By Stuart Maconie
LONDON — If ever a line confirmed Steely Dan as the most rebarbative, sly, smart alecky rock stars there have ever been, it comes at the close of “Show Biz Kids” from 1973 when, at a loss to further denounce LA’s airheads, Fagen sneers “they’ve got their Steely Dan t-shirts.” Nowadays what with merchandising being such a comfort in a group’s old age, he’s probably delighted that tonight — Sept. 9, 1996 — at Wembley Arena yes, they’ve got their Steely Dan t-shirts (15 quid to you squire). They read “Art Crimes ’96” though, and the two gentleman featured prominently upon them are more silvered and dapper than the un-prepossessing pair — one with lank bangs, the other permanently surley behind aviator shades – who peered out of the promo shots of the seventies and were memorably described by Rolling Stone as “like two characters from a Charles Addams cartoon emitting a faintly sinister glow.”
There are a host of misconceptions about Steely Dan. Whilst it’s true that their complex, jazzy, infinitely subtle music is as far removed from the lurkers as is possible to get, Becker and Fagen were as delighted by Deep Purple’s demise as the most troglodytic punk. Fueled by a contempt for rock’s banalities and a love of Mingus, Motown and R&B, Steely Dan between 1972 and 1980 produced 7 albums that, 20 odd years on, have lost nothing of their bleak wit, their corrupt beauty, and their power to astonish. They were Julie Burchill’s favorite pop group — which must say something — and now they are back. In 1974 after only a handful of provincial dates, ill health truncated Steely Dan’s only UK tour. Since then, if Becker’s onstage pronouncement is to be believed, they have been “trying like motherfuckers to get back here.”
The set is bare save for what look like two giant Habitat lamps which may or may not be a joke. At 8:15 several members of the Art Crimes ’96 orchestra amble onto the stage. After a few seconds they ease into a familiar dark chocolate groove. From stage left comes Walter Becker, from right, Donald Fagen, and a low devotional moan goes up from the crowd. This becomes ill-disguised fervor when Fagen leaps to the microphone and sings “in the morning you go gunning for the man who stole your water…”
It is genuinely goosebumping — and throughout the 2 1/2 hours of the show, for all its lacunaes, drum solos, and mis-judged intervals, the abiding feeling is one of privilege. That’s no Deacon Blue up there. That’s Steely Dan. The genuine article strolling through the delicately lovely opening bars of “Bad Sneakers,” a song whose mixture of pathos, elegance and brisk timekeeping is quintessentially the early Dan. The next two numbers shift us to the later lusher more ambiguous albums, Aja and Gaucho. “Josie”‘s taut funk is bolstered by a terrific brass arrangement though scuppered, staggeringly, by a drum solo. Indeed, at all times, the duo seem unaware or unconcerned that many in the audience fought in the street as small boys so that drum solos or lengthy band introductions would never be heard on a British concert stage again.
Happily, “Hey Nineteen” is magnificent. This tale of a middle age suitor’s horror at realizing that his cultural reference points mean nothing to the teenage babe he’s trying to pick up is typically grim, funny and intelligent. Fagen switches the original’s reference to ‘Retha Franklin to Otis Redding and inserts a creepy Kitsch monologue about taking convent girls out for the day “bringing along a Steely Dan and some of that tequila that was rumoured to have a worm in the bottom.” Cue the song’s climax: the girly chorus of (possibly) “the Cuervo gold, the fine Colombian, make tonight a wonderful thing”. Never has affluent self destruction sounded so attractive. “Jack of Speed,” a new song that will appear on next year’s new album is pure Dan — from its clarinet intro to its Waspish lyrics, reassuring anyone who feared they may have fallen under the spell of Alice in Chains or Boyz II Men.
No one in the hall recognizes “Reelin’ in the Years” until Fagen’s breakneck, tongue twisting vocal entry, the harmony guitar riffing having been twisted into a jazz scale and reset for warm brass, and the guitar solo — Jimmy Page’s favorite ever it is said – excised entirely. A bold move, though one that has sections of the crowd muttering darkly throughout the wholly unnecessary interval. Still, prior to the break a dizzying “Peg” was one of the set’s highlights. A word here about the Art Crimes Orchestra: too numerous for individual praise, but let us mention saxophonist Cornelius Bumpus for obvious reasons and guitarist Wayne Krantz. It’s not easy competing with people’s memories of the licks of Jeff “Skunk” Baxter and Denny Dias, but Krantz acquits himself well. His solo in “Peg” is almost comically good.
The second half of the show leans heavily on Gaucho and almost crushes Aja. After the brittle disco of “Glamour Profession” (“Hoops McCann is in from Bogota!”) comes a pile of songs from Aja, 1977’s best seller and, in many ways, Steely Dan’s Hotel California. This section is almost too perfect, too tasteful, too similar in pace and mood. Solos proliferate unpleasantly during “Black Cow” and “Home At Last,” creating a definite hiatus. But a peppy “Kid Charlemagne” ushers us into the encores, one of which is, happily, the grandstanding bravura “My Old School,” their affectionately bitter tribute to Bard College in New York State where they first met.
After the show, Fagen asserts that Gaucho and Aja are his favorites of the old albums. “I find some of the songs on the first two records (Can’t Buy a Thrill and Countdown to Ecstasy) a little stupid, a little juvenile. I guess that’s inevitable because we were so young at the time. But I don’t find them easy to listen to. The later albums are easier for me. We’d formed our sound then and we were more sophisticated. There is something quite depressing about Gaucho but it does have a certain burned out elegance.”
Fagen confesses to being a little bemused and flattered by the reverence shown toward he and his partner’s body of work. “We attract a very cultish kind of fan — the kind that knows every single song on every single album. There’s a group of them that keep asking us to do “Midnight Cruiser” from Can’t Buy A Thrill, which I don’t like at all.”
The singer is unabashed about the surgery performed on old favorites. “I wanted to find a way of doing those old songs that stopped us from getting bored. We hadn’t done “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” for years and so I spent a long time trying to find a new way of doing the song. I sat down and changed a few chords. For me, there’s no fun when a song’s arrangement is set in stone.”
They take the show next to Japan and then into the studio to record the first new Steely Dan album in 16 years. Tonight has certainly whetted the appetite for something rare, superbly cooked, infused with aromatic spices, and containing something really quite rotten at the center.
Reservations remain however, since the Art Crimes show is so impeccable that it instills bourgeois unease. Should we really be listening to this stuff and not the clatter and clap of jungle or the urban sturm und drang of gangsta? Fagen and Becker would say listen to that too. But there are times when only the Dan will do. Suave, sardonic, smart alecky, seamless. No static at all.