Pretzel Logic’ which spun on my turntable numerous times for many years. I must get it out and play it again, it has been a long time.

  2. Ian Lewis says

    Hi Trevor,
    After reading this article, it seems you and I have remarkably similar memories of/opinions about/collections of, and experiences of Steely Dan, both live and on record. Without revisiting all your reviews, I would just like to join the apostles who rate Aja as the most perfect piece of music ever recorded. Music isn’t supposed to be perfect – we embrace the little foibles, excesses and eccentricities of our favourite albums, but this…this is perfection. I used to wish there were perhaps two more songs on the album and then I realised that if there were, that might tarnish its brilliance, even just a smidge. I have watched the Aja doco a dozen times or more and love the way Larry Carlton speaks of his role as an “interpreter” explaining Becker’s & Fagan’s ideas into muso language. It’s about time I got out the album and played it again – thanks for the nudge.

  3. Rick Kane says

    Hi TB, yes SD are very good to excellent and I have a real soft spot for Deacon Blues as well as the top shelf singles. Can I suggest a kinda Dylan connection in their first’s album’s title. Cheers

  4. TB, I’m a 50-year fan of SD and would class myself somewhere in the acolyte/devotee range, a bit below your ‘apostle’ ranking.

    So much of music is about time and place. SD were there in my university days in the early to mid-70s, then into my teaching years thereafter. ‘Reeling in the years’ was on jukebox high rotation in the ‘Buttery’ cafe at Flinders in ’73 – it’s opening guitar solo is my all-time favourite introductory burst. ‘Pretzel logic’ is probably my favourite album; ‘Babylon sisters’ from ‘Gaucho’ is another song whose understated intro draws me in seductively. And although they’re a bit patchy, there’s still a lot to like about ‘Two against nature’ and ‘Everything must go’ from early this century.

    Yes, SD’s music may be produced to within an inch of pretension or maybe it’s just greatness in search of perfection. So, to answer your question, ‘Are Steely Dan any good?’ I say, ‘Too bloody right they are!”

  5. Huge fan. Aside from the extraordinary musicianship I love how many of their songs functioned as dark vignettes documenting life on both American coasts. The opening to ‘Do It Again’ is the first scene of a foreign film, likely set in the Sahara.

    In the mornin you go gunnin’
    For the man who stole your water
    And you fire till he is done in
    But they catch you at the border

    While the funny and paranoid dialogue in ‘Kid Charlemagne’ always grabs me-

    Is there gas in the car?
    Yes, there’s gas in the car
    I think the people down the hall
    Know who you are.

    And the saxophone on the title track of Gaucho manages to be triumphant, wry and ironic all at the same time.

    Great post! Thanks.

  6. Grant Fraser says

    Love…just love.
    Spent a summer Uni holiday doing night fill at Woolies East Donnie (RIP…now Uncle Dan’s) and “Gaucho” was on heavy, heavy rotation overnight. Couldn’t get enough. I agree the album version pips Aja but gee it is close.
    As for their best…again a close one. For Mein (Kampf – with a tip of the hat to the great Tony Rickards/Con Marasco) “Do it Again” by a whisker over “My Old School”.
    If I am home alone the Sonos is a 40% chance to be blasting out some Steely – good odds.

  7. Trevor Blainey says

    I thought this one would bring on some naysayers. Maybe ‘Nackers are too collegial for that. I still play that Citizen Dan comp from start to finish every few months. Again that’s all of the first 7 albums in their entirety. Nary a dud song amongst them. In 1973 I started a Uni casual job Friday nights and Saturday mornings at Suttons in Elizabeth Street in the city. Across the road from Brashs. I was 18 and the full time staff were mid-20s plus. All music nuts. It was there I first heard (courtesy the full timers) Little Feat, Jackson Browne, Ry Cooder, Miles Davis and John Coltrane. And Steely Dan. Hooked on all of them then and since. We opened at 9 on Saturdays but no customers came in until about 10. That first hour was the tutorial for me and the mate who started the job the same day I did. By the time we had to turn our attention to ‘real’ jobs after graduating about 4 years later Steely Dan had pumped out all but the two perfect ones. They’ve been with me ever since.

  8. Trevor Blainey says

    Col, Readings in Hawthorn was (still is)’a well trodden path for me as we lived in the area for over 30 years.
    To both Ians I’ve never understood why the perfection of the Steely Dan studio sound is cause for criticism. Rough and ready is for live which is why we go.
    Grant, there are plenty to pick from aren’t there?
    Rick, I thought I’d drawn a few long bows on Bob references but that one might top em all.
    And Mickey you probably know this but Kid Charlemagne is about scoring drugs from a dealer famous in LA at the time. Thus the paranoia evident in that verse. And the whole song.
    Thanks to the ‘Nackers for comments. It’ll be back on firmer Bob ground next time.

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