Sunday, 23 April 2017

Can't Buy A Thrill - Steely Dan

Provenance: I heard a Steely Dan song or two on the radio and liked them. Consequently, I went and bought their first album. It's that simple.

Or, rather, it isn't. See, I don't just 'like' the music of Steely Dan - I am a swivel-eyed zealot, a slobbering devotee, a man for whom little else matters except the cool embrace of jazz-inflected, complex (but accessible!) soft rock. In short, I'm a fanboy.

For too long the Roman Catholic Church has held a monopoly on holy trinities. Subsequent to the crushing of the fourth-century Arian heresy, a few worthy challengers have appeared; Larry, Moe and Curly; Crosby, Stills and Nash; and of course, the adamantine and ever-victorious troika of McDonald's, Burger King and KFC. Well, here's another for the pantheon - Blue Oyster Cult, Judas Priest and Steely Dan. A triumvirate I esteem above all others.

Review: I don't listen to Steely Dan - I eat, sleep, breathe and shit Steely Dan. As with every album I review for this blog I have it playing as I write, but I don't need to. I know each and every word, the cues for all the instruments, the name of who plays what. I am a tiresome individual to be around, peppering my conversation with references to Steely Dan and acting with exasperation when my interlocutors haven't yet been exposed to the genius of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen. I drive my friends crazy. I don't have many friends.

If I am to find fault, it's that Can't Buy A Thrill has a supremely ugly album cover. Like, what else is wrong? The songs are brilliant. The performances are virtuosic. The production is crystalline (and this on their first album; the quest for sonic perfection has come to define Steely Dan to a great degree. When did they reach their apogee? Aja for my money, though some argue that Fagen's solo outings The Nightfly and Morph The Cat push the envelope further).

Do I love Steely Dan, or do I need Steely Dan? Certainly, I'm not the only person who considers 'the Dan' a lifestyle choice. I too want to drink fruity cocktails, roll out world-weary witticisms in sparkling company, wear rollnecks or floral shirts and leave parties early. I want my Nathaniel West cynicism delivered in gnomic couplets and wrapped around a saxophone solo. I want jazz chords, but not too many. I don't own a yacht but I live on the coast and see many go by my window.

Let's be serious for a moment (because one should not be too fatuous about Steely Dan, you'll never win); Can't Buy A Thrill is a stunner, and if it receives fewer accolades than it should it's because it shares the limelight with Aja, Katy Lied, Countdown To Ecstasy and the rest. The two most recognisable cuts here are FM staple 'Reelin' In The Years', tripping along like an urbane Wishbone Ash, and the filmic 'Do It Again', a series of hard-luck vignettes accompanied by organ and electric sitar. In fact, it strikes me that much of Steely Dan's work is in thrall to the silver screen, either employing recognisable motifs or even terminology in their lyrics that is borrowed from cinema. Someone should write an essay on it, so long as it's not me.

Then you have the rueful, crumbs-from-the-king's-plate grooves of 'Dirty Work' and 'Brooklyn (Owes The Charmer Under Me)'. Both seem to speak of a demimonde possessing a kind of flaccid, played-out glamour. It all sounds ineffably decadent, but remember kids, to be decadent you must first be civilised. That's the real secret to Can't Buy A Thrill - it's all so effortlessly cool. And as the 1970s wore on, Steely Dan would just continue to get cooler. Whilst other bands gurned and grunted their way through the most rudimentary riff-rock and catpiss guitar soloing, Steely Dan would be playing something miles more sophisticated, by the best musicians in the business, and it would sound great on the radio.

The thing is, it was never effortless. Becker and Fagen were martinets in the studio, demanding endless takes from their hired guns until it met their standards. Famously, there's a scene in The Shining where a slow zoom of Scatman Crothers took over sixty takes before Stanley Kubrick was satisfied (as legend has it, Crothers wept with joy and relief in a subsequent filming when the director called his scene a wrap within three takes). The appearance of serenity and the state of serenity are two very different things, and so Steely Dan, like Kubrick, split the difference and opted for the former. It's partly why Can't Buy A Thrill is such a full-bodied, kaleidoscopic success.

I've never seen Steely Dan and would drag my dick through broken glass in order to do so. The closest I came was one evening in Boston. I'd had a great time watching the Blue Man Group with my then-girlfriend - hell, I'd even participated in the show and had a fresh smudge of paint on my cheek as a memento - but emerging from the theatre I happened to glimpse the marquee opposite. It said STEELY DAN and I don't think I spoke another word that evening.  

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