Graded on a Curve:
Steely Dan,
Can’t Buy a Thrill

The passing of Steely Dan co-founder Walter Becker hit me hard; my fond memories of them go all the way back to their debut LP, 1972’s Can’t Buy a Thrill, which an unusually hip (for the tiny Nowhereville I grew up in, at least) high school music teacher used to make us listen to in class. She was doing her best, that intrepid educator, to help us turn on, tune in, and drop out. Or if not to drop out, at least to alert us to the fact that contemporary music didn’t begin and end with Carole King’s Tapestry.

Steely Dan has always had its detractors; I know because I’ve slagged them my own damn self. I love their early work, but rued their slow slide into the smooth jazz precincts of such LPs as 1977’s Aja and 1980’s Gaucho. Was I too hard on Becker and Donald Fagen? In hindsight, yes. “Deacon Blue” may be a bit too Vaseline-based for my tastes but it has its charms—indeed, when it comes to loser anthems, it’s one of the best.

As for those folks who hate Steely Dan altogether, well, I just don’t understand them. Nor do I understand the labels (soft rock? really?) some critics have slapped on the band over the years. (Why, Rob Sheffield went so far as to write off Can’t Buy a Thrill as—alas and alack—“mellow folk rock”!) Sure, Can’t Buy a Thrill makes for relatively mellow listening. But it’s a smart person’s mellow listen and doesn’t include an ounce of folk. Its songs are complex and its cynical lyrics are the best a good cynicism-breeding Bard College education can buy. And unlike almost any “soft rock” band then in existence, Steely Dan could always be counted on to throw a fiery guitar-fueled spanner (“Reelin’ in the Years”) into the works. Elliott Randall, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, and Danny Dias all appear on Can’t Buy a Thrill, and all three are guitar slingers straight off the top shelf.

No, comparisons between Steely Dan and their supposed “soft rock” cohort—you know, Bread, America, Three Dog Night, and the like—are invidious, if only for the obvious reason that Donald Fagen brought an incurable case of sarcasm to the table. On “Turn That Heartbeat Over Again” Fagen sings, “Love your mama, love your brother/Love them till they run for cover.” And voila—the snidest jab at the concept of peace and love ever! And who (besides Randy Newman) would have thought to write a paean to fecklessness such as “Do It Again”? And aside from Carly Simon (see “You’re so vain”), nobody was writing poison-pen letters like “Reelin’ in the Years.” (The acidic Bob Dylan, if you’ll recall, had entered into a long retirement.)

But the real reason I love Can’t Buy a Thrill is its songs, which sound so damned varied in part because Fagen, not yet confident in his singing, chose to share vocal duties with David Palmer (in his one and only appearance on a Steely Dan album) as well as drummer Jim Hodder (who sings lead on “Midnite Cruiser”). Thanks to Palmer Can’t Buy a Thrill has a very different feel than the LPs that would follow; he sweetens things up, while Hodder, well, to be honest Hodder sounds a whole lot like Fagen.

“Do It Again” is a percussion-heavy treat with a tight Latin beat, and as good a mambo as ever you’ll hear. Me, I love the way Fagen follows Dias’ great electric sitar solo with an equally remarkable turn on the plastic organ. On the laid-back and sad “Dirty Work” Palmer admits he’s a fool to do your dirty work but you have to wonder whether he’ll stop, while on the combustible “Reelin’ in the Years” (go, Elliott Randall, go!) Fagen questions the genius of his girl as well as the benefits of an expensive liberal education. “Fire in the Hole” features lots of natty jazz piano by Fagen as well as a nice turn on the pedal steel guitar by Baxter, while both Fagen and Palmer sing on the anthemic “Change of the Guard,” which rings idealistic and hence constitutes an inexplicable breach of the entire Steely Dan aesthetic. Unless the “Times They Are A-Changin’” lyrics are tongue in cheek, of course. Oh, and watch out for Baxter’s supersonic guitar solo!

“Brooklyn (Owes the Charmer Under Me)” gets the charm treatment thanks to the crooning of Palmer and the steel guitar of Baxter, to say nothing of some groovy backing vocals by the legendary trinity of Vanetta Fields, Clydie King, and Sherlie Matthews. Meanwhile, Fagen plays some great piano and handles vocals on “Kings,” which boasts both a mad solo by Randall as well as the voices of the aforementioned soul trinity. As for “Only a Fool Would Say That,” well, it’s cocktail music for unusually smart lounge lizards and a harbinger of the band’s later embrace of the smooth jazz overlay of degenerate El Lay. I don’t hate it, but I certainly don’t love it either—its best bit, so far as I’m concerned, is the guy who cracks wise in Spanish at the end.

Love them or not, Steely Dan were one of a kind—they made sophisticated and smart-ass music for smart-ass sophisticates, and delivered virtually every line with a knowing wink. Ah, but here I’ve gone and written an entire review without talking about Walter Becker, who was, in my defense, a behind the scenes sorta guy who seemed to like it that way. Well, Walter, let me make it up to you by thanking you for providing the soundtrack to my life. Your music—from “Any Major Dude Will Tell You” to “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” (which always makes me swoon) to “Doctor Wu”—always makes me happy. And any major dude will tell you exactly the same thing.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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  • dan_oz

    It was the 1970’s,we had just got an FM radio which were pretty new in Oz then. I was getting ready for school when I heard that bass (ba bom ba bom) and those chimes. Never forgotten that number. Vale.

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