Steely Dan Can’t Buy A Thrill: Album Review

Steely Dan Can't Buy A Thrill: Album Review

Feature Photo: Ralf Liebhold / Shutterstock.com

In 1972 a new sound emerged in the world of rock/pop. To this day that sound and the style of songwriting still remains unique. It has its own defined category. No, not Yacht Rock! I am talking here about Steely Dan. The brainchild of Water Becker and Donald Fagen. If someone says a piece of music sounds Steely Dan-ish that brings a few things to mind. Accessible songs with an infectious groove surrounded by extended chords (in this case not as complex as they would appear on later albums), a bluesy virtuoso guitar solo and a recording that is pristine, and fairly dry where all the parts are clearly defined in the mix. These elements peaked their way through as early as 1972 when Steely Dan’s first album “Can’t Buy A Thrill” was released on ABC Records. At least three songs from this album have become staples on FM radio and classic rock stations found on satellite stations.

After recording many demos in NYC and backing Jay The Americans, Becker and Fagen finally got their big break (thanks to producer Gary Katz) to work as staff writers for the then up and coming major label ABC Records in Los Angeles. They would spend the afternoons working on songs that they thought would have appeal to groups like the Grass Roots, Denny Doherty from the Mamas And The Papas and even Barbara Streisand who actually recorded one their compositions called “I Mean To Shine.” But it soon became clear all the duo wanted to do was form a band that could do justice to their bizarre tunes. So, they discreetly put together a five piece group and rehearsed in the president of ABC’s office at night. They worked on what would become songs from Can’t Buy A Thrill. Once they nailed a record deal they went into the studio and perfected their craft. With help from Gary Katz and the brilliant engineer, Roger Nichols, Becker and Fagen were able to take their vision to a new level. The tedious hours and rigors they put the musicians through paid off and a classic album was born.

The album opens up with what is arguably their second most popular song, the harmonically simplistic “Do It Again.” Out of the box, it seems an unlikely hit with cautionary lyrics and two long unconventional solos. The first solo is an electric sitar tour de force played by their Long Island acquaintance Denny Dias. It is then followed by a cosmic, wobbly cheesy synth excursion performed expertly by Fagen. Donald’s vocals are instantly recognizable – sneering without any histrionics and Walter’s bass solidifies the consistent Latin tinged groove that is easy to dance to.

There was nothing on popular radio that even comes close to the overall production and vibe that oozes out of this recording. The funny thing is, the song seems like it has always been around. Its catchphrase “Go Back Jack”… seems to be a part of our DNA. It was a smart move to release this first as a single. Its instant appeal gave Steely Dan a well-defined audience: Polished, “Groovalicious”  pop music for adults (who like to partake in a little drug infested recreational activities). This timeless recording has consequently been sampled in many a rap tune and mashed up frequently with Michael Jackson’s song “Bille Jean” during wedding dances.

During this early Steely Dan period, both Becker and Fagen were always looking for a vocalist who had strong commercial potential. Donald felt his voice was too idiosyncratic and he wasn’t fond of being a frontman. Hence, the reason there are three vocalists on this record. In this case, they tried out David Palmer. Palmer’s voice is so far removed from Fagen’s east coast droll that you’d never know the second tune on this album is by Steely Dan. I am referring to the radio-friendly “Dirty Work.” A very straight ahead, laid back affair with another DNA hook that is instantly memorable. Though never released as a single this track is one of their most popular compositions. It’s been used in movies and in TV, i.e. The Sopranos, American Hustle, The Simpsons, The Suicide Squad to name a few. It’s also been covered by many artists i.e. The Pointer Sisters, Melissa Manchester, Kenny Rogers and my favorite (a tribute to Walter Becker) from this choir.

This pedestrian, unassuming tune tells the story of an affair between a man and a woman and the man’s infatuation with being used by his lover. Rather harsh lyrics sung in a very soft, sweet voice, a dichotomy that is a Steely Dan trademark. There is also an understated sax solo that just sort of jumps out of the mix and changes the mood of the song for a few bars. These elements make for a Steely Dan tune that neither Becker or Fagen were in favor of releasing on this album. The record executives insisted it be included in order to have at least one conventional song in the collection. Finally, a record company move that made sense.

Up next is the song “Kings.” The lyrical content of this tune centers around King Richard the 1st of England and the political unrest before his brother John Lackland ascended to the throne. It was not about Richard Nixon and John Kennedy as some had surmised. Not typical top 40 subject matter here but catchy nonetheless.  For some reason, the piano intro is very similar to Blood Sweat & Tears song “I Can’t Quit Her.” Not sure what the connection is. Perhaps Becker and Fagen just liked it so they lifted it; a habit they would repeat a few more times in the future.

Musically the song goes through some angular chord progressions culminating in a repeated pattern that is a little unsettling. This is something that would not be too out of character on a Mothers of Invention album like Burnt Weeny Sandwich. Guitarist Elliot Randall, (apparently going through a rough patch with his wife at the time) displays his deep inner feelings on an edgy, rollercoaster ride of a guitar solo. Fagen sneers the lead vocal and is soulfully supported by female singers Shirley Matthews, Venetta Fields, and Clydie King.  All in all a very original-sounding rock song that did not receive much airplay.

Speaking of the Mothers Of Invention / Frank Zappa, the next tune, “Midnight Cruiser” has a chorus that melodically is somewhat reminiscent of a recurring melody heard on Zappa’s mini rock opera, Billy The Mountain. Since that Zappa epic was released a few months before Can’t Buy A Thrill, it is more than likely just a “great minds think a like” moment but it always struck me funny. Becker and Fagen were Zappa fans and perhaps they saw a performance of Billy The Mountain at the Fillmore and subconsciously… Actually, there is also a similarity in the chorus to a melody found on the 1967 Hollies song “Dear Eloise.” This seems a more likely inspiration. At any rate, “Midnight Cruiser” is about two friends who are thinking about how they no longer fit in this ever changing society (Two Against Nature – foreshadowing?). This was an early Becker and Fagen composition they felt was better off sung by drummer Jim Hodder who turns in a decent performance.  Skunk Baxter’s double track guitar playing adds another dimension to this otherwise understated Steely Dan song.

The final song on side one is “Only A Fool Would Say That.” This breezy, samba rock tune with an easy melodic range has seen a recent upsurge in popularity among todays younger singer-songwriters. One recent cover by Kizzy Crawford is a favorite of mine.

The song has also been covered for the Jim Carrey movie Me Myself & Irene. The tasteful guitar playing of Jeff Skunk Baxter colors the fairly simple harmonic language keeping the production interesting. The minor key change for the middle section is seamless and adds to the forward motion of the music.

The lyrics are about two opposing characters. One for each verse. The first being a more pacifist, positive creature while the other is much more cynical, here to remind the optimist his dreams are unrealistic. Some have taken this song as a subtle jab at John Lennon’s ideological song “Imagine” realized in 1971. Opinions vary. As they began side one with a latin flavored tune they finish off this side on a similar latin vibe. The continuity is subtle but perhaps a sly way to keep the buying public interested in Steely Dan’s unique sound.

Note: Jeff Skunk Baxter speaks the title of the song in Spanish at the end.

Side Two opens with Steely Dan’s second top twenty hit, the legendary “Reeling In The Years.” It features some blistering guitar soloing from Elliot Randall. Jimmy Page has stated that it’s his favorite guitar solo of all time. High praise from the master rock guitarist. The song is a solid shuffle held down by Walter Becker’s bouncing bass line. This is one of the rare instances where the instrumental part of the song (the guitar riff passages) receives equal billing with the catchy chorus. Unique in a top forty song back then. The harmonies are tight and Fagen’s phrasing of the lyrics is flowing. However, trying to execute this song in a live situation (a task I’ve done numerous times) is a lot harder than it seems. Fagen makes it sound easy. The lyrics are a scathing commentary on a college relationship gone awry; a subject matter many folks can relate to. Hence, this is an ever-lasting hit that still gets its fair share of play on internet radio.

After this classic number, we are treated to the bluesy-jazzy “Fire In The Hole.”  This track features Donald Fagen playing a very melodic piano part. It really showcases his keyboard talent and the influence Thelonious Monk had on him as a teenager. This is an early song written before Becker and Fagen came to L.A. and it does not sound like they considered it as a commercial effort. There are a lot of chord changes here and the sparse instrumentation (steel pedal guitar, drums and bass) place it firmly as an album track. A great one at that. Fagen delivers dark and depressing lyrics with just the right amount of controlled despair. The concept is about a down on his luck character whose life is in shambles. There is no hope, no escape. Whatever fire is left in his soul is practically used up.  As Frank Zappa would later call their songs fondly – “downer surrealism.”

Another early years song before they were Steely Dan is sequenced next. The Bob Dylan inspired “Brooklyn (Owes The Charmer Under Me).” In fact, the chord profession and melody at the beginning is similar to Dylan’s 1965 song “Queen Jane Approximately.” The actual demo of this song found on a collection called Becker & Fagen: The Early Years has Donald singing it in a voice that vaguely sounds like Dylan. The tempo and feel of the demo is relaxed, droopy and slow.  This version of Can’t Buy A Thrill is much faster and more upbeat. The vibe is contrary to the melancholy lyrics. Vocalist David Palmer’s delivery is somewhat detached even a bit too polite. I think this works against the sadness of the subject matter. The song is a commentary of a dude who lived under Fagen’s Brooklyn apartment and how his life could have been a better one had he gotten the proper breaks. More downer surrealism. This is another song that has resurfaced in the last ten years and has it’s share of young singer-songwriters covering it.  Recently Aimee Mann (a Steely Dan fan) performed it live at her concerts bringing it to a new audience. The “Dan” lives on.

“Change Of The Guard” is the next track and it’s harmonic language is relatively simple with the exception of one unexpected chord change leading to the pre-chorus. The verses are reminiscent of Crosby, Stills and Nash’s 1969 song “Pre Road Downs”. Nonetheless, with Fagen taking the lead vocal it has no choice but to sound like a Steely Dan song. It’s very driving and catchy, highlighted by some fancy guitar work from Jeff Skunk Baxter. A deep cut for sure in the Steely Dan catalog but a pleasure to listen to. The lyrics are pretty straight forward for Becker and Fagen. They speak to the complacent, routine laden people out there who resist change. But Walter and Donald know there is no escape. Change is inevitable. Feel it and deal with it.

The final song on this album, “Turn That Heartbeat Over Again” is rhapsodic in nature. It is a masterpiece of extended pop form. Perhaps Becker and Fagen were influenced by Lennon and McCartney who would take unfinished ideas and weave them into a coherent form i.e “Happiness Is A Warm Gun”, “Uncle Albert / Admiral Halsey”, “A Day In A Life” etc.. or more an homage musically to the suite of songs found on The Mothers Of Inventions album We’re Only Into For The Money. There are three distinct sections in “Turn That Heartbeat Over Again”. The first one has Fagen singing over a semi-country type idea with lyrical allusions about William Wright a rival correspondent of Mark Twain.

After ten measures with a time signature change in there, a more rock orientated groove kicks in during the “Love your Mama” lyrics, but this time with a rare lead vocal by Becker. (Note: Walter Becker only sang lead on two Steely Dan songs. The other one being 2003’s “Slang Of Ages.”) This section goes on for eight measures with a definitive cadence. A new melodic idea the “Oh Michael” section is then sung by Fagen for another sixteen measures. These three sequences are then repeated leading to a twenty nine measure solo section with scored out melodic phrases played on clean electric guitar and organ.

The quirky end results reminds me of a passage Frank Zappa would have composed. The first three sections are introduced again leading to a surprise modulation on the last “Turn That Heart Beat Over Again”. The song quickly winds down with a brush of airy, glass wind chimes. This roller coaster of a song is a foreshadowing of the sophisticated works the duo would conjure up over the next few years.

The foundation for the “Steely Dan sound” was firmly planted with this album. With producer Gary Katz and genius engineer Roger Nichols and a few highly accomplished musicians added to the mix, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen had all the right tools in place to develop their unique pop/blues/rock style. This album was a successful debut that did not sound like anybody at the time. Though Becker and Fagen consider this album a very juvenile effort and I surmise some of the more commercial songs contained herein were only written to get record company interest, the overall feel of the record still sounds fresh.

I should mention that the album cover artwork was the third attempt at trying to convey what Steely was about. Although Becker and Fagen later disliked it even more so than their Royal Scam album cover, it does portray a lot of what makes Steely Dan – “Steely Dan” i.e songs about prostitutes, drugs, and general observations about the seedy side of life. That makes perfect sense though for a group named after a steam powered strap on dildo.

John Tabacco

johntabacco.bandcamp.com

johntabacco.net

Steely Dan Can’t Buy A Thrill: Album Review article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2022

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