Steely Dan – Are These People With You?

Meet the strange characters inhabiting the world of Steely Dan

 

Take any album release, slip the record onto the turntable…and you will soon be rubbing shoulders with a bizarre slew of individuals brought to you by Steely Dan.

Sometimes named and sometimes not, rather few of these coves seem, well..normal. But Fagen and Becker don’t lean towards playing straight rock. Or straight pop. Or even straight blues, as the warped yet somehow neat chordal progression of Chain Lightning seems to demonstrate.  At first a tad obtuse by choice and perhaps jazz-elitist, the group developed and waned and returned over years. The pop melodies and clever chordal twists and tumbles encouraged those who sing along – and that’s a double-edged sword – and still do, with the high/mid vocal range of Fagen drawing in the female fans, unable to resist ( and who could ?) chiming in on Babylon Sisters and Dirty Work. See, that song isn’t far from straight country, melodically at least, but the grubbiness of the lyric of a despair the narrator does not really want to end put paid to any John Denver cover.  

Many of the rest of us continue to savour the sheer quality of the musicians brought in to bring this sonic world to life.  Larry Carlton fer God’s sake, Jeff Porcaro the drummer’s drummer, Jeff Skunk Baxter, a character you couldn’t make up with his military/tech side work, Chuck Rainey, the mighty guitar master Elliott Randall ! All these fine performers serve the songs on the songs that Steely Dan put together, often producing their most memorable work cos these ace muso’s don’t always have a handle on what makes a likeable tune, which is curious but refinement of technique can mean the loss or perhaps more accurately neglect of melodic appeal to all those general public types…

 

And how glorious when an insidious tune with a strong vocal – not shouted, ever – combines with stellar playing and hook tempo’s !!  Little Feat did it with Dixie Chicken and Skin It Back, but The Dan, man !?….Do It Again, Fez, Mobile Home, Reeling In The Years…. The group’s score rate is high, maybe one of the highest. Me – I love the jazz influences and use of unusual tempo’s and keen percussion. And oh yes, I do LOVE the songs’ inhabitants….so in no order of merit or anything like that may we just list a few favourites and our reasons for including them. Though we don’t want a readers’ war of views, maybe there is a cut or two you will wish to hear or re-visit..and here we go :

SHOW BIZ KIDS

This was an observation at time of recording but also a Vision Of The Future. The Dan laugh at the spoilt Hollywood brats and their perpetual vanity. We laughed along with the ‘Go To Lost Wages’ refrain and the whole more money than taste schtick.

But, friends fast-forward to now and the level of self-regard shown by today’s showbiz offspring has reached obscene proportions. What kind of world willingly pays attention to the terminally-self-obsessed Kardashians ? Why fuel their wish to be the Talk Of The Town, every Town ? They are the wasps of humanity – a nuisance, useless, predatory on their followers’ lack of intelligence, filling the fans’ mental vacuum with the wish to emulate, copy, fawn and fund. Their crappy perfumes and products mark each consumer as a dope. A religion of Utter Worthlessness…not just ‘making movies of themselves’ but adding T V series, selfies of mind-numbing banality. This song stands alongside Ray Davies’ song-stoning of the fashion-mad, imho..and with a dazzling helping of guitar playing

 

DOCTOR WU

Fagen admitted this composition was about love&drugs triangle, with one of the participants being seduced away by a dealer. The glorious saxophone run is by Phil Woods, on an alto and piano by Michael Omartian

 

RIKKI DON’T LOSE THAT NUMBER

The original rumours about this song included the notion that it was about ace guitarist Rick Derringer, once of the fiery Johnny Winter And ensemble. One of the sweetest, catchiest tunes this group ever put together and a garnerer of radio-play.

In fact it is based upon a stunning female that the writers once knew. Borrowing an intro from Horace Silver the jazzer and adding a South American bassline, the guitar solo by Jeff Baxter was played direct into the board. It’s an easy one to whistle !

 

KID CHARLEMAGNE

The Royal Scam record has some stellar inclusions but the relentless precision and punch of this item takes some beating. Larry Carlton’s ace guitar break was overdubbed later. The hihat work of James Brown skinsman Bernard Purdie grips your attention. This man had a ittle sign to hang above his kit when called in to fix a song and it simply read “Your Session Is Saved “

 

JACK OF SPEED

A real grower of a cut from the later SD album Two Against Nature. I now like this number as much as any of the early classics.The stabbing hard-funk beat makes the tale of this chancer ‘skating backwards at the speed of light’ to become a shamanesque rogue hero in a here-and-gone way, at least quite addictive

 

BABYLON SISTERS

Surely one of the best/worst Steely Dan earworm compositions and a vehicle for one of their coolest horn arrangements. The sax figures twist and tumble but the arrangement is never a mess, just sensually effective. The narrative depicts a man fearing his mojo is lost, aiming at a threesome with ladies of the night who might just know the mechanics of reinstatement.

 

HEY NINETEEN

A warning in a song that if you date someone younger than you, they may not share your extensive knowledge of cultural history. The lyric almost sounds like an admonition, but I have known many young people NOT intrigued by the past and just living in the moment. This may be considered intellectual poverty but surely not a crime ?  When young I always enjoyed talking to older folks but really the ones that knew about jazz and seemed more accepting of the colourful music bursting out of the 60s scene…compared to the grizzly old-timers who despised anything new. My own father hated my music, disappointed I was never a sports hero. That was a spur, to me.

 

DO IT AGAIN

The song addresses someone – some poor soul – who seems to be staggering around in their own edition of Groundhog Day, threatened by a hanging party but released, gambling recklessly..who this lost soul is I have never figured out and over the years I must have sung the song many times in many places and it always goes down well. The original version settles into a percussion-riddled rolling beat before the electric piano and nasal vocal take us on through the tale. An acoustic sitar could not be located, so Denny Dias on electric sitar plays a spidery jazz solo before the keyboard follows on. A steady and catchy chorus brings shape to the composition.

 

ANY MAJOR DUDE WILL TELL YOU

A bookish reference in the lyric to a squonk meant nothing to the accompanists.

It was a lachrymose mythical woodland creature….Denny Dias and Jeff Baxter split the guitar part, one section of which had no vibrato whilst the second part did. The second take took it home, the drummer here being Jim Gordon.

 

SIGN IN STRANGER

They don’t come stranger than this, with the outfit taking the listener to another planet rife with killers, miscreants, evildoers and perverts and one where all one’s past misdemeanours can be wiped from memory..just like that, as Mr Cooper would say. Sounds like Brighton. Keys by Paul Griffin and guitar from Elliott Randall.

 

KINGS

This one finds a self-obsessed fool with a blood lust leading his troops to a certain fate. Elliott Randall’s guitar trip runs from calm to berserk in a deliberate portrayal of schizophrenia

 

 

GREEN EARRINGS

A rather nebulous song about a jewel thief, this one. Denny Dias takes the first guitar solo with Elliott Randall next up. For the latter unleashed, find his own Randalls Island album and play Sour Flower, with its stuttering seven note bass figure and edge-of-fingernails guitar runs, suddenly levitating into a jazz mist in ¾…

 

PEARL OF THE QUARTER

She is a lady of the night, but a happier-than-expected ending awaits.

 

KING OF THE WORLD

Allegedly triggered by an old Ray MiIland sci-fi drama Panic In The Year Zero, the song goes for an Armageddon crisis scenario and ponders what could possibly follow on. Dias got to work splicing tapes late in the studio, Baxter having put down a guitar break using an EchoPlex..the result a far cry from, say John Martyn.  A family fishing trip spun into a nuclear attack horror strike

 

 

RAZOR BOY

Said to be Skunk Baxter’s choice of all SD songs, this tune. The Victor Feldman vibes imbue a dreamlike quality. Benny King is portrayed as ‘a child in a nightmare of cosmic proportions’..

 

FIRE IN THE HOLE

This centres on a Vietnam vet who may well be going crazy. Here Jeff Baxter plays pedal steel guitar

 

BLACK FRIDAY

‘ When Black Friday Comes..’ goes the lyric and a rather ominous-sounding tune this surely is. It’s the blues but not as we know it, Jim. What could be a plod enjoys a frisson of tension.

 

CHAIN LIGHTNING

This altered blues has a steady beat and (ostensibly) strange chordal patterns. It’s about a BS-spouting politician, found to be getting away with his rubbish decades later. The sneering vocal delivery seems entirely apposite. I like playing this one live.

 

THIRD WORLD MAN

Fagen said that this was a Third World dream or exposition. The central character is a troubled lad, destined for conflict. The Larry Carlton guitar solo was parachuted in from an earlier and abandoned song, to complete the cuts needed for a full album. Now that’s resourceful…

 

MY RIVAL

The actual music is the story, here. Repeated shots at the guitar intro by Rick Derringer failed so Steve Khan did the six-string figures ..only eight bars !..to achieve an approved take.  This group are often slagged off as over-fastidious and indeed they sometimes can be. But can you argue with an author ? “ Hey JK, make the ginger bloke less wet..”   I don’t think so.

 

PEG

..Er, I am not sure Peg is a character…the tune is irresistible and much-sampled by the later hip-hop cats. That fluid horn hook first appears in the second verse of the song. Rap fans backtracking from the De La Soul nicks from this song have found their way to the works of The Dan, worse things have happened in our world, citizens

 

CHARLIE FREAK

Hinges on a down and out who sells his gold ring, to buy drugs.  He ends up in the morgue. What sounds like a cello was a pedal steel through a FuzzTone.

 

JOSIE

An SD first for renowned drummer Jim Keltner, here. The subject is a rabble-rousing female street-battler with a keen following and possible sensual role model for thrill-seekers. Spot the Charlie Parker quote…( I am sure I got my own taste for slinging in fragments of alien melodies during performances from this group. It is always fun explaining them to close listeners later)

 

GAUCHO

This one proved to be a bit of a minefield. Taking a lot of time to record, the players stayed late at a session after Don and Walter had called it a day, just to get an acceptable version of the composition down on tape. Then an allegation of plagiarism eventually led to a writing credit concession to jazzer Keith Jarrett. Even then the released version from a virtually complete rebuild and layering of the take. The opportunity was taken to slip in some invented phrases and words – all great fodder for baiting those earnest journalists eager to understand every single nuance of each recording this act put out.

 

MIDNITE CRUISER

A tale of weird happenings and bizarre action witnessed late at night in The Metropolis, an old song adapted and sung by Jim Hodder. The ghost of Don and Walter icon Thelonius Monk hangs heavy over this track. When I spent the day once with Jack Bruce at his remote country residence, he too was expansive in his praise of Monk. Jack even made a piano album called MonkJack.

 

GLAMOUR PROFESSION

The focus here is on a famous baseball player who can’t keep off the snow. His manager-dealer is as bad. The confected name Hoops McCann was adopted by a real band, later !  In the world of Steely Dan you never ned to make things up

 

GASLIGHTING ANNIE

This track uses a stealthy tempo, sharp drumming from the late Ricky Lawson and a sex-on-legs female chorale with a Fagen vocal on a highly Zappa-esque tune, with splatters of guitar from Jon Herington – who by the way is all over Don Fagen’s Sunken Condos album….

 

LUNCH WITH GINA

This sounds too good to turn down, especially when watched with accompanying film I found on a Spanish treatment on YouTube. ‘That must be her again’ sings Fagen over this very Gaucho-style confection, which appears on the Everything Must Go record. The guitar slashes are angular and arcane and over this keening melody all the more effective, those clarion horns blaring out with a dose of lust

 

ROSE DARLING

The song told of a taboo liaison, illegal substances, the will to kill. Dean Parks played a scored guitar solo and Fagen’s vocals are wodged up with Michael McDonald’s. Original inspiration from the Nabokov novel Lolita, apparently

 

I could have sourced all these songs to individual albums for you, but some appear on live albums and compilations so I leave you to search out any that interest you, amigos

 

Pete Sargeant

 

A FOOTNOTE:

When we at JLTT concoct these special pieces it’s usually on an act we really like and not going for an autopsy or anything similar, but rather a celebration of the artists’ craft. See Glenn’s one on Jeff Lynne. You would think that mega-parodists The Tubes would have pretty clued-up fans who can read, but our item on our own favourite recordings by that crew (championed by the group themselves on social media) was dubbed as ‘wrong’ by one of their muttonhead fans, causing much amusement at JLTT headquarters. There is no hope for fixated types, theirs is The Only Truth !  We are just glad we do not have to socialise with that sort of cretin. Steely Dan fans are usually well-balanced types with a sense of humour. Or drummers.  Just kidding – Pete)         



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Steely Dan will perform three shows in the UK & Ireland with special guests the Doobie Brothers. The dates are as follows:

Saturday 28th October 2017 – Bluesfest Dublin, 3Arena, Dublin, Ireland

Sunday 29th October 2017 – Bluesfest London, O2 Arena, London, United Kingdom

Monday 30th October 2017 – Bluesfest Dublin, 3Arena, Dublin, Ireland (Extra Date)

For more information visit the band’s official website here: http://bit.ly/2wepbVg 

Steely Dan