STEELY DAN – ” Can’t Buy A Thrill ” Classic Albums

Posted: March 27, 2021 in Classic Albums, MUSIC
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As far as debut albums are concerned, Steely Dan’s “Can’t Buy a Thrill” is top-notch. Say what you will about this musically obsessive compulsive double act, they certainly knew how to write a stylish and sophisticated composition, and who seemed to approach the art of song writing in a similar way to a couple of high cuisine chefs or makers of fine wine .

“Can’t Buy a Thrill” is a perfect album. Though Donald Fagen and Walter Becker had been playing together since their days at Bard including a stint as the touring band for Jay and the Americans, it wasn’t until this 1972 recording that they formally had their own band together, even if that band included David Palmer, whose voice, while more “commercial,” lacks the smokey, ne’er-do-well quality of Fagen’s nasally croak.

This album is very much a band effort, a concept which would soon became a thing of the past with each subsequent release, as Becker and Fagen began to indulge their natural instinct for instrumental perfectionism. Strange really, considering that so much of the music they admired, i.e. jazz, blues, rock and roll etc, was basically performed off the cuff, and often under rather austere conditions.

First song “Do It Again” is a Latin-infused, Santana-esque six-minute exercise about a gambling addict, that was a popular hit on US radio. And little wonder. The electric sitar, played by Denny Dias, is a throwback to the late ‘60s, and an instrument which was largely forgotten by 1972 (even George Harrison seemed to have turned his back on it, or at least publicly). Donald Fagen sings the lead vocals and plays ‘plastic organ’, whatever the hell that is. But regardless, it all works. Cool, catchy, and a great driving number. If this tune doesn’t get your toe tapping, then you must be either deaf or deceased . Right from the top kick of “Do It Again,” listeners are introduced to the lowlifes, hustlers and punks that populate the Daniverse. And this album has them all–the hapless fuckboy of “Dirty Work,” the aging hipsters of “Midnight Cruiser” the rambling bums that populate Brooklyn. But alongside bleak tracks like “Fire in the Hole,” there is also lovely hope on tracks like “Change of the Guard.” It’s an album that spans the gamut of the human emotional spectrum.

The country roots-rock of “Dirty Work” is a throwback to The Band, with swirling organ (a la Garth Hudson), and an arrangement reminiscent of “The Weight”. Until the chorus comes in, which in itself is pure Steely Dan. And when you’ve finished planting your crop, and tilling the land, the next track “Kings” takes you out of the country and into the modern city, with a semi-funky beat, and some jazzy guitar courtesy of Elliot Randall, while the harmony vocals have an aspect of CSN about them.

“Midnite Cruiser” was obviously a clear attempt at making a dent in the ever competitive Billboard Top 20, but ultimately sounds a little too desperate in the process, especially when it comes to the chorus ). “Only a Fool Would Say That” is impeccably recorded, though lacks the sort of emotional quotient necessary to make it truly work. Although I have to say, that Jeff Baxter’s guitar flourishes are enjoyable.

More than the best moment on Steely Dan’s embryonic debut album, “Reelin’ In the Years” is their best-loved song. Not that Walter Becker or Donald Fagen ever agreed. “It’s dumb but effective,” Fagen once told Rolling Stone. Becker added: “It’s no fun.” Still, good luck resisting that soaring riff. In a sign of things to come, however, it wasn’t produced by any of the three very talented guitarists then on Steely Dan’s roster – Becker, Denny Dias and Jeff “Skunk” Baxter. Instead, they brought in Elliott Randall, a ringer who’d originally turned down an offer to join the band. He nailed it, almost instantly. “My second pass was what you hear on the record,” Randall told Guitarist in 2012. “It was completely unedited. It was just from top-to-bottom, all the way through. And it worked. We all just laughed afterwards.”

Side two starts off with the effervescent and upbeat “Reelin’ In the Years”, where Elliot Randall’s guitar playing pretty much dominates this pleasurable yet innocent number. “Fire In the Hole” is a hint at what would appear in the future, arrangement-wise, while “Brooklyn (Owes the Charmer Under Me)” is pretty much your standard country-pop replete with obligatory pedal steel and other plaintive arrangements which somehow fail to move the needle of my emotional register. Likewise “Change of the Guard”, a song overflowing with immaculate musicianship, but little in the way of poignant feeling, much less a handful of human emotion. Because if you’re going to express something meaningful, at least try not to be too mathematical about it.

Similarly the album’s last track, “Turn That Heartbeat Over Again”, a song which fails to resonate due once again, to the one flaw which seems to serve as the Achilles heel of Fagen and Becker, and that is craft over Art, where perfection always comes first before sentiment.

“Sometime in November” of 1972 is the official date Steely Dan’s debut LP “Can’t Buy A Thrill” was released on ABC Records. The original band line-up included founder Denny Dias – lead guitar and electric sitar; David Palmer – who sang the lead vocals on “Dirty Work”; Donald Fagan – keyboards and lead vocals; Walter Becker – bass, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter – lead and pedal steel guitar, and spoken word; and Jim Hodder – drums, percussion, and lead vocals on “Midnight Cruiser”. The album was produced by Gary Katz, who produced all of Steely Dan’s albums from the debut here up through 1980’s “Gaucho”. The band got its name from a William S Burroughs novel. The tracks are, side one “Do It Again”, “Dirty Work”, “Kings”, “Midnight Cruiser”, “Only a Fool Would Say That”, “Reelin’ in the Years”, “Fire in the Hole”, “Brooklyn (Owes the Charmer Under Me)”, “Change of the Guard”, and “Turn That Heartbeat Over Again”. Elliot Randall handled the lead guitar on “Reelin in the Years” and “Kings”. The album peeled at number 17 on the pop charts in 1973. The sexy and colourful cover design by Robert Lockart is signed by Donald Fagan and Walter Becker… “Why, you wouldn’t even know a diamond if you held it in your hand.”

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