Steely Dan/Donald Fagen: Rated

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This is the first of a two-part Post. Here I will rate the Dan’s seven classic albums that were released between 1972 and 1980. I will also include Donald’s first solo album “The Nightfly” which I think of as a continuum with the last two classic albums “Aja” and “Gaucho”.

In the second post I will rate the two Dan reunion albums from the early 2000s, Donald’s other three solo albums and Walter’s two solo releases.

“Drive west on sunset to the sea” and “here come those Santa Ana winds again”. Those were the first lines that made me sit up and take notice of Steely Dan. So cinematic and so Los Angeles. I cannot say that Donald and Walter are the sole reason that I have lived in LA for nearly thirty years – only Joni Mitchell has used the “City of the Fallen Angels” so descriptively in her songs – but they definitely had something to do with it.

Growing up in Ireland and loving California music and movies (“Chinatown” being my all-time favorite film) it was my career as a medical doctor that brought me to Cedars Sinai Medical Center. And, of course, I stayed. It came as a little bit of a disappointment (only a little!) to find out that Donald and Walter were never really at home in the city they described so well and during/after “Gaucho” left us for the East Coast and Hawaii, respectively.

But let’s get to the matter at hand and go back in time to 1971. Donald and Walter leave Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson (cue “My Old School”) for LA (there is a detour to Brooklyn writing a few songs for Kenny Vance of Jay and the Americans) and getting a break when Barbra records their song “I Mean to Shine” on her “Stoney End” follow-up “Barbra Joan Streisand”.

Then, as serendipity would have it, a friend of Vance, Gary Katz, moves to LA as a staff producer at ABC records. It is through Katz that they meet their longtime engineer Roger Nichols, and it is Katz who suggests that they form a group with guitarists Jeff “Skunk” Baxter and Denny Dias, drummer Jim Hodder, and singer David Palmer as the alternate lead vocalist to Donald. Walter completes the round up on bass guitar. And so, the rock group Steely Dan (named after a dildo in William Burrough’s “Naked Lunch”) is born.

 

Can't Buy a Thrill

Can’t Buy a Thrill (Producer: Gary Katz | Engineer: Roger Nichols)

Release date: November 1972. Label: ABC

RATED: B

The guys are just finding their feet here so it’s a mixed bag but a fascinating one. Walter and Donald write all of the material (even recording a country-flavored “Dallas” as a single-only with Hodder on lead vocals) but with his “unique” delivery Donald is unsure of his place in the band and Palmer, who is more blue-eyed-soul, takes the lead quite effectively on “Dirty Work” while “Brooklyn” (Palmer lead vocal) and “Midnite Cruiser” (Hodder lead vocal) yield mixed results.

There is no doubt, however, of the brilliance of the two hit singles (Billboard 6 and 11) with Donald on lead, “Do it Again” and “Reelin’ in the Years”, the latter with its classic Elliott Randall guitar solo. The rest of the songs with Donald on lead are good but not amazing. So overall a B.

Track listing
All songs written by Donald Fagen and Walter Becker
SIDE ONE
No.TitleLead vocalsLength
1.“Do It Again”Fagen5:56
2.“Dirty Work””Palmer3:08
3.“Kings”Fagen3:45
4.“Midnite Cruiser”Hodder4:07
5.“Only a Fool Would Say That”Fagen with Palmer2:57
SIDE TWO
No.TitleLead vocalsLength
6.“Reelin’ In the Years”Fagen4:37
7.“Fire in the Hole”Fagen3:28
8.“Brooklyn (Owes the Charmer Under Me)”Palmer4:21
9.“Change of the Guard”Fagen with Palmer3:39
10.“Turn That Heartbeat Over Again”Fagen with Palmer and Becker4:58
Personnel
STEELY DAN

Donald Fagen – Lead vocals (except on “Dirty Work”, “Midnite Cruiser”, and “Brooklyn”), backing vocals, acoustic and electric piano. David Palmer – lead vocals on “Dirty Work” and “Brooklyn”, backing vocals Jeff “Skunk” Baxter – guitar, spoken word on “Only a Fool Would Say That” Denny Dias – guitar Walter Becker – electric bass, backing vocals Jim Hodder – Lead vocal on “Midnite Cruiser”, backing vocals, drums, percussion.

NOTABLE SESSION MUSICIANS

Elliott Randall – lead guitar on “Kings” and “Reelin in the Years”. Victor Feldman – vibraphone, percussion.

CDTE (Countdown to Ecstasy)

Countdown to Ecstasy (Producer Gary Katz | Engineer Roger Nichols)

RATED: B+

With the departure of David Palmer (who would go on to be Carole King’s lyricist on her 1974 album “Wrap Around Joy” including the single “Jazzman”) Donald assumes his rightful place as lead vocalist.

No big hit singles and only eight tracks but they are some the Dan’s best songs especially “My Old School”. Some jazz influences are coming through as well. A solid B+

Track listing
All songs written by Donald Fagen and Walter Becker
SIDE ONE
No.TitleLength
1.“Bodhisattva”5:18
2.“Razor Boy”3:11
3.“The Boston Rag”5:40
4.“Your Gold Teeth”7:02
SIDE TWO
No.TitleLength
5.Show Biz Kids5:26
6.My Old School5:48
7.“Pearl of the Quarter”3:50
8.“King of the World”5:04
Personnel
STEELY DAN

Donald Fagen – Lead and backing vocals, acoustic and electric pianos, synthesizer Walter Becker – electric bass, harmonica and backing vocals Jeff “Skunk” Baxter – guitar Denny Dias – guitar Jim Hodder – Drums, percussion, backing vocals

NOTABLE SESSION MUSICIANS

Rick Derringer – slide guitar on “Show Biz Kids”. Victor Feldman – vibraphone, percussion.

Pretzel Logic

PRETZEL LOGIC (Producer Gary Katz | Engineer Roger Nichols)

Release date: February 1974. Label: ABC

RATED: B+

Their last album as a de facto rock group. Baxter, Dias, and Hodder are out after this album with Dias returning frequently as a session musician. The writing was clearly on the wall for Hodder, only getting back-up vocal credit while session men Jim Gordon and a young Jeff Porcaro take over the drumming. Not a nice way to end a relationship! It’s an almost-great album with three classic songs “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” (with some inspiration from the great Horace Silver),“Any Major Dude Will Tell” and the title track being choice Dan. “Dude”, one of the most beautiful songs ever written about being there for a friend-in-need stands out and stands alone in the setting of the Dan’s cynical oeuvre.

 

Track listing
All songs written by Donald Fagen and Walter Becker (except*)
SIDE ONE
No.TitleLength
1.Rikki Don’t Lose That Number4:32
2.“Night by Night”3:40
3.Any Major Dude Will Tell You3:05
4.“Barrytown”3:17
5.East St. Louis Toodle-Oo* (Duke Ellington and Bubber Miley)2:45
SIDE TWO
No.TitleLength
6.“Parker’s Band”2:36
7.“Through with Buzz”1:30
8.Pretzel Logic4:32
9.“With a Gun”2:15
10.“Charlie Freak”2:41
11.“Monkey in Your Soul”2:31
Personnel
STEELY DAN

Donald Fagen – Lead and backing vocals, keyboards and saxophone Walter Becker – bass, guitar and backing vocals Jeff “Skunk” Baxter – lead guitar Denny Dias – guitar Jim Hodder – backing vocals “Parkers Band”.

NOTABLE SESSION MUSICIANS

Dean Parks – guitar Chuck Rainey – bass Jim Gordon – drums Jeff Porcaro – drums Michael Omartian – piano David Paich – piano Victor Feldman – percussion Timothy B. Schmit – backing vocals.

Katy Lied

KATY LIED (Producer Gary Katz | Engineer Roger Nichols)

Release date: April 1975. Label: ABC

RATED: B+

No longer a group as such, Walter and Donald do what the Beatles did in 1967. They will bury themselves in the studio and surround themselves with the best session musicians on the planet. They will lay down the most immaculate sounding music that could be captured on vinyl at the time aided by a masterful engineer and an ace producer.

“Katy Lied” is the first album from the “new” Dan and it had its problem’s (ironically, because of a badly mixed master, they refused to listen to the final product) but it does have what may be the group’s most beautifully melodic and beautifully arranged song “Doctor Wu” (aka “Katy Lied”) which alone made this album worth having. Two moderately successful singles “Black Friday” and “Bad Sneakers” and a lovely “Your Gold Teeth II” seal the deal at a B+. Oh, and Michael McDonald makes his first appearance on backup vocals.

Track listing
All songs written by Donald Fagen and Walter Becker
SIDE ONE
No.TitleLength
1.“Black Friday”3:40
2.“Bad Sneakers”3:16
3.“Rose Darling”2:59
4.“Daddy Don’t Live in that New York City No More”3:12
5.“Doctor Wu”3:59
SIDE TWO
No.TitleLength
6.“Everyone’s Gone to the Movies”3:41
7.“Your Gold Teeth II”4:12
8.“Chain Lightning”2:57
9.“Any World (That I’m Welcome To)”3:56
10.“Throw Back the Little Ones”3:11
Personnel
STEELY DAN

Donald Fagen – vocals, piano, keyboards.

Walter Becker – bass, guitar (solo on “Black Friday” and “Bad Sneakers”.

NOTABLE SESSION MUSICIANS

Hugh McCracken – guitar Denny Dias – guitar (solo on “Your Gold Teeth” II) Dean Parks – guitar (solo on “Rose Darling”) Rick Derringer – guitar (solo on “Chain Lightening”) Elliott Randall – guitar (solo on “Throw Back the Little Ones) Larry Carlton – guitar (solo on ‘Daddy Don’t Live in That New York City No More”) Chuck Rainey – bass Wilton Felder – bass Jeff Porcaro – drums (all tracks except *)Hal Blaine – drums (* “Any World That I’m Welcome To) Michael Omartian – piano David Paich – piano Victor Feldman – percussion Michael McDonald – backing vocals.

The Royal Scam

THE ROYAL SCAM (Producer Gary Katz | Engineer Roger Nichols)

Release date: May 1976. Label: ABC

RATED: A

Their best guitar-driven album, “The Royal Scam” is filled with one amazing track after another and guitarist Larry Carlton has not just one but three moments of immortality; “Kid Charlamagne”, “Don’t Take Me Alive” (the track begins with his solo what CONFIDENCE!) and the title track. Add to this “The Fez”, “Haitian Divorce”, “Green Earrings” and the inspired “Caves of Altamira” and you have a solid A. Only “Everything You Did” and “Sign in Stranger” are a little weaker than the others.

Track listing
All songs written by Donald Fagen and Walter Becker (except*)
SIDE ONE
No.TitleLength
1.“Kid Charlemagne”4:38
2.“The Caves of Altamira”3:34
3.“Don’t Take Me Alive”4:16
4.“Sign In Stranger”4:23
5.“The Fez”* (Becker/Fagen/Paul Griffin)4:01
SIDE TWO
No.TitleLength
6.“Green Earrings”4:05
7.“Haitian Divorce”5:53
8.“Everything You Did”3:55
9.“The Royal Scam”6:28
Personnel
STEELY DAN

Donald Fagen – vocals, piano, keyboards

Walter Becker – bass guitar, guitar (solo on “The Fez”, Modified Dean Parks talk box guitar on “Haitian Divorce”).

NOTABLE SESSION MUSICIANS

Larry Carlton- guitar (solo on “Kid Charlemagne”, “Don’t Take Me Alive”, “Sign in Stranger”, “Everything You Did” “The Royal Scam”)

Denny Dias – guitar (first solo guitar on “Green Earrings”) Dean Parks – guitar (talk box guitar on “Haitian Divorce”) Elliott Randall – guitar (second solo guitar on “Green Earrings”) Chuck Rainey – bass Bernard Purdie – drums (all tracks except*) Rick Marotta – drums (* “Don’t Take Me Alive” “Everything You Did:) John Klemmer – sax Chuck Findley – trumpet Victor Feldman – percussion Michael McDonald – background vocals Timothy B. Schmit – background vocals.

Aja

Aja (Producer Garry Katz | Engineers Roger Nichols, Elliott Scheiner, Al Schmitt, Bill Schnee)

Release date: September 1977. Label: ABC

RATED: A

For many, their greatest achievement, and the high point of jazz-rock fusion, “Aja” is the Dan’s most successful album jumping from 26 to 3 on its second week on the Billboard 200, kept from the number one spot by the giants Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours” (number 1) and Linda Ronstadt’s “Simple Dreams” (number 2) and going multi-platinum.

Many things about this album have become the stuff of legend: the endless recording takes until Walter and Donald were satisfied, Jay Graydon finally nailing the guitar solo on “Peg”, Michael McDonald’s invaluable and unique vocal stylings, again on “Peg” and the Bernard Purdie shuffle on “Deacon Blues” and “Home at Last”. Add “Josie”, “Black Cow” and the title track and it’s close to perfection. Only “I Got the News” seems dated today and keeps my rating at a solid A.

Track listing
All songs written by Donald Fagen and Walter Becker
SIDE ONE
No.TitleLength
1.“Black Cow”5:10
2.“Aja”7:57
3.“Deacon Blues”7:33
SIDE TWO
No.TitleLength
1.“Peg”3:58
2.“Home at Last”5:34
3.“I Got the News”5:06
4.“Josie”4:33
Personnel

SIDE ONE

BLACK COW: Donald Fagen – lead vocals, synthesizer Larry Carlton – guitar Chuck Rainey – bass guitar Tom Scott – tenor saxophone Paul Humphrey -drums Victor Feldman – Fender Rhodes.

AJA: Donald Fagen – lead vocals, synthesizer Larry Carlton, Walter Becker, and Denny Dias – guitars Chuck Rainey – bass guitar Steve Gadd – drums Wayne Shorter – tenor saxophone Joe Sample – Fender Rhodes Michael Omartian – piano Victor Feldman – percussion Timothy B. Schmit – backing vocals.

DEACON BLUES: Donald Fagen – lead vocals, synthesizer Larry Carlton and Lee Ritenour – guitars Walter Becker – bass guitar Bernard Purdie – drums Peter Christlieb – tenor saxophone Victor Feldman – Fender Rhodes.

SIDE TWO

PEG: Donald Fagen – lead vocal, Jay Graydon – guitar solo Steve Kahn – guitar Chuck Rainey – bass guitar Rick Marotta – drums Victor Feldman – percussion Tom Scott – Lyricon Michael McDonald – backing vocals.

HOME AT LAST: Donald Fagen – lead vocal, synthesizer, backing vocals Walter Becker – guitar solo Larry Carlton – guitar Chuck Rainey – bass guitar Bernard Purdie – drums Victor Feldman – piano Timothy Schmit – backing vocals.

I GOT THE NEWS: Donald Fagen – lead vocals, synthesizers Larry Carlton – guitar solo Walter Becker- guitar solo Dean Parks – guitar Chuck Rainey – bass guitar Ed Greene – drums Victor Feldman- piano Michael McDonald – backing vocals.

Josie: Donald Fagen – lead vocals, synthesizers, backing vocals Walter Becker – guitar solo Larry Carlton and Dean Parks – guitars Chuck Rainey- bass guitar Jim Keltner – drums Victor Feldman – Fender Rhodes Tim Schmit – backing vocals.

Gaucho

Gaucho (Producer Gary Katz | Engineer Roger Nichols)

Release date: November 21, 1980. Label MCA

 

RATED: A+

 

What can I say, it’s my favorite Dan album. Despite all the problems surrounding its birth – the move to New York, Walter’s accident, the inadvertent wiping clean of the now legendary “The Second Arrangement“, Roger Nichol’s highly temperamental drum machine Wendel and the lawsuit by Keith Jarret who then became coauthor of the title track (because of similarities to his “Long as You Know You’re Living Yours” from 1974) with Walter and Donald. However, the track “Gaucho”, whatever its influences, is very possibly the greatest, most complex, and endlessly fascinating song the Dan have ever laid down. “Babylon Sisters” is also perfect. In fact, every track on the album is superb. I give it an A+.

Track listing
All songs written by Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, except where noted.
SIDE ONE
No.TitleLength
1.“Babylon Sisters”5:49
2.“Hey Nineteen”5:06
3.“Glamour Profession”7:29
SIDE TWO
No.TitleLength
4.“Gaucho” *and Keith Jarrett5:32
5.“Time Out of Mind”4:13
6.“My Rival”4:34
7.“Third World Man”5:15
Personnel
STEELEY DAN

Donald Fagen – lead vocals, piano, electric piano, synthesizer, backing vocals.

Walter Becker – bass guitar, guitar, guitar solo.

NOTABLE SESSION MUSICIANS

Larry Carlton – guitar Hiram Bullock – guitar Rick Derringer -guitar Steve Kahn – guitar Mark Knopfler – guitar Hugh McCracken – guitar Chuck Rainey – bass guitar Steve Gadd – drums Rick Marotta – drums Jeff Porcaro – drums Bernard Purdie- drums Tom Scott – saxophone David Sanborn – saxophone Michael Brecker – saxophone Victor Feldman – percussion Michael McDonald – background vocals Timothy B. Schmit – background vocals.

The Nightfly

The Nightfly (Producer Gary Katz | Engineers Roger Nichols and Elliot Scheiner)

Release Date: October 1982. Label: Warner Bros.

 

RATED: A+

A true masterpiece and one of my all-time-favorite albums. From the high plains of “Gaucho” and, working for the first time without Walter, Donald turned to his youth for inspiration, capturing the optimism of the late 1950s and early 1960s but always with knowingness of someone who’s glad that they are living in the eighties. The album’s first single was the gorgeous “I.G.Y. (What a Wonderful World)”, Donald’s affectionate nod to the “international geophysical year” of 1957-1958 with its irresistible, boundlessly optimistic lyrics (“There’ll be spandex jackets, one for everyone”, “Ninety minutes from New York to Paris” “Under sea by rail” “Get your ticket to that wheel in space while there’s time”).

In the title track we become acquainted with the album’s host (“I’m Lester the Nightfly” “Hello Baton Rouge” “Won’t you turn you’re radio down “Respect the seven second delay we use”) a late-night jazz DJ who holds court with his jaded attitude, his loneliness and regret (“Thanks for calling” “I wait all night for calls like these”). “The New Frontier”, the album’s most brilliantly worded song, refers to fallout shelters, Dave Brubeck, and horny teenage boys (“I hear you’re mad about Brubeck” “I like your eyes, I like him too” “He’s an artist, a pioneer” “We’ve got to have some music on the new frontier”). “Maxine” pays homage the harmonies of the Four Freshmen, “Green Flower Street” is a nod to Bronisalu Kaper’s jazz standard “On Green Dolphin Street”, “The Goodbye Look” alludes to the popularity of the bossa nova in the 1960’s while telling the story of a military coup on a Caribbean Island and the final track, the seductive “Walk Between the Raindrops” (“Oooooh Miami”)! has its origins in a Jewish folktale.

Donald wrote all the songs except for the Jerry Leiber/Mike Stoller penned “Ruby Baby” which, like a most of the tracks on the album, is bathed in harmony and it’s presented with Donald’s unique arrangement.

“The Nightfly” may also be the best SOUNDING album ever made thanks to the meticulousness of Donald, Katz and Nichols, its place in the hearts of audiophiles being a constant for almost four decades.

The album’s superb cover art by Gale Sasson and Vern Yenor shows Donald as the late-night jazz DJ complete with cigarette and microphone. Flip the album covers over and what you see is a single light shining from a window in a suburban house; the teenager Donald’s bedroom as he listens to jazz music into the early hours of the morning.

A resounding A+

Track Listing
All tracks are written by Donald Fagen except where noted*
No.TitleLength
1.“I.G.Y”6:03
2.“Green Flower Street”3:42
3.“Ruby Baby” * (Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller)5:38
4.“Maxine”3:50
No.TitleLength
5.“New Frontier”6:23
6.“The Nightfly”5:47
7.“The Goodbye Look”4:50
8.“Walk Between Raindrops”2:38
Personnel

Donald Fagen – lead vocals, electric piano, piano, background vocals.

Steve Kahn – acoustic guitar Larry Carlton – lead guitar Rick Derringer – guitar Hugh McCracken – guitar Dean Parks – guitar Anthony Jackson – bass Marcus Miller – bass Will Lee- bass Chuck Rainey – bass Abraham Laboriel – bass Jeff Porcaro – drums Steve Jordan – drums James Gadson – drums Ed Greene – drums Michael Brecker – saxophone David Tofani – saxophone Ronnie Cuber – saxophone Randy Brecker – trumpet Michael Omartian – piano Greg Phillinganes – synthesizer, piano, electric piano.

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