Steely Dan are one of my favourite bands. Walter and Donald wrote some of the finest music… ever imho.
Here are wonderful covers of two of my favourite Dan tracks, ‘Your Gold Teeth’ and ‘Your Gold Teeth II’, sown together in a great medley. These two tracks demonstrate everything I love about the Dan; the jazz infused, yet totally accessible rock and roll, all with that cutting edge of intellectual idiosyncrasy that exudes wisdom.
This band, ‘Brooklyn Charmers’, is simply amazing. I haven’t seen a better cover of these tracks. Check them out.
Girls! Girls! Girls”- “Peg” -Steely Dan. “Peg” was the first single from Steely Dan’s highest chart album Aja which peaked at #3. “Peg” released as a single in November 1977 would just fall short of the top 10-peaking at #11. For decades there has been speculation as to just who “Peg” is- one had it […]
Firstly a proviso: This is my list, so it almost certainly won’t match with anyone else.
Secondly, I’m English so this maybe a bit Anglocentric, so apologies there too. Actually, looking at it again there’s only two British bands in my list, so not guilty!
I’m also no spring chicken, so my picks tend to fall in my formative years during the late 60s and 70s — when the music was better, right?
Coming in at number 5: ‘Dark Side of the Moon‘ Pink Floyd – EMI 1973 This had to make my top 5. Everything from the concept, production, musicianship, lyrics… is top notch.
Coming in at number 4: ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water‘ Simon & Garfunkel – Sony 1969. A wonderful collection of songs that have stood the test of the last 50 years.
Coming in at number 3: ‘Aja‘ Steely Dan – MCA 1977. This is not actually my favourite album by this band now. This maybe partly due to the fact it got ‘played to death’ whilst I was at college. Nevertheless, head ruling heart, I have to acknowledge the sheer painstaking craftsmanship that has gone into this, producing something almost peerless; intellectual yet accessible; sophisticated but easy on the ear.
Coming in at number 2: ‘Blue‘ Joni Mitchell – Reprise 1971. Again, this is probably not my favourite of Joni’s repertoire these days. But the songwriting is just wonderful, heart on sleeve stuff, so painful at times, but always simply beautiful. The best of a singer songwriter at their peak.
And finally, coming in at number 1: ‘Revolver‘ The Beatles – EMI 1966. Ok, I know — what about ‘Sgt. Peppers..’? I just think this is better. So much variety in one album, fantastic songs which are very short and wonderfully produced. The Beatles at their peak in my opinion, at the turning point of their first era of predominantly love songs, looking towards the future of experimentation… and so influential: ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ anyone?
Pick one song from each album and list why. I accept that challenge. Let’s roll. Can’t Buy a Thrill – “Do It Again” gets the nod. Some have called this a strong Latin beat, the percussion obviously drives this song and provides the framework for the electric piano and expressive guitar solos. The album […]
If I am ever forced to live on a desert island (not a love island), and can only take one Steely Dan album, I would choose their fifth released in 1976, ‘The Royal Scam‘ (MCA).
Although often called their ‘guitar’ album, largely because it contains some fabulous guitar solos by the legendary Larry Carlton, and others, it wasn’t the easiest choice for me to make. The problem with Steely Dan albums is that they are all excellent and I love them all. The song writing is peerless, along with the musicianship and production. ‘Scam’ made it as my number one purely because it contains my favourite Dan track: ‘Don’t Take Me Alive’ – more of that later.
So what makes this album so good? Well, all of the above and then some. It might be said that this was a transitional album. After the 1974 release of the mighty ‘Pretzel Logic‘ (MCA), the ‘band’ that was Steely Dan fell away after the two leading lights and songwriters, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, decided touring wasn’t for them.
In many ways this was a shame to me. Jim Hodder was a fine drummer and also singer on their first album. Similarly Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter, who was to join The Doobie Brothers, was a wonderful virtuoso guitarist who had contributed some fine work of his own on the first three albums.
Session Musicians Are King
From 1975 and the recording of ‘Katy Lied‘ (MCA) onwards the Dan would rely more and more on a succession of top notch session musicians to raise the quality of their recordings.
By 1976 musicians like Carlton and drummer Bernard Purdie were featuring in the recording of this album. When it was released the reviews were not too positive, yet when I first heard it as a precocious teenager, I was simply blown away. I had heard all their previous albums, thanks to a guitar playing friend who was into all things American.
Even so, the first track and single, ‘Kid Charlemagne’, to me did not sound too promising at first. It began with a funky, yet heavy sounding electric piano, though the song builds into something wonderful by the end. It tells a rather typical Dan story relating to drugs and associated wild lifestyle.
This track doesn’t have one but two brilliant guitar solos by the irreplaceable Larry Carlton. The most revered, in the middle of the song, is often ranked as one of the best ever guitar solos. The outro solo is, to my mind, almost as good.
A Transitional Album
Track two is one of my all time favourites, ‘The Caves of Altamira‘. It is apparently largely based upon a children’s book by Hans Baumann about a visit to the famous caves in Cantabria, Spain. This is typical Steely Dan, a jazz-fusion oriented song that sends you on a journey back into the mankind’s murky past, basically enlightening your imagination. Great tenor saxophone solo too by John Klemmer.
Then comes my favourite track of all, ‘Don’t Take Me Alive’. It is unusual in that it must contain the best ever guitar intro of all time, played once more by the inimitable Carlton. The song is about a lone, desperate terrorist, seemingly ill at ease with his own thoughts as the situation worsens. There is also a lovely, understated guitar figure before the final chorus, which to me suggests the individual flying through the air, maybe jumping out in a kind of release.
‘Sign in Stranger’ is another great track with much humour and word play. A great guitar solo by Elliott Randall. ‘The Fez’ is one of those rare Dan tracks that has a third writer, namely piano player Paul Griffin. To me this track also points more towards the style of music the ‘band’ would create more exclusively on ‘Aja’ and ‘Gaucho’ in years to come.
‘Green Earrings’ continues this more rock-fusion, funky trend on side two of the vinyl version, with wonderful guitar work by Denny Dias and Elliott Randall.
‘Haitian Divorce’ is one their better known songs and singles, relating a sad, yet somehow humorous tale of a failed marriage. It is also one the Dan’s few nods to reggae.
‘Everything You Did’ is one of those songs which grows on you. At first listening it perhaps sounds like the weakest track on the album, yet its quirky story line and fine Carlton guitar work lift it. It is most noted for the line ‘Turn up the Eagles the neighbours are listening’, a possible reference to the pre Joe Walsh Eagles and their quieter, country rock influences. The line carried enough wait for a reply to be made in a much more famous song later in 1976, namely ‘Hotel California’.
The title track, placed unusually at the end, is surely one of Steely Dan’s most underrated songs. The story is straightforward enough about the experience of immigrants in NYC, yet what is unusual is the songwriters’ serious social conscience, which isn’t normally on display.
So that’s my take upon ‘The Royal Scam’. It has its critics, yet it contains virtually everything musically, with references to their past and future development. It is more polished than their earlier albums, but not nearing the point of ‘over production’ as heard on ‘Aja’ the following year.
The article below just appeared in the Boston Globe, written by Ty Burr, and it’s about how some young people are coming to appreciate the music of their elders, which they call “dad rock”. Oy! Click on the screenshot to read: The intro: One of the more satisfying cheap thrills that comes with getting old […]
The continuing story of what I consider to be one of the greatest albums ever, Steely Dan’s ‘Aja’ (MCA) from 1977. If you haven’t seen part 1, check in my blog first.
If side 1 was a tour de force, then side 2 continues slightly differently, with four songs which are in their own way, equally impressive.
‘Peg’ gets going with a much lighter disco feel, compared to side one. It’s fairly typical of the time but done in Steely Dan’s own inimitable way, with attention to detail. It turns out the guitar solo which made it onto the album took some time to finalise, with numerous guitarists auditioning for the ‘role’. Listening to it, I think they made the right choice. This is probably the most ‘commercial’ track on the album.
With Track 2, ‘Home At Last’, we’re suddenly, though not surprisingly, in the realms of Homer (the ancient Greek writer, not the cartoon character) and Ulysses (Odysseus), with references to danger on the rocks and being tied to a mast over a bluesy jive that gets your foot a-tapping nicely. Once again the instrumentation, particularly the use of brass, I feel, is second to none. Very much of its time, almost ‘Starsky and Hutch’ in feel.
‘I Got The News’, the second to last track is an ‘angular’ sounding disco number, with those enigmatic, yet fitting lyrics full of innuendo and direct references which are so much a feature of the Dan’s music. There’s a great guitar break too, which belies the track’s disco setting, a feature first perfected I think on their previous album, ‘The Royal Scam’. It’s like they’re letting you know how sophisticated they are – and why not?
And so to the last, and certainly not least track on this classic album. ‘Josie’ is one of Steely Dan’s most celebrated songs, a fine R&B number, about a girl the guys simply can’t do without, it would seem, a bit of a hell raiser by the sound of it, who evidently could’ve been present when Nero set fire to Rome in AD 64. This has all the feel of LA and sophistication, the place Becker and Fagen made their home for some time.
Once again though, it’s the jazz inspired elements, like the rather haunting, minimalistic guitar riff/section sandwiching the main part of the track, which sets it apart from what anyone else was doing before or since.
‘Aja’ will always be a classic. Was it the peak of their success? Most definitely, which doesn’t mean you shouldn’t listen to ‘Gaucho’, or ‘Two Against Nature’, nor indeed the older back catalogue. It’s just that if I was to recommend one album of this band, it would have to be ‘Aja’. It gets an A+++.
I think I can say without qualification that Steely Dan’s 1977 album release, ‘Aja’ (MCA), changed my life. This is part one – I feel there’s simply too much to say in one piece.
At the time I was at college and it became the soundtrack of my time. It was a tape (I got the vinyl later) and I must have worn it out. On that tape ‘Josie’ was the opening track, swapping places with ‘Black Cow’ from the vinyl.
Of course, I was already a big fan of their previous five albums, beginning with the 1972 release of ‘Can’t Buy A Thrill’ and the singles, ‘Reeling In The Years’ and ‘Do It Again’. That was some entry into the mainstream.
Put simply, anyone who tries to play guitar or any instrument, like me, or just appreciates music, simply couldn’t help but be impressed, not merely with the virtuoso playing of various band and session guys over the years, but with the whole jazz infused rock style which is all their own.
And to say that the songs of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen are well-crafted would be a great understatement; they are simply peerless – witty, sarcastic, intellectual, moving, all in a wonderfully constructed, painstakingly produced package that is, nevertheless, often hard to define. The element of doubt I’m sure is deliberate, lyrically and musically, so that the listener can make up their own mind, take them to places they never thought they would go. And I’ve been everywhere.
But to the album. Is it their best? Probably, a classic certainly, released when punk rock was at its height, which makes its success all the more remarkable. Great music is great music in any age and will find its way.
New York night life
The opening track, ‘Black Cow’, is the name of a mixed alcoholic drink of New York origin, apparently, though as is sometimes the case, the name of the song is incidental to the main message: that there’s a relationship ending, badly, and one of them isn’t taking it too well. Pretty straightforward really. The song to me simply oozes New York night life, with a slow, steady, ‘catchy’ beat which has been sampled at least once since then. Great piano solo, superb de rigueur saxophone on the outro.
The title track is next and quite unlike anything the band had attempted before. ‘Aja’ is a girl’s name, quite a girl by the sound of it. The lyrics are concise, perfect, simply to illustrate the song, leaving the stage open for the incredible musicianship. The song is complex, evocative of sensory pleasures, Asian themes. I feel sunshine every time I hear it. Denny Diaz’s extended guitar solo is wonderful, almost like glints of sunlight on the Pacific Ocean, or maybe a boat bobbing up and down.
And then the saxophone solo (yes, another one, and why not!), seems to take you into the evening, more busy night life, romance. If this wasn’t enough there is, in my opinion, the most incredible outro ever, consisting of sensational drumming, a single piano chord repeat pattern and atmospheric synths all around it, taking you into the heady early hours of the morning. Quite wonderful.
‘Deacon Blues’ is the next track, completing side one of vinyl. The story of a loser? More than once I’ve toyed with the idea that it could be about me. The subject is resigned, yet determined to play saxophone, to drink Scotch all night and go out driving (no, I don’t do that).
Once more I sense the night, this time dark alleys, jazz clubs, New York street life. The saxophone illustrates the song beautifully (naturally), a long track of nearly seven and half minutes, but it’s over before you know it – a sign of quality, that not a second is wasted in creating these mental pictures. Great lyrics, great playing, great song. Just great.
It even inspired the name of a band, but that’s another story.
So that completes side one. Only three tracks, but all different. Quite simply the best first side of an album, period.
The tutor twice your age sat on your knee;
you were always lucky that way.
First night pub opening, top of the hill.
It was the normal pretentious affair,
the legal name with church overtones,
the perfect occasion for too much to drink.
That night I crashed at your mum’s place
and she wasn’t happy, I could tell –
the slamming pots, glances that could kill.
She’d got me down as a junkie
because I travelled light
but the spare room was handy,
set aside for special occasions. Never used.
We listened to some Steely Dan
and then began to jam.
That’s where Red Dress was born.
In between gigs we hired the room
with egg boxes on the walls,
to fashion our fledgling art; firing bass players,
hiring Marilyn sound-a-likes
(who frankly were better at screwing)
and making a right hash of everything,
course included. But band badges were made,
along with silly visits to photo booths.
‘These dirty streets…’ the first line of the lyric
fell into place with that progression in E.
Dreams of Idaho and California. Some sun.
You made it happen and it’s dedicated to you.
And when I heard the news, I knew it was true:
the happy-go-lucky guy on the end of the rope