They Got the Steely Dan T-Shirts: The Debate Continues

As I mentioned in its introduction, my Ste ely Dan appreciation last week stemmed from an email exchange with several other people. And my article was not the last word by a long shot. One of the participants, Tony Alterman, is responding with his own album-by-album review, and his brother, CultureCatch's own Ian Alterman, is pitching in with his own observations. Here, with punctuation corrected and tangents omitted, is the origin of the debate and its continuation.

Tony Alterman:

Katy Lied -- Probably [Steely Dan's] fourth-best album, after AjaCan't Buy a Thrill, and Royal Scam, in that order. Of course, fourth-best for Steely Dan is a bit like Beethoven's fourth-best symphony -- shades of difference here.

Ian:

Re: Steely Dan, it might be heresy, but I think Royal Scam is better than Aja. So my order would be Royal Scam, Aja, Can't Buy a Thrill, and then...well...it wouldn’t be Katy Lied.

Steve:

Everybody who has ranked the Steely Dan albums is getting it wrong. Sticking to the '70s albums (because all the rest rank below them anyway):
 
1. Countdown to Ecstasy
2. Katy Lied
3. Pretzel Logic
4. Aja
5. The Royal Scam
6. Can't Buy a Thrill

Dusty:

If you flip 1 and 2, I'm with you.

Ian:

Actually...you’d need to flip 1 and 5, then 2 and 4, followed by 3 and 6, and then....

Tony:

So we are all in agreement: these are all great albums. And in reverse order, Steve's list is almost accurate.

I guess one of the things that makes me dig my heels in about certain albums is that in the history of rock music, I can find only perhaps two or three dozen albums that can't be improved on, or where the overall level of musicianship and songwriting is so high that any small flaws are of no consequence. I think of these as rare artistic achievements, and they have to work on every level, including the lyrics. Once an album gets on this mental list of mine, there is no serious way to dislodge it. Most groups that I like, and a few that in general I don't like, have at most one such album -- Queen's Sheer Heart Attack, for example, the only perfect album by a group with many other good songs. Grand Funk's Closer to Home, a flawless album by a very flawed group. Blue Oyster Cult's first album, a level they never achieved again.Disraeli Gears.Mirror MovesThe Stranger. Nevermind. A few groups have two like that --After Bathing at Baxter's and Surrealistic Pillow come to mind. Steely Dan may actually have three, but the one that is on the list without question is Aja. Albums like that are in my desert island pantheon and inspire awe and wonder and depression at the thought that one day I will die and not be able to hear them anymore.

The idea of ranking Pretzel Logic or Countdown to Ecstasy above Can't Buy a Thrill seems to me slightly wacky. There are at least five "Ricki Don't Lose That Number" equivalents or better on Can't Buy a Thrill, and that is the best song on Pretzel Logic. So I don't even know where that logic comes from; it does seem a bit like a pretzel -- twisted. As for Countdown, once you get past "Boddhisatva" the quality goes down and stays down for most of the album. Lower-quality Steely Dan is often higher quality than most rock groups achieve for one minute of one recording, so this is not really a complaint about Countdown. Even the Beatles had better and worse songs and a few forgettable ones. Even Dylan. Possibly even Hendrix.

[Steve: This was the point at which I wrote my Steely Dan article.]

Tony:

Well, a lot to chew on there, Steve. Perhaps worth a run-through of their entire output just to see if any of your points hit home. Of course, listening to Steely Dan's entire output through Gaucho doesn't really need an excuse, so happy to do it.

In general, I suspect that one of the deciding factors of personal taste here is that while I hate bland imitation and formulas and hackwork in any musical genre, and therefore value innovation very highly, I am always looking for that originality to fall pretty squarely into a musical groove that makes me want to sing and dance (well -- at least sing). This could be the maniacal, raunchy, fuzzed-out shock of "21st Century Schizoid Man," or it could be a tune off Sade's first album that just sounds new and different. Either way it has to sparkle, it has to have a hook in the widest and most creative sense of the word, to drive itself deep into my musical brain and not just be relatively pleasant. It also cannot sound like it is trying to do that - some of the groups that I sort of admire from a distance but can't get deeply excited about -- let's say, Roxy Music, or XTC, or (well I actually don't admire them, but) Rush -- are just pushing too hard to get my attention and end up getting my irritation instead. Whereas I am as happy listening to Tommy James and the Shondells, the Talking Heads, or Death Cab for Cutie as I am to The Who, the Gang of Four, or Weezer, because I find they all hit, from different angles, that sweet spot that merges innovation with accessibility.

All of which hopefully explains why I think Can't Buy a Thrill and Royal Scam are among their best albums, and why I feel that your issues with them more or less fit your analogy of complaining about the mole on Natalie Portman's face. Whereas I just don't get the same consistent lift out of the material on Countdown, Pretzel Logic, or Katy Lied (though Katy is much closer than the other two).

With that said, just to respond to a couple of [Steve's] specific comments:

"That somebody could think that "Bodhisattva" is the only good song here amazes me...." Me too. There are no more than a few cuts in their entire output that I would call less than a "good song". But we are talking about great songs, aren't we? And it may be the only great song, though perhaps there are one or two others.

"This is so much more than just 'Rikki Don't Lose That Number.'" Again, agreed. But again, most of the material doesn't stay with me very long after I hear it; and "Rikki" veers almost too far into the pop modality, sounding a bit like it could have been recorded by someone other than this incredibly unique group.

I think it is worth noting that there are very few groups in the history of popular music that merit this level of critical scrutiny. Even the best artists have too many duds, so that two or three of their albums stand head and shoulders above the rest. Here you have a group that consistently made extremely high-quality music over the course of seven consecutive packed albums, virtually no filler, nonsense, clowning around with tape loops, little throwaway ditties, solo pieces tossed in for the heck of it, conversational bullshit, retakes, orchestral interludes, extended drum solos, etc. You can't even say that about the Beatles, Dylan, Bowie, Pink Floyd -- they've all got some puerile crap floating around here and there, some losers. With Steely Dan we are talking about the highs and lows of one of the most consistent examples of genius in pop history. So fine upstanding citizens of R&R can quibble without harm.

Ian:

We all have approximately equally good “musical ears.” Thus, I assume it is obvious to all of us that, as Tony notes, musical tastes are always subjective. In that regard, while I agree with Tony‘s overall comments, I fully respect Steve’s comments as well.

As an aside, by sheer coincidence, I did, in fact, listen to Steely Dan’s entire oeuvre from Can't Buy a Thrill to Gaucho about a month ago. And I really listened; it was not background music, but me sitting in a comfy chair, with lyric book in hand, and giving my complete attention to each album. Even setting aside my personal preferences from hearing the albums years ago, I would agree with Tony, strictly from a musical (and perhaps musicological) standpoint: with the exception of Can't Buy a Thrill (unquestionably among the greatest debut albums in rock history), the earlier albums, while all quite good, simply do not stand up to either the musical brilliance or, as importantly for me as it is for Tony, the “consistent lift” (I would suggest “consistent and cohesive excellence of quality”) that albums like Royal Scam and Aja provide.

As for Tony’s final paragraph, although I think he is too harsh in his comment about The Beatles et al, I agree in principle with the remainder: Steely Dan is among very few artists whose work was consistently good to excellent from “Do It Again” at least through Gaucho.

Tony:

Or to put it in a nutshell, they just got deeper.

BTW, Steve...regarding the guitar work on Can't Buy a Thrill, you question some "irritating" and "noodling" solo on "Do It Again". Here's another take on the album from Guitar Player magazine:

"When Steely Dan’s debut album, Can’t Buy a Thrill, hit the streets in 1972 it raised the bar for jazz-rock guitar overnight. On the 40th anniversary of the album’s launch, we talk to guitarist Elliott Randall about his memories of playing on this landmark recording – including his celebrated solo on 'Reelin’ in the Years, 'which Jimmy Page has named as his all-time favorite. Words: Jaimie Dickson

"Formed around the songwriting genius of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, the lineup on Steely Dan’s debut album Can’t Buy a Thrill included Denny Dias, a supremely gifted New York jazz guitarist with ice-cool chops, and Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter, whose biting, bluesy work on electric guitar contrasted perfectly with the melancholy beauty of his pedal steel playing.

"But when the time came to lay down guitar for what would become the album’s biggest hit, 'Reelin’ in the Years,' Fagen and Becker picked up the phone to session guitarist Elliott Randall. Over the years, Randall has laid down uncommonly articulate, expressive guitar tracks for everyone from John Lennon to Carly Simon -- but Dan fans will know him best from milestone tracks such as 'Green Earrings,' 'Kings,' 'Sign in Stranger' and of course 'Reelin’ in the Years..."

As for the "noodling" on "Do It Again", I've heard it called one of the most technical solos ever recorded. To me it is kind of like a snake rising from the grass, far from shapeless but slow to strike.

Regarding Pretzel Logic, these excerpts are from an interview with Becker/Fagan in the English music magazine Mojo:

MOJO: Why were early songs like "Charlie Freak" and "Parker's Band" on your third album, rather than your first?

Becker: See, that's touring for you. We did our first record, boom, they threw us out touring. We managed to get through our second record with mostly new songs, I think, but by the time we had to go into the studio for our third record, we had to go through the files and pull out a bunch of old songs to fill out the record.

MOJO: Though its inner gatefold-sleeve features a photo of the same band as that on Countdown to Ecstasy, by the time the third album Pretzel Logic came to be recorded, Steely Dan was all but finished as a group. The LP was largely recorded using session players..."

Now I just don't think all this sounds like a formula for a terrific album. I actually lost interest in them after Pretzel Logic. I think it was Ian who first brought home a copy of Royal Scam and then I was blown away again. Just sayin'...

Tony:

You're going to get the play by play now, since I just loaded five of the seven onto my phone last night. Starting with:

Countdown to Ecstasy

"Boddhisatva" - Great song, not very complex musically but full of energy and immediate appeal.

"Razor Boy" - Nothing too exciting happening here. The lyrics seem like they want to go somewhere that the melody doesn't, but it gets dragged there anyway.

"The Boston Rag" - Good song, not a great song; but a definite step up from the previous one. Sounds like they were channeling The Band, or Elton John in one of his country-ish moods. Maybe my favorite guitar solo on the album.

"Your Gold Teeth" - Great song, what can you say? Other than, do we really need a reference to Cathy Berberian in a rock song? (They have a few too many college-talk and highbrow lines for my taste. But I will also admit that 10cc's lyrics are sometimes pretty tasteless, so there you go.) The keyboard work at the end is brilliant.

"Show Biz Kids" - It would take a lot more than endless guitar noodling to save this ditty. One of their least interesting numbers. ("They got the Steely Dan t-shirts..." After one album? Are we a little self-absorbed or what?)

"My Old School" - Finally, something with the pizzazz of the first album. My only question is the lead work, which seems like a place waiting for a solo to happen, but I guess they wanted that sort of staccato delivery, for some reason. Very catchy, not overly complex but enough to hold your interest.

"Pearl of the Quarter" - Nothing wrong with having a ballad like this on an album, but when the overall quality of the album is mixed, it is not the kind of thing that will bring it up any. Decent, pleasant, listenable, etc.

"King of the World" – Ending as they began, on a strong note, this is both ambitious and successful. Primo SD.

Overall judgment: Four more or less first rate Steely Dan songs, a couple of so-so numbers, a couple of questionable choices - I guess overall that amounts to a little better than I usually give it credit for, but it ain't going to compete with Aja or CBAT any time soon.

Pretzel Logic

"Rikki" - Trite but catchy pop tune (the opening bass line sounds like it was lifted from "Mr. Dieingly Sad", but I checked and it's actually slightly different - same idea though).

"Night by Night" - nothing to write home about

"Any Major Dude" - it's okay

"Barrytown" - sounds like one of Billy Joel's less successful songs

"East St. Louis" - nice honky tonk piano

"Parker's Band' - still waiting for this album to come alive

"Through with Buzz" - alright o yeah uh-huh you stole my girl (enter string arrangement to fill out lack of content...)

"Pretzel Logic" - I will be frank and say it reminds me of some of the 10cc stuff that I don't like (and there is actually plenty of that)

"With a Gun" - Nothing like their fully developed style but a very nice song

"Charlie Freak" - Not half bad, even if it was leftover material from Can't Buy a Thrill; it could have worked on that album

"Monkey in Your Soul" - Anything better than this would have been wasted in the 11th position on this album, so it serves its purpose, closing the effort on a more or less solo piece that is simple but reasonably effective.

Overall: Certainly my least favorite Steely Dan album, including Gaucho. Does not stand out in quality among 1974 albums either, in spite of often appearing at the top of the list (e.g. NME critics poll). It was not a half-bad year in rock, maybe even a good one - The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, Court and Spark, Crime of the Century, Sheer Heart Attack, Sheet Music, Bad Company, Red, Grievous Angel, Apostrophe, Relayer (I'm not saying I love everything on this list, BTW, but even this album is better than Pretzel Logic), Fulfillingness' First Finale,Natty Dread, The Power and the Glory, Feats Don't Fail Me Now, Quah, Sundown, It'll Shine When It Shines, Walls and Bridges, What Once Were VIces Now Are Habits, From the Mars Hotel, Journey to the Center of the Earth (Wakeman),War Child, Down to Earth (Nektar, you heathens), Souvenirs (Dan Fogelberg, and yes I actually do like this, I am embarrassed to admit) - and since we're talking jazz-rock, possibly half or more of the best fusion albums ever made (don't take it from me, you can go through the 1000 entries on this list yourself and find them, it was just an amazing year for fusion). I strongly suspect that the only reason Pretzel Logic appears in a strong position on rankings for this year is "Rikki Don't Lose That Number" -- people know it's on that album and that's all that matters. (The nitwits who voted on this list actually ranked BOC'sSecret Treaties near the top, a complete piece of garbage possibly even worse than Tyranny and Mutation; while Walls and Bridges is in something like the 600s! Clearly their taste can't be trusted.)

Katy Lied

I can do this pretty quickly. The first six songs are what most bands wish they could have one of on ten albums, and don't. The last four songs are what a million bands have lots of -- maybe not as nice harmony arrangements, maybe not a lengthy mellow jazz guitar solo, maybe lacking an occasional lyric that is a cut above the rest, but overall pretty easy to duplicate in quality. And this is why this album occupies the rank it does - because there are zero songs of merely average quality on Aja, maybe one or two on Can't Buy a Thrill, and I reserve committing myself on The Royal Scam until I listen to it again critically, but I am almost certain there are no more than two.

When you are ranking albums of the quality of Katy Lied, you have to be brutal in your judgments or there is no point, you just accept that it's a great album and that's that. Six brilliant songs is as many as there are on some of my favorite albums ever made. With that kind of quality you can often just tune out any merely passable material. But with four songs in a row that close the album, none of which are up to the standard of the first six, it is a little harder to tune them out. That's about 14 minutes of a 35-minute album, too much to overlook.

Ian:

My only quibble with your “process” is that I feel that one needs also to consider the album “as a whole” – not just song-by-song. This means not simply overall consistency of songwriting, but also whether the “sound” of the album is consistent. Thus, I might well believe that one or two individual songs on RS are not as “great” as the others, but they nevertheless “fit” the album perfectly vis-à-vis the album’s overall “sound,” and thus “belong” there. This is why Aja and The Royal Scam will always top my list (as near-equals, with The Royal Scam ahead by a tad only for sentimental reasons): because there is an overall “sound” on those albums – on every song on those albums – that is not just satisfying, but “compelling,” and maybe even “thrilling.” And it’s why Can't Buy a Thrill will always be #3 on my list. That said, I think your view of Katy Lied is spot-on.

Steve:

"Whether the 'sound' of the album is consistent"? When did this become a necessity? You must really hate "Revolution #9" by that standard [I wrote that knowing that Ian is a huge Beatlemaniac]. Some inconsistency in the sound might have made me rank Aja higher, actually; some of us prefer variety and a band that takes chances.

Ian:

Steve: Simply so we’re on the same page, I was not suggesting that the “internal consistency” I speak of is the sole, or even most important factor in evaluating an album. It is simply one of many, but, to my mind, as important in some ways as some of the other factors. For example, I was not suggesting that Revolution #9 is “bad” in any way; indeed, it is a sonic masterpiece that ranks in “importance” with some of the Beatles’ greatest compositions. (As an aside, it is also probably not fair to judge double albums the way one judges single albums.)

That said, even if the most important criterion we use is simply a combination of songwriting and arrangement – i.e. whether an individual song is “great” or not, without even considering any overall “sound” or “internal consistency,” which is what you seem to do, and what even Tony seems to be doing – I would still maintain my position re: Steely Dan, and agree with Tony’s overall process and assessments.

...to be continued... Steve Holtje, Tony Alterman, Ian Alterman, Dusty Wright

steve-holtje

Mr. Holtje (left) is a Brooklyn-based composer, poet, and editor who recently composed and recorded the soundtrack for director Enrico Cullen's film A Man Full of Days.

ian_alterman.jpg

Mr. Alterman (right) is a founding moderator of Progarchives.com, the number one progressive rock website in the world. He writes there under the name Maani. (Don't ask.)

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