Category Archives: Steely Dan

Rocks In The Attic #827: Steely Dan – ‘Rotoscope Down’ (1973)

RITA#827You can keep your expensive Zeppelin and Floyd bootlegs. I’m more interested in curios like this, a ‘peak behind the curtain’, as the record’s subtitle tells us, of Steely Dan’s 1973 American tour.

Recorded in front of a small audience at the Los Angeles Record Plant in late 1973, although some sources put the date as March 20th 1974, it’s a brilliant run-through of selections from the band’s first three studio albums (Can’t Buy A Thrill, Countdown To Ecstasy and Pretzel Logic). The inclusion of three songs from Pretzel Logic suggests the recording is from the later date, as this would fall after the February release of the album.

RITA#827aThe liner notes on the simple pink-photocopied insert that acts as the cover reads:


The comment around the distortion is spot-on. It doesn’t sound bad, just the result of being recorded outside of the mixing desk I’m guessing. The band are on fire though, as you would expect them to be.

Hit: Reelin’ In The Years

Hidden Gem: Mobile Heart


Rocks In The Attic #779: Various Artists – ‘FM (O.S.T.)’ (1978)

RITA#779Is there a worse film with such a great jukebox soundtrack? I don’t know what went on with the production of this film, but they managed to amass a who’s who of AOR tracks – courtesy of many different record labels – on the soundtrack.

It’s amazing to see the ident of the film studio, and the opening credits roll over a Steely Dan track. Their title track is one of the band’s only tracks not to appear on any of their studio albums, and serves as a great reason to own this soundtrack. Within the bands discography, it falls between the recording of 1977’s Aja and 1980’s Gaucho. The instrumental reprise of the title track, unavailable anywhere else, makes it essential for any diehard Steely Dan fan.

The plot of the film – a hit radio station staffed by a plucky bunch of rebels, faced with interference from their corporate owners – is about as interesting as the trade dispute storyline from The Phantom Menace.

The cast – of mostly unknowns – aren’t particularly bad, or unlikable, it’s just that the story is so damn uninteresting. It plays more like a soap opera than a feature film, and the claustrophobia of the radio station offices is really only punctured by two concert performances, by Jimmy ‘Great Spread’ Buffett and Linda Ronstadt.

RITA#779aWhat a corker of a soundtrack though. Alongside the Dan’s FM, we also get their groovy Do It Again, the Eagles’ Life In The Fast Lane, Foreigner’s Cold As Ice, the Doobie’s It Keeps You Runnin’, the Steve Miller Band’s Fly Like An Eagle, Tom Petty & The Heartbreaker’s Breakdown, Queen’s We Will Rock You and the full 8-minute cut of Joe Walsh’s Life’s Been Good To Me. It really is the American Graffiti of late ‘70s rock music. My only criticism is that it’s comprised entirely by white singers and bands, and I can’t imagine any radio station in the late 1970s being so blind to African-American artists.

In fact, the hits come so thick and fast, the film feels more like a 2-hour trailer for a much better film, given how used we are to hearing big songs flip between one to another so rapidly. It’s just a shame the film doesn’t live up to the quality of the music.

No static at all, but a whole load of white noise.

Hit: More Than A Feeling – Boston

Hidden Gem: FM Reprise – Steely Dan

Rocks In The Attic #279: Steely Dan – ‘Aja’ (1977)

RITA#279This isn’t my favourite Steely Dan album. That has to be the awesome Pretzel Logic. I guess any of them could be my favourite though – they’re all so consistent. But just like your favourite James Bond actor, or your favourite Doctor (Who), it always comes back to the first one you were exposed to, and for me that was Pretzel Logic.

Aja has to be the best sounding Steely Dan record though. The production on it sounds just perfect, like it was recorded on a computer, but without losing all the soul that pro-tools recordings always seem to do. Obviously it couldn’t have been recorded on a computer back in 1977 – it’s just recorded really well; seven tracks of perfection.

When I saw Steely Dan a couple of years ago on the 2011 Shuffle Diplomacy Tour, they opened with the title track from Aja. I don’t know what the drummer did wrong to deserve that – the drum parts on that song are amazing, with an awesome drum solo mid-song over the saxophone parts. I think I’d like a bit of a warm-up before I tackled that in a setlist. Perhaps it was punishment for his habits on the tour bus or something. Anyway, he nailed it – and he was only a young dude as well. He didn’t even flinch; he just took it all in his stride. Give the drummer some, indeed.

The title-track from Aja is probably the best example of the band being classified as jazz-rock. There are huge portions of the song based around a simple two-note motif, reminiscent of Miles Davis’ So What opener from Kind Of Blue. Like most of Steely Dan’s music though, I have no idea what any of the lyrics mean – but it doesn’t really matter. The music is just so rich, that they could be singing in ancient Hebrew and I’d still dig it.

Thanks to De La Soul heavily sampling Peg (for their song Eye Know), I felt I already knew that song before I heard anything else by Steely Dan at all. It’s a great pop song – probably their most commercial and mainstream-sounding single, but the prominent Michael McDonald backing vocals on the song are the only sour point on the whole album for me.

The master tapes for two of the albums songs – Black Cow and Aja – have gone missing over the years, preventing the record company from being able to bring out a SACD or 5.1 version of the album:

“When we recently sent for the multi-track masters of Aja so as to make new surround-sound mixes of same, we discovered that the two-inch multi-tracks of the songs Aja and Black Cow were nowhere to be found. They had somehow become separated from the other boxes, which the producer had abandoned here and there (studios, storage lockers, etc.) almost twenty years before. Anyone having information about the whereabouts of these missing two inch tapes should contact HK Management at (415) 485-1444. There will be a $600.00 reward for anyone who successfully leads us to the tapes. This is not a joke. Happy hunting.” – Donald Fagen & Walter Becker, 1999.

Really? “$600.00”? That misplaced decimal point sure sounds like a joke to me.

Hit: Peg

Hidden Gem: Aja

Rocks In The Attic #210: Steely Dan – ‘Greatest Hits’ (1978)

RITA#210Usually I’d say a Greatest Hits collection is nearly always pointless – a way of introducing a band’s most popular songs to people who can’t be bothered, or are too busy, to listen to a studio album. They can be very valuable though – for a muso, they usually give you a good enough sample of a band before you decide to jump in and listen to the albums that made up the years preceding that collection.

Steely Dan’s Greatest Hits does one better than that though. There’s an unreleased song on here, which makes it an essential purchase for any Steely Dan fan. With only seven studio albums to their name (discounting 21st century reunion albums), a new Steely Dan song from the ‘70s is an important thing. An offcut of the sessions which produced The Royal Scam, the song Here At The Western World is a slow-burning piano-led song with a similar feel to Any Major Dude (which it follows on the album). Thankfully, it has the unmistakable Steely Dan sound.

The only drawback with this Greatest Hits set is that it came out in 1978 – the year they provided the song FM to the film of the same name – and two years before their final album Gaucho, so it’s not an exhaustive representation of their work over initial seven-album run. FM is always a great addition to any later Steely Dan compilation, and some of Gaucho’s songs are essentials on any later compilations of the band’s work.

Hit: Reeling In The Years

Hidden Gem: Here At The Western World

Rocks In The Attic #172: Steely Dan – ‘The Royal Scam’ (1976)

This is Steely Dan’s most guitar-heavy album. Given that I’m a guitarist, and I love Steely Dan, this should really be my favourite Steely Dan record. It isn’t (Pretzel Logic is), but I still love The Royal Scam.

Like most fans of the Dan I’d say that Fagen and Becker never put a foot wrong. The one album that people always put forward as their worst – their last one, Gaucho – is always held up as the beginning of the end (after six straight years of churning out an album every year, it took them three years to release Gaucho after the success of Aja). I actually like Gaucho, and it’s by no means my least favourite (Countdown To Ecstasy tends to be, although it’s still a fantastic album).

I haven’t bothered to check out their two ‘reunion’ albums released since 2000. I’ve heard a couple of tracks, and at least they seem to sound like Steely Dan – unlike most bands who release an album after twenty years apart and end up sounding like a bad tribute band (case in point: The Doobie Brothers’ last couple of studio albums in the 1990s and 2000s).

Out of all the bands I love – my top ten favourite bands even – Steely Dan are definitely the most lyrical. Being a guitar player, a lot of lyrics go straight over my head – I’m just busy listening to the band, I just haven’t got the time to try and start deciphering the words – and this is especially true of the Dan.  Their material is just so musically interesting, I just love everything that pours out of the stereo when they’re on.

Hit: Kid Charlemagne

Hidden Gem: The Fez

Rocks In The Attic #94: Steely Dan – ‘Can’t Buy A Thrill’ (1972)

Rocks In The Attic #94: Steely Dan - ‘Can’t Buy A Thrill’ (1972)There were two bands that my guitar teacher always tried to push on me – Van Halen and Steely Dan. Some of his Van Halen recommendations stuck on me, but I already had a decent idea of their back catalogue at the time. But Steely Dan? Why would I listen to them as a 15 year old obsessed with guitars. Aren’t they a band for old people? Needless to say, I didn’t check out his advice. I really regret that.

Fast forward a decade or so, and I’m in New Zealand on my first trip here. We borrow a car from the In-Laws (to be), and for some reason the radio doesn’t work. We’d soon find out that radios don’t tend to work unless you retract the aerial on the roof (d’oh!), but it didn’t matter – there was a CD in the car. Only one CD mind you, so we’d have to listen to it a lot, on our 3-week trip.

The CD was The Best of Steely Dan – Then And Now – the one with the image of the car graveyard (or I’d guess you’d call it an art installation) on the cover. We must have listened to that album dozens of times, and all of a sudden I was really wishing I could go back in time and take my guitar teacher’s advice.

This is Steely Dan’s first album – and in my eyes it’s probably the least Steely Dan of their albums. Well, their initial run of albums that is. It has a couple of big hits – Do It Again and Reelin’ In The Years – but it doesn’t all fit together as nicely as their later albums. The main point of difference with this debut is that this seems to feel more of a band effort. At this point in their career, it doesn’t appear clear that Steely Dan is Donald Fagen and Walter Becker. Only the songwriting credits on the record hint at this. On the reverse of the record, especially in the liner notes, each member of the band playing on the record gets as much mention as anyone else.

The cover of the album deserves a special mention for how awful it is. I love the Steely Dan logo, but the art direction on the album – random images pasted over a shot of a row of housewife-looking hookers is really amateurish, and is easily the worst thing about the album.

Hit: Reelin’ In The Years

Hidden Gem: Change Of The Guard

Rocks In The Attic #74: Various Artists – ‘Air America (O.S.T.)’ (1990)

Rocks In The Attic #74: Various Artists - ‘Air America (O.S.T.)’ (1990)Of all the film soundtracks I have in my record collection, this is probably the film I’m least familiar with. I think I’ve only seen it once, and it doesn’t ever seem to be played on TV (well, not on New Zealand television at least).

I bought this as it has an Aerosmith song on it – a cover of The Doors’ Love me Two Times, presumably recorded during the Pump sessions.

The rest of the album isn’t bad – a random collection of pop rock mainly from the late sixties and early seventies. Aside from Do It Again by Steely Dan – which always sounds good – the real treasure on the album is Rescue Me – Fontella Bass’ 1965 single on Chess Records.

On a negative point, this album goes a long way to showcase how poorly made vinyl records were in the early 90s. On both sides, the run-in groove has been cut into the record incorrectly so that when you put the needle down it doesn’t actually run onto the first song – it’s just goes around in a circle without the songs starting. Idiots.

Hit: California Dreamin’ – The Mamas & The Papas

Hidden Gem: Rescue Me – Fontella Bass