Sunday, 23 September 2018

Steely Dan/Donald Fagen

"I think of Steely Dan as being of its time, and it may be inseparable from its time" - Donald Fagen 

Can't Buy A Thrill (1972)

The stunning debut album from this remarkable band whose influences would spread far and wide (Billy Joel, Joe Jackson, by his own admittance, and Elton John to name but three). In an age of "glam" stars and instantly recognisable rockers, what was notable was that they two main founders of Steely Dan, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker were largely faceless, not recognisable to many, even if they knew the music.

It was all about the music - immaculately played stuff fusing jazz, rock, Latin rhythms, funk and soul into an invigorating brew of virtual perfection, and the lyrics - obscure, oblique, unfathomable at times. There really was nothing around like Steely Dan at the time. They were truly quite ground-breaking.
Those afore-mentioned addictive Latin rhythms hasten in Do It Again, an irresistible groove that became a big hit. The album version is the superior one, containing a Doors-style organ solo which did not appear on the single. The bossa nova intro is extended too, which is a good thing. Dirty Work is sung by vocalist David Palmer, who only appeared on this one album. His voice is less unique and higher, maybe even weedier, than Donald Fagen's. However, this song is not unduly adversely affected. A tale of an extra-marital affair full of introspective self-loathing. Kings is a catchy rocking number referencing "the last of good King Richard" - Richard Nixon, maybe? Who "King John" was is unclear. Kennedy? As with all Steely Dan lyrics nobody really knows. Midnite Cruiser is sung, convincingly, by drummer Jim Hodder and featuring some killer lead guitar from Jeff "Skunk" Baxter, this is an alluring song with the usual perplexing lyrics and catchy refrain. 

Only A Fool Would Say That is a melodic, summery groove with hints of the material Billy Joel would put out later in the 70s. The quality of the material on this album is so high that this is one of the songs that gets a little forgotten, which is a little unfortunate. It has great vocals from both Fagen and Palmer and some lovely light guitar. Reelin' In The Years is a song well known to many. Where to start? That piano bit just before the verses kick in, the guitar parts between verses, the Elliott Randall solo half way through that Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page said was his favourite of all time, the harmonious chorus, the crystal clear, razor sharp percussion, the intriguing lyrics - just who is it they are referring too? Who had said they were a genius since they were seventeen? I am running out of superlatives to describe this gem.

On Fire In The Hole, for a brief couple of seconds, as the piano starts this song, I think it is Mott The Hoople's All The Way From Memphis but then the metronomic, trustworthy groove sets in to this rather sad-sounding song. Some great jazzy piano half way through and another that shows where Billy Joel got his inspiration from. Some nice guitar to finish it off. 
Brooklyn (Owes The Charmer Under Me) sees David Palmer on vocals again in this New York song (I find this far more of a New York album than a Californian one) and he does a good job too, sounding rather like The Eagles would sound over the next few years. Yet another impossibly inviting refrain. This whole album just seeps into the bloodstream like some sort of pick me up. You an never really get tired of it, even all these years later. So ahead of its time too. Once more though, just what was this song about? Change Of The Guard has a jaunty keyboard intro, some crisp percussion and we are into another tempting slice of Dan pie. Singalong "la-la-la" parts and a light, sunny day feeling is all over this. There is still time for a searing guitar to cut into things half way through though. Turn That Heartbeat Over Again is the album's final song. "Oh Michael, Oh Jesus" is the mystifying refrain on this enticing number, as Fagen, Palmer and Becker all join in on vocals. "This highway runs from Paraguay" - so many interesting lyrics and a smooth, relaxing ambience prevail throughout. A thoroughly solid end to what is an outstanding album.

Countdown To Ecstasy (1973)

Building on the strong foundations of their excellent debut, 1972's Can't Buy A Thrill, this is again an album packed full of high quality musicianship and an uptempo jazz-influenced rock sound. The lyrics, once again, as indeed always, were impossible to analyse - references to drugs, excess, Buddhism, West Coast living and wealth swirl around without ever having any obvious meaning. They are just there, thoroughly intriguing and the perfect match to the music, which actually has the same effect. Again, the influence of this album was immense. Joe Jackson stated that this album had more influence upon his work than any other.
Bodhisattva is an absolute treasure, full to the brim with jazzy guitar riffs, vibrant rhythm and an exciting, energetic blues meets jazz meets rock feeling to the whole thing. A beguiling vocal, exhorting a the Buddhist deity of "Bodhisattva" to begin each verse. The song is fast-paced and very poppy, yet finds time for various jazz solo parts. A thoroughly delicious cornucopia. One of my favourite Steely Dan tracks. Razor Boy is a syncopated Latin Do It Again groove ushers in this mid-pace, together with what sounds like some jazzy "vibes" and some great piano underpinning a somewhat cynical lyric about a "razor boy taking all your things away on a cold and windy day".

The Boston Rag his a stunning electric guitar intro twinned with acoustic guitar leads us into and an anthemic chorus following some typically plaintive Donald Fagen vocals on the verses. This is a magnificent slow burner of a rock track with some heavy guitar parts throughout and then the best bit - a distinctive piano and guitar interplay section mid-way through. Then the drums kick in and the heavy, almost distorted guitar. Instrumentally sublime. It gets even better on Your Gold Teeth  - lovely Latin rhythms and percussion backing this one. Harmonious vocals and more mystifying lyrics - just who was Cathy Berberian? An avant-garde composer, apparently. An excellent mid-song instrumental break with some stunning guitar once again, together with some jazz piano and frantic conga work. There are definite hints of Gil Scott-Heron’s 1971 Lady Day & John Coltrane in this song’s funky organ sound. 

Show Biz Kids is an insistent, grinding almost bluesy number played out against the repeated backing vocal of "You're going to Lost Wages..." (referring to Las Vegas) and a lyric about people wearing "a Steely Dan t-shirt" amongst other things. As always, the featured guitar is peerless. There is just such a hypnotic groove to this one. The point where the verse begins about "show biz kids making movies of themselves" is one of the high points of the whole album. My Old School is the album's most "commercial" track - upbeat summery rock amongst what are mainly "album tracks". An irresistible hook in the chorus, catchy verses, punchy horns, strident piano, some searing guitar in the middle and throughout, to be honest. Lyrics about "never going back to my old school" and, continuing the oblique tradition of mention past English monarchs, "King Richard" and "King John" from the previous album are joined here by "William And Mary" for some inexplicable reason. Pearl Of The Quarter is a pedal steel guitar backed evocative and catchy song about New Orleans with a laid-back jazz rock groove and "voulez vous", Cajun-inspired lyrics. Covered by Boz Scaggs on his 2013 Memphis album.

Shuffling percussion and funky wah-wah guitar introduces King Of The World, the closer. This was the first track that saw "The Dan" truly getting funky. Trademark vocals and lyrics over a solidly paced infectious beat, with some nice bass runs and keyboards too, along with some strange noises at one point. Quite an unusual track compared with those that had come before, both on this and the previous album. Instrumentally adventurous. A good way to end a superb album.

Pretzel Logic (1974)
For many, Pretzel Logic is Steely Dan's best album. Funnily enough, of their "big seven" albums between 1972 and 1980, it is my least favourite. The songs are shorter but not necessarily poppier, in some ways I just find them a little less outstandingly brilliant than on some of the others. Maybe I am being nitpicking, after all, this is still a solidly good album. I need to re-assess it.

Rikki Don't Lose That Number, with its rhythmic, syncopated opening, is a marvellous opener, however, and Night By Night is a delicious piece of horn-driven funk rock. Any Major Dude Will Tell You is a melodic and catchy in a laid-back soulful way. There is a confident, smoky jazzy feel to it. The effervescent but tuneful Barrytown is captivating. In fact, these first four tracks have been superb. It is in the middle part of the album that things fall down a bit, for me, just a little. East St. Louis Toodle-Oo is a ragtime-esque jazzy instrumental which is pleasant enough, admittedly, but it ain't no Reelin' In The Years

Parker's Band is a short, punchy, upbeat and soully rocker. Through With Buzz is a half-baked song, to be honest, it lasts just a minute and a half and is over before it has really got going. Pretzel Logic is more like it, though, The Dan play the blues on the verses, before reverting to typically Steely Dan on the chorus. One of the album's best cuts, this one. You know, I am listening to this stuff in 2018. It is already forty-four years old, yet it doesn't really sound dated at all. The world was a totally different place in 1974, yet music like this was way ahead of its time. With A Gun is a lively Beatles-ish track in places, with a Lennon-esque lyric. Charlie Freak is a jaunty piano-driven number with a bit of a late sixties psychedelic pop feel about it. 

Monkey In Your Soul is an enjoyable saxophone, guitar and bluesy bass upbeat romp to end and album that I have enjoyed revisiting, but still I don't enjoy as much as I do the others, which I feel have longer, more fulfilled songs on them. There is some seriously good stuff early on in this album, but the second half is somewhat patchy. For me, anyway.

Katy Lied (1975)

Pretzel Logic, this album's predecessor, had been a jazz rock-ish creation featuring several shorter tracks. This one, for me, was a fuller, more cohesive and solid offering, although it was the first not to feature the obvious talents of guitarist Jeff "Skunk" Baxter. The sound, though, was the usual impeccably delivered, inventive and easy rock music, which backed the also by now familiar oblique, beguiling, enigmatic lyrics. There is always something a bit cool and detached about a Steely Dan album - they always sound very intelligent and musically perfect, but that often leaves them open to the accusation of lacking soul or real feeling. I guess you could say that about this album, but when I listen to it I always get that feeling that is it something rather special. A Steely Dan album is sort of like a priceless antique. One listen and you recognise its quality.

Sonically, however, despite Walter Becker and Donald Fagen's legendary perfectionism, there were apparently mix-ups with the original recordings, tapes, mixings and so on, the technicalities of which I don't really understand, other than there is a sharp, trebly tinniness to parts of the overall sound. Subsequent remasterings have been unable to rectify it. It is the clearest, "shiniest" Dan album, audio-wise, but it suffers just a little because of it. It is difficult to put you finger (or ear) on it, but you know when you listen to it. If you are playing a Steely Dan "random" playlist, you will instantly recognise the songs from this album by their sound.

Black Friday kicks things off and is a solid, chugger of a track. It retains that typical Steely Dan vocal style but it is as strong and grindingly rock-ish a song as the group had put out for a while, featuring some excellent guitar swirling all around it. Bad Sneakers is an attractive, melodious slow-pace number with another of those addictive Steely Dan choruses. Becker and Fagen had a real knack for finding a hook. The group's jazz-rock hybrid nature is really obvious on this one. Lovely bass on there too. Rose Darling ups the tempo again with a radio friendly, breezy harmonious song. Once more it features some impressive guitar, played for the first time on a Steely Dan album by Becker. The vocal is ever so slightly Dylanesque in small places. Just a cadence here and there.

Daddy Don't Live In That New York City No More is a bluesy, shuffling rocker with echoes of the Pretzel Logic material. I really like this track. It also highlights their liking for a great song title. 
Doctor Wu enters Steely Dan classic territory. The album's title is derived from the line "Katy lies, you can see it in her eyes...". Quite who Doctor Wu was is unclear. One never knew just what most of their songs were about, just hints here or there, but never the full meaning, if indeed there ever was one. The song has a killer saxophone solo in it too. Everyone's Gone To The Movies suffers from a bit of a throwaway chorus, but it has a superb, big, rumbling bass line running all through it and an infectious rhythm. Your Gold Teeth II has some excellent jazzy bits in it and a delicious feel to it throughout. There is some sumptuous piano, guitar and syncopated drums. The jazz parts remind me of Abdullah Ibrahim and Dave Brubeck.

Chain Lightning has a deep, insistent bluesy thump of a rhythm and some excellent guitar from guest guitarist Rick Derringer. Another appetising bass underpins it. Apparently, Any World (That I'm Welcome To) was a resurrected out-take of a track from their 1969-1971 early days. Listening to it, you can tell. It sounds far more like something off Can't Buy A Thrill and sounds slightly inferior to the material around it. Not by much, but it is noticeable. Throw Back The Little Ones is a quirky, perplexing song both lyrically and musically, driven by a jazzy piano and enhanced by more great guitar and a brass-ish break in the middle. Despite some slight reservations about the sound (and they really are nit-picking ones) this, for me, is a really good Steely Dan album and one that is often overlooked, a little bit unfairly.

The Royal Scam (1976)

Along with 1974's Katy Lied, this album is sometimes overlooked as being the other one between Pretzel Logic and Aja. This is a bit of a shame as it is an impressive album. One thing that is clear is that after the lightly harsh, tinny sound of Katy Lied, there is a velvety, deep, warm sound to this, which is nice to hear. You can hear the difference immediately. As with its predecessor, I prefer it to Pretzel Logic, by far. I have never gone along with the hype of Pretzel Logic, actually, it is my least favourite Dan album, albeit one in exceptionally high quality company. For me, this one blows it away, easily. What we have here is another album of captivating songs, full of hooks, almost perfect instrumentation and those serious-sounding, but often tongue-in-cheek lyrics. It is classic Steely Dan. Don't let anyone put it down.
Kid Charlemagne is a sumptuous slice of slightly funky rock, full of big heavy bass, infectious, jazzy piano, syncopated drums and the familiar indecipherable Steely Dan lyrics. It also features a superb guitar solo from guest guitarist Larry CarltonThe Caves Of Altamira is a beautifully laid-back but still powerful jazz rock number. It has a great saxophone solo in it. A solid, driving bass powers the atmospheric, graceful rock of Don't Take Me Alive.

Sign In Stranger is an intoxicating, slow, grinding number full of odd lyrics and superb instrumentation. The piano solo is top class, as indeed is the whole track. There have some some critics who have said this album contains no classic Steely Dan tracks on it. I would dispute that - it is pretty much all really high quality, containing innovative, inventive songs as we have come to expect. The Fez has an addictive, funky guitar line driving it along and some mysterious Eastern-sounding organ breaks. It almost sounds like Euro-disco in places. Green Earrings is another piece of perfectly funky, jazzy soul that drifts along effortessly. The drums are excellent, as is the guitar. The material on here is some of the group's funkiest stuff thus far. I read somewhere someone describe their music as "funky, edgy playfulness". I couldn't have put it better myself. It is difficult to find phrases to describe Steely Dan's output, this is an excellent one.

The quality continues on the reggae-funk of the magnificent Haitian Divorce. Check out that wah-wah guitar. This was a hit single and rightly so. I remember a friend playing it to me back in 1976 and being blow away. Everything You Did is a grandiose bit of muscular jazz rock containing a lyrical tease for The Eagles that they returned on Hotel California - all very amicable. 
The Royal Scam is an impressive six minute plus slow burner of a track to conclude this sometimes overlooked album. Personally, I don't think there is a bad track on it.

Aja (1977)
After the wry, sometimes cynical and smart-ass observational lyrics over sumptuous, immaculately-crafted rock rhythms of their first four albums, this one had "The Dan" going down the full jazz-rock route. It was an even more faultlessly-played example of sonic perfection, just seven songs of studio majesty. The sound quality is superb and historically has often been used in hi-fi shops to demonstrate speakers. It is that good.
The album kicks off with the melodic, laid-back saxophone-driven jazzy feel of Black Cow. Great stuff. Up next is the beguiling, intoxicating syncopations of Aja, featuring that classic Steely Dan voice, some wonderful bass and keyboards and just a delicious, slow rhythmic hook. Just check out that bass, drums and cymbals interplay near the end. This album was released in 1977, at the height of punk. It was the very anathema to punk's crashing fury. Somehow though, it escaped opprobrium, and was respected by everyone, even the punks. It had always been that way for Steely Dan. The lyrics on here are still obtuse and mystifying, but it merges with the music so easily and the whole thing is delivered so effortlessly. It is lush, textured, subtle in places, virtuoso solos cropping up too. In many ways it is a very complex album, musically, but the group make it sound so damn easy. It just washes over you like a warm bath.

Deacon Blues gave its name to the eighties and beyond Scottish band. It is another laid-back groove, with an eminently identifiable Dan vocal from Donald Fagen and a delicious hooky refrain. The lyrics are typically unfathomable. Superb saxophone near the end too. 
Peg is catchy and melodious, while Home At Last has a muscular funkiness to its rhythm. An even funkier bass line drives I Got The News along, effortlessly. It is probably the most jazzy on the album, in that improvised piano "modern jazz" style. Josie is a classic slice of Dan funk-rock, full of wonderful instrumentation and cute hooks. This really is a perfect album in so many ways. Highly recommended.

Gaucho (1980)

This, the last Steely Dan album for many a year, has always suffered as a supposed poor relation to its illustrious predecessor, Aja. While there is no doubt as to Aja's luminescence, I have always had a lot of time for Gaucho. There is some excellent material on it, for sure. The problem with Steely Dan albums is that they are all so good, that some get criticism they don't deserve, just for being maybe slightly inferior to another brilliant album.
Babylon Sisters is a superbly evocative opener, with its lightly funky guitar underpinning it and an infectious backing vocal chorus part. It is a great piece of jazz rock perfection. Lovely saxophone and the usual perplexing lyrics enhance it even more. Hey Nineteen is an instantly recognisable classic Steely Dan piece of music. It is a quirkily appealing number, with a commercial, breezily soulful ambience and a great harmonica solo too, plus its lyric references to Aretha Franklin. Glamour Profession has an easy, almost disco riff to it, together with that very late seventies/early eighties light orchestration to it. The lyrics appear to be about professional basketball and it is probably the only song ever to mention "Szechuan dumplings" in an aside lyric. There is also a sumptuous jazz guitar solo near the end. Quality stuff. Gaucho has a delicious bass line and a lovely jazzy feel to it. Apparently the drum sound took 46 different takes to get it as they wanted it. 

Time Out Of Mind is a smooth, chugging number with drug references in its lyrics - "tonight when I chase the dragon....". Mark Knopfler guests on guitar, although you can't really hear him. His contribution was reduced to 40 seconds, I have read. Once more there is a jazzy vibe to it. All very slick and polished. The same applies to the very pleasurable, gentle strains of My RivalThird World Man is a laid-back, appetising piece of smooth, late-night jazz rock. It is the sort of thing you hear played as a demonstration track in hi-fi shops. Despite that, the percussion is still a bit "sharp" for me. The song has a captivating atmosphere though. Although Aja is more familiar to most people, this was a really good album and deserves to be listened to and enjoyed just as much. I really like it. Unfortunately, Walter Becker's increasing drug use drove a wedge between him and Donald Fagen for quite a while after this album's release. It would be twenty years before Steely Dan re-appeared.

Check out Donald Fagen's The Nightfly :-

Donald Fagen - The Nightfly (1982)
Donald Fagen
’s 1982 album, The Nightfly, let’s be honest, sounds just like Steely Dan. Tuneful, deliciously melodic, immaculately played jazzy influenced laid back rock. It was one of those albums which became sort of "trendy" to own and declare as being wonderful, like Astral WeeksSade's Diamond LifeTelevision's Marquee Moon or indeed any of the Steely Dan albums.
I.G.Y. is a wonderful, rhythmic piece of laid-back jazz rock, featuring some lovely guitar, percussion and brass parts and, of course Fagen’s instantly recognisable Steely Dan vocals. Some excellent, harmonious backing vocals too. Just a pleasure to listen to. There is an effortless funk groove to Green Flower Street. This was one of the first totally digitally recorded albums, and you an tell, the sound is truly superb. Fagen’s legendary perfectionism bore a sweet fruit here. The jazzy feel suits the excellent sound. This is just such a great late night album too, sitting there with just a dim light on and letting this wash all over you, settling you down for the night. It is probably jazzier than the Dan albums, apart from Aja. This ambience was continued on the gently grooving Ruby Baby. Just check out the piano-drums-saxophone instrumental passage in the song’s middle - just beautiful.

 is an impossibly laid-back bass, piano and vocal easy listening delight. New Frontier just has a wonderful, late night feeling, with hints of Marvin Gaye's Got To Give It Up in its rhythm. 

A similar ambience is found on the soft soul of The Nightfly, which, instrumentally is almost jazz-funk-ish with some more Steely Dan-style acerbic, often cryptic lyrics. The playing on this album is incredibly good. If you look at the details of who played what, there is a whole raft of musicians, no wonder it is so good. The Goodbye Look has a sort of bossa-nova meets Paul Simon’s Late In The Evening groove before Fagen’s voice kicks in with some very Simon-esque lyrics, thinking about it. Quite a lot of similarities - the wry comments, the acute observations. Walk Between Raindrops keeps up the jaunty jazz thing and ends the album on a high. You can’t really go wrong with this. A pleasure from beginning to end.

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