The Record and Tape Exchange at 90 Goldhawk Road, Shepherd’s Bush, is entirely responsible to this day for my love of Steely Dan. As a designer I would say the cover of their first record is possibly the most horrible I have ever seen, and I’ll leave you to discover the distinctly murky origin of the band name. So when I came across this album in 1973 for, oh probably £1.99, I was not inclined to buy it, as I had never heard of the band at that point. But I did venture to read the liner notes, by a certain, ahem, Dan Steele, outré Daniel, and what I found prompted me to take the risk (they provide all the quotes in this review). And I have to admit it still remains one of my top ten rock records of all time, by one of the two great U.S. bands of the 70s, the brains behind which being bassist Walter Becker, who sadly died in 2017, and keyboardist and singer Donald Fagen, in reality over the years a two man operation.
It’s impossible to find a duff track. The opener, Do it again, oddly tagged as ‘traditional’, is a radio classic still played today, featuring a brilliant electric sitar (really) solo by Denny Dias, and described as ‘urban Sturm and Drang’. This is followed by the comment ‘the superlatives commonly found in liner notes are often as empty as the music they applaud’ and you realise that the whole project is very dry and tongue in cheek. This was why I came out of the shop needing to hear it. The next song, Dirty work, one of three tagged ‘how’s my little girl’ is an absolutely gorgeous melody sung by David Palmer who only appeared on this album, after which Donald Fagen took over all the lead vocals, although he sang all but three here too. What lifts most of the Dan’s work above the ordinary, as well as the songwriting, is the musicality and instrumentation, which was constantly inventive and always used great studio musicians whether or not they were part of the core band. The jazz connections increased over the years to the point where albums like Aja could be described as jazz. Even here you can find the legendary jazz players Victor Feldman, Snooky Young and Jerome Richardson. Quicker to say who they didn’t work with.
The fans of electric guitar can pick great solos from any number of tracks here, the next track Kings (‘vacuous historical romance’) features Elliott Randall, who also contributes to the other massive hit from this album, the breezy west coast rocker Reelin’ in the years. Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter is probably the best known, his best work here a stunning tour de force adding to the ‘sunstruck LA optimism’ of Change of the Guard. Midnite Cruiser (‘the cruiser and his cronie out for a last fling’) contains a more lyrical example, and also vocals from drummer Jim Hodder. Only a fool would say that (‘a message cha-cha’) finishes the first side – yes it’s vinyl – catchy tune, cynical lyric: I heard it was you, talkin’ ’bout a world where all is free, it just couldn’t be, and only a fool would say that, and a nice little snatch of spoken Spanish to finish – apparently the song title. It’s rumoured to be a rebuttal of John Lennon’s Imagine. Fire in the Hole features some lovely piano from Donald Fagen, and another brilliant Baxter solo, this time on steel guitar.
Lyrics – well where do you start? Steely Dan without them is nothing, something I have trouble remembering, such is the musical content. You’re sometimes misled by the melody into thinking the song is bland, a classical example is the final track, Turn that heartbeat over again (‘a solemn prayer for peace’):
With stocking face I bought a gun
The plan was set the plan was done
Looked at my watch and started for the door
Now the food here ain’t so good no more
And they closed the package store
Oh Michael Oh Jesus you know I’m not to blame
You know my reputation for playing a good clean game
Oh Michael Oh Jesus I’ll keep my promise when
You turn that heartbeat over again
And again, on Dirty Work :
Times are hard
You’re afraid to pay the fee
So you find yourself somebody
Who can do the job for free
When you need a bit of lovin’
Cause your man is out of town
That’s the time you get me runnin’
And you know I’ll be around
How can we end this? Where else but back to Dan Steele: ‘Thus treads heavily the titanic Steely Dan, casting a long shadow on the contemporary rock wasteland, aspiring to spill its seed on barren ground, and at the same time, struggling to make sense out of the flotsam and jetsam of its eclectic musical heritage’. Written, remember, before we knew who the hell they were! See below for the iconic back cover – maybe they should have gone with the name Ultimate Spinach…