“When you get a groove going, time flies.” -Donald Fagen
“That’s sort of what we wanted to do: conquer from the margins, sort of find out place in the middle based on the fact that we were creatures of the margin and of alienation.” -Walter Becker
“Now hold on just a minute here, Ben” says the savvy music fan, “Steely Dan was a band, not a duo!” and in the strictest sense, yes, you would be correct. The unique thing about Steely Dan as a band, though, is that the group of artists recording and touring for each album was always different, except for 2 people: Walter Becker and Donald Fagen. The 2 met in 1967 at a café in a little hamlet called Annandale-on-Hudson, New York as Fagen stopped to talk to Becker, who was practicing guitar outside. The story goes that Fagen started the conversation by asking “do you like jazz?”, and upon discovering a shared love for music the 2 would strike up a friendship before beginning to write songs together. After a couple of years of playing local shows with local groups, one of which included none other than Chevy Chase on drums (yeah, THAT Chevy Chase) before moving to Brooklyn in 1969. In Brooklyn the duo improved their songwriting and performing abilities while seeking attention from record companies, which they wouldn’t have much success with. After opening for Jay and the Americans on tour for a while, an associate and producer named Gary Katz got a job as staff producer for ABC records in LA, where he promptly signed Becker and Fagen, sensing their talent. Before long in LA the pair of artists assembled a group of session musicians to help them bring to fruition what would be their debut album. That album, released in 1972, was called Can’t Buy a Thrill and is today’s inclusion to the Musical Training Plan.
Some artists need a couple of tries to really find their sound, but thanks to their unique tastes and 5 years of work together before getting to make a single album, Steely Dan hit the ground running. Yes, it’s rock music, but calling Steely Dan a rock band doesn’t quite do it justice. In the tracks on Can’t Buy a Thrill, the attentive ear will recognize the undeniably jazzy, swinging nature and the influences of Latin music mixed in among the aspects of rock which serve as a base. On each track, Fagen and Becker carefully curated a sound and an aesthetic that Steely Dan would be known for, and that’s what makes them the duo. On later albums, there would be songs on which Fagen and Becker wouldn’t even perform any of the music, because they knew that they couldn’t provide the sound that they were looking for. They were more than just performers, they were real songwriters above all else. On only the 2nd song, Fagen, who normally sang lead vocals, took the backseat to allow David Palmer to produce the sound they were looking for on that particular song. They would literally make personal sacrifices in order to put out the best song that they could, and for that I applaud them.
A huge part of why I selected this album instead of some of their later, likely greater works (I’m looking at you, Aja) is that this one still feels the most accessible thanks to its collection of recognizable radio friendly hits. Anyone familiar with 70’s rock has likely heard “Do It Again”, “Dirty Work”, “Midnight Cruiser”, or “Reelin’ In The Years” at some point. Plus, it really does do a great job of showcasing the duo’s talents, both sonically and lyrically. As with most Steely Dan songs, you will find a lot of lyrics exploring relationships, and that is great, but one can also find stories about a compulsive failure in “Do It Again”, commentary on the Vietnam War in “Fire in the Hole” and an exploration of the dangers of power on “Kings”. The whole album is carefully put together and unique, each song its own distinct feel. Clocking in at a near perfect 40 minutes, Can’t Buy a Thrill gives just the right amount of music to leave the listener satisfied with their listening experience, not bored but also not wishing it was longer. I honestly don’t really have any complaints with this album, but as with all of these blogs, I’m very biased.
Steely Dan is a truly unique band for a number of reasons. Obviously their meticulous nature and distinct style of songwriting set them apart, but the fact that 2 men were in near total control over every piece of the music doesn’t exactly align with the common collaborative songwriting style that many bands would employ. Say what you will about these guys, but damn they sure did make some good music.
Thanks for reading. On this one I’m confident that everyone will enjoy at least a little bit of this album.
One day we were walking down a long and lonely road…