"...Ladies and Gentlemen, the one and only one... Mr. Magnificent One... Steely....Dan, or whatever...."

Posted by Bo Ellegaard on November 23, 2020 0 Comments

I really can´t explain why I haven´t written about this band until now but to start 2015 off what can possibly be better than to make up for this?
I have in fact mentioned them briefly but only in connection with blogposts of some of the other bands I have posted last year.

Now I´d like to introduce one of my favourite bands of all time....Steely Dan. Just the name itself gives a certain oral pleasure when pronounced and have you ever read the cut-up novel Naked Lunch by beat poet William Burroughs you will also know what it is...

But the band Steely Dan is the brainchild of two intellectual musicians Walter Becker and Donald Fagen plus a band of skilled musicians who were augmented by both guitarist Jeff "Skunk" Baxter and singer Michael McDonald for the early live and recording jobs and later again some extra hired session musicians for certain instrumental solos or for a special sound that was needed in the studio.

The pair had been honing their songwriting skills while playing the piano and bass in 60´s band Jay And The Americans´ touring band in the late 60´s, dreaming of jobs as composers writing for other artists "Brill Building-style". Their harmonies and chords, however, were too strange for others to play and sing so their record producer to be, Gary Katz, convinced them to form their own band around these early songs. And so they did.
Several bootleg albums document these early pre-Steely Dan demo recordings but none comes close to the final more polished and indeed authoritative versions that eventually turned up on the first  officially released albums from 1972 and on.

In 1972 they got a record deal with ABC Records and recorded the debut album "Can´t Buy A Thrill" where the solo vocals were partly David Palmer partly Donald Fagen. Track one side one´s "Do It Again" was an instant hit with its easygoing latin feel and catchy melody. Also album track "Reelin´ In The Years" charted.
The album was also well received by the critics and Steely Dan became from now on darlings of the music press.

However, singer David Palmer didn´t get good reviews and producer Gary Katz told Donald Fagen into getting over his stage fright stating that he alone should sing Steely Dan´s songs.

If you only know Steely Dan from the late 70´s early 80´s "Aja" and "Gaucho" or even the recent releases you owe it to yourself to dig into these early albums because "Countdown To Ecstacy", "Pretzel Logic" and "Katy Lied" are all worth your investigation as well. Packed with good songs, good playing and singing as these albums are, Steely Dan here find their characteristic sound yet the albums are still varied songwise and show an interesting evolution of this excellent band.


The live band Steely Dan seized to excist around 1974 and like The Beatles, XTC and other good bands they retreat to the studio to refine and perfect their music by being their own worst judges ......eventually cut down to only two Steely Dans they now exclusively draw on a line of famous (mostly jazz)musicians to fulfill the sound Walter Becker and Donald Fagen had in their heads.
On 1977´s "The Royal Scam" you can enjoy guitarists Larry Carlton, Elliott Randall and Dean Parks and tenor saxophonist John Klemmer- but especially with 1978´s "Aja" a team of fantastic musicians makes an uforgettable album where pop, rock and jazz melt and blend together beautifully in fact make these terms obsolete...it becomes just "music"!!
A load of drummers are on "Aja": Steve Gadd (title track), Paul Humphrey, Bernard "Pretty" Purdie, Rick Marotta, Ed Greene and Jim Keltner.
Tenor saxophonists are Wayne Shorter and Tom Scott. Joe Sample and Victor Feldman among others play the piano. And guitarists galore:(old Dan´er) Denny Dias, Dean Parks, Lee Ritenour, Steve Khan and Jay Graydon and also Walter Becker himself.

So diverse were Steely Dan at this point that no fixed group could cover the different sounds and moods in their music.
Instead the above mentioned session players were summoned to do the material musical justice in the studio. And, it must be said, they did!

This masterpiece of a fusion of both pop (melody) and jazz (harmony) and musicianship is still a pure joy to listen to.
Have you never done so I recommend that you begin here with "Aja" and work your way backwards through the bands´ earlier releases.

When "Gaucho" was released almost three years later, in 1980, it was doubted then if it would ever materialize or perhaps end as one of rock´s lost albums but luckily in November that year it was finally released after a year´s studio time.

You almost had to be disappointed when listening to it at its release because you had been waiting for an album to better "Aja" which you knew was impossible but still what you hoped for...

If an album can be too perfect meaning "sterile" this was it.
Numerous takes of each of the songs had almost drained every drop of soul and feeling out of the music itself. It was an album both over the top and over-budget.
Perfect for using to test your Hi-Fi set by...but what didn´t help either was that the cynical lyrics for which Steely Dan were notorious. Here used to an even greater extent than on the earlier albums.

I find "Gaucho" easier to listen to today, after all. Mostly for its good tunes and in that sense it is an ok successor to "Aja".
It becomes in fact  an inspiration for many of the 80´s emerging acts.

Speaking of lyrics: when released the lyrics for the various albums were always up for analysis- what did they mean? It wasn´t always clear. What did this word refer to? It was really up to you to find that out for yourself then...nowadays and over the years Donald Fagen has been more willing to explain the meaning to most of the songs´ lyrics.
You can now google a Steely Dan song title and then get information and comments about this as to the lyrics as well as the music harmony.

A long pause followed- not a break-up as such only a hiatus for Steely Dan.
Donald Fagan recorded two solo albums, Walter Becker produced some records for others, then Donald Fagan produced a Walter Becker solo album and eventually Steely Dan was revitalised for a tour round USA in the mid 90´s. After this they have stayed together to record "Two Against Nature" (2000) and "Everything Must Go" (2003).
They have also played live here in Denmark twice and I was lucky to see them in great form at the Falconer Theatre in 2007 playing their music with a great live band.

The "Ladies and Gentlemen......" line at the top of this refers of course for those in the know to a (drunken/drugged) introduction to a fantastic live version of "Boddhisatva" Steely Dan played at a concert in Santa Monica, 1972. This track is to find on the B-side of 1980´s 7" "Hey Nineteen"
Indeed a proof of the Dan´s ability to play their songs live as well!!



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