Tag Archives: Donald Fagen

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 BOYS IN THE BAND ARE DENNY DIAS ON GUITAR / JEFF “SKUNK” BAXTER ON GUITAR / WALTER BECKER ON BASS GUITAR AND VOCALS / JIM HODDER ON DRUMS (AND BACKING VOCALS) / DONALD FAGEN ON PIANO AND VOCALS / RECORDED IN LATE 1973 AT THE LOS ANGELES RECORD PLANT / NO IT’S NOT YOUR EARS…THE BAND ARE PLAYING LOUD TO THE POINT OF DISTORTION / THE TAPE WAS EDITED (EXTENSIVELY) BY DEEK / EXTRA SPECIAL THANKS TO MR. TIME FOR THE GOOD SENSE AND SOUND ADVICE / THE BAND GET VERY, VERY EXCITED DURING TRACK THREE ON SIDE TWO / AS MELTS THE SNOW IT’S OL’ STEREO / BYE BYE / TAKRL 1924

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

RITA#827b

Rocks In The Attic #460: 10cc – ‘10cc’ (1973)

RITA#460My parents recently came over to our side of the world for Christmas, and my Dad brought with him a couple of ripe quiz questions. The first one was something along the lines of:

‘Which ‘60s group’s first three singles went to #1 in the UK?’

The answer wasn’t 10cc (they didn’t get release a single as 10cc until the early ‘70s) – it was Gerry & The Pacemakers – but his second question was just as tricky:

‘Which band’s three UK #1s were sung by different vocalists?’

This had me scratching my head for days, thinking it was going to be more of a vocal group like Sister Sledge or somebody like that, rather than a band who play instruments. Of course the correct answer was 10cc – Rubber Bullets (Lol Creme) in 1973, I’m Not In Love (Eric Stewart) in 1975, and Dreadlock Holiday (Graham Gouldman) in 1978.

This lovely reissue of 10cc’s debut from 1973 – in beautiful red vinyl – features some interesting liner notes (remember them?) by Michael Heatley. In his short biography of the band up to this point, Heatley mentions that 10cc, despite the harmonic similarities drawn between themselves and Queen, saw their output to be more in line with Steely Dan. I’ve never considered this, but they’re probably as close as you’re going to get to the UK’s answer to Walter Becker and Donald Fagen’s clever lyrics.

What isn’t in debate is the quality of 10cc’s output by their first album. No debut jitters here, they sound fully formed and their recent history as songwriters through the late ‘60s serves them well. This isn’t typical boy meets girl material; it’s storytelling with that acerbic and cynical wit typical of Becker and Fagen.

I love Rubber Bullets. Despite its camp charm, it’s got such a hook (similar in tone and subject matter to its partner in crime I Predict A Riot by the Kaiser Chiefs); but it’s by no means the only highlight of the album. Even if you take away the other singles – Donna, Johnny Don’t Do It and The Dean And I – you’re still left with a very strong set of songs; songs that other less-talented bands would probably kill for.

Hit: Rubber Bullets

Hidden Gem: Sand In My Face

Rocks In The Attic #357: Neil Young – ‘After The Gold Rush’ (1970)

RITA#357Well I heard mister Young sing about her, well I heard ole Neil put her down, well I hope Neil Young will remember, a Southern man don’t need him around anyhow.

There isn’t enough sniping between bands these days. It’s fun and reminds you that everybody’s playing in the same pool. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t like the level of antagonism on something like How Do You Sleep – John Lennon’s poison pen-letter to Paul McCartney. That’s taking it down to a schoolyard level (and anyway, McCartney’s initial snipe – a photograph of two beetles fucking each other on the rear cover of Ram – was far more tasteful).

But if it’s one band having a bit of a dig at another band, I usually love it. The above lyrics from Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Sweet Home Alabama showed that the rednecks weren’t too enamoured of Neil Young’s song on this album. As usual, with these sorts of things, it all got blown out of proportion and became widely known that Neil Young and Skynyrd didn’t get on.

The same is almost true of Steely Dan and the Eagles. First of all, the mighty Dan include the lyric ‘Turn up the Eagles, the neighbours are listening’ in the song Everything You Did, off The Royal Scam. Glenn Frey then returned the compliment by including the line ‘They stab it with their Steely knives’ in Hotel California. Most people think the two bands were at odds, but the Eagles loved Steely Dan and perhaps most importantly Donald Fagen and Walter Becker both had a respect for the Eagles – that’s Glenn Frey, Don Henley and Tim Schmit you can hear singing backing vocals on the Dan’s 1978 single FM (No Static At All).

I was expecting more snipes from Jack White against the Black Key’s Dan Auerbach on 2014’s Lazaretto, but it’s okay. It seems White was more concerned with rubbing his ex-wife’s face in his new-found promiscuity – ‘I got three women, red, blonde, and brunette, it took a digital photograph to pick which one I like’ – on Three Women, his version of Blind Willie McTell’s Blind Women Blues.

Hit: Southern Man

Hidden Gem: Cripple Creek Ferry

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 #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