Shine On, Citizen Steely Dan!

Copyright 2010-2011, 2013, 2016-2018 by Richard J. Ballard -- All Rights Reserved.

In the late 1970s Saint Louis had a Peaches record store, an entire supermarket building that had been converted to a vinyl LP store. During graduate school often I visited Peaches on Sunday afternoons, digging through the stacks and particularly through the cutout bins (the discount vinyl LPs priced three dollars each). On Peaches' great sound system I first heard Steely Dan's music, and I got most of my Steely Dan early vinyl LPs from the cutout bins for three dollars each. I played Steely Dan often enough that to save wear on the vinyl LPs I dubbed the albums onto reel-to-reel tape. Also I dubbed a 90-minute mix of my favorite Steely Dan selections onto reel-to-reel tape. The dubbing saved the vinyl LPs and the mix was good background music at conversational parties.

How do you describe Steely Dan and their music? Walter Becker (no longer with us) and Donald Fagen have been Steely Dan's continuing backbone from the very first. Early fans accepted that Becker and Fagen got together periodically with their studio musician friends to record a new album; the players changed from album to album. [Saint Louisian Michael McDonald (formerly of the Doobie Brothers, now a solo artist) is one musician whose bio mentions Steely Dan sessions.] IMO Steely Dan's music straddles both rock and jazz. Steely Dan's musical scoring lacks rock music's anxiety; complexity and sonorous precision is the name of Steely Dan's musical performance game. But Becker and Fagen are storytellers, and (like rock music) Steely Dan's lyrics hint about counterculture excitement: other people are living large in ways you don't understand. Steely Dan's complex precise musical scoring and their outlaw sophisticated lyrics were a heady brew for this engineering graduate student.

Musicians and graduate students age and mature. Still I enjoy Steely Dan's music, but still Steely Dan's lyrics make me wonder what I missed completely while traveling life's path.

You Gotta Walk It Like You Talk It (Or You'll Lose That Beat)

You Gotta Walk It Like You Talk It by Donald Fagen and Walter Becker [1971]
In mid-1971 Donald Fagen and Walter Becker left the Jay and the Americans (e.g., This Magic Moment) backing band to concentrate on the soundtrack for the Richard Pryor low-budget film You Gotta Walk It Like You Talk It (Or You'll Lose That Beat). It's a competent first effort; the music is fledgling Dan while the lyrics reflect college boy humor instead of street sophistication. The sessions feature guitarist Denny Diaz who later participates in the Steely Dan early albums.

Can't Buy A Thrill [1972]
Steely Dan's 1972 debut album features complex musical performance and somewhat cryptic lyrics. I associate the lyrics (e.g., Kings and Change Of The Guard) with transition at the Nixon administration's end, in the United States a period of Maya (a Hindu word denoting transition). Several selections (Do It Again, Dirty Work and Fire In The Hole) IMO allude to repeating or avoiding past mistakes, while Reelin' In The Years IMO alludes both to historic damage control and also to future partnering opportunities. And Saint Louisians IMO should find the selection Brooklyn (Owes The Charmer Under Me) remarkable.

Every body is entitled to their own opinion, but some opinions carry more weight than other opinions. We don't need to decide now; let's Turn That Heartbeat Over Again and think about it (while the sand falls within the hourglass).

Countdown To Ecstasy [1973]
This 1973 album again features complex musical performance; I associate the cryptic lyrics with the Memphis players. Under the guise of a novice talking to his guru Bodhisattva (pronounced "bodies at TVA"), Bodhisattva depicts a naive new player (Come on down!) eager to join The Life. When the new player runs out of cash and credit but before the Razor Boy arrives to collect, the new player gambles his flash (i.e., his gold jewelry aka Your Gold Teeth) trying to get well. And if all else fails, player, we still have our bodies [Show Biz Kids (Get the picture?), My Old School and Pearl Of The Quarter.] 'Coarse, older players have fewer options: time to find a faraway barony (a small pond) and become King Of The World.]

Player, don't you fret; this album's music is sew good that you'll never miss those marry golds. And if you tire of music, player, then slip a cassette into the VCR and watch The Firm starring Tom Cruise and Gene Hackman. (Player, you don't look like a reeder; other wise I'd recommend the details in author John Grisham's book.)

YouTube video:
Watch a Steely Dan 1973 performance of My Old School.

Pretzel Logic [1974]
This album's lyrics deal with street life and the lyrics are less cryptic than in previous albums. [Keyboardist / singer Michael McDonald (who later joined The Doobie Brothers) sang mostly backup vocals on this album.] With less than thirty-five minutes total play time, composer Donald Fagen allowed no repeating refrains but expanded his range, including orchestral accompaniment in some passages; this tuneful album's musical scoring remains complex and precise. The opening selection, Rikki Don't Lose That Number, IMO depicts an about-to-be-jailed player whose envious friends likely will strip and wreck his pad; the song councils Rekey, Don't Lose That (Address) Number! The selection Any Major Dude Will Tell You IMO councils an underage runaway that drug bad trip (or pregnancy?) minor problems can be resolved; don't make any unwise commitments. Charlie Freak IMO depicts the aftermath of Frank Zappa's Freak Out! and teaches the street value of dependable three hots and a cot. The selection Pretzel Logic IMO suggests that absence makes the heart grow fonder, and suggests that a road trip long separation can reunite a female player with her apathetic local former lover. IMO Saint Louisians should find East St. Louis Toodle-Oo with its Scott Joplinish ragtime piano remarkable; IMO some Saint Louisians will find two other Pretzel Logic selections remarkable.

Katy Lied [1975]
Katy Lied is another short album (just over thirty-five minutes), but the music (featuring guitar, piano and saxophone solos) is so good that nobody complains. We never learn Katy's lie but Katy probably took all the money; this album's selections deal primarily with financial meltdown and surviving interesting times. Black Friday discusses living through the stock market's collapse (1986's junk bond collapse merely was a dry run). Bad Sneakers are on the lam; while Daddy Don't Live In That New York City No More calls end of play, cashed out in a bar friendless awaiting Doctor Wu's (or anybody's) rescue. In the mean time Rose Darling, Everyone's Gone To The Movies, Your Gold Teeth II, Chain Lightning and Throw Back The Little Ones all deal with small fish; in the end we're all fish and Any World (Whirled?) [That I'm Welcome To] is better than swimming in a barrel.

The Royal Scam [1976]
The Royal Scam is a showcase of guitar virtuosity, studded with wonderful guitar solos while light, nimble bass guitar underlies the entire performance. The lyrics are a mixed (disordered?) bag without an apparent unifying theme: Kid Charlemagne depicts the glamour and the paranoia of the 1970s San Francisco drug scene and The Caves Of Altamira wall graffiti tells us that the meet identifiers are your Green Earrings while your contact will wear The Fez. But somebody talked, things happened and things did not happen, somebody else has been sitting in my easy chair and you ran away to your Haitian Divorce. Those Boston boys walked into a trap; you know The Royal Scam. Damn girl, now we're both gonna hang around until you tell me Everything You Did. Later, Don't Take Me Alive musically expresses a tower sniper's anguish, while Sign In Stranger depicts reinventing yourself (and highlights Donald Fagen's keyboard wizardry).

Aja [1977]
Steely Dan projects instrumental large ensemble jazz sound with the addition of brass and prominent saxophone in Aja. I can lose myself following the Aja bass line; artful percussion and precise walking bass guitar structure each track. The lyrics depict The Life in California, living large amidst elegant beauty (with an occasional complication). In Black Cow you react badly when your new girlfriend arrives at your place accompanied by her protective lesbian street friend, and you miss your friend Peg who went Hollywood, but no madder 'cause later in the evening you can count on your San Francisco Chinatown friend Aja. Deacon Blues depicts a musician and aspiring player; always I visualize a Doctor Johnny Fever character (WKRP In Cincinatti) staging his last big play. And when the play ends, lucky players go Home At Last to party with their hometown friends (I Got The News) while awaiting other friends' arrival (Josie).

Gaucho [1980]
Steely Dan's Gaucho is a lyrical masterpiece; depending upon your age and your mood the masterpiece is funny or it is sour. The lyrics depict player midlife crisis in Los Angeles. Don't lose the music while you're enjoying the lyrics; the Dan maintain their instrumental large ensemble sound (adding vocal backup in some passages) and the music is full of guitar, bass guitar and saxophone play. Hey Nineteen and Babylon Sisters set the stage: pal, unless you wanted to make a beautifully immaculate impression at a client business dinner, what would you do and what would you say on a paid escort date? [And in the (a-hem) mean time, My Rival is flashing his wares and is stealing your clients.] Time Out Of Mind, pal, you better watch your cash and credit. You know the Glamour Profession; would you pay a quarter (mortgage your crib) just to shine the silver bowl* (play professional)? Prosperity and laughter walk hand in hand; pal, when the money runs out the fun walks away. The title selection Gaucho is the flip side of Aja's Black Cow: pal, your boyfriend has brought a new street friend to your crib and he's just your size. Gaucho finishes with Third World Man: somebody got lost between the post-Vietnam military and the real world, but I'm making new friends and I'll get better real soon now.

[*Remember (from the Who's 1969 rock opera Tommy):
Ever since I was a young boy, I played the silver ball;
From Soho down to Brighton, I must have played them all.
But I never seen any thing like it, in any amusement hall;
That deaf dumb and blind kid, sure plays a mean pin ball. ...

Equating high profile people to precious metals IMO is not new to the 20th Century.
In his Republic the Greek philosopher Plato (428 B.C., 348 B.C.) teaches that the senators
(the politicians) who lead the Republic and who safeguard the Republic's ideals and laws
are silver, while the soldiers that guard the Republic are gold.

In the 21st Century I associate silver with high profile professional and media people
(i.e., public stars). In the 21st Century I associate gold with creditworthiness.]

YouTube videos:
Watch a Steely Dan 1980 performance of Hey Nineteen.
Watch a Steely Dan 2000 performance of Babylon Sisters.

The Nightfly by Donald Fagen [1982]
Donald Fagen's solo debut album leans toward competent ensemble jazz instead of rock; Fagen's extensive keyboard solos and Walter Becker's guitar are notably missing. The Nightfly theme is adolescent fantasies during the Kennedy years. I.G.Y. optimistically predicts the US Northeast Corridor joining Continental culture via a New York to Paris undersea passenger railway. New Frontier lays out an adolescent's fantasies about equipping the backyard fallout shelter. The Nightfly pictures a Baton Rouge jazz station DJ fantasy. The Goodbye Look dramatizes an expatriate's ending in Cuba, and Walk Between The Raindrops glosses over Miami's ending when the Cuban Missile Crisis goes horribly wrong. The lyrics and music are pure Donald Fagen, but somehow I visualize lyricist / musician Warren Zevon smiling in the background.

Sun Mountain [1986]
Sun Mountain is a personality CD that adds new pieces to the Dan's puzzle. The album's early 1970s demo performances [after Becker and Fagen left the Jay and the Americans (e.g., This Magic Moment) backing band] are rough compared to their studio albums but the recordings and the lyrics are clear. The title selection Sun Mountain tells of awakening and of broadened personal perspective. Many of the selections feature composer Donald Fagen at the keyboard or at the piano singing solo (e.g., You Go Where I Go and Charlie Freak); guitarist Walter Becker joins in on other selections [e.g., Brain Tap Shuffle (don't be shocked) and Mock Turtle Song (don't get shook)]; and the album includes a fully orchestrated Any Major Dude Will Tell You both preceded and followed by a version of The Caves Of Altamira. Saint Louisians IMO should find the selection Brooklyn [Owes The Charmer Under Me] (and perhaps three other selections) remarkable.

roaring of the lamb [1993]
This 1993 Spain imported CD is another Steely Dan personality CD. Its selections and style partially overlap with the earlier Steely Dan Sun Mountain CD and reflect Becker and Fagen's early 1970s efforts after leaving the Jay and the Americans (e.g., This Magic Moment) backing band. Donald Fagen's piano, keyboard and vocals occupy center stage throughout these small ensemble early performances. roaring of the lamb IMO comparatively has superior audio quality and is upbeat (lighter alternatives replace some of Sun Mountain's heavier lyrical selections). roaring of the lamb's lyrical recording is remarkably clear, making Oh, Wow It's You and The Caves Of Altamira a pleasure to hear.

Kamakiriad by Donald Fagen [1993]
Kamakiriad is a jazz / dance (no disco) easy listening album; the performances remind me of a good dance ensemble. (Notice the trombone solos in Teahouse On The Tracks.) Walter Becker produced the album and played bass / solo guitar.

The Kamakiriad liner notes explain that the CD's eight selections depict a futuristic road trip: In Trans-Island Skyway the narrator / vocalist takes delivery of his new Kamakiri steam-powered dream car (complete with self-contained vegetable garden) and the road trip begins. The next six selections depict road trip adventures; IMO the selections' precise rhythms well depict happy motoring in a tuned clockwork vehicle. But midway through On The Dunes the road trip clearly is running out of steam, and the travelers stop at Teahouse On The Tracks to ponder if they should continue their road trip or should return to ... all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.

FWIW, Kamakiriad's steam-powered futuristic road trip theme reminds me of science fiction author John Brunner's 1972 novel The Stardroppers depicting steam-powered cars, and depicting a cultish fad centered around personal appliances for eavesdropping on star conversations. Then cultists publicly begin popping out of existence, and ...

Kamakiriad depicts a steam-powered futuristic road trip;
author John Brunner's novel also features steam-powered cars.

Citizen Steely Dan: 1972-1980 [1993]
A headstart for your Steely Dan collection, this 4 music CD boxed set contains all the selections from Steely Dan's first seven albums: Can't Buy A Thrill, Countdown To Ecstasy, Pretzel Logic, Katy Lied, The Royal Scam, Aja and Gaucho plus an extensive descriptive booklet. FWIW, IMO Saint Louisians will find the second Citizen Steely Dan CD especially enjoyable.

11 Tracks Of Whack by Walter Becker [1994]
11 Tracks of Whack has 12 selections and is more lyrical than instrumental; IMO the style reflects Walter Becker's memories of 1960s collegiate coffeehouses. The album's theme is a college boy among working class dunces (Hat Too Flat) stalled along life's path, mired in disillusionment (This Moody Bastard) along with reappraisal whacks at former lovers and friends (Book Of Liars, Hard Up Case). The album ends with noncritical love for a child (Little Kawai).

Alive In America [1995]
I was in Saint Louis's GIANT! premier high fidelity store inquiring about an equipment upgrade. There was music on the store system; it obviously was live and I said Who's playing Steely Dan's music? The salesman said Steely Dan's back! and I said I gotta get that. After business I walked out to my car shaking my head and thinking I'm out of touch.

Alive In America contains recordings from Steely Dan's 1993/1994 concert tour: the return of Steely Dan. I have read reviews saying Ho hum, the same old arrangements; it's not as good as the studio albums. Most of the Alive In America selections appear in the first seven albums (exception: Book Of Liars first appears on Walter Becker's 11 Tracks Of Whack) and the live arrangements are less complex than the studio arrangements. I'm not going to replow old ground, but IMO somebody else does not understand the difference between live music and studio music.

A gentleman never tells, but I have sat with a live audience through retake after retake because some body couldn't get it right. And I've performed as an amateur; I know about stage fright. The studio is nice and safe: if you screw up you can retake. Alive In America is a live album and IMO nobody should expect live fidelity to match studio fidelity, but here everything is tight, right and out of sight: nobody got hung up with stage fright. Steely Dan really can play; it's not virtual reality from a high tech studio.

Stepping off my soapbox, if somebody wanted a one CD introduction to the Dan, I'd tell them to get Alive In America. It's a live sampler, but if you like the live album you'll like the studio albums even better.

members edition [1998]
This 1998 Holland import music CD's content overlaps both Sun Mountain (earlier) and roaring of the lamb (earlier), but the Becker and Fagen early performaces include full instrumental ensemble and the selections include tunes that I have not found elsewhere: Come back baby; Don't let me in; Old regime; Soul ram; I can't function and Let George do it. The CD selections are digitized from original analog tapes and have wonderful clarity; IMO these are studio performaces for an album that improving musical fortunes abandoned. members edition is enjoyable listening that IMO most people would prefer to the personality CDs Sun Mountain and roaring of the lamb.

Android Warehouse by Walter Becker and Donald Fagen [1999]
The Legends Collection by Steely Dan [2001]
The 1999 English import Android Warehouse and the 2001 USA release The Legends Collection contain the same selections. IMO this two CD set is a personality album having the theme finding more than you expect when you cross the tracks for your post-dissolution new social life. The selections' musical complexities range from the singing piano player to full ensemble studio sessions. What will you find at the Android Warehouse?

Two Against Nature [2000]
Two Against Nature marked Steely Dan's return to the studio by winning the 2001 Grammy Award for Album of the Year. The album follows the Kamakiriad path with a large ensemble playing jazz / pop solid music. The album's lyrical theme whirls around my next career: the title selection Two Against Nature depicts running society's gauntlet similar to The Good Life experienced by Paris Hilton and Nicole Ritchie. Here life is a series of transitions (What A Shame About Me and Cousin Dupree both accompanied by Memphis guitar picking) with Hollywood just over the next hill (Gaslighting Abbie, What A Shame About Me and West Of Hollywood) but that hill is steep and sweaty (Jack Of Steam). Two Against Nature is guaranteed to re-energize you the next time you are disappointed by the newspaper want ads.

everything must go [2003]
everything must go features large ensemble jazz / pop solid music studded with guitar and saxophone hot solos, an underlying percussive strong heartbeat and synthesized flourishes. Experience dictates perception; IMO the album's lyrical theme is divorce / dissolution. (When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping.) The opening selection The Last Mall (hot guitar) depicts that pre-dissolution frantic shopping trip before your credit rating nosedives, while the title selection everything must go (hot saxophone) is a partnership going-out-of-business. Things I Miss The Most (guitar counterpoint) is post-dissolution reminiscence, while Lunch With Gina (synthesizer and hot guitar) depicts those awkward post-dissolution meetings. Slang Of Ages features Walter Becker playing Randy Newman (singing Randy Newman style), while Green Book (synthesizer with guitar counterpoint) finds new friends and Pixeleen's Japanese anime photographs lean bodies. I don't understand the Godwhacker lyrics, but IMO God will smile when he hears that clean blues harp and that hot guitar play. FWIW, I prefer this album to the Grammy Award winning Two Against Nature.

Morph The Cat by Donald Fagen [2006]
Listening to any Steely Dan album is a two-track process, enjoying the instrumental arrangements while struggling to understand the lyrical themes. Donald Fagen's Morph The Cat is no exception; the arrangements are remarkable and the music is enjoyable, while the lyrics deserve serious thought.

Fagen's arrangements demand a sound system with bass good reproduction; tinny speakers will leave the listener rattled. The selections are filled with wonderful counterplay: the guitar and the saxophone in H Gang; the blues harp (harmonica) and the bass in Mary Shut The Garden Door; and the guitar and the trumpet in The Great Pagoda Of Funn are remarkable. With Security Joan Donald Fagen IMO illuminated beautifully a page from musician Groove Holmes' playbook, and What I Do IMO achieves the sonic perfection that normally I associate with certain organ and choral ecclesiastical music compositions.

Fagen's lyrics IMO express dismay with the post-9/11 security renaissance and its effect upon urban daily life (an echo of a sentiment expressed by Washington DC's former mayor). Security Joan depicts over reaction to check-in security problems on international flights. H Gang depicts the DEA taking their security expanded roadshow to the boonies. Mary Shut The Garden Door and The Great Pagoda Of Funn express a desire for a reliable permanent partner; and to cocoon comfortably in one's own residence, away from first responders' overenthusiasm. And the CD cover photo depicts Donald Fagen staring out the window at post-9/11 Manhattan's skyline, IMO while remembering the events of his friend Walter Becker's 1980 summer of chaos. IMO Donald Fagen is thinking I'll take a cat nap; this too shall pass.

Circus Money by Walter Becker [2008]
My Circus Money first impression is 21st Century clean capable jazz with puzzling lyrics. During repeat plays I enjoy the jazz while I decode Walter Becker's lyrics.

Circus Money is about cruising: Our pockets are flush with money and we're going to the circus! Walter Becker's vocals capably project a somewhat jaded cruiser playing against a teasing breathy female chorus. And the recorded lyrics sometimes differ subtly from the booklet's published lyrics.

Both Donald Fagen (absent here) and Walter Becker have reputations for precise studio performances. Circus Money is no exception with good keyboards, guitar and percussion evident everywhere. Throughout the album Becker employs reggae motifs to realize forward moving jazz melodies. Calliope keyboards reinforce the circus motif in Selfish Gene and Darkling Down. The album features tenor sax solos in Door Number Two, Bob Is Not Your Uncle Anymore, Paging Audrey and Circus Money; solo bass clarinet in God's Eye View; and solo baritone sax in Three Picture Deal.

IMO the best approach to Circus Money is to skip the lyrical analysis and just enjoy the play.

Sunken Condos by Donald Fagen [2012]
I have been unable to warm to this album. As always Donald Fagen's composing / arranging is complex sonorous precision, but (excluding a hint in the selection Good Stuff) this album's lyrics lack Steely Dan's sarcastic social world view (found, for example, in Fagen's 2006 solo album Morph The Cat.) I regard Sunken Condos as energetic background music.

Are we having fun yet? Just let me consult my spell checker.

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