Counting Down to Headline Status: Steely Dan

By Steven Rosen
LA Free Press

On Sept. 2, Steely Dan perform their first concert as headliners, that status which lifts the working-class band from the ranks of the bourgeois and places it in the stead of the nobility groups. After only two albums, the quintet has risen from a third-on-the-bill opening band to a commercially structured rock and roll outfit responsible for several Top Ten records during the past year.

Founded in the writing talents of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, the Dan have proved that rock music is capable of diving much deeper than the basic 12-bar format. Their second album has just been released and while it is a much stronger statement than their debut record, it still seems to lack any real direction. But according to Jeff Baxter, the “song” itself is the pipeline.

“It’s hard to understand what people mean by direction. There’s a lot of bands that play the same kind of music if that’s what you mean. But since there’s so many different ways and everybody in the band plays so many different styles of music, you might as well take a song and do a tango here, a rock tune there, a country song here, and a ballad there. The focal point is Donald and Walter’s material. What they write about and their lyrics are pretty much the focal point of the whole band. And then we just arrange around it. It’s a guitar band.”

The process of writing a song is a simple one: a fragment of the song is presented (either a lyric or chorus); this segment is expanded on by the various members of the group, and if a strong idea doesn’t materialize in 10 minutes, the entire concept is thrown away. It is this spontaneity of sorts which is probably the most important asset the group has, an element which restricts them from working on anything forced or unnatural.

Last spring part-time vocalist David Palmer was ousted because he didn’t present a happy working musical marriage with what the band was trying to do. Like their songs, Steely felt Palmer was an unnatural element and consequently was rid of him. David joined the band when they were two-thirds finished with Can’t Buy A Thrill (their first elpee) and while many people may have thought otherwise, it was Donald Fagen’s voice adorning the early hits (including “Reelin’ In The Years” etc.). Their newest album titled Countdown to Ecstasy is a much more energetic piece than Thrill and showcases the band in their unique use of Standard music styles and figures embellished with the Dan touch.

The album includes a back-up chorus of vocalists (with Palmer, who was still in the band at the time, singing one song) added to enhance the usually rousing lyric line in each Dan song. For the most part, an ordinary Fagen/Becker composition would include a song lyric line, a vigorous chorus, clever transitional bridge, and a gang war instrumental break. All standard pap for a rock song but it is the creativity of Steely which allows them to take these basics and transform them into a spiritish-sounding tune such as “Bodhisattva” on the new album.

The band also has just added a couple of female back-up vocalists to “bring the vocal strength of the band up to the instrumental power of the band. Gloria Grenole and Jenny Sole (names are approximate) aside from contributing substance to the vocal side have added another dimension to the visual punch of the band. Their presence on stage relieves some of the pressure of the band in having to go through the expected moves of the outfit. The Steelies’ vocals tend to fly somewhere in the highest range for male voices so their natural reach in those areas has helped the band to concentrate more on their instrumental duties. But the group’s creativity and experimentation doesn’t stop in the concert hall. Every member of the band has logged countless hours in the studio (from Baxter’s work with Ultimate Spanish to Becker’s and Fagen’s work with Jay and the Americans) and where the first album was a piecemeal affair, Countdown shows a technical feel for the studio consummated only after years of recording experimentation. They are in the process now of synthesizing their own style of studio work and certainly the rewards will be present on their next album.

The Dan’s two albums show a progressive sophistication in their approach to material and their ability to play together as a unit. The reward of their dedication will be mirrored on the first Sunday of September where they will appear as the headlining band at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. Surely this is the ultimate goal of any band, to ply your music at a concert where the people have (for the most part) come to see and hear you.

“No, it really doesn’t mean anything to me,” candidly admitted Walter Becker. “It just means we go on a little later. Personally I enjoy opening shows because the audience is really fresh and you have a bunch of people out there who are in the tradition of being very pleasantly surprised.” Does the elevation of status put any added pressure on you? “No, it’s added a couple minutes to our show. See we haven’t done any yet but I imagine we’ll find out the… uh… second. Better dressing rooms and lots more beer.”

This new level of performing has sort of off-handedly opened the doors for more television work. Friday evening on Aug. 31, the band will be appearing on The Midnight Special taping as well as a previous appearance on The In Concert program. Plans are also underway for the group to start work on some TV commercials but as yet no plans have been confirmed yet.

With more prominent coverage, a larger audience, and better paying engagements, Steely Dan could find itself falling into the same trap that so many other outfits have’ walked into: The Success Syndrome. A group will work its proverbial balls off trying to break into the shifting record market. Once they have landed a contract they continue to work and turn out creative product for maybe a couple of albums, and once they find themselves with records in the Top Ten and with more bullets than the Lone Ranger their musical drive stops. Stagnation sets in and a once top-rank ensemble contents itself with releasing slims that even Tolkien’s Gollum wouldn’t listen to. But in the case of Steely Dan the situation is reversed. Their first album was a hotsy and if anything they had to steer away from music which may have borderlined on the teeny.

“We may have been typecast from our first album but I don’t think I know or anybody else knew what kind of group that was. The diversity of material on the first album is rather great and it was intentionally put together that way. You know it’s funny how you put something together like an album and people see some coherent strain running through it that was never intended or conceived or that we don’t see that way. I mean I’ve noticed quite a few people really don’t know what kind of music to call it; I don’t know but certainly it’s not too well-defined in my mind.”

Oddly enough the second album does project the band’s music more vividly in terms of material and production (they haven’t fallen into the Syndrome Trap … yet) but Countdown doesn’t do anything to define where the band is headed.

“I’m not particularly anxious to narrow it down,” conceded Becker. “I think the diversity makes it much more interesting for us and hopefully for the people who buy the albums. There’s a lot of things you can grab on to but that doesn’t mean the band has to be so predictable and fimiliar that you can instantly associate one cute with the next. I don’t think that diversity harms that at all.

“I’d rather have people looking forward to a song they don’t know anything about,” voiced guitarist Baxter, “than looking forward to a song they know is gonna sound the same as the last song. I think that’s a big mistake.”

“Planned diversity” is the term Walter used to describe the band’s music. While material has been written for the next album, there is still no clear-cut definition of what their music is like. In the works is a Guitar Club (Institute For the Advancement of the Electric Guitar) which presently includes Jeff Baxter and Danny Diaz of Dan, Elliott Randall, Rick Derringer, and will shortly include a couple other “name guitarists.”

“It’s not a guitar band the way Rolling Stones is; the music is written on piano and it’s more sophisticated chord changes than guitar players usually come up with.

“Most of the music is made by electric guitars,” explained Baxter. “The padding, the solos; but it’s not like ‘Stick Shift’ by The Duals.

The Guitar Club has already set in the works an album which will be composed of seven or eight players in the Organization, with the rhythm section to be supplied by the Dan. Whatever is in store for Steely Dan, rest assured it will be handled with a finesse of a tightly and creatively structure “What seems to be happening is that every album we’ve done hasn’t been different as one from the other. So we try to put together a live show that matches the album. So we’ll probably be changing our live show, adding personnel, except for the five basic members of the band.”

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