“You should never believe anything it ever says on a Steely Dan record, It’s mostly a bunch of lies and bullshit that we write just to confuse the listener.”
—-Donald Fagen in a reference to liner notes (if not the actual songs.)
One of the criticisms often leveled at Steely Dan by their detractors – and perhaps even some of their admirers – is that they do so many takes of each song that their music winds up being overprocessed and sounds like it. Having read in some depth about their techniques, I will agree that these guys have an almost pathological obsession with perfection.
As they became increasingly successful, they continued their reliance on a succession of top-notch studio musicians whom they would get to do take after take after take. Sometimes they would have two studios going, with two different bands playing the same songs simultaneously. And then they might throw everything out and start again! Or keep half of one guitar solo.
And the musicians could never understand why, as the 100th take didn’t sound any different to them than the 50th take. They seemed particularly obsessed with getting exactly the right drum sound and could tell, for example, if a drummer was using his hi-hat slightly differently on the chorus or if a beat was “softer” in the 19th bar.
And while I personally wouldn’t want to work this way, my own opinion is that, for the most part – for all the perfection they strove for – they still managed to get a vibrant, exciting sound. If I hadn’t known they did so many overdubs, I would have figured that the great songs from the Katy Lied album were just well-rehearsed numbers by a crackerjack band. (Katy Lied, along with Aja, are my two favorite Dan albums.)
Speaking of Katy Lied, here’s “Bad Sneakers” with an achingly poignant solo by Walter Becker. (Common wisdom is that Becker did not play any solos. Absolutely untrue):
One of the Dan’s favorite guitar players was Rick Derringer. Derringer had started out playing with a band called the McCoys who had a hit with “Hang On Sloopy.” He then completely changed his focus and became a member of Johnny Winter’s touring band. He eventually went solo (“Rock and Roll Hootchie Koo”), fell in with the Dan and loved playing with them.
Derringer plays on a couple of their songs, here most notably on what I believe to be one of the coolest-sounding numbers ever written, “Chain Lightning.” (Which supposedly is about two guys attending a fascist rally).
Some turnout, a hundred grand
Get with it we’ll shake his hand
Don’t bother to understand
Don’t question the little man
Be part of the brotherhood
Yes it’s chain lightning
It feels so good
Since Becker/Fagen are two of the greatest songwriters ever, I thought it would be enlightening to hear a little about their process (From the book, Steely Dan, Reelin’ in the Years):
“Their songwriting usually begins with Fagen coming up with a musical idea … then getting together with Becker and kicking the idea around, joking about it, smoking Turkish cigarettes, laughing and developing a story… They liked swatches of color, images that don’t necessarily make much sense.
Their rabid imagination and love of the obscure was all that informed their lyrics. [We] think of each piece as a composition, so the arrangements are integral to the actual composition.” Fagen said that there was at least one blues per album, but often modified enough so it wasn’t obvious. But “Lightning,” for example, is a blues, as are “Pretzel Logic” and “Bodhisattva.”
Becker and Fagen were unhappy with the sound quality of Katy Lied and, once it was completed, refused to listen to it. (Some problem with dbx noise reduction equipment.) Their next album – The Royal Scam – didn’t break any new ground but continued in the trend of greater and greater amounts of studio time, more sophisticated arrangements and multiple musicians doing multiple takes.
It kicks off with the fantastic Kid Charlemagne, purportedly based in part on renowned ’60’s acid dealer Owsley Stanley. One of my favorite songs is “The Caves of Altamira,” about the caves in Spain that detail Upper Paleolithic paintings. This is a song that had actually been kicking around in some fashion for about half a dozen years.
But it was always Fagen’s intention that if they became successful, that they save their jazzier numbers for later and take the audience along with them. They credited much of their success to the fact that jazz-rock was popular at the time and audiences were more open and receptive to their sound. If they started today, they would likely be another band scrambling to find a foothold on satellite radio.
Here’s “Caves of Altamira” with a transporting sax solo by John Klemmer:
Before the fall when they wrote it on the wall
When there wasn’t even any Hollywood
They heard the call
And they wrote it on the wall
For you and me we understood