Bob Lefsetz is a music industry observer, and publisher of the Lefsetz letter:
Insiders will tell you the best Steely Dan album is the second, “Countdown To Ecstasy”, the one that ended their touring career, the one sans any hits.
But last night I became a believer.
“Show Biz Kids” swung.
But “My Old School” was STAGGERING!
“I remember the thirty-five sweet goodbyes
When you put me on the Wolverine
Up to Annandale”
For the uninitiated, for those who grew up in the midwest, or even further left, Annandale-on-Hudson is the location of Bard College, where those who were smart but thought high school was b.s. and didn’t have the grades commensurate with their intelligence ended up going to college to further their creativity. It’s where Walter Becker and Donald Fagen went to school before they moved on to back up Jay Black as two of his Americans and ultimately get a deal with ABC Records, the worst of the major labels, where they were forced to get a lead singer, David Palmer, since Fagen’s voice was supposedly not radio-ready.
Then the insane occurred. Steely Dan was successful out of the box! After struggling in the trenches for years, plying their trade far from the spotlight, Steely Dan was an AM radio fixture. Not an FM staple. FM was in the process of getting dumb, featuring meat and potatoes rock as opposed to intelligence, but the hooks of “Do It Again” and “Reelin’ In The Years” could not be denied by AM, “Can’t Buy A Thrill” became a huge hit, an album you saw oftenmost in the dorm rooms of those not quite hip, they didn’t have to worry about their cred, they were able to buy what felt good without worrying about external judgment.
“Can’t Buy A Thrill” is a masterpiece. Unfortunately, Mr. Palmer sang the lead vocal on the most legendary track, “Dirty Work”, and therefore when done live it hasn’t got the same power, backup singers taking the lead, but Mr. Fagen still sings “Reelin’ In The Years”…
“You’ve been telling me you’re a genius
Since you were seventeen
In all the time I’ve known you
I still don’t know what you mean”
In this era of self-promotion, “artists” tell us how great they are (can you hear me Kanye?), whereas the music used to speak for itself, it was your calling card, in an era that seems far distant. But for those of us who lived through it, when we hear these Steely Dan songs we’re brought right back. Yes, last night Becker and Fagen and their troupe of hired gunslingers returned us to what was and who we used to be. And one could say it was aged music, but like wine, some things get even better as the years go by.
This is our classical music. And even though youngsters might not understand, they’ll be positively blown away by the musicianship. That was the focus, not staging, not production. John Herington, a fellow most have never even heard of, blistered elite-level guitar solos, Jim Pugh blew his face out on the trombone, and Keith Carlock pounded the skins, earning Irving Azoff’s sobriquet as the best touring drummer.
Still, we were there to hear the music.
It was billed as a complete performance of “Aja”. And it was, right off the top.
“I’ll learn to work the saxophone
I’ll play just what I feel”
Credit the Beatles. They proved the older generation had no clue. Suddenly, the acts were in charge. You could work in the studio of your choice, for seemingly as long as you liked, laying down your vision.
But Steely Dan was not on Warner, they were on the aforementioned ABC, they had to earn this right. Which they did with not only their spectacularly successful debut album, but the hit “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” off their third disc, “Pretzel Logic”. It was no longer about hits, it was about EXCELLENCE! Becker and Fagen were competing with no one other than themselves.
The apotheosis was “Aja”. When they didn’t give a fuck what their audience thought and delivered a jazz-influenced album. To a world that was enraptured with corporate rock. Listeners dropped the needle and were surprised. There was the mellowness of a corner club, where in this year of the Sex Pistols punkers were not pogoing, but old jazzbos were blowing.
But “Aja” was so right, that despite having no AM hits it became a staple on the soft rock FM stations, and in the houses of those not only sipping wine, but denizens addicted to sound, Steely Dan was the foremost warrior on this front, in an era when squashed MP3s, never mind compressed CDs, were unheard of.
Dancing is an involuntary motion. Maybe not for Paula Abdul, but for the rest of us, especially we self-conscious white folk. But sometimes the sound emanating from the speakers is just SO funky that you turn into Gumby, you’re shimmying and shaking, even if you previously believed you had as much soul as Steve Martin in “The Jerk”.
“Josie” is the last track on the second side. There are only three cuts on side one, a risk heretofore unknown in the rock world. You could have ONE cut per side, like Jethro Tull, but THREE?
Whereas the first side ends with the reflective “Deacon Blues”, side two immediately stands at attention with “Peg”, as if the singer had gone to bed, and gotten up to do it all over again, not like a star, but a musician.
The band finished “Aja”, there was a standing ovation. And then the show truly got good. “Aja” put the butts in the seats, it was the draw, performed flawlessly, it still had a sense of nostalgia, a sense of calcification.
Then Steely Dan blew the roof off the joint.
They played tonight’s “Babylon Sisters”. The anthem for the change of the decade, from the seventies to the eighties, as the boomers finally realized they were getting older and became reflective, before they raped and pillaged in the Reagan decade.
They also performed “Hey Nineteen” and “Time Out Of Mind” from “Gaucho”.
But we also had Becker standing up to the mic to sing “Daddy Don’t Live In That New York City No More”. As unexpected as that performance was, the killer of the evening was “Don’t Take Me Alive”, in a sneak peek from Monday’s show.
But the surprises were from “Countdown To Ecstasy”. Hearing John Herington play the lead on “Bodhisattva” was like visiting a future world where the seventies were perfectly preserved, but still positively ALIVE!
DEACON BLUES 2
“This is for me
The essence of true romance
Sharing the things we know and love
With those of my kind
That stagger the mind”
This was not an AC/DC show, not a Rolling Stones extravaganza, I didn’t see a single person under the age of twenty in attendance, no parents bringing their kids to expose them to what once was, when they had all their hair and their bodies were not lumpy. This was a pilgrimage to Mecca, a journey to what once was and still is for those who lived through an era when if you wanted to know which way the wind blew you didn’t fire up the Weather Channel or Accuweather.com, you put a record on the turntable. The limit-testers were not techies, but musicians, all of whom had seen the Beatles and picked up instruments, practiced and then gone off in divergent directions, all of which we paid attention to. We could love the Allman Brothers and Joni Mitchell. James Taylor and David Bowie.
The sun is setting on these baby boomer acts. Their audience is getting older, fans don’t feel the same need to go to the show. But if you’re a musician as opposed to a star, you play anyway. That’s what you’re in it for, not the fame, not the riches, but the SOUND!
Last night we exulted in the sound.
MY OLD SCHOOL 2
“California tumbles into the sea_
That’ll be the day I go_
Back to Annandale”
Even though “Aja” was released when I was firmly ensconced in Los Angeles, its performance brought me back to college, when the future was an irrelevant haze and I lived to spin records, nothing else on my mind.
Getting nostalgic for New England, the band swung into this 1973 tune.
I was thinking about the east coast game, getting good grades to get into a good college, the brisk fall days, the emphasis on intellectual activities, and then I heard the above lines.
When the Big One hits, that’s when I’ll think of moving back east. Because just like all those bands, Steely Dan included, I moved to California to ESCAPE! The hierarchy, the b.s. I needed to be free!
I’m not talking about Republican free, where you can’t marry who you want to, where the government is in your personal business, but a sixties free, which extended, just like Steely Dan, into the seventies. Where the world was a land of possibilities, and it was up to you to grab hold and go for a ride!
DEACON BLUES 2
“I cried when I wrote this song
Sue me if I play too long”
The foremost misquote in the Steely Dan canon. Those who were casual listeners, who didn’t purchase the album, who didn’t live for the music, are under the impression it’s: “Sue me if I play it WRONG!”
An artist can’t worry about the audience’s judgment, the only right and wrong is in his head. The only thing an artist can worry about is if people stop paying attention. Then again, are you willing to take this risk?
No one is anymore, not anyone with any traction. They’re afraid of giving up what they’ve got. Hell, even Garth Brooks failed with Chris Gaines. You’re supposed to give people what they expect.
But music blew up because that precept was nowhere to be seen. No label honcho could envision, never mind execute, “Sgt. Pepper”. It took Steely Dan six albums to get to “Aja”. And what resulted was not only completely unexpected, unlike the evanescent hits of the day, that drivel you can look up on “Billboard”‘s site, “Aja” has got legs, it sustains, it sounds as fresh today as it did back then. Truly. That’s what originality will do for you, whether it’s Becker and Fagen or Picasso.
Too much of what Steely Dan represents has not only fallen by the wayside, it’s been actively SUPPRESSED!
Kids are not liberal arts majors, contemplating existence, they study business. What kind of music does a business major make?
I ain’t got much money. But like that old Frank Sinatra song, I’ve done it my way. It’s been rough, but worth it. I’ve got no regrets, nobody I fucked over to get ahead. I’ve got the music. And my writing. And I constantly get e-mail telling me there’s too much, to not only not overload people, but to release it in drips and drabs, to improve my career arc. But my creative process does not work that way. And I keep writing not only to get it down, but in search of the Holy Grail, where I get it EXACTLY RIGHT! Like my heroes of the sixties and seventies, who worked in a different medium, sound as opposed to print, but were on the exact same journey.
“This brother is free
I’ll be what I want to be”
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Keith Carlock best drummer period.
As a retired console jockey (the first half of my career,) I’ve got to say that Aja (the song) gets my vote for best performed, engineered and produced single song of all time. It’s truly a work of art. It’s the way things SHOULD be. It makes the hair on my arms stand up every time I hear it, and I’ve heard it hundreds of times.
I was there too and Becker and Fagan and the music were the best! Never seen them live and that drummer stepped into Steve Gadd and Rick Marotta’s studio shows and stomped!! And the guitar player, Jon Herington, took those classic Elliot Randall, Skunk Baxter, Danny Dias solos, gave some appropriate nod to them and then brought us into his live guitar solo world-WOW!!! Hearing these great recorded masterpieces live gave me a whole new appreciation for these tunes…
I brought my 17 year old double bass playing son and he brought some of his jazz friends and they were electrified—we drove home so excited and even talked about the lighting!!! From Aja with “banyon trees” to “You gotta shake it baby” on Babylon Sisters…
I gotta go see them with Larry Carlton now….
gotta agree with you at about keith carlock. i may have played with him more than anyone in the biz, and believe, me this guy is terrifying. not everyones cup of tea, but an undeniable force on drums.
thanks for re-affirming my firm belief..
new york city
I am off to see The Royal Scam show in a week or two at The Chicago Theater, but I did see them in the same venue last tour.
When they played and then finished the song “Aja,” I just whooped out loud.
My wife turned and looked at me and said “Wow, I’ve never heard you whoop.”
It was that good . . .
thanks for bringing up SOUND.. I get high on SOUND. I am in it for the SOUND! I played with Crosby Stills and Nash live in arenas for a long time, played with a lot of people through the years, and to touch a keyboard and make energy happen where there was none before is so exhilarating. To be able to plug into all of that makes the rest of life two dimensional in comparison.
I install nightclub sound occasionally, and yes, I still put on a Steely Day record to dial in a system as so many engineers do. Even with Fagan’s whine-y vocals, the SOUND is superb, and I can set up a system for abusive, crushing DJ’s, by referencing the Steely Dan records and the system always works, no matter what they put through it.
Many friends were there, but I am getting my youngest off to college and could not make it.
Thanks for the review.
“Too much of what Steely Dan represents has not only fallen by the wayside, it’s been actively SUPPRESSED!”
Funny you write this, because everyone who is anyone in the music business went to one or more of the Steely Dan shows at the Beacon Theatre in New York City. Just listening to them talk, and from seeing the “Aja” show myself, it was like a trip down memory lane. The good ole days. And we all thought “Why can’t music be good like this anymore?”
I can remember the first time I heard “Do it Again” in the car. It was one of those pull over to the side of the road moments. And 38 years later I’m still in thrall. Not only did they make 7 perfect records in eight years, each one different from the other. Not only did they set the mark for lyric intelligence, pop hooks, extended suites and stunning playing but they are also the benchmark of excellence for the 70’s recording aesthetic, pre digital, pre pro tools. Those records still sound amazing today, like Kind Of Blue sounds amazing today. You were right on the money – this IS our classical music and it will resonate down the decades, be studied, lionized, as it deserves.
Bravo!! Love your Steely Dan piece. Don’t forget the genius of their engineer, Roger Nichols.
Steely Dan, Rufus w/Chaka Khan and Orleans all had our debut LPs come out in the same “cluster” release by ABC in 1973.
ABC dropped Orleans after our 2nd LP, which contained “Dance With Me”, because they “didn’t hear any hits”. We went to Asylum and things got WAY better.
We’re still touring some, now 37 years in, and on a night off, it’s FANTASTIC to go catch some of the great shows still out there. And it’s hard to beat a Steely Dan show! Although here in Woodstock NY, last nite I caught Pat Metheny, Jack Dejohnette and Larry Grenadier… Not too shabby. Yeah. We’re all “old”. Works for me.
After all your yakking about Jim Dickinson etc etc-
how could you not mention GARY KATZ in this ?
The SOUND of those records was absolutely incredible, and still is.
Way before digital recording– perfect clarity and presence, and above all, a sonic landscape that was totally organic to what SD was doing.
And- getting the lead vocals to cut through, smack you in the face, given the raw material, was totally amazing.
Please — a standing O for Gary– OK ?
The late, great Corb Donohue signed Steely Dan to ABC before the band had a name. Signed Buffett, too.
You just gotta see and hear Larry Carlton do the solo from Kid Charlemagne, even better live than his recorded version.
Towards the end of the break, he does one final bend with his left hand and then does something no one had ever heard on record before……..he “TAPS” the fretboard with his right hand! That TAP lifted the climax of the solo into new territory!
At The Beacon show, a guitar player friend leans over and says to me, “Remember, that was 1976. Van Halen (who went on to become the master of tapping) wasn’t even signed to Warner Brothers until 1977!”
At The Royal Scam show, Larry got a standing ovation after that solo. Every guitar player in the house was grinning and high fiving!
I saw 2 Steely Dan shows at Beacon theatre a few weeks ago.. Aja and royal scam. Larry Carlton played at royal scam show and that made it special. He played great guitar solo on kid charlemagne. I’m proud they live in NYC. Hometown rock royalty.
Steely Dan are, simply put, my Beatles. Thank you for the excellent history and fine thoughts on one smokin’ band.
this is so dumb that i had to tell you..
Of course like anyone who was around when steely dan first arrived i’m a fan.. and one of my favorite songs is kid charlamagne… I never really thought about the lyrics much.. just assuming it was about disillusionment as usual… But since you’ve been writing about them I’ve been walking around singing the song and was just going to send you the lyrics to the chorus.. However when I started to think about writing them down I realized that I was puzzled.. I always thought they were singing: Did you feel like Jesus/did you realize that you were Italian in their eyes… And I never understood what that meant.. but I figured maybe its like being from Jersey or something..
I just looked up the lyrics and fortunately its a champion.. not Italian… !!! Ahh.. well, you know.. what can I say. The last hilarious lyric mistake I made was many many years ago when I thought Gordon Lightfoot was singing about a peg leg they called Gitchigumi.. instead of the big lake… I think my boyfriend of the era who corrected me when he heard me singing it around the house and almost killed himself laughing …still tells that story.. I think it’s pretty funny too…
name withheld by request
Jon Herington (that’s the correct spelling of his first name) is my friend and colleague.
You wax poetically about your days in college, when music was everything.
Did you ever come into contact with an extremely gifted musician in your college? Not the average guy who “played in a band”, but an extraordinary musician who could hear a piece of music and then pick up an instrument and reproduce those sounds note for note, connecting with it both emotionally and technically? This person didn’t stop there. They studied and practiced hours every day, further improving their technique, further developing their “ear”. They worked at finding their own voice. They learned how to fluently read and notate music.
Then, they went out into the music world to ply their trade. No guarantee of a job or income, no health insurance.
They played so great, but also honed “people skills”, in order to get hired and re-hired by clients.
After years (sometimes decades) of working their way up the food chain, they get on the radar of a Becker / Fagen.
These players are great artists in their own right, as you heard at the SD shows.
In the “rock press”, the uninformed will write disparagingly of “session musicians”, the players who have been responsible for some of the greatest music, across all genres. The list is very long, but could start with the great Steely Dan records, and then move on to Motown, Aretha, S&G, Phil Spector, Beach Boys, Stax, Atlantic, Muscle Shoals, and so many, many more.
A large part of what made the Steely Dan show so compelling is the sheer brilliance of Walter and Donald’s band and singers.
Thank you for acknowledging my friends and colleagues. We here in NYC know Jon, Keith and Jim very well. They’ve played on both the big stages and in the trenches, and will continue to do so. I’ve played with all 3, and they are monsters.
With information so easily accessible today, there’s no excuse for failing to credit the players (when your mind is blown at a show), by just calling them “the band”. They are the guys (and women) who knocked you out. To not do so is to continue the sins of (for example) Motown, where the players who made generations dance went uncredited.
You lucky dog!!!
I saw them in June. They played a private show at a 600 seat theatre in Charlotte and I was lucky enough to land a ticket. Seeing them in such an intimate environment was amazing. It was almost dead silent in between songs and it was almost like Fagen was speaking directly to me! All 13 of them barely fit on the stage. Herington was right on top of Becker and the horn players were shoulder to shoulder. BTW:
“Too much of what Steely Dan represents has not only fallen by the wayside, it’s been actively SUPPRESSED!”
I read your letter the other night, but what you said above hit me again this morning so I went back and reread it. You couldn’t be more right about this. We are a fear-based society. We treat artists and children in the same way in that we don’t let them go out and play without standing over them waiting to stop the bleeding before it starts. The net result is a serious lack of ability and a side order of entitlement. It takes six+ albums to find an “Aja” &…..”The Nightfly”…..if you have mad skills and know no other way to live. A message to the gatekeepers….step the fuck back and let the kids play a bit.
Back in the 70’s I drove over a million miles producing rock shows all over Canada and I discovered that it’s impossible for me to ever get tired of Steely Dan music. I like all kinds of music, but even my beloved Beatles start wearing thin the third or fourth time through. But with Steely Dan you could stick the cassette in the machine and 8 hours later it still sounded fresh. (Maybe the quality of their ideas made it possible for them to spend so much time on those albums, without ever burning out.)
I just wanted to say that I am a huge fan of your daily (few times daily!) newsletter. I got turned onto your writings by a good friend and bandmember of mine. He told me on a recent tour through the states, while idling in our van, “Dude, you gotta get hip to Lefsetz.” Left-what? “Bob Lefsetz. He speaks the truth.”
Lots of my friends being somewhat-struggling musicians, artists, filmmakers, photgraphers, screenwriters, etc., and always constantly debating the ‘art vs. commercialism’ question, I have since point many of my creative compadres onto your very spot-on analysis and critique of the current state of affairs in our music industry today. It is, of course, always about the music. Isn’t it?? Maybe not.
Not to mention, your newsletter also begs to further explore the Artistic business in our world today – the corporate hegemony, and bait-and-switch tactics that many greedy, high-ranking music/film/etc. executives employ on a daily basis. As someone recently said to me, “Jay-Z didn’t get to where he is based on his tracks alone.” True, but also kind-of unfortunate.
So I digress.
The point of finally writing a response to you is that you hit the nail squarely on the head with this one for: The importance of Steely Dan. Walter Becker and Donald Fagen. To me personally, Steely Dan are ‘Kings.’ Raise up your glass. My older brother (drummer, and former metal-head turned jazz-freak) played me a couple of their tunes when I was 10. Particuarly “Peg” and “Bodhissatva.” I was floored. So much respect for the countless, umpteen studio cats they employed; the thousands of guitar, vocal and drum takes they discarded, before finally, and always “getting it right.” Never settling.
For reference, I play bass in a marginally-successful (and hopefully growing) indie rock/pop band – doing recent tours to England, Scotland, the entire US. Our music tends to stray a bit from traditional “3-chords and the truth” rock songs, and “verse-chorus-bridge-outro” pop tunes. Music, in my mind, has never been self-contained to structure. If it was, it would be boring, and predictable, and lose the core point of creativity: to construct without boundries. One would ideally approach writing music the same way Dali or Basquiat or Pollack or Picasso would painting: a blank canvas, lots of imagination, and no rules. I feel Steely Dan not only succesfully acheived this, but PERFECTED it in their approach to song-writing. No preconceived conventional notions about ‘what is right’ or ‘what the masses will like.’
While composing/rehearsing new music and ideas for our new album (and just about any other side-project I happen to be involved), we always seem to come back to a Steely Dan. Becker and Fagen’s production techniques, notorious perfectionism, and uber-incredible musicianship constantly displayed with whatever they touched. A pop band, who played as good as Miles Davis’ Quintet. What a novel concept!
Speaking from within my own 27-year old perspective, and my Brooklyn/DC/LA-based crew of musician friends, Steely Dan were, still are, and always will be a band that can be studied: guys that PLAYED! Old folks dig them, Berklee kids sweat them, true-blue, perhaps snobby music heads usually respect them, and pop-song afficionados wish they wrote tunes that cool.
My point is…if there ever was a band that I feel sums up the general tone of your newsletter, and overriding commentary on making music in general (art vs. commercialism), it’s Steely Dan. They didn’t give a fuck about anything but great tunes, and fantastic musicianship. They named themselves after a giant Dildo, for god’s sakes.
So, as long as I continue to be writing music, performing music, or recording in a studio, one of the simplest, and always-inspiring practices is to throw Aja or Pretzel Logic (any Dan album) on a massive stereo system, and just be ready to learn. Get ready to take some notes. Because Steely Dan are a virtual “how-to” tutorial on how to record and write music at the highest level. The Beatles are the Beatles. Everyone knows they were the first innovators. But I never heard Paul or George rip a solo like the one on “Kid Charlemagne.” Or chuck out dirty-funky dub gold like “Haitian Divorce.”. And still become commercially successful.
In one statement: Steely Dan fucking rule.
And by the way, if I were Obama’s campaign manager, I would have used “Kings” as our anthem…
“We’ve seen the last of good King Richard
Ring out the past, his name lives on
Roll out the bones, and raise up your pitcher!
Raise up your glass to Good King John!”
May Donald and Walter live on.
Keep on keeping on, Bob. You keep it real for many young musicians struggling for their own identity in this fickle, fashion-model as rock star world.
Bassist, Nightmare of You
The Curious Case of the Dan, the Brain, and the Critics.
I was listening to a Steely Dan album recently, and an interesting paradox struck me. To wit, how intellectually advanced groups (most often keyboard-dominated bands) are given relatively short shrift by the critic types: paradoxical because these critics tend to favor cerebral considerations over visceral (i.e., musical) ones. Critic types after all can expound upon socio/cultural significance and the like until the cows come home; and give ’em a zeitgeist or two and they’re literally salivating (or worse) on their Powerbook keyboards. It’s much harder to get a column out of how it feels going to the minor 5, or the pop revolution that was the Carole King chord. Especially if, like many rock critics, you have but the vaguest inkling of what these chords are. And yet it is by reinventing the building blocks of popular music — chord progressions, verse structures, melodies/harmonies, and of course lyrics — that the Dan exerted their huge influence on other artists: at least, upon
the artists musically adept enough to osmose and adapt what Fagen/Becker were doing. Take that cooker you mention, Bodhisattva. It boogies along, suggesting like all boogies before it that it’s going to be your standard 12 bar blues: G 4 bars, C 2 bars, G 2 bars, D one bar, C one bar, G 2 bars. But then, at bar 9, everything goes kaflooey: a bar of Eb Maj 7 (!), followed by a bar of A7 (what?!), then D sus, Bb (9), then Eb F and finally back home safely to G (whew!). It cracked my brain open the first time I heard it, and every time since. It’s reinvention like this that keeps pop music fresh, and interesting. It’s smart guys like Don and Walter that popular music needs to keep from sounding stale and inbred: or, to put it another way, like today’s radio.
But you might be going back to my original premise and saying “but critics liked Steely Dan: their albums were always reviewed glowingly.” True, praised, and then forgotten. I will bet you my house (well, the easement rights anyway) that more ink was spilled in one year on Nirvana than on Steely Dan throughout their 35 year career. Not meant to denigrate Kurt Cobain at all, but Nirvana is an excellent example of critics concentrating on what they know. To put it another way, Steely Dan influenced other musicians in the way they played, not the way they acted.
A classical musician friend of mine found a book which put forth an interesting theory on the thorny question of What Makes Music Good. Rendered to its essence (and it goes without saying VERY general), it comes down to a pleasing ratio of Familiarity and Surprise. All surprise would end up atonal, nonsensical noise. All familiarity ends up boring, predictable. What we want is to feel comfortable — in a known surrounding (basic song structure, lyrics in understandable English) — and surprised (Eb Maj 7?! Really?!). Steely Dan have been at the very top of the list of people who excel at delivering the best of both worlds, who challenge and delight us in equal measure, for decades. And, in the past 20 years or so, that A list has had the following additions:………………………………………………………………………………………………………….
I was the VP of Album Promotion for ABC here in Los Angeles when AJA was released. Before the album was given to us we heard a few comments from higher ups saying, “We will understand if this will be difficult to get played.” After a trip to the parking lot with Gary Katz, I will never forget sitting with Steve Resnick, the late Charlie Minor and and cranking up the album. Needless to say AJA blew us away and Charlie said “get creative” and get it played. Collectors may remember we put out a few special 12″ LP’s that included a Blue Vinyl “wide grooved” for sound quality “Deacon Blues” and a special ”Blacker than Black” vinyl for “Black Cow”. The production department hated us because we rejected the first black LP’s because they weren’t black enough and they were small grooved, rather than the wide grooved that was requested. I remember our legendary Philly rep, Matty “the “Humdinger” Singer, hollering, “but they’re six minutes long”, but of course that didn’t stop him and all the
great staff we had at that time.
Somewhere in the depths of my closet lies a black t-shirt that bears the original Steely Dan logo (from “Can’t Buy A Thrill”) and on the back, “SPRING TOUR 1974”, which was the one and only tour they did until the ’90s. I can no longer fit into it but every time I see it, it brings back memories of seeing them on stage in Boston (with Duke and the Drivers as the opening act). Also have a t-shirt from the first tour they did after that, sometime, I believe, in the 90’s…nice but no where near the same cache.
I was still in retail when the local PR guy (Dick Lemke) came into the store I was working in touting this new group, Steely Dan (we reported sales to the trades so we were one of his regular stops). That was “Can’t Buy A Thrill”. By the time “Countdown to Ecstasy” was released, I was working for ABC Records and REALLY got into the group.
“AJA” was the last Dan LP I sold before the label got sold to MCA…..we offered everyone a one time deal. Buy before street date and you could buy the LP at the $7.98 cost price because the SRP was going to be $8.98 on all LP product moving forward. Great deal but we still got complaints about the increase to $8.98.
Makes me miss he good old days.
I used to hang around the mastering room at one of the major labels in Nashville, as I found the subject fascinating, and still do. Mastering engineers are a breed apart, they have unbelieveably perceptive ears and ways of making a beautiful mix sound far, far better. They are the finish carpenters of the recording business.
The mastering engineer at the facility I used to hang at was obsessed with his craft – the best in any field are, I suppose. He would put the records he really liked through his test instruments, which included an oscilliscope. I came in one day and he was beaming. He had just scoped Aja, which was just out. “I want you to see this.”
He started up the song again. The classic bell curve that records had back then, and may still have today for all I know, was present on this track, too. But then something started to change during Wayne Shorter’s famous one-take solo. The upper end of the bell curve started inching upward until, by the end of the solo it had practically flattened up at the top, making, as Mr. Laskow says, the hair stand up. (In my case it was the hair on the neck.) The instant the solo is over the bell shape returns.
Now, I am not sure what signal the mastering engineer was reading, though I had the impression it was the entire spectrum. But whoever mastered that recording subtly helped
Wayne Shorter’s solo build suspense, even more than Wayne was doing by himself.
It was amazing to see the care that went into dramatizing this song. I wish I had sat with the engineer through each of the songs, but I had a session of my own to get to.
I wonder if most of your readers know who Kid Charlemagne is? The best piece I’ve read about Owsley is Robert Greenfield’s in Rolling Stone’s 1967 40th Anniversary issue.
The world’s greatest LSD maker & one of the true visionaries & practitioners of amplified music. One of the most fascinating characters of the last 50 years.
When I first heard the song in 1976 I toasted Steely Dan’s inspiration!
did I ever tell you that I started singing the lyric as “Babylon sisters… shegetz,” once I knew that word?
Nick asks “Why can’t music be good like this anymore?”
Cuz people wouldnt want it. Steely Dan were and are amazing. They didnt tour when Aja was new, but they had a record label behind them.
I couldnt get ARRESTED if I put out an album like Aja now. (In fact, I couldnt get arrested if I put out Thriller now)
Have to share a Herrington story: Mercury Lounge, NYC… people constantly pack that stage with oversized gear to fill a 150-cap room. In walks this dude with a PIGNOSE – Bob if you know these amps, they’re the size of your shoe. He doesn’t even pop it up on a folding chair, just sits it on the floor and tells the soundman to mic it. Pulls out a dark red SG w/a Bigsby tailpiece — and rips the most badass guitar I’ve heard in that club. Can’t even remember the band’s name. But I remembered his.
I’m in no way stealing any thunder from the astounding Steely Dan, nor the great Larry Carlton, but…
You need to go back even further for guitar tapping credits. Of course, no one can claim to be the first to do so, but I CAN say that Steve Hackett was incorporating it with Genesis as early as 1971.
I count myself as a huge Steely Dan fan. But I just want to weigh in with a “minority view”.
I’m 50 y.o. Steely Dan was just way too overplayed in the old days, whether it was the big hits like “Do It Again” and “Reelin in the Years” by local bands at High School dances or the albums of the late 70s wafting out of every college dorm room. I can appreciate all that material, but suffer from permanent burnout and can’t get excited and pump my fist to “Peg”.
When I go to see Steely Dan, I go for the new stuff: the brilliant “Two Against Nature” and “Everything Must Go” plus anything new that they might be working on. Exactly what they no longer do! Usually I hate when rock bands don’t perform their hits in concert and instead ply us with new stuff. Usually old farts trying to rewrite the piss and vinegar songs that made them famous. But here is one band, SD, dwelling in the most mature edge of rock … jazz, really … where it makes the most sense for them to continue writing. But instead, they cash in with these ridiculous stunt-concerts. Would Miles Davis have consented to performing Kind of Blue from start to finish in ’91? Heck no. He was always progressing. Does anybody really want these guys to stop writing and recording? Your old age is when bitter/ sardonic is best.
R. Emmett McAuliffe
Haven’t seen The Dan this year yet, but went to see them 2 years ago at DTE Energy Theatre, north of Detroit. (formerly Pine Knob)
They opened with AJA and the crowd went wild.
Donald spoke into the microphone after the crowd died down. He said, “Thank You! Great to be back… here at… what we like to call…. PINE KNOB!”
The crowd went wild again. We remember, and so do Donald and Walter.
Tim Wheeler, Songwriter
There are literate intelligence, perspicacity, informed creativity,
idiomatic quirkiness, iconoclasm, perfection, and stunning independence in everything Steely Dan (Becker, Fagen, and everyone who’s ever played with them) has ever done. They daily remind us of how we should all be doing whatever it is each of us does.
in deference to R. Emmett McAuliffe, Miles did indeed “go back” – Montreaux 1991 (ironically) and played the arrangements honoring his greatest friend & partner in music, Gil Evans. Quincy was at the helm.
Enjoying the discussion about Steely Dan and wanted to add further to Jon LaFloe’s comment that Steve Hackett was incorporating guitar tapping with Genesis as early as 1971. Another guy using the same technique around the same time was Harvey Mandel which can be heard on his 1973 record Shangrenade.
Keep up the great work.
Bob (and Jon and Jay) –
The original tapper – Roy Smeck, back in 1926 on a ukulele:
Go to 1:26. So yeah, he’s doing more of a Stanley Jordan thing than a Van Halen thing, but that’s his right hand hitting the fret board 45 years before Hackett.
Roy Smeck also played banjo and guitar (and slide guitar), so I’ll bet he was tapping all his instruments.
But who knows – maybe Paganini was tapping his guitars and violins in 1801!
I could write a novel on what Steely has meant to me and all I grew up with. Right there after Beatles, Zep, Jimi, Jeff Beck , Floyd etc..
Jeff Porcaro was Steely Dan’s drummer when I was in High school.
My high school band, Me, the Porcaro brothers, Mike Landau, Jonh Pierce, Carlos Vega and Paich and Jeff would come play with us at high school gigs. We knew the whole Katy Lied record BEFORE it came out and after I got the gig with Boz Scaggs in 1977 when I was 19, Irving asked me to to do the ill fated Aja tour that never happened in 77-78?
Me and Denny Dias actually started rehearsing the parts.. a dream come true? It was not meant to be I guess. I have had the HONOR of playing with Donald and Walter, not at the same time, in strange and weird situations, Namely Jeff Porcaro’s tribute show in 92.. I was gutted by the loss of my brother Jeff. THE best groove drummer EVER, in my opinion. I was fucked cause I could not see ONE show on this latest an most awesome tour due to being in europe working. Bummed? beyond belief!
Larry Carlton is so awesome words cannot begin to express my feelings. Larry used to let me hang out with him when I was 17. I learned EVERY solo, and 30 years later did a tour and live record and won a Grammy with my “sensei” for a jam band live record.
I got a lesson EVERY night.
Now, the SOUND and Mixes of Steely, I love Gary Katz and have worked with him on Joe Cocker and more.. BUT Elliot Schiener was THE guy that MIXED and cut the basics. HE is an unsung hero, the best of the best! I have had the honor to work with him and call him my dear friend. He introduced me to my WIFE ( thanks Kenny Aaronoff and Bob Glaub as well)
ELLIOT is the MAN! Like a few, Al Schmitt, Geoff Emmerik, Roy Thomas Baker , Geoff Workman.. I could go on BUT ELLIOT was the mix master for the best of the Steely and “the Nightfly” in also one of my desert island records.. ALL of Steely stand the test of time and like the few great records, and it still sounds as good as it ever did. Jeff and me used to listen to Steely EVERY night on tour. I still do..
The new band, Herrington ( my pal and great player ) and the rest.. well you said it all. lets bring THIS kind of music back into the #1 slot. 450 bucks to see ( insert $$$ ticket to SEE pro tools FAKE singer- dancer “name here”) ..
Well fuck it
Steely RULES! Always will. Great music is great music. Sorry if you dont agree, then take off your punk rock T shirt off. Those cats are not worthy to suck the peanuts out of Donald and Walters stool.
I rest my case
Great pieces on Dan. I was at the NY request show and have seen them on just about every tour since they started again, but this show a few weeks ago was on another level.
And I just want to mention one thing-Steve Gadd changed drumming on the Aja track. Period.
He told me he did not view it as a solo behind the sax, but rather the way he felt the music. And he read a chart and did it in one take. After he finished the take, the Dan boys were settling in for him to keep recording it all day. He asked what they wanted him to do differently, and when they couldn’t name anything he got back on a plane to NY…. All true.
Keep up the great work.
Don’t forget Elliott Randall, who played lead guitar on nearly every album by Steely Dan from Can’t Buy a Thrill all the way through Aja! In my arguably underwhelming turn in the minor leagues of rock and roll, my most prized possession is a demo of one of my songs (circa 1981) recorded at The Village in West Hollywood on which Elliott Randall played 3 lead breaks; it’s almost like my lyrics and melody get in the way of his phenomenal solos.! Every time I play it for someone, I never tell them who’s playing the lead, but they almost always say, “Hey, that sounds like the guitar player from ‘Reelin’ in the Years!'”
Elliott has a very entertaining, funny, and free newsletter on the web; sometimes he tells some funny Steely Dan stories. Highly recommended.
I loved the ideas about Owsley, however if you want the updated Deal-E-O, you gotta hit the SFGate’s (aka the Chronicle), view on “the master””
Peace, Love & fiery trips,
Reading through all these great and heartfelt pieces about Steely Dan the past two days, I can only think that if all THESE people (writing) had been running the music business for the past 20 years…we’d still have one worth a damn.
Pursuant to your discussion of Steely Dan and their chord changes, check out this excellent breakdown of what arguably sets their music apart from the pack: the Mu Major Chord!
Growing up in Northern California, we could hit shows in The City, Sacramento, and anywhere in between pretty easily. If I wasn’t playing, I was going to shows…constantly.
One of the best, (must have been, I can still remember it), was at UC at Davis, an Aggie school just south of Sacramento, and about 35-40 minutes north of Stockon, my home town.
The show cost $2. The opening act was a band I had seen in bars a few times, and would eventually follow around the NorCal Club circuit for a year or two, playing The Bodega and other clubs the week after they did.
But the reason we made the drive was a band from the East Coast that all my muso friends and I had embraced as unique, mind blowing, and musically adventurous.
Next to Spirit, the only band making records that were carving their own path, oblivious to the cookie cutter trends of the day, and heading off the trail at every6 opportunity. We were not disappointed.
Where most bands strove for economy and hooks, Steely Dan used texture and dynamics. Their lyrics reached deeper, and their musicality combined elements that most ‘rock’ bands, could neither attain, or understand. All I can say is, Wow.
I read shortly after seeing them that they had decided not to tour, and would instead concentrate on recording. We were lucky to have caught that show, because it apparently was one of a handful that they did early on.
Reading your ongoing reports of their current shows makes me wish I could be there. I saw them the last time they were here in Toronto, and they were just as mindblowing as the first time, even more so.
Thanks for the ringside seat, Bob…it’s appreciated.
Don’t know if you ever saw this but seeing Carlton do Kid Charlemagne note for note reminded me of this guy. It isn’t that you can’t learn the riffs, it’s just that these iconic solos were played in the studio in front of two of the toughest critics in the biz and guys like Larry nailed them (in two takes spliced?).
I find the joy of the Kid Charlemagne outro completely missing in today’s
Your Royal Scam post made me think about albums in the wrong order – particularly Astral Weeks.
As a huge Van Morrison fan since the 60s, I always felt like something was wrong with the story sequence in Astral Weeks. The flow seemed wrong.
Then, in the mid 70s, Richie Yorke (who wrote a book on Van Morrison) told me that Van had told him that the record company put the tracks on Astral Weeks in the wrong order so they would fit on the album.
Van was pissed because he said it was the first Rock Opera and that the re-arrangement destroyed the integrity.
When Richie asked him the correct order, he wouldn’t say. He just said people would figure it out.
My sense is that he did it the way he originally intended when he played live at Hollywood Bowl. It sounded so right.
I notice that the Astral Weeks Hollywood Bowl set list was …
“Slim Slow Slider”
“The Way Young Lovers Do”
While the album is…
“The Way Young Lovers Do”
“Slim Slow Slider”
It never felt right ending with Slim Slow Slider.
Does anyone know if the live version is the ‘correct order’?
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