It’s been a few weeks since half of Steely Dan, the oft overshadowed Walter Becker, met his reward. In between closing on the end of Night For Day, we wanted to think awhile and raise a glass to what Steel Dan mean to us, here at Power’s Towers.
As any major dude will tell you, when it comes to jazz rocketry, no one gets near Messrs Becker and Fagan for elegant disdain and booze addled sophistry.* Very few of their tunes are campfire songs, for you need nippy fingers to get some of those chords in, and those plangent melodies somehow tangle you up in blue.^ Nevertheless, damn fine to sing along to the behind the wheel after drinking scotch whiskey all night long. But here’s an exception of sorts.
In short – not always that easy to play. Which is why wee Trey, when he was in short pants, was somewhat challenged in his very first bass lesson, which went something like this:
Teacher ‘How long you been playing?’
Trey ‘About six months.’
Teacher ‘Alright. Now listen closely….’
Stereo ‘Hm-tss- Hm-tss…….Da! Daaah!
How thrilling! That whole walking baseline bit took a week of solid practice, then another few weeks to get the swingin’ feel.** Every eighth note one of wonder. Lovely.
Check out this rather good essay on Steely Dan and their patented ‘mu’ chord. (Ignore the fact the narrator’s wrong on the opening chords of Josie…. Which are here).
The ‘Dan, as some call them, were famous for hiring the best session musicians^^ on the scene, and for being perfectionists in them days of tape. They’d spend weeks on looping by hand the BVS on Showbiz Kids, when it takes like a minute to copy and paste it in on a laptop today. And the audiophile perfection of their recordings stands tall today, up with Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, and … er, something else famous, like Thriller.
Here’s the really skinny. Back in the day, Steely Dan were (1) on the radio and getting serious airplay, (2) heard in chic furniture shops throughout the northwest of England, (3) selling platinum LPs with NO touring support, and (4) did we mention they were getting airplay? Uberly impossible to envision now.
Never mind the music, complex but oft seductive, like a femme fatale after a few tall gimlets. The lyrics' bitter aftertaste and canny wit have rarely been matched. Chock-full of queer references, leading to fruitful mondegreens, priming you for internet searches some 40 years before Google was a twinke in the eye. See the poll here for a few pull-quotes. Our faves include:
Even Cathy Berberian knows, there's one roulade she can't sing... (Your Gold Teeth)
Before the fall when they wrote it on the wall
When there wasn't even any Hollywood (Caves of Altamira)
Is there gas in the car? There's gas in the caaaaaar! [added for special effects!] (Kid Charlemagne)
As a peep at that link will tell you, Steel Fans carry the ragged banner of outsiderness better than any over-compressed metal bands we can think of (Metallica? NAACO.). Being a Steel Dan fan, like a JJ Cale one, reveals calibre, is the secret handshake of world-jilted cynics who can’t help but dare to keep looking for the dream, all the while haunted by the fleeting imprints of childhood, and the quixotic (really, yes, genuinely Quixotic) hard-boiled-noir-bad-habits adult attempt to relive them.
So if you’re a new hand, or a old hand, here’s where to begin. En ordre of our editorial preferences, though you are welcome to send us hate mail. Albums only, ladies and gentlemen, albums!
Countdown To Ecstasy – dark, like a hangover coming over the horizon at dusk
The Royal Scam – funky and acerbic
Katy Lied – that drunken uncle sitting in the corner of the xmas party
Aja – almost too perfect to be called perfect
Pretzel Logic – the xmas album no now knew
So flip back your la-zy-boy, crack open a bottle of something poisonous, draw the blinds half-down, light one up and listen deeply.
* This is the good sophistry, right?
^ Only a nod to Robert Zimemrman. Only a nod.
** Scrambling along to Rush tunes was fair prep for syncopated stuff, but the feeeeel man, the feeeeel!