Here in Chicago, our stay-at-home order has just been extended until the end of May. If that is what it takes to make sure we reduce the number of deaths in our great city, then we'll continue to bear down as we have done so well over the last five weeks.
While most of the Music Direct staff will still work from the safety of their homes, we have a small group of music-loving men and women here that will do their best to safely pack and ship your orders directly to your homes. For Chicagoans, we are now offering curbside pick up from 11AM to 3PM. Just call us when you arrive and we’ll bring your order out to your vehicle. We have reduced workday hours for the people who have voluntarily come back to work, and provided everyone with masks and hand sanitizer. Of course, everyone practices social distancing.
While it will be some time before we are together in the office again, we are all extremely excited to show our tremendous appreciation for our small group of heroes here picking, packing, and shipping orders. I also want to offer my sincere gratitude for all your support, especially during the current situation we are experiencing together. You are our lifeblood, and we certainly want you to know how much we appreciate it. As I've been saying over and over, music is what we all need to help get us through these difficult times.
Today's Topic: Steely Dan
"My life is boiling over, it happened once before/I wish someone would open up the door."
Before I dive into Steely Dan, I want to make something clear: Many music lovers I respect despise the band. They think of Steely Dan as yacht rock or over-polished pop. But anyone who conflates Steely Dan with wuss-rock just isn't listening. I have spent my whole adult life defending the group's honor, and will continue to do so. Many people only know Steely Dan on the surface. They recognize "Reelin' in the Years," "Hey Nineteen," and other songs that have been circulating on classic rock radio for decades. And while I think these popular tracks are exceptional, the songs that live in the recesses of the lesser-played grooves are those I love deeply.
My Steely Dan journey began with two episodes in the mid-80s. One beautiful late-summer day, I was driving my beat-up 1969 midnight-blue Volkswagen Beetle down the winding roads near the lakefront. This model Beetle had a three-speed manual transmission but no clutch. Crazy, right? When I ran over a puddle, water came into the car through a hole in the undercarriage. I had just turned 16 and considered my rusted-out hunk of metal as the most luxurious form of transportation invented. I couldn't drive on the highway, however, because it wouldn't even get past 45MPH. (This definitely prevented me from getting speeding tickets.)
I had the windows down and the song that came blaring over the airwaves on my Blaupunkt mono radio was "My Old School." "And I'm never going back/To my old school," the vocalist sang. I couldn't have imaged a better song for anyone getting ready to start junior year of high school. "California tumbles into the sea/That'll be the day I go back to Annandale." And then there were the three guitar solos. The last one keeps going over the fade out. I imagined it playing forever. That song had lasting impact, but I hadn't heard the DJ say the name of the artist. Even so, it remains one of the best drives of my life. I can still feel the cool, crisp air and sun on my face.
A few weeks later, a good friend of mine was playing drums along with "Rikki Don't Lose That Number" in his house. He played it through a few times, getting off his throne and lifting the needle on his turntable to restart the cut. But the few seconds I heard of the next track off Pretzel Logic are what caught my ear. I asked my friend to let it play, and we both sat quietly listening to "Night by Night." The horn section, the remarkable guitar breaks, the powerful drum playing with intense precision, and then the guitar solo. Those who have been reading these columns know of my deep affection for great guitar solos. That was my Steely Dan moment. And I never looked back.
I immediately went down to my local record store and purchased Pretzel Logic. I bought Countdown to Ecstasy (I saw "My Old School" on the track listing) and The Royal Scam the same day. I think it cost me about $12 total; all three had Super Sale pricing. I played the grooves off each of the albums, and went back a couple of weeks later after I got another paycheck from my job cleaning garbage at a hotdog stand. I quickly amassed the band's complete catalog and dug in deep, absorbing everything Donald Fagen and Water Becker had written – as well as the playing from some of the world's finest musicians.
If you are only familiar with Steely Dan's radio cuts, or are only in possession of three different pressings of Aja (you know who you are), there is much digging to be done. What started out as band quickly morphed into session players tirelessly working for Donald and Walter. Trying to play their best to keep up with the duo's lofty vision. You heard stories of pros rerecording parts over and over until they were completely satisfied. It became an honor and rite of passage for any studio pro to perform on a Steely Dan song. Yes, retake after retake reeks of studio snobbery, almost to the point of taking the feeling, or the soul, out of everything. But sonic- and performance-based perfection is an art form in and of itself, and I am an audiophile after all.
While I won't go through every album and mention all my favorite cuts, a short list and description of my favorite guitar solos within a vast catalog of some of the finest, most complex, and most perfectly executed solos cut to tape – recorded by the likes of Larry Carlton, Jeff "Skunk" Baxter, Elliott Randall, Rick Derringer, Denny Dias, and other guitar greats – include the following, arranged in no particular order.
No list of the greatest solos of all time is complete without including the drug-dealing tale of "Kid Charlemagne." "Clean this mess up else we'll all end up in jail/Those test-tubes and the scale/Just get it all out of here." Carlton's playing all over The Royal Scam and other albums is otherworldly. He's the ultimate guitarist's guitarist. I've never heard anyone solo over such complex chord changes like he does here. This song is brilliant, but it's most famous for Carlton's work. So melodic, so perfectly placed. Through the outro, there's another solo, and he just keeps going and going. On a recent tour, Steely Dan announced it would play four shows, each featuring a different album performed in its entirety. The Chicago Theatre was filled with music geeks like me for The Royal Scam show, and when the group brought out Carlton to play, the room erupted.
The solo I mentioned earlier from my drive, on "My Old School," is played by Baxter. Each of the solos are approached differently and with remarkable tonality and a cool, cutting edge. Three guitar solos? Yep. You got a problem with that? Where have all the great guitar solos gone?
Another selection from The Royal Scam that deserves a mention is "Don't Take Me Alive." When is the last time you heard a song open with the guitar solo? It's obvious Donald and Walter loved great guitarists and remarkable solos just as much as I do. Please put this album on post haste, listen to it in its entirety, and play it loud, the way 70s rock was meant to be heard. This might be my favorite guitar album. Again, play it loud!
"Show Biz Kids," from Countdown to Ecstasy, offers a different take on the guitar solo. The song, about Hollywood's spoiled child stars, also contains some amazing slide guitar work by Derringer, who played on albums by Edgar and Johnny Winter and Todd Rundgren – as well as on Fagen's The Nightfly. He plays slide throughout and it sounds like he wants to rip your speaker drivers to shreds. Derringer solos throughout the entire cut, all the while the song sounds as messed up as the lives of those young kids.
Back to "Reelin' in the Years" off Can't Buy a Thrill. Listen to the solos from Randall. Every break is awesome. And Randall's three solos are textbook. Exceptional not just for fitting perfectly into the structure, but his dirty guitar tone feels beautiful in and of itself. The harmony solo near the end between Randall and Dias is gorgeous, too.
Last but not least, my very favorite guitar solo of all the great ones spread throughout the Steely Dan canon stems from Katy Lied and can be found on "Your Gold Teeth II." Not "Your Gold Teeth" from Countdown to Ecstasy, but the MK II version from Katy Lied. The songs don't sound like they have anything in common to me, but that's the sensibility of the songwriters. A sad fact about Katy Lied lies in the use of the then brand-new DBX system for noise reduction and extended dynamic range. The band was never able to recover the original sonics of the performances as the equipment malfunctioned and couldn't be fully salvaged by the DBX engineers. The slight loss of resolution can be heard in the clipping of the cymbal work, but the album still sounds pretty great.
Katy Lied functions a precursor to The Royal Scam. Both overflow with amazing soloing. But during "Your Gold Teeth II," something truly special occurs. Dias plays over ultra-complex time signatures and chord structures to deliver a flawless solo. Rooted in jazz, but sticking completely to the song's rhythm and structure, the phrasing is seamless in execution. I have a bootleg of studio outtakes where you can hear someone in the control room going nuts as the solo gets laid to tape. Not sure if its Fagen, Becker, or producer Roger Nichols, but hearing the reaction at the exact moment the solo is being played is thrilling. The second solo slowly fades out, so sadly, we don't get to hear it all. The song is silly, but that guitar solo remains permanently etched into my mind. "Throw out your gold teeth and see how they roll..."
I could spend hours writing about Steely Dan, but I have work to do. I love the brilliant, sarcastic lyrics penned by Donald and Walter. Those super funky, bad-ass bass lines played by Becker and some of the world's best bassists, and the massive, unforgettable drum beats from the likes of Steve Gadd, Jeff Porcaro, and Bernard "Pretty" Purdie. And it goes without saying that Fagen is a brilliant music writer/keyboardist. All the elements in the songs combine perfectly to create one of the most beloved audiophile catalogs in history.
Tonight's "Notes" were easy for me to put down. Everything quickly flowed out of my brain. I know many of you already love Steely Dan and that in some ways, I'm preaching to the choir. But for those of you who fall on the wrong side of this fence, please consider revisiting the band's amazing catalog and rocking these albums out. Insert mic drop here.