There have been hits of course: ‘Do It Again’, ‘Reelin’ In The Years’, ‘Show Biz Kids’, ‘My Old School’, ‘Rikki Don’t Lose That Number’, ‘Haitian Divorce’ , ‘Peg’, ‘Hey Nineteen’ – pioneer sounds for burgeoning FM radio. Notoriously perfectionist too, the main men Becker and Fagen have always enlisted the top of the cream players – whether that’s a Chuck Rainey or a Larry Carlton, members of The Crusaders, Vic Feldman or Michael McDonald. Since the demand perfection they also give it back to the listener and while their lyrics are characterised by an arch, knowing irony - the very antithesis of love and peace and let’s all hold hands – they also aspire to a state one might call the romanticisation of the past as a vision of the future. Nostalgic references to their own collegiate days abound and they represent a time when America could still obsess over the consumer boom of the late 1950s and wonder what would happen when the promiscuous 1960s sent everything up for grabs. Those who know them best, say the Rick Derringers and Elliot Randalls of this world, also point out that playing for Steely Dan was always a blast because you never knew what direction they’d push the musicians down. But if their work ethic was tough it’s easy enough to love their albums and we’ve got ‘em covered here.
Walter and Donald actually met at Bard College in Annandale-on-Houston, New York. Regular smart arse East Coast guys they cut their teeth at the Brill Building writing songs for others and touring with Jay and the Americans. Barbra Streisand recorded an early demo – ‘I Mean to Shine’ – but their own debut single ‘Dallas’ bw ‘Sail the Waterway’ was only sent out to DJs. To get a change of climate Becker and Fagen decamped to Los Angeles in late 1971 and began recording Can’t Buy A Thrill with the angelically voiced David Palmer handling half the vocal duties, Fagen some others and drummer Jim Hodder lending his idiosyncratic pipes to the magnificent ‘Midnite Cruiser’. Just about everything the Dan would achieve is heard on this album. Class sessioneers? Check. Classy lyrics? Of course. Potent pop? ‘Reelin’ In The Years’ and the legendary ‘Do It Again’ have that base covered. Recording at The Village Recorder, LA this debut disc is a shimmering masterpiece with its ten songs defining the phrase – all killer, no filler. Jeff Baxter adorns the album with the kind of chops few had heard in the mainstream of rock at that point. His pedal steel solo on ‘Fire in the Hole’ and his stunning solos on ‘Change of the Guard’ and ‘Only A Fool Would Say That’ are worth the price of admission. That’s Denny Dias playing the sitar on ‘Do It Again’ while Randall busts out his axe for ‘Reelin’ In The Years’. This is an affair that constantly throws up surprises. Songs like ‘Kings’ and ‘Brooklyn (Owes The Harmer Under Me)’ are as intelligent and evocative as rock has ever got. There is also mambo and samba and Latin licks leaking out. The chord changes are exemplary and this is reckoned to be the first post-boogie. This is where adolescence becomes the province of hungry young men.
Countdown to Ecstasy (1973) is very different. Although the songs were largely written while the Dan undertook their first touring they don’t suffer as a result. In fact some feel this album might be – gasp – the greatest record ever made. It is an immaculate piece of work. ‘Bodhisattva’, which lampoons the Western obsession with faux anti-materialism kicks the whole thing off with such a flurry of excitement that by the time you reach the finale, ‘King of the World’ (about the last surviving human in earth after a nuclear holocaust) you may be exhausted by the sheer brilliance of the record’s LA rock noir character. ‘Razor Boy’ deals with having your possessions taken away and is a dark thing. ‘My Old School’ back references days at Bard. ‘Show Biz Kids’ sticks the knife into rock star cults and then turns it viciously. Fagen now handles the lead vocals while Palmer and Becker slide underneath him with some fancy backing. The production by Katz and Nicholls is tough and taut and the whole shebang swings like a mother even when the Dan are waxing lyrical in New Orleans during ‘Pearl of the Quarter’ or moving off into realms of funk jazz on the epic ‘Your Gold Teeth’. Don’t overlook anything here. ‘The Boston Rag’ is a real tearjerker, a love song to lost youth.
Pretzel Logic is classic number three. Still recording in LA with the best players money can buy (Jim Gordon, Wilton Felder, Ernie Watts for starters) the deadly duo now turn their attention to New York City as viewed through the heat haze of their exile. Jimmy Haskell’s orchestration is a fixture here and the song writing moves up more notches on the title track and the bebop flavoured pieces on side two like ‘Parker’s Band’, ‘Through with Buzz’ and ‘Charlie Freak’, splendid discussions about narcotics all. These major dudes tell it like it is: the sound is dense and the lyrical references are bafflingly erudite and not quite as arcane as some would have it. A five star beauty.
Katy Lied continues to mine the noirish outer reaches of sophisticated pop rock. Larry Carlton comes up trumps with the guitar on ‘Daddy Don’t Live In That New York City No More’ and Randall returns to decorate ‘Throw Back The Little Ones’. Phil Woods provides stellar sax on ‘Doctor Wu’. Another charmer, Katy Lied thrills again during ‘Black Friday’ and ‘Bad Sneakers’. The characters are lovingly detailed. ‘Rose Darling’ is particularly sumptuous. ‘Any World (That I’m Welcome To)’ turns the ironic glare up to solar scorch.
1976 gives us The Royal Scam, the most guitar drenched album in their catalogue. Carlton fires it off and doesn’t keep anything back on ‘Kid Charlemagne’ and the time slipping ‘Don’t Take Me Alive’. Randall and Denny Dias swap solos in ‘Green Earrings’. Becker steps up to the plate for ‘The Fez’ while the closing title track may be about the nightmare scenario of Papa Doc’s Haiti. No one really knows though and this is certainly their most enigmatic recording.
Many first come to the Dan via Aja (1977) and it ain’t a bad point of entry at all. An audiophile’s wet dream this too and it won the Grammy for that very production reason. This is sheer gloss. The title track features Wayne Shorter (then of Weather Report fame) playing a definitive jazz sax solo and the whole disc resonates with Jazz messenger references and nodes to Art Blakey and Charlie Mingus and the beloved Parker. A more structured recording than its predecessors – if that were possible – the care and attention lavished on ‘Peg’, ‘Black Cow’, ‘Deacon Blues’ ‘Josie’ and the swing fest of ‘I Got the News’ means this album is a desert island disc. And would you believe it! Gaucho (1980) ups the ante. This time recording in New York and LA Becker and Fagen have clearly taken full control of the reins and the concept of the Dan as a band is completely replaced by their hands on control. A conceptual list of hipster tunes is here with ‘Hey Nineteen’ and ‘Time Out of Mind’ being the yin and yang of addiction. ‘Babylon Sisters’ features Bernard Purdie’s legendary half shuffle while fellow drummer Jeff Porcaro recalls the late night sessions as a search for some Holy Grail. Pretty much superstars now, though reluctant enough to play live, Becker and Fagen emerge as arguably the most important tag team in rock’n’jazz ever on Gaucho. They did however hit the road to make the masterful Alive in America and reformed for the millennium album Two Against Nature – a Grammy winner - and the ensuing Everything Must Go, which shouldn’t be overlooked. We are also proud to point out The Very Best Of and the classic 4-CD box set Citizen Steely Dan which is pristine and remastered and gives one the full album chronology plus must-hear rarities like ‘FM (No Static At All)’, from the movie of that name, a live and totally bonkers ‘Bodhisattva’, the demo for ‘Everyone’s Gone to the Movies’ and ‘Here at the Western World’.
Steely Dan’s journey from Annandale and Brooklyn to Hollywood heights is one of rock music’s most durable treks and certainly the most worthwhile of odysseys. Time cannot wither their allure. Their music is essential. Dig in and feast.
Words - Max Bell.
Can’t Buy a Thrill is the first album by Steely Dan. Originally released in 1972, the album was a huge success. It went gold, and then platinum, peaking at #17 on the charts. In 2003, the album was ranked number 238 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.
Countdown to Ecstasy is the second studio album by American rock group Steely Dan, released in July 1973 by ABC Records. It was recorded at Caribou Ranch in Nederland and The Village Recorder in Santa Monica. After the departure of vocalist David Palmer, the group recorded the album with Donald Fagen singing lead on all the songs.
Although it was a critical success, the album failed to generate a hit single, and consequently charted at only number 35 on the Billboard 200. It was eventually certified gold by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), having shipped 500,000 copies in the United States. Well received upon its release, Countdown to Ecstasy received perfect scores from music critics in retrospective reviews
Pretzel Logic is the third studio album by the American rock band Steely Dan, released on February 20, 1974, by ABC Records. It was written by principal band members Walter Becker and Donald Fagen. They recorded the album at The Village Recorder in West Los Angeles with producer Gary Katz and prominent Los Angeles-based studio musicians.
The album was a commercial and critical success upon its release. Its hit single "Rikki Don't Lose That Number" helped restore Steely Dan's radio presence after the disappointing performance of their 1973 album Countdown to Ecstasy. Pretzel Logic was reissued in 1999 to retrospective acclaim from critics.
Katy Lied is the fourth album by Steely Dan, originally released in 1975 by ABC Records. It went gold and peaked at #13 on the US charts. The single "Black Friday" also charted at #37.
It is the first appearance of singer Michael McDonald on a Steely Dan album. Jeff Porcaro, then only 21 years old, played drums on all the songs except "Any World (That I'm Welcome To)", which features legendary session drummer Hal Blaine.
Band leaders Walter Becker and Donald Fagen were unhappy with the album's sound quality owing to an equipment malfunction with the then-new dbx noise reduction system. The group has claimed that the damage was mostly repaired after consulting with the engineers at dbx, but Fagen and Becker still refused to listen to the completed album.
The Royal Scam is an album by Steely Dan, originally released in 1976. The album went gold and peaked at #15 on the charts. The Royal Scam features more prominent guitar work than other Steely Dan albums. Guitarists on the recording include Walter Becker, Denny Dias, Larry Carlton, Elliott Randall and Dean Parks.
With irony-laden verses about drug dealers, safe sex, and hardships faced by immigrants, The Royal Scam is arguably Steely Dan at their most cynical. The mood of the album stands in contrast with the band’s mellower and hugely successful follow-up, Aja.
Pioneering pop/jazz band Steely Dan, formed by Donald Fagen and Walter Becker in the early 70’s, had already secured five U.S Top 40 albums before the release of Aja in 1977 . Aja, however, was to prove to be the biggest selling album of Steely Dan’s illustrious career, reaching Number 3 in the U.S. Billboard chart, spending a year in the Top 40 there and also reaching number 5 in the U.K.
Gaucho is the seventh studio album by the American Jazz rock band Steely Dan, released in 1980. The sessions for Gaucho represented the peak of Steely Dan's recording studio perfectionism and obsessive recording technique. To record the album, the band used at least 42 different musicians, spent over a year in the studio, and far exceeded the original monetary advance given to the band by their record label.
The cover art is based upon a sculpture called "Guardia Vieja - Tango" by Israel Hoffman.
During the two-year span in which the album was recorded, the band was plagued by a number of creative, personal and professional problems. MCA, Warner Bros. and Steely Dan had a three-way legal battle over the rights to release the album. After it was released, jazz musician Keith Jarrett successfully sued the band for writing credit on the title song "Gaucho".
Gaucho marked a significant stylistic change for Steely Dan, introducing a more minimal, groove- and atmosphere-based format. The harmonically complex chord changes that were a distinctive mark of earlier Steely Dan songs are less prominent on Gaucho, with the record's songs tending to revolve around a single rhythm or mood. Gaucho proved to be Steely Dan's final studio album before a 12-year hiatus.
Alive in America is a live album by the American jazz rock group Steely Dan, released in 1995. It is Steely Dan's first live album. Recorded during 1993 and 1994 tours, the concerts from which the album is constructed marked the first live Steely Dan performances since 1974.