Editor’s Note: From 1987 through 1994, diehard Steely Dan fans turned to a small fanzine called Metal Leg for information about Donald Fagen and Walter Becker. Published first by England’s Brian Sweet (who went on to write the unofficial band biography Steely Dan: Reelin’ In The Years) and later by New Yorkers Pete Fogel and Bill Pascador, Metal Leg set high standards by providing solid information without resorting to paparazzi-style tactics.
Metal Leg 8 Articles:
Hi, and welcome to another Metal Leg. What wondrous happenings have been taking place in the world according to Steely Dan? Well… Donald Fagen could be found disguised as a would-be German film composer called Friedrich (Fritz) Kriesel in the December issue of Premiere, accompanying an amusing and very tongue-in-cheek story of the young Kriesel’s rise to Hollywood stardom as a film music composer. Dressed in a somber black suit, spectacles and with his hair parted down the center, Fagen looked for all the world exactly like the eccentric Twenties’ genius he was supposed to be.
Besides this unaccustomed photographic appearance, Fagen also granted an extremely frank interview in Newsday on Nov. 29th, agreeing to a public lunch at the Brighton Grill in New York, where he apparently finally laid Steely Dan to rest. He said: “When we get back together (which we did two years ago), we feel very funny. It was fun to work for a while but… there’s something sad about it. We did come up with two songs, but I think that both of us felt at the end that, well, that was another time.”
“I have a problem writing songs,” he admitted. “Some people may have noticed.” He grinned crookedly. “I have to be in control. The collaborator has to know that I’ll have the final say. I have a very queer idea about what’s acceptable.” Fagen also told Stephen Williams that when he and Becker reunited it was “not with the idea of doing a Steely Dan record, we just wanted to see what would happen. We wrote two pretty good songs and then just totally stopped. I might include one or both those songs on my album, and Walter will somehow be involved in the production, but not in the performance.”
Recently published by Simon and Schuster in the States is a novel entitled Rock Me by journalist Marcelle Clements. She spent a year on the road as a backing singer for Steely Dan and in some reviews attention has been drawn to the fact that Miss Clements in fact now lives with Donald Fagen. The subject matter is the career of a rock star, so parallels are perhaps inevitable (the female protagonist leaves New York to recuperate in Hawaii — which seems somehow familiar). Apparently the novel’s cool, detached style is also very reminiscent of Steely Dan’s approach to music. Can’t wait to read it!
On the recent American Wave series of films on BBC2, one of the themes used was New Frontier. One perplexed but enthusiastic viewer even wrote to the Radio Times asking what the music was and asking if it is available on record. Where has she been, on a desert island for the past six years?
The Early Years has been garnering some airplay on Radio One recently. And for a pleasant change, Nicky Campbell has been giving some of the Dan’s lesser played tunes a regular nighttime airing, playing Peg, Charlie Freak, Hey Nineteen and Bodhisattva, among others.
There is a shop in New York called Aja which displays the exact album logo on its shopfront. This raises the question: which came first, the shop or the record? When questioned about this, the female owner became very guarded, fearing a possible record company action against her. Once her mind had been put at rest, she admitted that she loved the design and just borrowed the idea.
Perri, discovered by Pat Metheny and support to Anita Baker on her recent U.K. tour, have covered The Caves of Altamira on their (I’m told) excellent album The Flight.
Here’s another addition to the Becker/Fagen discography. Donald Fagen has a song featured on a CD by the Yellowjackets (Russell Ferrante, Jimmy Haslip, Marc Russo and Ricky Lawson). The disk is called Shades and is on the MCA label (the song is one of two extra tracks and is not featured on the vinyl version.) It was released in February 1987 and Fagen wrote the title tune. It’s a five-minute-plus instrumental showcasing Russo’s alto saxophone and with typical layered keyboards. By a strange coincidence, Lorraine Perry from the aforementioned Perri sings on a track called Revelation, which she co-wrote with Russell Ferrante. Bruce Hornsby also puts in an appearance on accordion on one track.
Jeff Baxter is featured in the February edition of Guitarist and there are numerous references to Steely Dan. Apparently his solo on My Old School is not only a critics’ and fans’ favorite, but Baxter’s own, too, and was recorded using a Stratocaster that he had made himself, finishing it only a few hours before recording the track. He cites this as being the reason for it being such a dynamic performance.
He also credits the Doobie Brothers as being one of the few bands who actually let Steely Dan open gigs for them without subjecting them to any bullshit — even allowing the Dan to borrow their instruments. Baxter used to play the whole Steely Dan set and then stay for most of the Doobies’ one. He seems genuinely grateful to have been involved with Becker and Fagen, particularly with regard to trying to translate Fagen’s melodic ideas onto the guitar and sweating his balls off doing the best solo he possible could. He says Elliott Randall and himself have a kind of horn player sensibility when it comes to the electric guitar. Asked to explain the role of a record producer, Baxter said, “Jay Graydon and I used to joke that we’re not record producers, we’re record reducers. You’re sending all this data down a funnel and trying to squeeze it out at the other end in stereo. It’s basically trying to find the essence.
What’s the link between Steely Dan and the Eagles? Well, in an issue of Rolling Stone last September, Glenn Frey, discussing the song Hotel California, admitted Steely Dan’s influence on the Eagles at the time. He said, “We liked the way Steely Dan would say anything (in a song). Steely Dan referred to the Eagles in Everything You Did so we decided to send them a message back. That’s why we used the words, ‘They can stab it with their steely knives, but they just can’t kill the beast.’ ”
The recently issued CD Becker and Fagen — The Collection on Castle Communications contains two different versions of songs already released in various other forms. On Sun Mountain Donald Fagen actually takes the lead vocals on a piano-and-voice demo while Charlie Free (sic) features an alternative piano intro and arrangement.
Steely Dan Live
It is now well over 14 years since Steely Dan last played live, and I wasn’t one of those fortunate enough to have seen them in action. Reviews of their concert performances differ wildly (even sometimes from the same gig, as you’ll see) so I thought it would be worthwhile looking at a cross-section of live reviews from England and America.
Steely Dan’s basic set remained pretty constant in both choice of songs and the sequence in which they were played — they almost invariably opened with “Bodhisattva,” then progressed through a nucleus of material which comprised songs from the first few albums. To wind up they would usually encore with the cover of the Angels’ “My Boyfriend’s Back,” or Becker/Fagen’s own unreleased gag-rocker, “Mobile Heart.”
Conversely their sound check repertoire could be anything; one day at the Sopwith Camel in Glendale they began with “The Boston Rag,” then ran through Marvin Gaye’s “Ain’t That Peculiar” — interpreting it as a fast boogie — a brief shot of Tequila and ended with Royce Jones singing an a cappella version of the Chi-Lites’ “Have You Seen Her”?
But although Steely Dan graduated quite quickly from opening concerts to headlining them, they didn’t escape the problems to which support groups are frequently subjected.
Commenting on the East Coast leg of their 1974 U.S. tour, one journalist wrote, “Steely Dan is a band of perfectionists in an imperfect world. The Dans ran into the same kind of trouble that always seems to plague them when they come to the Big Apple area. The first time out, at the Westbury Music Fair, their sound equipment didn’t exist. The next time they refused to play at the Nassau Coliseum unless they were promised a sound check — and they didn’t get it either, because of last-minute confusions. The ultimate exasperation came one evening at the ‘lavishly flower-bedecked’ Avery Fisher Hall in New York, when they were scheduled to open for the Electric Light Orchestra. They were allowed only four minutes for a sound check and, when the Avery Fisher crew whisked them off stage, initially the irate members refused to perform. However, when they saw the crowd eagerly awaiting their arrival, the Steelys used pretzel logic and came on and performed an amazing 45-minute set. After one encore the audience was reluctant to let them make way for the Electric Light Orchestra.
Peter Erskine was at the Winterland in San Francisco on Saturday, May 5th, 1973, when Steely Dan opened for Slade and Humble Pie. It was altogether a more satisfactory occasion. “As the band filed on, their acceptance as one of the best new ‘local’ bands was consolidated. The sound varied from a muddy swirl to a piercing treble — like ripping sheet metal — but eventually the first number “Please Stop and Take Me By The Hand, (Bodhisattva)” resolved itself.
“Along with Little Feat,” he wrote, “Steely Dan must be one of the most original and creative bands in the States. Their writing and playing was melodic and sophisticated, yet their impact was strong and totally immediate. The nucleus of the band is the writing team of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, whose astounding solo and majestic vocals on “Do It Again” — an extended stage version — were the high point of the set.
Jeff “Skunk” Baxter played extraordinarily beautiful pedal steel on the lithe, emotive “Brooklyn” and scorching lead work on “Fire In The Hole.” The six-part harmonies were as accurate and soaring as on the album, but instrumentally the band far excelled the already high standard of playing; extending and developing the songs far beyond their studio interpretations. The band has a richness of sound and a degree of fire and attack that puts Zeppelin, and undoubtedly Slade, to shame.”
Richard Cromelin reported on their Whisky A Go Go shows (second-billed were a group called Woodpecker!), and his only complaint at that stage was their apparent willful neglect of the visual side of their show. “Live rock ‘n’ roll is supposed to be a show, and how long can you look at a pair of denim overalls without becoming utterly bored or downright repulsed?” he groaned. Despite this, he declared that they had the opportunity to become an outstanding mainstream rock group.
“Becker and Fagen’s tunes are simple and catchy and the arrangements, led by two keyboards and two guitars and stabilized by a solid rhythm section, are richly textured and constantly varied.
“The band’s style incorporates several elements, the most prominent being a British-sounding heaviness and concern with nice melodic phrases and strong chord progressions. Also in evidence are traces of L.A. country rock and a good deal of basic commercial rock ‘n’ roll.
“Steely Dan’s stage manner is moderately energetic if not terribly original, and while the lead singer’s moves are largely unimaginative, at least they’re there.”
The band’s first local gig as a headline act was at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium on Sunday Sept. 2nd, 1973, when they were supported by B.W. Stevenson. Once again, the reviewer was Richard Cromelin: “Steely Dan are America’s answer to the Guess Who. When they first emerged, they sounded like an expendable commodity, but now appear about to assert themselves as one of the country’s most versatile, listenable and downright brilliant ensembles.” However, he went on to say that they were highly derivative in rock’s finest tradition, and that their influences were easily spotted — from the Archies (!) to Yes.
“Steely Dan’s strongest forte is their ability to hang a broad spectrum of authentically touching emotions on a strictly commercial framework. In performance they sacrifice some of the cleanness of its recorded sound for an invigorating muddiness that flirts with, but never succumbs to, distortion. The addition of two women singer/dancers has livened things up considerably, and while their go-go gyrations are at first distracting, it soon becomes clear that it’s all part of a carefully constructed master plan. And any group that encores with “My Boyfriend’s Back” obviously has a lot going for it.”
Steely Dan’s English tour was much publicized and eagerly awaited, by critics and fans alike. They arrived in May 1974, and kicked off their tour in Manchester’s Palace Theatre (commonly held to be Steely Dan’s best ever gig by its participants), where the music press were falling over each other in their haste to publish the first accounts of them performing live.
Reviewing the Manchester gig, Disc magazine’s Peter Harvey pointed out that the pre-tour rumor had been that Steely Dan couldn’t cut it on stage as they had on record. “It proved to be totally unfounded,” he said, “they played so extraordinarily well that you genuinely wanted to listen to them for hours.”
Jeff Baxter started by saying, “We’ve never been here before, but we’re going to play the best concert we’ve ever played in our lives.”
Chris Welch, for the Melody Maker, wrote that they made most English bands sound five years out of date. “In concert they add another dimension of vibrancy and improvisation that is not entirely conveyed by the albums.” He describes Jeff Baxter as “A man with tremendous enthusiasm and drive who injects them with a personality they might otherwise miss.
“The English fans were rewarded with all the great songs in treatments that did not disappoint in comparison to the recordings but enhanced on them. You might have thought about the appearances of the musicians (bearded, bespectacled, casual) that we were in for an L.A. boogie band.
“Donald Fagen, who took up the center of the stage with his grand piano, leapt around conducting, signalling, singing and generally holding the ensemble together. Behind him were two drummers, Jim Hodder their regular man, and Jeff Porcaro, only 20, who has played with Sonny and Cher. Walter Becker was largely hidden behind the cymbals, while Baxter and Denny Dias — an impressive figure in Russian revolutionary beard and mountainous shoulders — made up a complete guitar section between them.
“Adding to the orchestral sound was singer/keyboardist Michael McDonald on Fender Rhodes and high harmonies and Royce Jones on soul vocals and percussion.
“Opening with a roaring boogie, “Bodhisattva,” they then swung into “The Boston Rag,” all received with tumultuous applause. “Thank you kindly, I can’t tell you how…” Donald Fagen seemed almost lost for words at this most important of concerts. More cheers of recognition greeted “Do It Again” with a powerful solo from Dias, ending with a surprisingly good conga drum outing from Baxter(?).
“Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” was pure pop, the three-minute song given its highest status since the days of the Beatles. “You’re making me feel most welcome,” Fagen said. More Amazing Baxter solos followed.
“The first encore came with “Show Biz Kids” and the second one was “a new one you’ve never heard before, but you’re gonna dig it.” (Mobile Heart)
“Steely Dan will open a few ears to the way rock can be moved forward without losing its roots and essential qualities. And who knows, maybe in time we’ll get to love them as well.”
At the Rainbow a week later, the Dan were apparently beset with problems once again. Ian McDonald, from the NME, gave them the thumbs down. “When they took the stage after the Kiki Dee Band’s set, they spent five minutes doing a last-minute sound check, which was not only thoroughly unprofessional but dropped all the drama of the occasion into a bucket of detergent. Still the mix was rough. Far too much drums, no bass at all and no separation between Baxter and Dias’s guitars, not to mention obvious on-stage problems with the monitors.”
Thus much of Dias’s opening solo was lost completely, which was a shame because Baxter was about to have an off night, and Dias only played two solos per set.
Going through the band line-up, MacDonald noticed Becker hidden away in his usual place behind the drums and suggested he’d be far happier playing his bass from the dressing room down a hundred-foot lead!
“Jeff Porcaro played so loud that his drum sound drowned out Jim Hodder almost entirely. “Do It Again,” when it came, was a dynamite version, with a masterful (audible!) Dias break and a truly inspired Moog solo from Fagen. Brilliant.
“The two encores were a nondescript “Show Biz Kids” and a splendid “Mobile Heart,” the latter unrecorded song allowing the musicians to leave the stage one by one until only Hodder and Porcaro remained for a five-minute drum blitz.”
He wound up by saying that although he didn’t particularly enjoy it himself, “the kids were very happy with the night and presumably got what they came for.”
On July 3rd, 1974, Steely Dan played what was to become their penultimate-ever concert at the Santa Monica Civic. Richard Cromelin was again the reviewer. He titled his article “Steely Dan Shows Its Mettle,” and began by saying that: “Any doubts about Steely Dan being the most inventive band in America were resolved on Wednesday night in front of a capacity 2,800 audience. The band packed enough punch to wake any nearby dead; the musicianship was incomparable, the interaction among the players almost telepathic and there were countless moments of uncanny exchange. Steely Dan’s persona was embodied by lead vocalist Donald Fagen — as a mad, emaciated musical scientist. Beyond that, Steely Dan was funny (both lyrically and musically), spoofing pop conventions as it created exquisite pop songs. It’s that humor that finally lifted Steely Dan above all but a very few working bands, and which made the concert one of the year’s best.”
Another reviewer at the same gig, Andy McConnell, enjoyed the Kiki Dee Band, but criticized the sound quality and its loudness. “When Steely Dan came on,” he wrote, “to a barrage of firecrackers and cheers of delight, the sound had actually been turned up. Within minutes the kids were in ecstasy. The third number, “Do It Again,” set the hall afire — Steely Dan were really blowing and I began to forget about the volume. After six numbers, though, they reached their peak and started to repeat themselves and the decibel level became intolerable again.” McConnell left. His final verdict: “Steely Dan need more variety and less volume to keep on top.”
Well, as we now know there hasn’t been one solitary opportunity since those distant days to see Steely Dan playing live. Becker and Fagen’s hatred of touring is legendary, and whatever the real reason for that, they now totally disown their early concerts, claiming they were ill-prepared and ill-equipped for road life. It’s just a great pity that such fine songwriters and musicians didn’t — and now never will — share their audience’s desire for them to parade their talents publicly.
Readers’ Top Ten
Here are the results of the poll for the Top Ten Steely Dan tracks as voted for by Metal Leg readers, accompanied dby some of the comments received with the votes.
The results suggest that Aja is the most popular album, and nearly all their songs were voted for (including, ironically, “The Second Arrangement”), which emphasizes the strength of each record (and the diversity of taste!).
- “Kid Charlemagne”: The overall favorite song. “The solo at the end sends a shiver down your spine.” (Chris Hall, Essex.)
- “Bad Sneakers”: The personal number one for Tina Cassidy (Derry, N.Ireland) who “sank hook, line and sinker” when she first heard this. She was previously into “the 1812 Overture and the Horslips!”
- “Dr. Wu”: Haunting tenor sax by Phil Woods, whose one-take solo inspired Donald Fagen to say, “You’re the finest thing I’ve heard. Would you play it a couple more times just so I could hear it?”
- “Reelin’ In The Years”: The explosive birth of Steely Dan.
- “Pretzel Logic”: “A majestic feel to this one.” (Dean Harvey, Farnham.) “Brilliant example of their ability to modify a musical style (blues).” (James Durston, Bath.)
- “Do It Again”: “An inevitable choice. Still sounds sinister and disturbing.” (Richard Clark, Kirkcaldy.)
- “Black Cow”: This writer’s personal favorite. “Love the subtle change from minor to major which perfectly sets up Tom Scott’s closing sax solo.”
- “Deacon Blues”: “The attitude says it all.” (Wm. Pascador, New York.)
- “My Old School”: “Pinched strings pull out squeals in the first solo. Horn section makes it.” (Andrew Clark, Kirkcaldy.)
- “Haitian Divorce”: “Their best ever,” according to Cathal Chu (N. Ireland) and who can argue?
Thanks to Richard Burley for compiling the top ten and to everyone who took the trouble to vote.
In December, Donald Fagen appeared on the Michelob-sponsored Sunday Night, a music show hosted by Jools Holland and David Sanborn in New York. The format for the show is to invite a guest musical producer each week who then selects the performers and music. This particular week, Tommy LiPuma was the guest (producer for Miles Davis, Al Jarreau, George Benson and Sanborn himself among others), and he assembled Patti Austin, Donald Fagen, Earl Klugh, Joe Sample and Sister Carol and her Eye Life Players.
The resident Sunday Night band — and what a band! — consisted of Marcus Miller on bass (also musical director of the show), Omar Hakim on drums, Hiram Bullock on guitar and Phillipe Saisse on keyboards.
The show was transmitted on December 18th and Jools Holland came on and, with his usual dry humor, asked the band to play his theme music. They obliged with a short burst of Isaac Hayes’ “Shaft.”
He went through the list of guests, giving each one an enthusiastic build-up and introduced Donald Fagen with the words: “And half of the legendary duo Steely Dan — a man rarely seen on television… ever. And who we’re very lucky to have with us tonight… Mr. Donald Fagen.”
Patti Austin (who once covered a Squeeze song, Holland was delighted to announce) kicked off the proceedings with a version of the standard “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” with Fagen guesting on grand piano. He looked comfortable and enthusiastic and patently enjoyed the outing.
Next came Earl Klugh doing an instrumental composition of his own called “Dr. Makumba.” This time Joe Sample had joined them on the stage and took over on the piano. He executed a very fine solo, too; Donald “I-can’t-quite-cut-it-in-the-rarefied-place-where-jazz-musicians-live” Fagen had moved to a DX7 to add the occasional synthesizer flourish. The cameramen avoided focusing on him too many times during this number — probably on Fagen’s own instructions!
An announcer on the show and star of two Jonathan Demme films (“Married to the Mob” and “Something Wild”), Sister Carol then played two reggae numbers with her band. All the other guest players had by now disappeared.
They came out of yet another commercial break with David Sanborn interviewing Joe Sample briefly, reminiscing about his 30-year career and the 50-odd albums he’s produced in that time before they performed Spellbound, the title track from his new album, followed by “When The World Turns Blue,” a Sample/Will Jennings composition.
The “climax” of the show was reserved for Fagen. Tommy LiPuma was brought on to the stage and thanked all his guests one by one. It was at this point that Fagen looked slightly uneasy; shifting nervously on his stool and averting his eyes when the camera closed in on him. He nodded, mouthing “Thank you,” to the chorus and applause that greeted the announcement of his name.
Sanborn asked LiPuma the reason for his final choice of music. “Well, I thought it would be nice to end with a song that has a positive note, and since most of the girls have sung backgrounds on both Steely Dan albums and Donald’s solo album, I thought we would do one of Donald’s solo compositions — “I.G.Y.”
Fagen himself remained seated behind the DX7; Patti Austin took up the vocals, Earl Klugh returned to strum his acoustic guitar and Sanborn played alto saxophone. Marcus Miller and the rest of the Sunday Night band, plus Sister Carol and her Eye Life Players completed the lineup on a packed stage.
The four background singers swung in with the intro, humming the horn lines from the recorded version and Patti Austin came in singing the line “Get your ticket to that wheel in space…” She looked completely at home with Donald’s lyrics, but unfortunately the performance was marred after only a couple minutes when they began running the show’s lengthy credits over the song. Donald, meanwhile, looked as happy as he had done at any time during the entire program, two-handedly fingering the synth and even almost managing a smile when the camera zoomed in on him. Immediately the list of names was finished, the show ended abruptly in mid-song. Damn them!
By Dave Edney
“There’s nothing much I can tell you about Steely Dan other than the fact that they’ve made a very nice single.” So begins the Dan’s association with the music press in 1972, the above being a sample of a review of their debut single, “Dallas,” written by an anonymous American reviewer from an anonymous source.
A lot has happened since then.
Eight albums (both individually and collectively), and many other fine moments have been released in the 16 or so years that have followed, and during this period the rock critics of this world have had something to say about all of their recorded output.
Steely Dan’s love affair with the music press, like all bands with few exceptions, has been patchy, but the two have shared some wonderful moments. In England, particularly, it’s noticeable that at the outset most of the releases from ’72 to ’76 were praised, and quite rightly so.
When the band first appeared, the music of the day was mostly bland, tepid and unimaginative and the Dan came through like a breath of fresh air.
But today’s news is tomorrow’s fish and chip paper, and after the emergence of punk in 1977, Steely Dan became, along with a lot of other groups of the early ’70s, the antithesis of what punk represented, and they were constantly criticized for being lazy, laid back, soulless and too sophisticated.
This trend continued for a while, but what goes around, comes around, and even though one can be certain of their “status” in today’s fickle world of rock journalism, with bands such as China Crisis, Danny Wilson, Love and Money and Deacon Blue crediting the group as influences of one kind or another, a quiet regard for their music seems to have returned.
The idea behind this piece — and three more to follow — is to look at their records from a critic’s point of view, using the reviews of their LPs, as they originally appeared in the music press, as raw material.
It’s easy to pass comment on these items with hindsight, but nevertheless they make interesting reading.
But where to begin… let’s go back to 1972 again where our fearless reporter was still enthusing about Steely Dan’s debut platter.
In a rather unassuming little piece, it said:
“On this single, there’s a genuinely exquisite pedal steel solo over percussion that you must hear.”
And then alongside personal reminiscences of pedal steels and Dallas itself, the reviewer offers the most striking observation:
“It’s nice to hear the word muscatel in a song.”
The review as a whole seems harmless enough, but it does not really offer the reader an in-depth opinion of what the single was really like.
It’s certainly a million miles away from today’s form of journalism, which sometimes takes itself so seriously that the review is often more important than the music it describes.
To be fair, our “Dallas” reporter had very little information on which to work, as details of the group’s origins were thin on the ground, at this stage.
Indeed, details of the group’s origins were nonexistent to this reviewer, who concludes by saying:
Come to think of it, Steely Dan might be one person, but he/they have got off to a great start, and I hope there’s an LP on the way from him/them.
Indeed there was, but it wasn’t until the release of Can’t Buy A Thrill some months later that the band reached the critical gaze of both pundit and plaudit alike.
Can’t Buy A Thrill apparently took only three weeks to make, (depending on which interview you believe) which, in comparison to their latter-day releases, is exceptionally quick by their standards.
In an interview with the band that appeared in March 1973, Denny Dias admitted that in his opinion, the LP had been “thrown together”:
I guess I’m a perfectionist, but Can’t Buy A Thrill is the worst album we’ll ever make.
Despite Dias’s lack of enthusiasm, and the aging process that can take its toll on a lot of the LPs of the early ’70s, the album still has a freshness and an originality that makes a lot of the other albums of the day tame by comparison.
The band were hardly new to the “recording process,” having been around in various guises prior to the formation of the group, and these early Becker/Fagen tunes, written over a lengthy period of time, were not the first songs to be attempted by the duo in the studio environment.
Nevertheless, with “Dallas” sinking without trace, Can’t Buy A Thrill took a lot of people by surprise, and generally the critics loved it.
Unfortunately, the arrival of the band, seemingly from nowhere, resulted in the age-old game of pigeonholing; a journalistic ploy that generally is used when a new band hits the streets with a stunning new record.
For some obscure reason, a group is automatically labelled by comparing them with as many other artists as possible, though most of these so-called influences seem wildly off the mark today. For example:
Imagine a combination of CSN&Y and Chicago and you’d be heading in the right direction. –Anonymous
Steely Dan borrow liberally from CSN&Y, Procol Harum, Spirit, The Band and sundry Motown hits — Rolling Stone
Ok, Steely Dan remind you occasionally of Stephen Stills, sometimes Bread, just once Bowie — Sounds
Others were nearer the mark. In the States, Stanley M. Jay of the Library Journal Preview mentions their obvious Latin influences and perhaps their not-so-obvious jazz influences, whilst James Isaacs of Rolling Stone (more of him later), seemed to be the only person with any idea of what the band sounded like in pre-Thrill days.
For the most part, there was a general agreement that here was a band with a difference — responsible for an album that was most impressive for a debut platter.
In Britain, for example, some of the reviewers were almost orgasmic in their praise:
Can’t Buy A Thrill is a masterpiece, it contains conceptual songs that tell stories with strong lyrics, fearless musicianship and production that excels just about every album you’ll hear this year.
It’s a breathtaking LP for a first, spanning a wide gamut of styles with consummate ease. — Melody Maker
Can’t Buy A Thrill is a gem, standing out from the endless rubbish released each week. The songs are little masterpieces, each in the pop tradition and yet never banal or cheap. — Melody Maker, Mark Plummer
From the opening track, you know you’re in for something special. Music that’s solid, clever without being over frilly, and it keeps up its impetus right through. It’s been a long time since I heard such a good album from a new American band. — Sounds, Penny Valentine
It’s fair to say that Steely will have a place on the nation’s turntable for as long as they can produce music of this magnitude. — A.T. (Note: A.T. rightly remains anonymous for crediting Jeff Baxter with “excellent piano” in this review!!)
Among all of this critical backslapping, one gets the general impression that everyone agreed that “Do It Again” and “Reelin’ In The Years” were the strongest songs on the album, and therefore worthy of single release.
In the States, James Isaacs of Rolling Stone agreed with this assumption, but did not write about the album as a whole in such glowing terms.
The two aforementioned items were singled out for praise, alongside one other album track, “Dirty Work.”
But as for the rest…
Can’t Buy A Thrill is distinguished by three top-level cuts and scattered moments of inspiration, but there are those instances of Steely Dan coming on like a limp dildo. If you figure that the group’s moniker and the blowjob lips and floozies on the hideous cover portend an album of cast iron cuts, figure again, friend. The Dan’s forte is more cha cha than churning chomp.
As we have previously mentioned, Isaacs seemingly had access to the material recorded by Becker and Fagen in their earlier days, and in comparing that material with this LP, he gives the album the thumbs-down, generally.
Somewhere in the course of two years prior to this album, many of the idiosyncratic touches of Fagen and Becker were scrapped in favor of a more saleable songbook.
Despite these misgivings, the album went gold in the States, whilst in England its critical success counted for nothing. The LP failed miserably.
In the time between the first and second albums, Steely Dan started headlining in America with the promise of a tour of Europe to follow.
David Palmer, the band’s lead singer, was jettisoned for the usual “musical differences,” and in on magazine article, Denny Dias talked about the new direction the now five-piece Steely Dan were going to take:
I’ve always felt the writing was better on the more sophisticated numbers like “Fire In The Hole” and “Turn That Heartbeat.” That’s going to be the bone of tone of the next album.
Countdown to Ecstasy was certainly quite different from its predecessor, with each of the eight tracks showing a complexity and diversity gained from a new confidence, especially within the studio.
Some people, though, did not agree.
What does a band do after having a successful debut LP and a string of hit singles. From the sounds of this somewhat less than ethereal piece of plastic, they go into a coma. With much of their crispness sacrificed in favor of meandering music, Steely Dan will entertain only diehard fans. —Circus.
It’s all a matter of opinion, of course, but Circus were practically out on their own as almost everybody else gave the LP as much praise as it could possibly merit. There were one or two exceptions:
Laidback West Coast-type music with a pleasantly lazy rock feel, but not enough dynamics. It all jangles along as if they’re working out on the back porch on a hot afternoon with nothing much else to do. –Anonymous
Once again, as before, most of the critical acclaim came from England. Indeed all three of the rock paper tabloids gave glowing reports.
In the USA, Rolling Stone, arguably the most influential of papers at this time, was still slow to catch on.
Now represented by one David Logan, he seemed reluctant to join in the fun, in a does-he-like-it-or-not review.
Apart from calling “Razor Boy” and “The Boston Rag” “rather nondescript ditties,” he says:
It’s far from an ambitious statement of a progressive musical philosophy. In fact, one could perhaps argue that the Steelies have found a formula and are exploiting it.
With Countdown to Ecstasy showing a musical progression from the first album, one cannot entirely understand Logan’s “exploitation theory,” but then again, any person who says that: Steely Dan may well be the American danceband equivalent of Slade as he does, cannot be taken too seriously!
This time around, everybody’s favorite track seemed to differ from person to person.
Hence “Pearl of the Quarter” is called “a cultured pearl of a tune” by Stereo Review; “Show Biz Kids,” according to Downbeat is “the most scintillating selection from the LP.” “My Old School” is the “best of an example of songs of which everyone can dance to,” as far as Records and Recordings were concerned, and in Melody Maker’s opinion, “The Boston Rag” has “a chorus that once heard you could never forget.
The remaining four tracks each received equal billing elsewhere.
Wading through the many words written about this album, one constantly comes across paragraphs of high praise. Choose from any of the following:
- Quite simply the best album I have had to review in this magazine, and I would rate the Dan the new band of the year. —Records and Recordings;
- Steely Dan’s mixture of jazz, rock and pop is potent and persuasive and this is a really excellent album. Encore. —Stereo Review;
- Countdown to Ecstasy is a consistently engaging, meticulously produced set that coheres beautifully. —Downbeat
- Countdown to Ecstasy is a damn fine record, from what are surely one of the best new American bands for ages. —New Musical Express
- The style of Countdown to Ecstasy is more unified and homogeneous than their first album and the result is a very fine waxing indeed. —Sounds
- If Countdown to Ecstasy fails as badly as their first album, it will be a gross injustice, for if there is one band around at the moment who deserve to make it without gimmicks, Steely Dan are they. —Melody Maker
The album, of course, was the last to be made by “the band.”
From now on Becker and Fagen were to take sole control of Steely Dan, using the group name for their own purposes.
Even though they did not really split until midway through the recording of the next album, it’s interesting to note that a lot more attention was paid to Becker and Fagen’s songwriting talents for this record, as the respective positions of the group members became more clearly defined.
The real strength of the Dan lies in the songwriting partnership of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen. That’s not to say the musicianship is weak. Far from it. But between them, they have come up with some pretty clever tunes. —New Musical Express.
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 with that. —Let It Rock
Whatever credit I have accumulated in heaven, I would gladly use on behalf of Mssrs. Becker and Fagen. —Stereo Review
Unfortunately, the album met the same fate as before, selling well in the USA, but only achieving good air play and poor record sales in Britain.
It was to take a little while longer for this situation to change, and in conclusion to this first part, two final quotes taken from an American and a British review respectively, sum up best their positions within the two countries at this point.
Believe you me, this team, with the Dead and The Band, are American white rock at the moment. —Downbeat
This time around, they’ve got to happen here. If they don’t then there’s something drastically wrong with the country’s ears. —Melody Maker
Hoops McCann Band Live
This is a transcription of a taped review by Pete Fogel of a gig played late last year in New York City.
The Hoops McCann Band played a live gig in New York on Monday, Nov. 28th, and it was widely advertised in newspapers, magazine and on posters as “The Hoops McCann Band Plays the Music of Steely Dan,” featuring Chuck Findley and Jerome Richardson. There were three scheduled shows on this particular night at 9 p.m., 11 p.m. and 1 a.m.
However, when Pete arrived at the Blue Note Jazz Club and Restaurant at 131 W. 3rd St., the posters inside the club were advertising something entirely different. “The Blue Note presents … The Joe Roccisano Band,” followed by a list of musicians, none of whom appeared on the album. “Where is Chuck Findley? Where is Jerome Richardson? No Mitch Holder and no Paul Humphrey.”
After a cursory introduction the band took to the stage and went straight into playing. But after three songs — all original jazz tunes — the bandleader, Joe Roccisano, “a short wimpy guy,” introduced himself to the audience and said: “You may be a bit confused. We are billed as “The Hoops McCann Band Plays The Music of Steely Dan.” Well, you may be wondering why we haven’t played any Steely Dan songs yet. We are the Joe Roccisano band and we play original jazz tunes, mostly written by me, but every once in a while we play a Steely Dan song. And then we become the Hoops McCann band.”
In the first set, they actually played two Steely Dan songs and they were done very well, but there were signs of unrest in the audience. Instead of calling it three separate shows, they called it three separate “sets,” with each set featuring two Steely Dan tunes. So if you wanted to hear all the songs featured on the album you had to stay for all three sets.
To say the least, there was a lot of ribald indignation among the audience. Towards the end of the first set, and with some people’s anger still rising, a guy ran up to Roccisano and said, “Hey Joe, what fucking Steely Dan album was that last song on? That wasn’t a Steely Dan song.” Roccisano flipped.
Quite simply, they were using Steely Dan’s name on the billboards to encourage people to attend the gig, and once they had been duped into going inside the club, the band proceeded to play almost entirely original jazz compositions.
During the second set, Roccisano started giving an introduction to a song: “We all know how much trouble our earth is in, and our next song is to tell about how bad we are…” but one fellow sitting at an adjacent table to Pete shouted: “Who gives a shit, man, playing fucking ‘Bodhisattva’.”
During “Babylon Sisters” (which they did really well but seemed to be unrehearsed) a trumpet player began the intro to the song and one of the saxophonists also started playing. Then he realized he wasn’t supposed to be playing yet and slunk off, red-faced.
All in all, not a particularly gratifying experience for our reviewer. There was a table reserved at the club for Donald Fagen and one waitress confirmed that he was supposed to have attended on about 20 different occasions in the last couple years but has yet to show up once.
In the early Eighties in America, the trend, both locally and nationwide, was for musical clones or “tribute bands” as the agencies liked to call them. One group of particularly ambitious but unknown musicians called themselves Beau Bolero (what a terrible name) and dedicated themselves to reproducing Steely Dan’s music live.
The band consisted of five musicians: Bob Turek on bass, Rob McIldowie on keyboards, Bob Ranaudo on lead guitar, Mark DePaula on drums and Andy Jarcho on saxophone, flute and additional percussion. On the band’s press handouts they rather arrogantly used a Becker and Fagen lyric as the band’s motto: “Close your eyes and you’ll be there/It’s everything they say.”
Despite many critics’ initial warranted skepticism, they attracted some glowing reviews on America’s East Coast throughout their existence. (They broke up about four years ago.)
“Beau Bolero is everything the ad says and more. Turek and McIldowie alternate on vocals and, though both have a style that is distinctively different, they capture the sound of Steely Dan,” Mary Lou Sullivan wrote in the Hartford Advocate. Apparently on “Babylon Sisters,” Turek even capture the high-pitched female background vocals perfectly! She concluded by saying that Beau Bolero were definitely an act worth seeing.
But being able to execute Steely Dan’s sometimes difficult progressions didn’t come easily to them. When interviewed, guitarist Ranaudo admitted that it hadn’t been easy teaching themselves Becker and Fagen’s songs. “We spent countless hours, days and weeks learning the music, and the difficulties we encountered were unbelievable.” One road crew member said that it was not unusual for them to spend a full month learning just one song!
There was no shortage of people willing to pay to hear these renditions of Steely Dan’s material live (curiosity is a potent weapon), and Beau Bolero were attempting to exploit this advantage by including in their set some of their own original compositions. However, even their own songs displayed a strong Steely Dan influence, which “Only a diehard Steely Dan fan would know the difference.”
Joe Cannavo of Inferno wrote: “We have been told in the past that Steely Dan don’t go out on tour. This is because they hire studio musicians and feel the quality of the music will be lost if played out of the studio. Well, even if they didn’t want to try it, Beau Bolero did, and with great success. With the help of the Zagoa talent agency, the band is making its way to the top in terms of the New England club scene.”
Describing a concert at Eastern Connecticut State College, Jim Konrad explained how they received tumultuous applause, opening with “FM” and performing at least one song from each Dan album in their hour-and-a-half set, interspersed with their own tunes. He likened their original songs to “Dannesque-type things, with similar instrumental style but simpler lyrics.” The token audience participation number was “Hey Nineteen,” with the students being encouraged to sing the chorus. Requests were also invited, and one very popular choice at this particular gig was “Don’t Take Me Alive.” “Superb and near-perfect reproductions of Steely Dan’s music and vocals were handled with ease. The audience responded with a standing ovation when they left the stage.”
McIldowie, however, never tried to disguise their real motives. He said in 1982, “Right now we’re doing Steely Dan to draw people, then (hope to) gain popularity by putting our own songs in the show.”
The critic of the Waterbury Republican described Beau Bolero’s original material as a cross between Steely Dan and the Doobie Brothers, and maintained that they had the potential to be really big. He said they captured Steely Dan’s sound in a tight, classy and sophisticated way.
Despite the acclaim they received, their much sought after commercial success didn’t come Beau Bolero’s way and they were never really able to progress beyond their New England roots. Very probably they would have been much better advised to have discreetly used their Steely Dan influences as a launch pad for their own material rather than simply copying Steely Dan songs exactly note for note. It was a bold attempt, though.