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STEELY DAN

Jazz Rock/Fusion • United States


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Steely Dan biography
Induction Year: 2001
Induction Category: Performer

Inductees: Walter Becker (bass, guitar; born February 20, 1950) and Donald Fagen (keyboards, vocals; born January 10, 1948)

"Steely Dan has been more of a conceptual framework for inventive music-making than a typical rock band. Spearheaded by a pair of resourceful musical auteurs - Donald Fagen and Walter Becker - they have done nothing by the books since launching Steely Dan in 1972. The band's very name is a scatological reference from a novel by Beat Generation anti-hero William Burroughs. Though Steely Dan recorded prolifically for much of the Seventies, they toured for only a brief spell early in that decade, deciding they much preferred the studio to the road. This allowed them to craft a wry, nuanced and hyper-literate series of albums - seven in all, released from 1972 to 1980 - that are highly regarded by connoisseurs of pop hooks, jazz harmony and desiccating wit.

Beneath the highly polished surface of Steely Dan's music, astute listeners could hear a visceral love of and identification with the very soul of jazz. Fagen and Becker referenced Duke Ellington, Stan Getz and Horace Silver at least as much as any rock-oriented source material. Even so, there was a certain accessible quality to songs like "Reelin' in the Years," "Do It Again" and "Rikki Don't Lose That Number" that allowed Steely Dan to connect with rock fans, especially those who were college-aged and -educated"

from Steely Dan's Induction Ceremony in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

In the year of our Lord, 1967, at the esteemed institution of higher learning known as Bard College located in Annandale-On Hudson New York, two jazz loving musicians met and decided to form a musical partnership that would cast a long shadow over American music over the 1970's and whose reputation and stature has only grown over time with new generations discovering their music and appreciating their unique and uncompromising way of making music. Never associated with progressive rock... yet.. as progressive as any group asssociated with progressive rock. Music made with crytic, highly intellectual lyrics grounded not in mythology or sword and sorcery but in the experience of living in 1970's America. Full of dark humour, social commentary delivered with a biting sarcasm by one of rock's greatest unappreciated lyricists. The music itself was a highly demanding unique treatment of the jazz-rock fusion that was so fre...
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Very Best of Steely DanVery Best of Steely Dan
Import
101 DISTRIBUTION 2009
Audio CD$5.71
$6.15 (used)
Aja (Remastered)Aja (Remastered)
Remastered
MCA Records 1999
Audio CD$1.56
$1.97 (used)
Can't Buy A ThrillCan't Buy A Thrill
Remastered
Geffen 1998
Audio CD$2.46
$0.26 (used)
Pretzel Logic (Remastered)Pretzel Logic (Remastered)
Remastered
Geffen 1999
Audio CD$1.56
$0.26 (used)
Gaucho (Remastered)Gaucho (Remastered)
Remastered
Geffen 2000
Audio CD$2.89
$2.88 (used)
Katy LiedKaty Lied
Remastered
Geffen 1999
Audio CD$0.99
$0.26 (used)
The Definitive CollectionThe Definitive Collection
Remastered
Geffen 2006
Audio CD$1.94
$0.82 (used)
Citizen Steely Dan: 1972-1980Citizen Steely Dan: 1972-1980
Box set
Geffen 1993
Audio CD$25.09
$18.29 (used)
Steely Dan Countdown To EcstasySteely Dan Countdown To Ecstasy
Remastered
Geffen 1998
Audio CD$3.30
$3.29 (used)
The Royal ScamThe Royal Scam
Remastered
Geffen 1999
Audio CD$2.99
$1.99 (used)
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STEELY DAN discography


Ordered by release date | Showing ratings (top albums) | Help Progarchives.com to complete the discography and add albums

STEELY DAN top albums (CD, LP, MC, SACD, DVD-A, Digital Media Download)

3.52 | 145 ratings
Can't Buy a Thrill
1972
4.00 | 157 ratings
Countdown To Ecstasy
1973
3.69 | 133 ratings
Pretzel Logic
1974
3.64 | 116 ratings
Katy Lied
1975
3.71 | 133 ratings
The Royal Scam
1976
4.14 | 227 ratings
Aja
1977
3.68 | 122 ratings
Gaucho
1980
3.25 | 68 ratings
Two Against Nature
2000
2.99 | 54 ratings
Everything Must Go
2003

STEELY DAN Live Albums (CD, LP, MC, SACD, DVD-A, Digital Media Download)

3.76 | 28 ratings
Alive in America
1993
4.00 | 4 ratings
In Concert
2008
3.00 | 1 ratings
Going Mobile
2013

STEELY DAN Videos (DVD, Blu-ray, VHS etc)

3.23 | 7 ratings
Classic Albums: Aja
2000
3.55 | 13 ratings
Two Against Nature
2000
0.00 | 0 ratings
Dilectus
2012

STEELY DAN Boxset & Compilations (CD, LP, MC, SACD, DVD-A, Digital Media Download)

5.00 | 1 ratings
Steely Dan
1978
3.57 | 11 ratings
Greatest Hits
1979
0.00 | 0 ratings
The Very Best Of
1979
0.00 | 0 ratings
Steely Dan
1981
3.69 | 15 ratings
A Decade of Steely Dan
1985
0.00 | 0 ratings
The Very Best of Steely Dan: Reelin' In the Years
1987
3.11 | 8 ratings
Gold ( Expanded Edition)
1991
4.00 | 4 ratings
Then And Now - The Best of Steely Dan
1993
3.40 | 20 ratings
Citizen Steely Dan
1993
4.00 | 6 ratings
Showbiz Kids: The Steely Dan Story 1972-1980
2000
4.00 | 2 ratings
The Definitive Collection
2006
0.00 | 0 ratings
The Best Of
2007
0.00 | 0 ratings
The Very Best Of
2009

STEELY DAN Official Singles, EPs, Fan Club & Promo (CD, EP/LP, MC, Digital Media Download)

3.00 | 2 ratings
Dallas
1972
3.50 | 2 ratings
Reeling In The Years
1972
3.00 | 2 ratings
Dirty Work
1973
3.00 | 2 ratings
Show Biz Kids
1973
3.50 | 2 ratings
Pretzel Logic
1974
3.50 | 2 ratings
Bad Sneakers
1975
3.00 | 2 ratings
Haitian Divorce
1976
3.50 | 2 ratings
Kid Charlemagne
1976
3.50 | 2 ratings
Black Friday
1976
3.50 | 2 ratings
Josie
1977
2.50 | 2 ratings
Four Tracks From Steely Dan
1977
3.50 | 2 ratings
FM
1978
3.50 | 2 ratings
Do It Again
1978
2.00 | 1 ratings
Do It Again (Hazlo Otra Vez)
1978
3.50 | 2 ratings
Peg
1978
3.83 | 4 ratings
Rikki Don't Loose That Number
1979
3.50 | 2 ratings
Hey Nineteen
1980
3.50 | 2 ratings
Time Out Of Mind
1980
3.50 | 2 ratings
Reelin' In The Years
1982
2.00 | 1 ratings
Remastered: A Sample of Steely Dan
1993
2.00 | 1 ratings
Sampler
2000
3.50 | 2 ratings
Cousin Dupree
2000

STEELY DAN Reviews


Showing last 10 reviews only
 Citizen Steely Dan by STEELY DAN album cover Boxset/Compilation, 1993
3.40 | 20 ratings

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Citizen Steely Dan
Steely Dan Jazz Rock/Fusion

Review by cfergmusic1

4 stars This box set, released in 1993 during Steely Dan's original comeback tour, collects every original album track released during the first phase of the group's career (1972-1980), in chronological and album order on 4 CDs/cassettes, plus various non-album rarities scattered throughout. One could almost think of this as replacing the original albums in that case, arguing that if you have this box set, you really don't need the albums, and vice versa (of course I'm crazy enough to own both sets.), so this is essentially a review of the non-album tracks, of which there are four.

The live version of "Bodhisattva" from the July 5th, 1974 show in Santa Monica, CA (the Dan's last gig for 19 years), is the only one to be officially released during the's band original tenure, as the B-side of "Hey Nineteen" in 1980. Prefaced by a memorable two-minute introduction by Steely's MC-in-residence, the constantly inebriated Jerome Aniton (who actually introduces Donald Fagen as "Mr. Steely Dan"), the band powers through with a fire not heard on the studio version. Even though Becker/Fagen did not like performing live in the least, the band nonetheless had a reputation for producing exciting, high-energy concerts, and some say that the '74 band was their best, with the double-drumming of Jim Hodder and Jeff Porcaro. The sound quality may not be that great today, but Steely's live engineer, Dinky Dawson, was a genius in his time (being the first person to mix the audience live with the band), and so this recording should be listened to with that in mind. This rendition appears in the middle of disc 2 in between the tracks from Pretzel Logic and Katy Lied.

The next track, "Here at the Western World" on disc 3, was originally released on 1978's Greatest Hits compilation and recorded during the Royal Scam sessions (and appears here between those tracks and Aja) but probably would have fit better on Katy Lied, as it's a gentle, piano-based medium-tempo tune typical of that album. This song about hanging out at a brothel (the "Western World") contains a typically stellar guitar solo by Dean Parks, emotionally affecting in its own way. Pop fans take note: one of the background singers on this track is the late Kasey (Kvitka) Cisyk, a national treasure in her ancestral homeland of Ukraine, best known for singing the original "You Light Up My Life" before Debby Boone replaced her vocal tracks for a Big Hit cover version of the tune.

Two rarities abound on disc 4: "FM," from the little-known 1978 film of the same name, also appeared on 1985's compilation A Decade of Steely Dan as the lead-off track. For the second and final time, Becker/Fagen employ a string arrangement, this time by Johnny Mandel of "MASH" fame; the chart employs rich, full jazz chords and string sections typical of Mandel. In another return appearance, Pete Christlieb ("Deacon Blues") blows his tenor sax again, and here's where we have an exclusive to this box for the first time; the version heard on the FM soundtrack and Decade feature a Walter Becker guitar solo at the end, but the version on this box, previously heard only on the closing credits to the movie, feature another Christlieb sax solo over the same ending loop. Christlieb gives it his all on this one, and his collaborations with Becker/Fagen would prove fruitful, as they produced his jazz album with fellow tenor Warne Marsh, Apogee, released in 1978 on Warner Bros. (Longtime Dan guitarist Denny Dias also assisted with production duties on that album, which by the way is essential listening for any fan of post-bop and West Coast jazz.) "FM" appears here between Aja and Gaucho.

The final track on disc 4, and on this box, is another exclusive: the rare 1971 demo of "Everyone's Gone to the Movies" (a song which originally appeared on Katy Lied) with the original band of Fagen, Becker, Dias, Jeff "Skunk" Baxter, and Jim Hodder. Stripped down to the basics, this version is much funkier than the later version (that guitar line will stay with you for days) and has less restrictive chord movement in the verses (the choruses are basically the same); of note is that Fagen's (?) keyboard solo on the album version was originally a Skunk guitar solo with the chorus at the end, as it appears here. Background vocals are supplied by Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman of the Turtles, who were calling themselves "Flo and Eddie" around this time; their parts should be fairly easy to pick out.

Although some people probably thought this was the complete representation of Steely Dan on record at the time, that couldn't be further from the truth. The pre-Can't Buy a Thrill singles "Dallas" and "Sail the Waterway," as well as various pre-Dan demos released as bootlegs, are conspicuous by their absence, solely because Becker/Fagen had trouble finding anything in the vaults that they liked. Of course now, most everything by the Dan can easily be found on places like YouTube, including those early bootleg demos, which certainly wasn't the case in 1993! The booklet includes a hilarious letter by Becker/Fagen to MCA vice-president Andy McKaie on this very subject, along with a lengthy press release regarding the comeback tours as well as various Dan artwork and paraphernalia. Only the most die-hard Dan fans will care about this sort of thing, though, so as great as this music and box are, I can only recommend it to them despite my high rating. 4.5 stars out of 5.

 Gaucho by STEELY DAN album cover Studio Album, 1980
3.68 | 122 ratings

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Gaucho
Steely Dan Jazz Rock/Fusion

Review by cfergmusic1

4 stars After the release of Aja in 1977, Becker and Fagen took their first real break from recording albums and occupied their time with other projects. In 1978 alone, they wrote and recorded the theme song for the DJ movie "FM" (which starred Michael Brandon and Eileen Brennan and came and went in the theaters), produced a jazz album with hot tenors Pete Christlieb and Warne Marsh called Apogee, and had the honor of having six of their songs covered by Woody Herman's Thundering Herd, one of the last surviving groups from the "big band" era of the 30s-40s. (Five of those arrangements were released on the album Chick, Donald, Walter & Woodrow in '78; the last was released as a bonus track on CD some years later.) And, oh yes, they packed up and moved back home to New York from Los Angeles to begin work on Gaucho, which would prove to be a major challenge for them, and as such, the last album of new material they would release for quite some time.

Any major Dan fan will tell you that Becker/Fagen always wrote about New York when they were in California, and ironically, started writing about LA on this album (i.e., "Drive west on Sunset to the sea" from "Babylon Sisters"). I suppose I have a different perspective on this; having lived my entire life in Los Angeles and being intimately familiar with the Steely catalog from a young age, every album has an LA feel to me, and especially this one?but this is more of a "relaxing at home at night" kind of feel, rather than the "tooling around Laurel Canyon in the afternoon" vibe of the early material. Given that I always listened to this album at night, it was an easy conclusion to come to, but it also feels like the twilight of Steely Dan's career, since Becker/Fagen broke up after this album and everyone thought the band was done forever (and in a way, they were right).

The leadoff track, "Babylon Sisters," captures this feeling about as well as any other. Opening with a dark, silky groove from Bernard Purdie and sleazy, phased-out Rhodes from the late Don Grolnick, this track contains more overt references to LA than previously heard in the Dan catalog (incidentally, I actually have driven west on Sunset to the sea listening to this track). Fagen collaborated with Rob Mousey on most of the arrangements for this album, and this track introduces some new colors into the ensemble?namely, bass clarinets by George Marge and Wally Kane, and light percussion by Crusher Bennett (for some reason I find it hilarious to think of a delicate instrument like bar chimes being played by someone named "Crusher"). In fact this album, having been recorded mostly in NY, features a lot of new faces to the ever-growing list of Dan session musicians?Purdie and Chuck Rainey (this track's bassist) are among the few returning players. The song itself builds on the slick feeling of Aja, but with a suitably darker tone which applies to the album in general. The muted trumpet solo by Randy Brecker has been a favorite for most of my life.

"Hey Nineteen" introduces another new element, typical of the burgeoning 80s?a drum machine (Wendel, engineer Roger Nichols' invention) based on samples played by Rick Marotta. (This is probably why most people don't like this album, arguing that the Dan's quest for studio perfection reached their limits with this track in particular.) This is essentially a "generation gap" song; a man getting on in years finds himself attracted to a young co-ed but quickly finds that they have nothing in common, not that that matters. This one is more upbeat than "Babylon Sisters" but uses a lot more space to great effect.

"Glamour Profession" is the longest track on the album at 7 1/2 minutes; it also closes out Side One, thereby following the same exact format as Aja?which is appropriate since this is basically "Deacon Blues" part two. The subject this time is high society people?basketball players, business executives?caught up in the drug-fueled lifestyle of the late 70s-early 80s (see also Zappa's "Cocaine Decisions"). The bridge, ostensibly based on Kurt Weill's "Speak Low," is yet another great sequence from the minds of Becker and Fagen, but the ending vamp has always struck me as a bit sleepy (or maybe that's just Steve Khan's guitar solo). Great track nonetheless. By the way, Steve Gadd's drum track is not filtered through a drum machine, although it may sound like it at times. Fun Fact: The name "Hoops McCann" was taken from this song for the name of John Cusack's character in the 1986 movie One Crazy Summer?which shows that there was at least one Dan fan in the writing room.

The title track opens up Side Two and borrows elements from a Keith Jarrett tune called "Long as You Know You're Living Yours" (as admitted by Becker/Fagen themselves; Jarrett sued and got a co-writing credit after the fact). This track arguably has more musical interest than that earlier creation, though; the verses go through a lot of different phases but somehow don't feel as contrived as you might expect. Jeff Porcaro makes a return appearance in the drum chair, and Walter Becker has his only guitar solo on the record here. (I haven't mentioned Becker that much in this review because he was not involved in most of the album's sessions due to being involved in a car accident, as well as other issues.) I'm not sure if this song is really about a homosexual menage á trois, but the reference to "bodacious cowboys" cracks me up every time.

"Time Out of Mind" seems to be cut from the same mold as "Hey Nineteen"; sparse rhythmic support anchored by Rick Marotta/Wendel's drum machine backbeats (I'm not actually sure if Wendel was used on this track or not). More oblique references to drugs ("rolling in the snow," "chasing the dragon") that can only be discerned by reading between the lines, as is the usual custom with these guys. Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits fame turns in a guest appearance on guitar, contributing mostly fills between vocal lines but with a nice solo on the end vamp. Another great instrumental bridge can be found here as well, bolstered by a horn arrangement with a full, five-man sax section usually found in big bands.

"My Rival" sounds at first like a futuristic video game (at least the organ does) before reverting to a slow, funky groove with Latin undertones from Nicholas Marrero's timbales. Rick Derringer contributes guitar fills before the verse and was originally in line to play the solo before that honor went to Steve Khan, in one of his best outings with the Dan. Becker/Fagen seemed to like writing instrumental bridges for this album, since this one has nice, crunchy chords under a square-wave synth lead.

"Third World Man" is the closer, one of the moodiest the band ever put together. One interesting fact is that this rhythm track originally came from the Aja sessions (which explains the appearances of Joe Sample and Larry Carlton) for an unreleased song called "Were You Blind That Day?" Having recently heard that song (in two different versions), I can say that that song, not one of their best to begin with, ended up much better in this form, but either way, it could only have worked on this album and not Aja. The song itself is most likely about a Vietnam veteran with PTSD who engages in questionable activity due to his disorder. Carlton has probably the best guitar solo of the album because, well, he's Larry Carlton.

Remember when I said Becker/Fagen had a tough time making this album? Gaucho took them well over a year to record, for various reasons. Becker's aforementioned issues during production, very extensive mixing after the sessions, complicated rhythm charts necessitating all-night recording sessions with the same band, the invention of Wendel to make sure they had nanosecond-perfect drum tracks?not to mention the accidental erasure of one of the best songs Becker/Fagen ever wrote, "The Second Arrangement" (although various "safety copies" of the tune exist and can be found on YouTube). Even after the album was released, the record label (MCA) decided to charge an extra dollar for every copy, which of course led to much consternation between MCA and Dan manager Irving Azoff. Basically, everything that could go wrong with this album, did go wrong, and by the time Gaucho finally came out late in 1980, both Becker and Fagen were thoroughly sick of the whole experience, of themselves and of each other, and decided to break up their partnership shortly thereafter.

For all that, though, the music contained herein passes the "Dan test" with flying colors and, over time, has come to be regarded as the triumph it always was. One can easily understand, though, why these guys needed a break from spending pretty much all their waking hours inside of recording studios for eight years, and in fact, it wouldn't be until 1986 that Becker/Fagen were "reunited" on model-turned-singer Rosie Vela's debut album, Zazu (produced by longtime Dan producer Gary Katz), and not until 1993 that they would reform Steely Dan and go out on tour once again. As usual, the good far outweighs the bad here, so I highly recommend this as one of the first two or three Dan albums that you should own. 4.5 stars out of 5.

 Aja by STEELY DAN album cover Studio Album, 1977
4.14 | 227 ratings

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Aja
Steely Dan Jazz Rock/Fusion

Review by cfergmusic1

5 stars I have to admit that I came to this review with more than a little bit of trepidation. How does one even try to write about their favorite album of all time? Aja has been with me for as long as I can remember?through most every major and minor life event pretty much since childhood?so long that it's hard to know where to begin, and even still, try to do the music justice. But I'd still like to try anyway.

This album, of course, is the one that really put Steely Dan on the map, the one where most people agree that their particular style of jazz-inflected rock was best represented. I would have to say that's pretty right on; even considering that these guys never made a bad album, this one generally stands out for its elevated taste, polish, songwriting, horn and rhythm arrangements, engineering?I could go on, but I think you get the idea. It's no wonder, then, that the album was the highest-charting of their career, making it into the Top Three in America.

On a more personal note, however, it's also the album that I turned to probably the most often (along with the surrounding SD albums, The Royal Scam and Gaucho) in the midst of a sometimes carefree, sometimes dysfunctional childhood and family life. Somehow, to my 7-year-old self back in 1997, and for most of my formative years from then on, it seemed to be one of the only things that made sense to my confused mind at that time. Given the fact that this album probably has more to do with progressive rock than any other in SD's oeuvre, and because of its deceptively cloudy mood in general, I'm not exactly sure what that says about my personality or how musically advanced I must have been at that time (having started piano at age 3 and gone on my merry way picking out tunes since then). Whatever the case, this is just one of those albums that I can safely say that my life would be a lot poorer for its absence.

Anyway, onto the music. "Black Cow" opens with a smooth, funky, phased-out clavinet (played by the Crusaders' Joe Sample) and guitar sequence that sounds as milky as this song's namesake drink mix. The lyrics seem to fall under the typical Becker/Fagen subject of individuals who seem to have lost their way in life?social misfits, in a sense. What's truly amazing is how the music primarily does not reflect this way of thinking; it's mostly happy-sounding due to the major key tonalities, but with a subtle hint of melancholy throughout. Larry Carlton plays guitar in a supporting rhythm role and he also helped with most of the rhythm charts; future Lawrence Welk employee Paul Humphrey turns in his only drumming appearance with the Dan here, and Victor Feldman plays a classic Rhodes solo that actually skips ahead of the beat very slightly (see if you can figure out where). The song rides out a vamp, not on the original tonic chord, on top of which chief horn arranger Tom Scott blows a mean tenor sax solo. "So outrageous," indeed.

The title track is widely recognized as the Dan's all-time masterpiece, which is pretty difficult to argue with. At almost 8 minutes, it's the longest track the Dan would record for some time (until "West of Hollywood" on their Grammy-winning comeback album, Two Against Nature). Not a moment of those 8 minutes is wasted, though, starting with the piano-led intro which is once again the perfect mood-setter for what follows. I interpret the lyrics, at their most base level, as expressing a longing or even homesickness for the Far East and elements of same (which makes sense since "Aja" sounds like "Asia"), but I'm willing to accept the possibility that it goes a lot deeper than that. The lengthy instrumental section that follows is firmly in the mold of "prog" but occupies a space all its own, in the first part bolstered greatly as usual by Denny Dias' guitar solo (in his last-ever appearance with the band; he would officially quit after this album's release) as well as Walter Becker's bluesy fills in the reprise (by the way, Becker's co-conspirator Donald Fagen gets in an appearance on police whistle in addition to playing synths).

The second part, beginning at about 5 minutes, is immediately darker and tends to hang on one specific type of chord (minor 11th); tenor saxophonist Wayne Shorter, who has always struck me as someone who saved his best stuff for other people's albums, continues the tradition of jazzers appearing on Steely Dan records; obviously, years of tenure with Miles Davis and Weather Report prepared him well for his solo spot, one of the Dan's best on any instrument. After a reprise of the intro and third verse, we return to the minor-key vamp from Shorter's solo, which is now a backdrop for the Dan's only recorded drum solo (from Steve Gadd, who remarkably needed only two takes to get this beast of a song down). Bubbly, atmospheric synths carry the track to its fade-out (intriguingly, fade-outs are shared in common by all seven tracks on the album). The perfect marriage of musicianship, lyrics, style and substance? Very likely.

Another mini-masterpiece follows with "Deacon Blues," briefer than the title track by only 30 or so seconds but longer on narrative. Opening with another evocative, Rhodes-led intro (with an "in-time" hold before the first verse), the song unfolds at its own leisurely pace, aided and abetted by drummer Bernard Purdie and bassist Walter Becker. The verse-chorus sequences are almost two minutes long but amazingly don't feel as long as they actually are; the horn voicings starting at the second verse are some of the crunchiest yet with the band. The instrumental section completes the trifecta on Side One by featuring yet another stellar tenor sax solo, this time by Pete Christlieb who was playing regularly on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show at this time. The lyrics, to me, paint a more detailed and slightly better picture of the kind of thing they were going for on "Black Cow," while still being typically impenetrable?is it about some poor schlub who's down on his luck, or a young upstart who wants to be a sax-blowing jazz cat (or both)? Who knows, but I always got a kick out of the "Alabama/Crimson Tide" reference even before I knew what it meant. Christlieb blows again, here and there, over the extended tag, almost trading off with phased-out guitar figures by either Carlton or Lee Ritenour. Viewers of the "Classic Albums" documentary on this album will delight at the discovery of a very faint bell-like synth part (originally meant to replace a flute) doubling the background horn line in the instrumental section. Overall, one of the Dan's best and most recognizable tracks.

Speaking of recognizable tracks, "Peg" kicks off Side Two and was one of three hit singles from this album (the others being "Deacon Blues" and "Black Cow"). The intro line is one of the few uses in popular music of the Lyricon, a primitive woodwind synthesizer, played by Tom Scott who would use it on several of his own albums. The tune itself is described in the liner notes by Becker/Fagen as a "pantonal thirteen-bar blues with chorus," even though it's actually not (by the way, in yet another nod to their jazz heroes, this is one of the few rock albums with detailed liner notes, such as might be found on a 50s-60s Blue Note record, with a complete rundown of who appears on what track). The lyrics are most likely about a pin-up girl or porn star, though probably not about anyone in particular. One-timer Jay Graydon's guitar solo is yet another celebrated instrumental excursion, and while it may not be the best guitar solo the Dan ever put on a record, it's certainly a lot better than every other solo they tried, as is borne out by the "Classic Albums" documentary. Michael McDonald, who was such an important part of 1975's Katy Lied, shares with Paul Griffin the harmony vocal, which underscores Becker/Fagen's love of thick chords. Graydon appears once more just before the fade-out. Also: as on "Don't Take Me Alive" from Royal Scam and "Babylon Sisters" on Gaucho, neither Becker nor Fagen actually appear on the track as instrumentalists.

The next track, "Home at Last," is still another instrumental (as in rhythm tracks) triumph for the group as well as one of the Dan's most literary sets of lyrics (based on Homer's The Odyssey). Based on Becker and Fagen's instructions, drummer Bernard Purdie (the only drummer to appear on more than one track here) essentially invented a new beat; the half-time shuffle, the innovations of which were later expanded and popularized by sometime Dan employee Jeff Porcaro, on Toto's classic track "Rosanna" (which itself also borrows from Led Zeppelin's "Fool in the Rain"). Beginning with the previous track, the lyrics on Side Two are generally more direct and sparse than on Side One?a nice contrast. More instrumental goodies: Vic Feldman's acoustic piano on the intro and each re-occurrence of the pattern; the horn backgrounds after the second verse which may or may not be augmented by synths (after all these years, I'm still not sure), and Fagen's brief synth solo afterward; and one of Walter Becker's tastiest and most lyrical guitar solos (which stands in sharp contrast to the Dan's "comeback" years where he tried to fill in every available space with licks). Purdue substitutes the ride cymbal for the hi-hat on the fade-out, which raises the intensity slightly and almost seems to hint at the aforementioned "Rosanna."

"I Got the News" is a track that Becker/Fagen had had in the offing since at least the Katy Lied days (the demo recording from that period is completely different though). Ed Greene, another one-timer in the Dan drum chair, points the way toward rap music by contributing a bouncy beat that ends on the same cadence every two bars; my understanding is that this became a sort of running joke among the LA studio scene of which Greene was a part. ("Hey, we need that fill on this track, let's get Ed in here.") Anyway, this track is sort of a distant cousin of "Green Earrings" as it has some of the same elements lyrically, but with kinkier undertones ("Slow down/I'll tell you when/I may never walk again"), as well as the fact that this track also has two guitar solos. Larry Carlton is featured on the first instrumental bridge (after "Broadway duchess darling"), which stands alone from the rest of the song while still maintaining continuity; Becker makes an appearance in the second bridge ("Spanish kissin"). In a rare liner note gaffe, the clavinet on the first bridge is uncredited (although it's probably either Fagen or Feldman). One of those tracks that grows on you over time.

The finale, "Josie," is more similar to the tracks on Side One than the previous three. Featuring an intro guitar line that most serious Dan fans already have memorized by now, the track rides an overtly funkier backbeat supplied by LA "drum guru" Jim Keltner, who also overdubbed a garbage can lid as percussion in the breakdown after the second verse (proof that the best can make anything sound musical). Josie is the prototypical hell raiser, who comes back to town to see some old friends and cause trouble with said friends as a form of celebration ("Sleep on the beach and make it"). Becker has maybe his best ever guitar solo on this track, and Chuck Rainey, who appears on every track except "Deacon Blues," utilizes the upper register in his bass line, which is unusual for him.

I think one of the keys to the success of Aja is how well everything hangs together musically. Much like Miles' Kind of Blue, it is all of a piece, with everything flowing together in a completely logical way (although now that I think about it, this could very well be down to the fact that most songs are the same tempo), and nothing wasted in terms of songwriting, musicianship?everything just, well, works. Obviously the Dan following had been building for a long time, with each album becoming more successful and allowing Becker/Fagen to hire Irving Azoff as their manager?he was also managing the blockbuster Eagles of the "Hotel California" period, and as such, he could afford to spend vast amounts of money on Aja's ad campaign (which included TV commercials!) so I'm sure that played a part in their success as well. Certainly having Aja in their back pocket put them over the top, which was a long time coming; I'd like to think that more sophisticated listeners and fellow musicians took notice as well, most notably the Crusaders who were producing similar music around this time.

Whatever the case, this album firmly cemented the name "Steely Dan" in the eyes and ears of many discerning music listeners by the end of the 70s. It's a certified classic for several very good reasons, and no self-respecting music collection, particularly one maintained by an individual with a keen ear for jazz, should be without it. Highly recommended, with no reservations whatsoever. 5 stars out of 5.

 The Royal Scam by STEELY DAN album cover Studio Album, 1976
3.71 | 133 ratings

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The Royal Scam
Steely Dan Jazz Rock/Fusion

Review by cfergmusic1

4 stars Not content with the bright, moccasin-comfortable sounds of their previous album, Katy Lied (which Becker and Fagen considered a failure because of technical gremlins), Steely Dan decided to once again change their sound radically; The Royal Scam, released in 1976, has a grittier, funkier and yes, darker sound than the Dan had explored previously. With this album, they resumed the practice of having a different cast of session players on every track (which began with Pretzel Logic). Gone are the days of the "Katy Lied band" as I call it (bass guitarist extraordinaire Chuck Rainey being one of the only holdovers from that record), giving way to a conglomeration of studio stars featuring no less than 27 musicians and around ten completely new names (including a new guitar hero in Larry Carlton, who was with the Crusaders at the time).

It is interesting to see the criticism levied at this record. A lot of people in my experience don't really like this album so much, and although I love it dearly, I can understand why. Much of the music is rather repetitive, built around four-, two- and even one-chord vamps ("Sign in Stranger," "Green Earrings") although this is not the case for the entirety of the songs in question. But the repetition doesn't bother me, as Becker and Fagen were always trying to do different things with their music (they even admitted they were trying for a disco hit with "The Fez"). They wouldn't have done it in the first place if they didn't find some musical merit in it (especially not at that time, when each successive album took longer to complete due to their studio perfectionism).

"Kid Charlemagne" is the leadoff track here, and incidentally, the inspiration for an old online handle of mine. Lyrically, the song is essentially a Cliffs Notes bio of 60s-70s LSD guru Stanley Owsley (or was that Owsley Stanley?). This track also serves as the official SD introduction to legendary studio drummer Bernard "Pretty" Purdie, who had played on several hits by Aretha Franklin and countless other artists (his grooves here are instantly recognizable), and as the unofficial introduction to Larry Carlton (unofficial because he did play rhythm parts on Katy Lied), who has two amazing solos which, reportedly, were done in only two or three takes! A definitive Dan track.

"The Caves of Altamira" is another holdover from the demo tapes, revised and updated for 1976. The original version was piano-voice demo with simplified chord movement and an extra verse; here it's a slick, hip studio production with an added horn section. The sax solo in the middle and end sections I believe is by smooth-jazz cat John Klemmer (if so, it's one of the only times I ever liked his playing).

"Don't Take Me Alive" is considerably nastier then the previous two tracks from the outset, starting off with a loud, arpeggiated G7+9 chord by Carlton who will come to dominate this track (more or less). The lyrics paint one of Becker and Fagen's most dystopian future visions yet, backed up by Carlton, Rainey and drummer Rick Marotta (another newbie to the Dan). I think Paul Griffin may be playing keyboards here. Another great one.

"Sign in Stranger" continues the theme of the previous track (an outlaw on the run from society at large), this time with a science-fiction bent. This is the beginning of three tracks built on rather minimalistic vamps (which are of course expounded upon between the verse lines). The end-of-verse turnaround and bridge add interest, and Paul Griffin has one of the all-time great Dan piano solos. Dig the out-of-left-field horn outro, with Carlton working his magic again.

Speaking of Griffin, "The Fez" is the only SD piece credited to Becker, Fagen and another writer (not after the fact like "Gaucho"). Paul Griffin is the third writer here, possibly because he played a keyboard line in rehearsals that Becker and Fagen decided to use in the song. The lyrics are about as simple as you can get ("I'm never gonna do it without the fez on/Oh, no" repeated six times), although some would view it as a safe sex PSA wherein "the fez" represents... well, never mind. Carlton soars over the bridge once again, which has some of the best harmonic changes the band ever put together.

"Green Earrings" is the last of the vamp-based tunes for now, again with a killer instrumental bridge section (I'm starting to think that Becker and Fagen saved their best stuff for the bridges on this album). Lyrically, it describes a con artist who only loves a woman for the jewelry she wears. This track is notable for having two guitar solos by different players, something not done since "Bodhisattva." Denny Dias is up first, and Elliot Randall returns once more to blow over the instrumental verse, and in the out-vamp where he employs a ring modulator during the fade-out. Serious Dan fans should check out the instrumental version of this tune, where the out-vamp is retained in full, running three minutes longer than the album version; the rhythm section really lets loose there.

"Haitian Divorce" was, surprisingly, a runaway hit in the UK where reggae was riding a wave of popularity thanks to the likes of Bob Marley and Peter Tosh. The lyrics are based on then-recent experiences by co-engineer Elliot Scheiner (who wanted a quickie divorce at the time), and the running commentary throughout the track is provided by talk-box guitar, played by Dean Parks and manipulated by Walter Becker. This is the only potential downside of the record, as the talk-box tends to make this track rather sleepy (although, having said that, it's a hell of a lot more tolerable than Peter Frampton).

"Everything You Did" is, I feel, one of the Dan's more underrated tracks. Maybe people don't like it because of the subject matter (about a jealous husband discovering his wife has been cheating on him)? Not sure, but I always loved it, especially the 5/4 bars in the guitar solo (Carlton yet again). Have I mentioned yet that Larry Carlton is all over this record? Well, he is, although his studio tenure would only really last until the next album, but more on that in a future review.

By the way, I've mentioned the Eagles quite a bit in my Steely Dan reviews, and it's mostly because of this line in the song: "Turn up the Eagles/the neighbors are listening." This was Becker and Fagen's "poke in the eye" to the LA country-rock titans whose "Greatest Hits" album was on its way to becoming one of the best-selling albums ever. SD evidently saw the Eagles (aka the White Drifters) as rivals because they both started in LA at the same time (but, refreshingly, bore no ill will towards them). Don Henley and Glenn Frey were flattered by the reference in this song, so they returned the favor in their huge hit of the same year, "Hotel California," with the line "they stab it with their steely knives/but they just can't kill the beast." Steely Dan and the Eagles are two of my favorite bands, so it's nice to know that they had a mutual admiration society of sorts.

Back to the album at hand, which ends with the title track. When people comment on the "dark" sound of this album, they're mostly talking about this song, which is about Puerto Rican immigrants in New York City (although Becker and Fagen changed the name of the city "San Juan" to "St. John," which is actually in Newfoundland, Canada). This is another vamp tune, based on six-bar phrases; in the key of C minor, the cycle unusually starts with the turnaround in the first two bars, then is followed by four bars of Cm7. Starting in the second verse, the fill-in solos between verse lines are played by Chuck Findley on trumpet and Dick "Slyde" Hyde on trombone. There is also occasional backing from the horn section, at one point featuring a low pedal C which I believe is played by contrabass trombone (???). At 6 1/2 minutes, it is the longest and best track on the album; I've always gotten off on the dark, brooding atmosphere it creates throughout its duration.

Even though some people don't regard Scam highly, I have a soft spot for it because it was one of the first Dan albums I had as a kid. (I actually started off with this, Aja and Gaucho, and somehow proceeded to work my way backwards through the catalog.) I refer to those three albums as the definitive period of Steely Dan, where their concept was realized more fully than any other album. If you're the slightest bit curious about this band, you probably already have this album anyway, but be sure to check it out if you don't; at least one song here will be familiar to you to begin with. 4.5 stars out of 5.

 Katy Lied by STEELY DAN album cover Studio Album, 1975
3.64 | 116 ratings

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Katy Lied
Steely Dan Jazz Rock/Fusion

Review by cfergmusic1

4 stars After Steely Dan released Pretzel Logic in 1974, they embarked on what would be their last tour for a while, in the US and UK. The touring band was Donald Fagen on keyboards and lead vocals; Walter Becker on bass; Denny Dias and Jeff "Skunk" Baxter on guitars; Jim Hodder and Jeff Porcaro on drums; Michael McDonald on keyboards and backing vocals; and Royce Jones on percussion and backing vocals. This tour has been documented on various bootleg recordings, although one official track (a live version of "Bodhisattva") has been released and will be covered in a future review. Anyway, after that tour, to cement their dislike of touring in general, Becker and Fagen effectively broke up the live band as well as firing their manager. Baxter took his steel guitar with him (although not to his next band, the Doobie Brothers), Hodder and Jones pretty much vanished off the face of the earth, but Dias, Porcaro and McDonald were retained to work on the next Steely Dan album, Katy Lied, the following year.

One thing that has always struck me about this album is the overall positive vibe of the music. Even though the Dan's first album as a studio band (and yes I do consider this a band, given that it was the same basic rhythm section throughout) had some technical problems in the end, owing to a malfunctioning noise reduction system that affected the quality of the final record, the music is crisp and punchy (helped out by studio pianist Michael Omartian on Bosendorfer), Porcaro lays down some great rhythms, Chuck Rainey shines on bass and Fagen's voice is as strong as it's ever been. In short, the new-for-1975 Steely Dan sounds like this was what they wanted to do all along.

"Black Friday" was, amazingly, a top 40 hit upon release (amazing because, again, there was no touring going on). Porcaro foreshadows his future as the shuffle king on this track (remember that this was the man behind the "Rosanna" groove some years later) and fellow Toto member David Paich plays electric piano as well. In spite of Becker's drug problems around this time (or perhaps because of them), he turns in one of his best solos. This may also be the only song I know of that references the town of Muswellbrook, Australia (which is located in New South Wales).

"Bad Sneakers" is, simply, a song about loneliness and isolation in Los Angeles. By this time, Becker and Fagen were very homesick for their hometown of New York and basically admitted that they only stayed in LA because of convenience. In hindsight, it's amazing that they could create such bright, positive-sounding music out of those feelings. Becker, in particular, has a very impassioned guitar solo (his last of the record). I also like the sitar-led refrain just before the verses.

"Rose Darling" shows Becker and Fagen trying some new things musically; the chorus utilizes counterpoint in the vocal lines and the guitar solo, unusually, was written out note-for-note (and played here by Dean Parks). Hard to tell exactly what this song is about; deception, murder or self-gratification? It rocks in its own way though.

"Daddy Don't Live in That New York City No More" (longest Dan title ever?) is notable for being the first appearance on guitar for Larry Carlton, who would come to define much of the sound of the next two albums, The Royal Scam and Aja. (The track, I believe, also features Jazz Crusaders saxophonist Wilton Felder on bass guitar.) This song about a mob hit is bolstered by a phasing effect on Fagen's voice and a low E note on organ (synth?) that rides the fade-out, almost subliminally.

"Doctor Wu" is one of the most famous Dan tracks and the one that has inspired the most lyrical interpretations. The sharp-eared listener will hear noise from the aforementioned DBX noise reduction system at the beginning of the track, proof of Steely Dan's technical gremlins around this time. Nevertheless, it has gone on to become a staple of the band's history thanks in part to Porcaro's solid groove, Omartian's piano backing and alto sax solos from jazz great Phil Woods.

"Everyone's Gone to the Movies" has a Latin-rock flavor to it thanks to Victor Feldman's percussion and vibraphone backing. The lyrics are about a peodphile who likes to videotape young children for his own personal benefit--not the most savory of lyrical matters, but the hooks are hard to get out of your head after listening to it. The Wurlitzer solo in the middle may be by Fagen; not sure. (There is a 1971 demo of this tune with the original band that I will review as part of the Citizen Steely Dan box set later.)

"Your Gold Teeth II" is the sequel to the track on Countdown to Ecstasy, in jazz waltz time (Becker has said that this version is more like the original, un-recorded version of the song). It opens, however, as a fast, 16th-note based tune with synthesizer lead and strange metallic noises in the background (which I assume is the "dorophone" credited to Porcaro). Dias has the perfect solo for this tune, although his contributions would continue to be sparse for a good while (starting with Pretzel Logic, he would only do one solo per album, up to Aja).

"Chain Lightning" can be considered the sequel to "Pretzel Logic," at least in terms of groove (this is basically the same shuffle played by Jim Gordon on the earlier tune). The lyrics, believe it or not, describe a Fascist rally (1st verse) and the return to the site of the rally some years later (2nd verse). Veteran guitarist Rick Derringer plays the solo, making his second and last appearance on a Steely Dan record (he previously played slide guitar on "Show Biz Kids" from Countdown).

"Any World (That I'm Welcome To)" is the only appearance of veteran studio drummer Hal Blaine (presumably Porcaro was busy that day). The lyrics continue the theme of longing expressed earlier in "Bad Sneakers," again with a great transitional hook and killer harmonies by Michael McDonald. (I haven't really mentioned him too much, but he is all over this album, although his best Dan moments would be still to come.) Dig the key change just before the outro vamp.

"Throw Back the Little Ones" is without a doubt Steely Dan's most compact/complex track, packing a lot of key changes, transitions and lyrical ideas into just 3 minutes. Amazingly, the song never feels rushed through or badly thought-out. (This aspect of the tune may remind some listeners of Gentle Giant, believe it or not.) Elliot Randall, he of "Reelin' in the Years" fame, has a sparkling solo that is typical of his sporadic work with the band and elsewhere. The piano outro is by Michael Omartian (dig those polychords at the end!).

As we know, Steely Dan essentially became the Beatles of the 70s (not that they weren't already) by operating exclusively out of the recording studio from here until Gaucho. I posit that their body of work underwent a subtle but tangible improvement because of this change, and for the most part, Becker and Fagen themselves would probably agree. I would also say that this album pretty much defined LA rock in the 70s (perhaps more so than the Eagles) and if you like a positive but not contrived sound in 70s rock music, you could do a lot worse than this. Recommended highly. 4.5 stars out of 5.

 Pretzel Logic by STEELY DAN album cover Studio Album, 1974
3.69 | 133 ratings

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Pretzel Logic
Steely Dan Jazz Rock/Fusion

Review by cfergmusic1

4 stars Well, after thoroughly immersing themselves in the Countdown to Ecstasy experience, which included recording and touring with the same band for about a year, Becker and Fagen were understandably sick and tired of the whole ordeal of playing on the road and began taking steps to rectify the situation. One thing they did was to record a new album comprised mostly of session musicians from New York and Los Angeles. This was, in fact, a lot closer to what they wanted to do originally, the rationale being that most other studio bands up to and during that time (including the Beatles, allegedly) used session musicians and met with much success in so doing.

That's the idea behind Pretzel Logic, whose personnel notes are listed in such a way that it's impossible to tell who is actually in the band (although Becker, Fagen, Dias, Baxter and Hodder are in the sleeve photo). It literally lists only the musicians' names and not their instruments, although the missing information will be easy to piece together for those who have studied the LA studio scene (like me). The album presents a slew of shorter, slightly poppier songs after the commercial failure of Countdown (only two songs are longer than four minutes). Much of the material was also held over from pre-Steely Dan demo tapes ("Parker's Band," "Barrytown"), which I suppose is one reason why I don't listen to it as much as other Steely Dan albums.

We start off with "Rikki Don't Lose That Number," the band's biggest hit up to that time. Opening with a flapamba (which is like a marimba) introduction by Victor Feldman, the groove is set by a backing rhythm which faintly resembles Horace Silver's "Song For My Father." The lyrics can be taken to be about a woman that the composers fancied who was leaving town, or (according to one interviewer) about a marijuana cigarette. Jeff "Skunk" Baxter turns in one of his best and most recognizable guitar solos, and even if he was on the way out after this album's release, you would never know it from his playing here (and he is all over this record, at least side one). A solid track, even if it does seem tailored for AM radio.

"Night by Night" is one that Becker and Fagen thought was the single (even though it wasn't). The late, great Jeff Porcaro makes his first appearance on drums for Steely Dan and gets funky with the phased clavinet and horn backing. Baxter turns up again on the instrumental verse and outro vamp. Another winner.

"Any Major Dude Will Tell You" goes back to the more optimistic songs that Becker and Fagen wrote in the early days even before forming Steely Dan ("when the demon is at your door/in the morning he won't be there no more"). Denny Dias and Jeff Baxter trade off the guitar line at the end of each verse, and Baxter has another solo (less in-your-face than the previous songs due to the delicate nature of the track). Of interest for prog fans: the reference to "have you ever seen a squonk's tears" would be expounded upon at length by Mike Rutherford on the Genesis song, "Squonk," only two years later. Maybe Rutherford was listening to this track for lyrical inspiration?

"Barrytown" is a straight-ahead yet snarky pop-rocker that feels like it belongs on the next album, Katy Lied. The pedal steel guitar on the first two albums makes another appearance here, although a later country-ish track ("With a Gun") has no steel on it whatsoever. The lyrics point to prejudice against outsiders due to a different way of life ("look at what you wear/and the way you cut your hair"). Dig the harmony vocals on the bridge!

"East St. Louis Toodle-Oo" is the one and only official cover on a Steely Dan record, originally written by Duke Ellington in the mid-1920s. (I usually take exception to bands that play primarily original music doing covers, but I've always had a soft spot for this track.) This version apparently combines three different Duke recordings into one, and significantly, Walter Becker plays guitar for the first time with the band (as he would come to do more of later on). Donald Fagen plays the piano solo as well as alto saxophone (his childhood instrument). The rest of the personnel has been documented and is included here: Jeff Baxter on pedal steel (transcribing what was originally a trombone solo), session guitarist Dean Parks on banjo, Jim Gordon on drums, and engineer Roger Nichols on gong at the very end. Great track.

"Parker's Band" continues Becker and Fagen's jazz tributes, this time about legendary saxophonist Charlie Parker. The lyrics are basically about a jam session, referencing Dizzy Gillespie, 52nd Street in NYC, the Parker tune "Relaxin' at Camarillo" and even Horace Silver's "The Preacher," all in Becker and Fagen's own oblique way. The outro features a dazzling dual-sax solo from, I believe, Plas Johnson.

"Through with Buzz" is the band's shortest track (at around 90 seconds) and has never really been one of my favorites. The verses are very short (only one line) and the chorus is little more than "all right, oh yeah," etc. The saving grace in my opinion is the string arrangement by Jimmie Haskell (who I consider to be a writing/arranging genius).

The title track (the first in Steely Dan history) is a bluesy, R&B-flavored number that has since become a concert staple. Becker plays the guitar solo here, which apparently took a while to edit together from different takes (although it flows about as well as any other solo). Gordon rides a slow shuffle groove on drums which would be appropriated (at least stylistically) for "Chain Lightning" on the next album.

"With a Gun" is another short song (about two minutes) and has more of a country feel. Baxter turns up with twangy fills behind the vocals throughout. The lyrics are essentially about an outlaw in the American Old West. Not much to say about this one.

"Charlie Freak" is moodier, built around a loping piano line that repeats throughout the track. The verses are unusually plentiful for a Steely Dan song but don't quite have the panache of Bob Dylan (a hero to Becker and Fagen). The addition of sleigh bells towards the end give the track a chilly, winter-y vibe, but it works.

"Monkey in Your Soul" is the closer here, and unusually features fuzz bass (which I believe is by Becker, who probably also plays the guitar solo). The lyrics could be about a failing relationship or a greedy record executive (one thing I love about Dan lyrics is their ambiguity, which can inspire different interpretations). The song (and the album) ends on a dominant seventh chord, which is unusual.

If it seems like I'm skimming over certain tracks here, it's only because they seem relatively unremarkable to me, even after knowing the music for much of my life. The best stuff here is among the best Dan ever recorded, but the second side is really uneven thanks to "Buzz" and "Gun". Although I like the album, part of my frustration is down to the fact that there really wasn't that much new material written specifically for the album. I'm sure Becker and Fagen could have written 11 new songs in between touring and recording Countdown, but they just re-worked older material possibly due to time constraints. Anyway, if all that doesn't bother you and you just want to hear the progression of the band into a studio unit, this should still be considered an essential part of the journey (this record definitely has more ardent fans than myself). 4 stars out of 5.

 The Royal Scam by STEELY DAN album cover Studio Album, 1976
3.71 | 133 ratings

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The Royal Scam
Steely Dan Jazz Rock/Fusion

Review by steelyhead

3 stars Jazz-Rock Fusion? Try Mahavishnu Orchestra Look, I love this group, hence my nickname, love every single track they ever composed but I don't think they are clearly a progressive group.

On the other hand who cares? This is one magnificent CD that has been on my living room while I croon to Haitian Divorce to my startled wife, her fault, she decided to marry me against all common sense.

Anyway I love this gem but I will give a 3 stars rating because I am a hideous person down deep.

But, a word to the wise: I'll never gonna do It without the Fez on. Comprende?

 Countdown To Ecstasy by STEELY DAN album cover Studio Album, 1973
4.00 | 157 ratings

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Countdown To Ecstasy
Steely Dan Jazz Rock/Fusion

Review by cfergmusic1

4 stars Two things happened after Steely Dan released their previous album, "Can't Buy a Thrill" in 1972: First, upon completion of the record, Becker and Fagen discovered that, to their great displeasure, they actually had to go out on tour to support the record (shock! horror!), which they did, enduring all that went on during these tours with commendable patience (mostly). The second thing was that lead vocalist David Palmer was fired from the band in the midst of these road gigs, after doing certain things that did not exactly endear himself to the rest of the band (some of these actions would qualify as "too much information" and will not be repeated here). As a result, "Countdown to Ecstasy" would be the only Steely Dan album specifically written for a working band, mostly because sessions for the album had to be done in between gigs.

I should mention (in case you don't know) that chief songwriters Walter Becker and Donald Fagen share a love of jazz music and have been incorporating their influences into their songs even from the beginning. The reason I didn't mention it in my review of "Can't Buy a Thrill" is because it really seems more appropriate when discussing this album, one of very few SD albums wherein they just "stretch out" and go on extended jams for most of the album's length. Perhaps because of all this, Donald Fagen himself claims this to be his favorite Steely Dan album ever. I'm not sure I agree with that entirely, but it does represent an artistic growth for the band after their solid, yet slightly inconsistent, debut.

"Bodhisattva" gets things started with a quasi-jump-swing drum beat by Jim Hodder, after which comes the extended multi-tracked guitar intro. Fagen (now the full-time lead singer) claims to want to be in touch with higher planes of religion, although given the tone of the song, one suspects his motives are just a tad misguided. Denny Dias has the first guitar solo, a burnin', jazzy romp through the altered blues changes. Jeff "Skunk" Baxter trades licks with Fagen's synth (an ARP Odyssey which he allegedly destroyed immediately after recording this track) and rides the outro vamp in another guitar solo that comes to a crashing end, proof that the song was built more for live performance than anything else. Because of the pseudo-jazz nature of the tune, it has been covered by Brian Setzer, Toto, and other less reputable individuals. (Also check out the drastic change in tempo at the start of Dias' solo--something that somehow managed to slip by the studio perfectionists Becker and Fagen.)

"Razor Boy" is a breezy, Latin tune that, apparently, was originally written as a reggae(?). This song is probably the most interesting in terms of rhythmic feel and instrumentation: there is Latin percussion and vibraphone, contrasting with countrified steel guitar from Baxter and string bass by jazz great Ray Brown. The lyrics, which seem to be about reflecting on one's last days, somehow don't get in the way of the good feel of the music. A real sleeper track.

"The Boston Rag" is a more direct, although slower, rock tune beginning with another proggy moment in the intro: Denny's guitar line is played in unison and harmonized with Fagen's piano. The real highlight of the track is Baxter's guitar solo played over a start-stop rhythm for the first 12 bars, then with the full band for the second half of the solo. I've always loved this one, even if the lyrics are a bit over my head (although part of it seems to be about one of Fagen's roommates at Bard College).

"Your Gold Teeth" is the longest tune on the record (seven minutes) and also the one that feels the most like a jam session. Between the two bridges, we are treated to a great Wurlitzer solo by Fagen (who needs studio cats when you can play that good?), and Denny Dias is featured on guitar at about twice his regular volume. It's basically only one chord for most of the tune, but Steely Dan makes the most out of that one chord. Check the outro groove, where Fagen has another go at the electric piano and even Hodder gets some good licks in.

Speaking of one chord, "Show Biz Kids" is literally one huge one-chord vamp, fashioned out of a four-bar tape loop, put together in the studio through the use of a special apparatus that extended the tape out of the studio and back in again. Honestly, it's a miracle that this track is able to keep me engaged throughout its length, considering it's just five minutes of the same thing. (Although the slide guitar solo by Rick Derringer probably helps out a lot.) Walter Becker plays a bit of harmonica over a rabble of spoken-word in the outro (which references the band's search for a lead singer, as Fagen was still uncomfortable with the idea). My favorite line and the one that almost got me in trouble when I first heard it at 8 years old: "Show business kids making movies of themselves/You know they don't give a f*** about anybody else."

"My Old School" was the big hit of the album (albeit after the fact). The lyrics, autobiographical or not, touch on the subject of leaving school and not considering going back (something I can relate to very well). Baxter gets off probably his Skunkiest solo ever on a guitar he had only finished making three hours before the session, backed by a sax quartet arranged by Jimmie Haskell. (The first time I heard it, I thought it was a brass section--a testament to how Haskell can make certain instruments sound like nothing else.) Although released as a single, it was ignored at the time but has become something of a fan favorite in the past 30 or so years (certainly one of mine).

"Pearl of the Quarter" shows us (not for the first or last time) that yes, Steely Dan could do full-on country when they wanted to. Remember, their first single (not released on an album) was basically a country tune--"Dallas"--and the steel guitar break here even references the break on that song! (Who says the Dan didn't have conceptual continuity?) Lyrically, the song is about a man who falls in love with a hooker in New Orleans, something that probably wouldn't fly in Nashville (when was the last time you heard a George Strait song about prostitution?). Hardcore prog fans may not like this song too much, but I love it because I grew up on country music (and still like some of it today).

"King of the World" is the finale of this album, and it is fitting that it is about a man who is the last person on Earth after a nuclear attack (Becker and Fagen apparently wrote this song after seeing a movie about that very subject). Baxter contributes a recurring guitar line fed through an Echoplex while Dias fills over those lines in the verses. Another "prog" moment for the Dan comes in the instrumental section with synth lead and more voices with echo (which apparently was just Becker screwing around in the echo chamber). This section repeats for the outro under one of Dias' best solos.

It is rather curious that in the adventurous 70s, this album didn't do that well in spite of positive critical opinion. The two singles ("Show Biz Kids" and "My Old School") didn't make much of a mark, mainly because radio stations didn't know quite what to make of them. Over time, however, the legacy of "Countdown" continues to grow because of the aforementioned covers of "Bodhisattva" and the increasing popularity of "My Old School." This was probably the most diverse album the band ever made; they certainly never did any country stuff after Baxter left (more on that in another review). The spirit of musical freedom permeates every minute of this record, and if that appeals to you as a listener, I definitely recommend this album. 4.5 stars out of 5.

 Can't Buy a Thrill by STEELY DAN album cover Studio Album, 1972
3.52 | 145 ratings

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Can't Buy a Thrill
Steely Dan Jazz Rock/Fusion

Review by cfergmusic1

4 stars For my first reviews on ProgArchives, I thought I might do well to start off with my favorite band of all time, Steely Dan. People tend to think of them as a jazzy "cool pop" group (especially the later material), but to my ears, they had just as much prog credentials as anyone else back then, even if they weren't designated as such (although it took me a while to agree with that sentiment, and even Fagen and Becker would probably still cringe at the idea). Whatever the case, Steely Dan is a band that is very special to me, and as long as they're on the site, I may as well commit myself to saying a few words about them.

The first incarnation of the band (exhibited here) was, well, an actual band rather than the collection of studio musicians it would become (although there are hints of that even on this album). The group consisted of main songwriters Donald Fagen and Walter Becker on keyboards/lead vocals and bass guitar, respectively; Denny Dias and Jeff "Skunk" Baxter on guitars; Jim Hodder on drums and occasional lead vocals; and David Palmer on occasional lead and background vocals. The reason for the "occasional" lead singers is that Fagen was very apprehensive at first about being a front-man and singer, and only did so out of necessity later on (so he says). The album is also graced by the appearances of percussionist Victor Feldman (who played piano with jazz saxophonist "Cannonball" Adderley's group) and guitarist Elliot Randall, among others.

We start off with "Do It Again," the first (although not the only) big hit for the band. Lyrically, it's something of an Old West "murder, failed hanging, get cheated on by your lover and find another one who also screws you over, and go to Vegas to gamble what little you have left" kind of story. (Not your typical "single" material, but hey, things were different in 1972.) The track rides a groovy carpet of Latin percussion throughout, bolstered by solos from Dias on electric sitar (the one and only time he ever played the instrument) and Fagen on Yamaha electone organ. (The glisses on that solo come from a felt strip on the keyboard and not from a pitch-bend wheel.) One of the defining moments of the band for sure.

"Dirty Work" is more on the softer side of things, being somewhat reminiscent of Three Dog Night who were Steely Dan's stablemates on the ABC Dunhill label at the time. David Palmer makes one of two recorded appearances on the record and for the band in general (although he handled all the lead vocals in concert). A gentle tune with somewhat dark lyrics and cool extensions just before every chorus. The track is helped out by two LA studio horn players, Jerome Richardson on sax (who has the solo) and flugelhornist Snooky Young.

"Kings" is claimed to have "no political significance" by the composers, although it seems to be about medieval royalty (good kings "Richard" and "John"). If it is based on an actual historical event, I don't know which one. No matter, as the real highlight of the track is a scorching, overdubbed guitar solo from Elliot Randall, to my ears maybe his best with SD (which is saying something considering he also soloed on "Reelin' In the Years"). The bright production/mixing on this track seems to give it a sunnier vibe than the lyrics would suggest (which is the case with the album in general).

"Midnite Cruiser" features one of only two Jim Hodder lead vocals with the Dan (the other was on "Dallas," a country-flavored non-album single). Prior to joining this group, Hodder drummed and sang lead for a Boston-based prog band called Bead Game (which I hope to review sometime in the future). Interestingly, he sounds somewhat like a cross between Phil Collins and Peter Gabriel (both of Genesis at the time). Not one of SD's better-regarded tracks (although I love it dearly), but it is helped out by Baxter's rockin' guitar solo, as well as the vague reference to jazz pianist Thelonious Monk in the very first line ("Felonius, my old friend...").

"Only a Fool Would Say That" is another Latin jazz-flavored portrait to close out side one. One of the remarkable things about Steely Dan is how the dark, somewhat pessimistic lyrics contrast with the sunny-side-up nature of the music, exemplified brilliantly by this song ("a world where all is free... only a fool would say that"). Dias' guitar solo is reminiscent of Wes Montgomery here, and Baxter gets in some spoken-word Spanish at the tail end (which apparently came from a beer commercial the band was working on at the time).

"Reelin' in the Years" kicks off side two and is probably the most well-known of the earlier material (excepting maybe "Rikki Don't Lose That Number"). I'm not sure I agree with the "classic" status of the song, maybe due to overexposure, but it's still great fun to listen to and those vocal harmonies in the chorus are amazing. Randall gets off another solo here, this time spread out over pretty much the entire song (except for the verses). If you can track down the Quadraphonic mix of this album, you have the benefit of hearing more guitar fills behind the choruses if you're into that sort of thing.

"Fire in the Hole" is probably the strangest one yet, built on a slow, somewhat slick half-time groove with lumbering piano. (Not sure what the lyrics are supposed to refer to: Vietnam maybe?) Fagen has the only actual piano solo on the record, a gem of understated brilliance. Baxter rides a pedal-steel solo over the fade-out, not the last time we'd hear him on that particular axe. I was always more into the "deep cuts" from the band's early days, and if I had any inclination to make a "top 5 SD songs" list, this would have been on it for sure (of course the order would have changed from day to day).

"Brooklyn" is a holdout from the Becker and Fagen demo tapes, retooled significantly for this album (the demo is at a slower tempo and sounds a lot like a Bob Dylan track from that time). Palmer sings lead on this tale about a blue- collar worker and his wife who live out their existence in some hole-in-the-wall apartment in the titular borough of New York City and feel that they are entitled to a better way of living. Baxter is featured on steel guitar throughout, lending the track a country-rock flavor (although with just a bit more sophistication than the contemporaneous Eagles).

"Change of the Guard" shows how much Becker and Fagen wanted to find an audience for their material when they came to LA from New York (this was one of their first demos on the left coast). The lyrics are about as cheerful and optimistic as the band would ever get (right down to the "la-la-la"s in the chorus), and Baxter has another solo on the six-stringed axe, a flash that points to later solos like on "My Old School" (uncharacteristically for the band, the solo ends with a pick scrape on the lower strings that takes full advantage of the stereo mix).

"Turn That Heartbeat Over Again" is undoubtedly the album's most complex track (although not overly so) and probably the one I would point to when describing the band's "prog" status. The track is peppered with strong chord changes and transitions throughout, most notably in the verses and the instrumental section. The latter is possibly the highlight of the record, featuring a beautiful melody doubled by Baxter's guitar and Fagen's organ from "Do It Again" (identified as a "plastic organ" in the album credits). The song closes with a jolt of harmony vocals by Fagen, Becker and Palmer followed by wind chimes (?) over the last chord, and so ends "Can't Buy a Thrill".

I think this is a solid record and if it's not the best debut album ever, it comes very close. I still get a great deal of satisfaction and nostalgia when listening to any Steely Dan record, and even if "Do It Again" and "Reelin'" are a bit overplayed, they're still objectively great songs. The discerning listener will find much to enjoy in the other tracks as well, and if you're looking for jazz-infused rock with a sarcastic, biting lyrical bent (or if you're already into these guys and you just want more of the same), I recommend this album highly. 4 stars out of 5.

 Katy Lied by STEELY DAN album cover Studio Album, 1975
3.64 | 116 ratings

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Katy Lied
Steely Dan Jazz Rock/Fusion

Review by TCat
Prog Reviewer

4 stars I have to say that I absolutely hated this album for quite a long time. However, for whatever reason, I kept playing it when I accidentally bought it looking for tracks similar to what was then my favorite Steely Dan song "Black Friday". Of course, there is only one similar to that song on here and that is the excellent "Chain Lightning". Everything else on here is a pop/jazz fusion.

A few years later, "Aja", the almost perfect album, came out. I fell in love with the amazing title track on that one almost immediately. The other tracks were excellent too. Suddenly, a new light was shed on this album, which now I think is the closest album to "Aja" that Steely Dan recorded.

So, I called this music a kind of pop/jazz fusion. I hate pop music, unless there is some semblance of originality to it, which there is with this music. There are so many beautiful jazz elements in this music, that I wonder how I missed it at first. The guitar is usually understated, but listen to it closely, especially the solos. You'll notice that the guitar is not always mixed to the front, so it's not always obvious how excellent the guitar work is here. The piano/keyboards are also genius. The music is so simple, yet it's so complex. When I listen to this album, I think about how tough the sessions must have been, because everything is so perfect here, and the guests musicians were plenty, and they were top notch also. The music sounds perfected almost. That is usually a turn off for me, but it sounds so good here. Every note, every sound has it's perfect place throughout the album. It's almost too perfect, which works against it somewhat. But you can really hear how the masterpiece "Aja" would emerge from this kind of music. That album would also have the perfect sound, but all the problems would be worked out and the songs on that album would be allowed to breath a lot more, while the songs on here are not allowed to develop so much, probably in an attempt to win over some radio airplay.

Fagen and Becker put a lot of effort into this album and they were disappointed when the sound wasn't what they expected because they were using new technology at the time. Some of the problems were worked out, but they refused to listen to this album for quite some time. Newer issues of this album have resulted in a cleaner, crisper sound, and the music is so good here that those reissues should be purchased over the original. The original recording was way too soft and the intricacies that make this album so excellent are not as pronounced as they should be, but that problem is worked out in the reissues.

Fans of "Aja" should check this out for music that is similar to that album. Give it time and you'll find the jewels that are abundant in this album, which tends to get ignored by a lot of fans because it moved away from the harder rock sound of their other albums. But to me, it is what gave birth to their masterpiece and what would become their true signature sound. Excellent album.

Thanks to micky for the artist addition. and to NotAProghead for the last updates

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