The next two or three Can’t Get It Outta My Head posts will be about Steely Dan, in recognition of me ticking off an item on my Bucket List, courtesy of a birthday present from my better half. Definitely looking forward to seeing SD July 16 in Milwaukee!
I assume that I first heard Steely Dan where I got a lot of my rock influences, Radio Free Madison, in the early 1970s. (The group was founded in 1972.) But I seem to remember their music impinging on my consciousness because of the gay drivers and dispatchers at Yellow Cab and Transfer Co., where I worked at the time.
The group’s name was inspired by a sexual appliance — of the sort which could used in either hetero- or homosexual activity — referenced in The Naked Lunch, a novel by William Burroughs, a male homosexual. The band’s 1972 debut album, Can’t Buy a Thrill, includes some lyrics that could be construed as referring to gay culture, as did later albums.
But founding members and co-songwriters Walter Becker and Donald Fagen always wrote cryptically, using a lexicon all their own. Many of their lyrics were therefore inscrutable and open to interpretation.
The backstory of Becker and Fagen is interesting. The two men had met four years before the release of that album, while they were students at Bard College in New York, when Fagen overheard Becker practicing electric guitar in a cafe.
After beginning their songwriting partnership, the duo played in several groups before forming their own band. Ultimately known as the Leather Canary, it included fellow Bard student — and future Saturday Night Live star — Chevy Chase on drums.
Becker and Fagen also performed pseudonymously with the 1960s pop/rock band Jay and the Americans, That gig was bookended by attempts to become in-house songwriters.
The last of those attempts was with ABC Records, at the behest of Gary Katz, who would produce most of Steely Dan’s albums. Because Katz felt that Becker and Fagen’s songs were too complicated for the label’s other artists, he suggested the duo form their own group.
That initial Dan lineup included Jeff Baxter, who would go on to find greater success with the Doobie Brothers. A second lead singer, David Palmer, was added because Fagen sometimes suffered from stage fright.
Palmer’s singing and the early lineup created a sound on Can’t Buy a Thrill that is quite different from the band’s later work — more rock and roll, instead of the jazz influences that would later predominate. The album also would produce two Top 15 hits, “Do It Again” and “Reelin’ in the Years” — unusual for a band whose fortunes wouldn’t depend on singles success.
The singles released off the band’s second album, Countdown to Ecstasy, were not nearly as successful, perhaps because Dan’s sound was taking on the jazz tinge. Although the band’s lineup remained the same, its sophomore release saw the increasing use of studio musicians — the McCoys' lead guitarist Rick Derringer was one of them — and backing vocalists. The touring band at that time included Michael McDonald, another Doobie-to-be.
Also during that period, Dan ceased to be a touring band, which resulted in the rest of the original lineup eventually leaving. The group’s third album, Pretzel Logic, still featured the original lineup, but used 15 other artists, many of them top-notch studio/session musicians. Those credited include the Eagles’ Timothy B. Schmit, Derek and the Dominoes drummer Jim Gordon, and future Toto members David Paich and Jeff Porcaro.
Many of those musicians also played on the next Dan album, Katy Lied, with even more ace “hired guns” added, but the other original members (except Denny Dias) were gone. McDonald sang background vocals for the first time in the studio, and the fourth SD album also marked the first appearance of jazz guitar virtuoso Larry Carlton, who would also play on the band’s next two albums.
Those LPs, The Royal Scam and Aja, continued the trend toward more complex lyrics and jazz-inspired music. Becker and Fagen upped the ante on the studio talent — Lee Ritenour and Wayne Shorter play on the latter album — and Aja enjoyed the kind of commercial success not seen since their first album. In addition to spinning off three Top 40 singles and going platinum, it also earned a Grammy for best-engineered album.
Things started going haywire after that, though. An attempt to tour behind Aja fell apart. Contractural and personal problems dragged out the recording of the followup album, Gaucho, and a studio snafu lost one of its songs permanently. Becker lost his girlfriend to a drug overdose, lost a subsequent lawsuit, and was hit by a taxi and crippled for a time.
Gaucho was a critical and commercial success, but the complications involved in producing it and other developing problems resulted in Becker and Fagen dissolving their partnership. The former stopped using drugs, moved to Hawaii and left the music business, becoming an avocado farmer.
I hung with Dan up through Gaucho, purchasing every album (except, for some reason, Countdown). I loved the quirky lyrics, the off-kilter themes, Becker and Fagen’s language-all-their-own and their musical attention to detail. For example, the title song of the third album turned the swastika into a pretzel, and Hitler into an aspiring minstrel singer — “Where did you get those shoes?” indeed.
“Kid Charlemagne,” from The Royal Scam, remembered Augustus Owsley Stanley III, the audio engineer and amateur chemist who brought LSD to the masses in mid-60s San Francisco. “Home at Last,” from Aja, is probably the first use of an Homeric poem as a theme for a popular song. “Deacon Blues,” from the same album, has the memorable lines, “They got a name for the winners in the world/I want a name when I lose/They call Alabama the Crimson Tide/Call be Deacon Blues.”
Then there was the duo’s near obsession with recording perfection, which — along with Katz’s skills — helped the band land Grammies. It also produced the legendary “lost tapes” myth of Katy Lied — that the perfect studio recording had been destroyed, and the product offered to the public was inferior.
But they lost me with Gaucho — although I must admit I didn’t hear much other than “Hey Nineteen,” the album’s highly-successful first single release. That song seemed like self-indulgent nostalgia, and didn’t motivate me to look into the rest of the LP, or buy it. (I have since corrected that oversight, and changed my evaluation of the work, but more on that next week.)
My reaction to Gaucho was probably one of the reasons why I didn’t reconnect with Steely Dan when they reformed in the mid-1990s, and released their first new album in nearly two decades in 2000. But we’ll get to that in Part II.