Steely Dan: Countdown To Ecstasy

By Mick Gold
Let It Rock

Steely Dan is a vehicle for the songwriting talents of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, who entered the music world via a two-year gig with Jay and the Americans. They say they don’t regret that period, but since they’ve lifted their name from The Naked Lunch they’ve clearly been through a few changes. Not that this album displays any of Lunch’s aggressive weirdness.

Fagen and Becker have a gift for weaving songs out of American place names, fragments of conversations and fag ends of dreams. They describe their songwriting as junk sculpture and I won’t argue. Trouble is that the rhythm section is so well-oiled, and the lyrics are so fragmentary, that side one just glides over me. The songs don’t have the hooks for barbed ends necessary to grab the casual ear.

Side two is much more interesting. It kicks off with the Dan’s last single, “Show Biz Kids,” featuring the most insidious chorus I’ve heard since “Drift Away”:

While the poor people sleepin’
With the shade on the light
While the poor people sleepin’
All the stars come out at night

They paint a picture of kids who’ve stepped out of school into stardom which is both cruel and sympathetic, all done to a highly infectious rhythm. Should have been a hit. And the other songs are almost as good. “My Old School” turns memories of adolescent hassles into a bittersweet requiem for dead relationships, with unexpected bits of poetry (“She said oh no/Guadalajara won’t do”) surfacing and sinking again. “Pearl Of The Quarter” is a rather schlock tribute to a hooker with a heart of gold who prowls around New Orleans singing voulez-vous. I have a suspicion that the tune is cribbed from The Band’s “In A Station” and pass on to the final number, “King of The World,” which is a real novelty item: a stirring ballad for survivors of an atomic holocaust: “No marigolds in the promised land/There’s a hole in the ground where they used to grow.” The song doesn’t quite lift off but the lyrics are amusing in an eerie way.

I don’t feel like recommending an album with eight songs on it, four of which managed to pass through my head without producing any noticeable effect. But “Show Biz Kids” really is a great song and there’s a lot of low-key intelligence at work on this record. Look for the single, or pick up the album cheap.

(Editor’s Note: Let It Rock was a monthly British music magazine which featured lengthy critical articles, record reviews, and features covering a wide spectrum of popular music, including soul, reggae, and blues. Between October 1972 and December 1975, 35 issues of the magazine were published in London.)

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