Steely Dan: Rock & Roll via Third Stream

By Chris Van Ness
LA Free Press

It all started with one of the most casual hypes I have ever gotten. It came in the form of an advance tape of an album by a new group called Steely Dan. “Listen to it. I don’t know anything about the group, but I’m told they’re pretty good,” was what the press agent said. He was either pretty shrewd in trying to make me think that he hadn’t done his homework or he had my tastes down and knew I would react favorably.

But the favorable reaction was not immediate. If the hype had been a record, I would have taken my own good time to listen to it; but since it was a tape, I realized that someone must think this group was something special or they wouldn’t have gone to the trouble. I listened to the tape.

My reaction was one of reserve. I could tell that the group was better than average, and there were two songs (“Midnight Cruiser” and “Reelin’ In The Years”) that I liked instantly; but I was not ready to make any major commitment. That came later, after I heard them play live.

I will admit that my interest was high, because I readily agreed to drive all the way out to Glendale to hear the band play their first live gig ever. The place was called Under the Ice House, and the band was on when I arrived. That’s when I started to get a little crazy behind this group.

Six people: keyboards, drums, bass, vocalist, second lead guitar and lead guitar who also doubled on steel and congas – and more pure rock and roll energy than the J. Geils Band and the Faces put together.

An interview follows:

How was the band put together, and is it correct to assume that the band was put together around you?
WB: In a way it was put together around us. It was put together by Gary Katz, who’s our producer. When he came to work for Dunhill, we’d been working with him as musicians and writers. And a couple of other people he’d been working with were Jeff Baxter, our guitarist, and Jim Hodder, our drummer. He sort of put it together around the four of us, and then we added Denny Dias, the second guitar player whom we worked with before; and Dave Palmer, the singer, was the last member to join the group. He joined the gropu, actually, when we were half through with the album.

Oh, so that explains why everybody else sings on the album and Dave does all the vocals in live performance.
DF: Yeah, he would have done more, ’cause he sings better; but we got him late. But he’ll be doing most of the singing.

I guess the obvious question is: why is the band happening right now? You guys were writing together for a number of years before Steely Dan happened, right?
WB: Right. We met in college four years ago, and we’ve been writing for a while.
DF: We had a lot of strange material that no one could do. Until just now when we found these people who were able to play it and make it sound like music. For some reason, we had a lot of trouble finding musicians all those years.

Why do you classify it as strange material?
DF: It used to be stranger. I think it was a compromise both ways; we compromised on the material to a certain extent in making it easier to respond to, and I guess that’s why we now have musicians.

How was the material different?
DF: It was more complex — more sophisticated, to a certain extent — harmonically. And lyrically, too.

What songs that you do now come closest to your older strange material?
WB: Maybe “Fire In The Hole,” that’s an old one. Or “Turn That Heartbeat Over Again.” We used to have a lot of songs like that; but after you’ve written a song and had it sitting around for a couple of years, you’re more eager to do fresh material — do the things you’re learning now.
DF: We’ve simplified; and I have a feeling that whenever we look back on some of the songs we used to write, I think that aisde from being more complex and sophisticated, they’re also a little more pretentious. So I think the simplification, in fact, made it better.

I remember the first night I heard the group live, there were some things happening musically that told me that somebody was into some heavy jazz. Is that what you mean by “more complex and pretentious?”
WB: It wasn’t really jazz, but you’re quite right that Donald and I are really jazz fans.
DF: There’s a lot of jazz harmony.
WB: But the older music was more jazz-influenced than, let’s say, what we do now is. I know the particular tune you’re referring to. That was one we wrote about three years ago, and even that one used to be a lot weirder than it is now. We straightened that one out.
DF: I guess what we used to write is what you might call classical and jazzical Third Stream. It’s the same kind of thing, only it was rock-and–jazz; and we didn’t feel it really worked. It was a very unstable combination.

Are you happy with where the music is right now?
DF: Yeah, I think it’s good, and it’ll get better. I think we’ll start working toward more ambitions musical things.

Right. You answered the hidden question there.
WB: Yeah. The thing is: When you start to work with a group of musicians…
DF: We didn’t want to scare them.
WB: … things evolve. To really play that kind of more complex music, there has to be a greater rapport; and that just takes time.

Do you feel that you music now — well, let’s take the album — is commercial?
WB: I think a lot of it is. I think “Do It Again” is commercial — without being compromised in any way.
DF: We’re going to do an edit to make it shorter for the single.
WB: And that’ll be the only compromise, really. But I’m glad that “Do It Again” was picked; that was my favorite cut on the album. And I think it’s a very good blend of commercial potential without being silly.

Is that what you’re going for right now? Do you feel that you need a good commercial hit to get you off the ground?
DF: It can’t hurt.
WB: It would help, but I don’t really think we need it.
DF: That’s the whole thing. What we used to do was try to widen the public’s appreciation of some more interesting rock ‘n’ roll than they’d been hearing. And for years we couldn’t get a bite until we did something like “Do It Again” which I think is very good, but we’d like to start working from there.

Do you feel the album represents where the group is right now?
DF: It’s the state of the art.

Do you feel the group is better represented in live performance?
DF: It will be very shrotly, if it isn’t now. I can see the way it’s going, and it’s growing very satisfactorily into what we’d like it to be.
WB: There’s a certain excitement that’s in the live performance visually — especially because Dave is the singer on stage, whereas he only sang two cuts on the album. I think that gives it a different appeal. We’re just starting to experiment, but I like it.

Do you feel, as the group’s only writers, that Steely Dan is your band; and if so — or if not — can you keep those six people together?
WB: Well, when we started out, because all of the material was ours and Donald was doing most of the singing, it was our band; but as we play together more, I think it becomes a group effort more fully. And because of that, I think it’s a sure thing that these six people will stay together.
DF: Especially as far as arranging goes. As far as material goes, yeah, I suppose it is our band, and we’ll always write the material. But as far as arranging goes, everyone makes a contribution.
WB: And so far it works pretty good. The six people involved are not near as egotistical as they might be,and they really want to work.
DF: They’re professional.

I don’t know if any of what I have said has gotten back to you, but I think the group is one of the most exciting new bands I’ve heard in a long time.
DF: I’m glad you like it; that’s the point, you know.
WB: We’ve sort of felt all along — although perhaps we’re deluding ourselves — we figured that what we do would probably appeal to critics even if it didn’t get any airplay or any immediate public response. I don’t know whether it has…

It has, but I think that’s almost a backwards way to look at it, though.
WB: It is, but somehow it made sense to me. I knew that If I were a critic…
DF: Not that we cater to critics.
WB: Not at all. It just seems to me that a person with a fairly extensive musical background would be able to immediately appreciate what we did.

It’s that rare combination of a group that’s obviously versatile, obviously has more musical ability than most — I happen to think you guys are great writers — and yet, on another level entirely, it’s an exciting rock ‘n’ roll band.
DF: Thank you. That’s what we’re trying to do, and I think we’re heading in the right direction. I think we’ve got a good start.

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