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Steely Dan


I realize Danforth Steele is really more of a lyrics band than anything, but I'm really not very good with lyrics. I'm usually totally lost without a lyrics sheet, and even if I have the lyrics, they're typically not that interesting. I mean, this is rock music, not poetry. You try listening to a couple dozen Yes albums without starting to tune out the lyrics by the time you get to "in and around the lake, mountains come out of the sky and stand there". So basically what I'm saying is my opinions mean even less than usual here, as I'm looking from a musical point of view, rather than lyrical.

review index: Can't Buy a Thrill / Countdown to Ecstasy / Pretzel Logic / Katy Lied / The Royal Scam / Aja / Gaucho

missing albums: that boringass new one.

apex: Pretzel Logic
nadir: Can't Buy a Thrill
overlooked: The Royal Scam

Can't Buy a Thrill - 1972

Rating: **1/2
Best songs: Do It Again, Reelin' in the Years, Change of the Guard
Worst songs: Dirty Work, Kings, Brooklyn


Before launching a career as ultra-cynical studio perfectionists, the Dan had an actual band thing going on. Popular wisdom tells us that Chevy Chase was in an early version of Steely Dan -- good thing he left so we could get all those National Lampoon's n Vacation movies, and uh, Cops and Robbersons. But that doesn't matter, this Steely Dan only had a couple future session musicians to its name in addition to Becker/Fagen. And another singer, David Palmer, who has a hideous voice that makes half the songs on here sound like proto-adult-contemporary muck.

Musically the band is kind of dicking around. They haven't found their slick radio-ready jazz-pop sound yet, so they're mostly just playing politely and sticking in some shuffley Lawrence-Welk-approved Latin rhythms. You may recognize a couple songs on here, "Do It Again" featuring that funkyass sitar solo, and "Reelin' in the Years", about the closest the Steelers ever made it to Rockville.


Sorry, but it's required that anytime the word "Rockville" is used, a music reviewer must follow it up with an REM joke. So yeah, Palmer ruins all the songs he sings on, and Becker/Fagen aren't trying hard enough. I mean, "Kings"? C'mon, you can do better than that. Okay, "Change of the Guard" is pretty good, but the rest... Yawn. They get better.

Countdown to Ecstasy - 1973

Rating: ***
Best songs: My Old School, Bodhisattva, Show Biz Kids
Worst songs: The Boston Rag


Well, thankfully they got rid of David Palmer. Unfortunately, there's only eight songs on this one, and they drag half of them out to an interminable length of five or six minutes. This week's episode features two more radio standards, namely the 50s-esque "Bodhisattva" (well, the chord changes are 50s-esque, at least) and something from Burt Bacharach's nightmares, namely "My Old School". Why did I just say that? I have no idea. I don't even like Steely Dan that much, I don't know why I'm bothering to review them. So like "Razor Boy" is more of that latiney crap. "Show Biz Kids" was for some reason a single, even though it uses the word 'fuck'. Yep, that's a great way to get on the radio. (Well, okay, it is one of the better songs on here, but still...) "The Boston Rag" is goddamn boring. Just like this review. Shall we pretend that this review never existed? Okay!

Maybe I should just switch to reviewing albums by semaphore.

Pretzel Logic - 1974

Rating: ****
Best songs: Barrytown, Rikki Don't Lose That Number, Any Major Dude Will Tell You, East St. Louis Toodle-oo
Worst songs: none


Mmm, pretzels. Or "pretzles", as that guy's sign on the album cover says. But more importantly: mmm, consistent songwriting. Side one of this recording is just to die for, featuring a feast of aural delights for the listener. Oh, some may tell you that "Rikki Don't Lose That Number" is a brain-dead pop song, but don't be fooled by the simplicity of the composition. It's actually...a nice...pop song... Um, moving on, anyway. "Barrytown" is such a great song, Colin Moulding ripped it off 25 years later for XTC's "Standing In for Joe" without having heard the song! The other songs on side one are also good and stuff. I won't go through them all.

Side two is, if you can believe it, almost as good as side one. "Parker's Band" is quite the enjoyable driving little number. Great use of the English language there. Anyone care to diagram that sentence? Oooooh, and the title track! That's a great one! I think it's about Nazis or something. Like I said, I'm terrible with lyrics. "With A Gun" uses the word 'till'. That alone makes the song good. And that's about it. There are other songs, but oh, you won't hear about them from me. But can you believe it? Steely Dan, making a good album? It's inconceiveable!

Katy Lied - 1975

Rating: ***
Best songs: Black Friday, Doctor Wu, Bad Sneakers
Worst songs: Your Gold Teeth II, most of the rest of side two


Well, so much for "good". They've finally gotten around to using all those session musicians, but that doesn't validate the questionable song material. Side one is pretty good, but side two? Blah.

Side one includes the obligatory radio songs (or at least, semi-radio songs), which are unsurprisingly the highlights of this album. I think "Doctor Wu" is about drugs or something. "Bad Sneakers" has that jumbled-up chorus ("BAD sneakers and the pinacoladamyfriend...with a TRAN-sistor and a largesumofmoneytospend!"), and oh, "Black Friday" is pulsing electric piano action! Elsewhere on the side of firsts is "Rose Darling", which surprised me because I coulda sworn everything else on this album stunk. But it doesn't. I'm nuts, obviously. And crap, "Daddy Don't Live In That New York City No More", annoying-to-type title aside, isn't that bad either.

Okay, here's side two. It's gonna suck, I bet you. "Everyone's Gone to the Movies" is a sick, sick song. Wait a minute, "Your Gold Teeth II"? Are sequel songs ever good? No, they are not. The rest of these songs aren't that interesting either. End of story. Album. Whatever. I wish I could find something interesting to say.

The Royal Scam - 1976

Rating: ***1/2
Best songs: Kid Charlemagne, Don't Take Me Alive, The Caves of Altamira, The Royal Scam
Worst songs: Everything You Did, Green Earrings


Good mashed potatoes with butter, you thought these guys were cynical before? Oh, one look at the cover art and you'll discover how pissed-off they can get.

Anyway, the "hits" this time were "Kid Charlemagne", probably the best song written about 60s LSD production, because the Dans didn't actually take acid. Y'know how that is. "Whee, pretty colors!" and they play the same three chords over and over for fifteen minutes. (Not that I'm pointing a finger at any specific bands from the San Francisco area.) Instead it's like, funky and all, and features one of the worst lyrics ever ("is there gas in the car? / yes there's gas in the car!"), but it's too damn catchy for me to care. Neat guitar solo, too. The other one is "Don't Take Me Alive" which, for no apparent reason, was excluded from Greatest Hits 1972-78 (said compilation included instead... "The Fez"?!). Which is a pretty lame way for you to act, Mr. "oh, I'm so great, I'm a hits package!". Smartarse. Now do you see why I don't review best-of albums? Anyway, forget what I said about "Reelin' in the Fish", their ode to tournament-level bass fishing, because this is the closest they get to playing a full-out "rock" song. That wonderful guitar intro is why. And hell, even the electric piano is fuzzed-up for once!

As for the non-hits, who needs 'em? Well, hold on to some of them -- "The Caves of Altamira" is horn-embellished goodness, for example. "The Fez" is a rather silly bit of piffle, but it is one of the few popular songs endorsing safe sex. So give them credit for the social consciousness if nothing else. And the title track is the highlight of side two, the rest of which isn't terribly gripping. "Haitian Divorce" isn't bad, though. I won't mention the rest. It is beneath me. Begone, lowly songs!

Aja - 1977

Rating: ***1/2
Best songs: Deacon Blues, Josie, Peg, Black Cow
Worst songs: Aja


Now they've mostly dropped the drippingly-cynical lyrics, and instead focus on the jazzy soft-rock sound. SONGWISE!

"Black Cow" starts the album. It's an enticing little groove with some great backing vocals. Next is the title track, which is really rather boorish. No, wait, what's the word I'm looking for? Oh yeah, boring. Particularly the instrumental bits. I feel like I'm listening to smooth jazz. Ick. Thankfully, the third and final song on the first half is "Deacon Blues", one of the awesomest tunes that Stella Daniels has ever written.

Side two has the songs that you're probably most familiar with -- "Peg" and "Josie". Which is most likely because they're played on the radio. Which is most likely because they're the catchiest tunes on here. Which means they're good. There are two other songs on here which I can never remember. They're unimportant. But this album is fairly important, because it sold like sixty million copies or something. Seriously, you'll find it jammed in between copies of Tapestry and Jesus Sings: the Carpenter's Greatest Hits. That was a horrible pun. Forgive me.

Gaucho - 1980

Rating: ***
Best songs: Babylon Sisters, Gaucho, Hey Nineteen
Worst songs: oh, I don't know


Contractual obligation! Contractual obligation! Or as the French say, un obligé contractuel! (Well, maybe not.) The evidence: Fecker/Bagan split right after this. It took three years to make (note all the other albums came in sequential years). It's basically a copy of Aja with weaker songs. bla bla bla.

Well, it's not too bad, though. Of the hits this time, "Babylon Sisters" is an absolutely gorgeous slow groover with enchanting female vocals. "Hey (Officer, She Said She Was) Nineteen" is okay, but honestly, how many people can remember anything about the song other than the 'that's RETHA franklin' line? Otherwise, the title track is fairly catchy, and the rest is fairly unmemorable. And that's what it's all about. Or is that the hokey pokey? Who invented such a stupid song/dance, anyway? I mean, 'shake it all about'? Are we making fun of epileptics or what?

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