Album of the Week, April 6: Can’t Buy A Thrill by Steely Dan

Can'tBuyAThrillDonald Fagen and Walter Becker met at Bard College and bonded over a shared love of jazz and sophisticated pop. They played in a few bands together and began writing songs. After a brief stint in Jay and the Americans the duo focused on their writing, scoring the low-budget film You Gotta Walk It Like You Talk It. They came to the attention of producer Gary Katz, who hired them as staff songwriters for ABC/Dunhill in Los Angeles. The mixture of LA’s optimism with a dark underbelly and New York’s practical cynicism brought their writing into full flower. Katz realized that no-one could interpret the songs like Fagen and Becker, so he encouraged them to form a band. He recommended guitarist Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, who brought along drummer Jim Hodder. The duo called on guitarist Denny Dias, who had worked with them in New York. With Becker on bass and Fagen on keyboards and vocals, Steely Dan was ready to tackle the notebook of songs that Fagen and Becker had written.

Title Can’t Buy A Thrill
Act Steely Dan
Label MCA Release Date November 1972
Producer Gary Katz
U.S. Chart  17 U.K. Chart  38
Tracks
[US Hot 100]
  1. Do It Again [#6]
  2. Dirty Work
  3. Kings
  4. Midnight Cruiser
  5. Only A Fool Would Say That
  6. Reelin’ In the Years [#11]
  7. Fire In the Hole
  8. Brooklyn (Owes the Charmer Under Me)
  9. Change of the Guard
  10. Turn That Heartbeat Over Again

A stellar debut, it features the witty, cynical writing and complex musical structures that Steely Dan became famous for, resting in a slightly less complicated pop structure. Producer Katz and engineer Roger Nichols formed the other de facto band members, encouraging and understanding  the unique talents they had on hand. Shortly before going into the studio, Fagen expressed his concerns about singing live and another vocalist, David Palmer, was brought in to supplement the studio work and handle touring vocals. This potent mix of talented men created a truly amazing record.

Do It Again is a perfect LA song, a dark, Chandleresque story of losers and revenge. Featuring instruments like a cheap electronic keyboard and a guitar that Dias tweaked into a sort of electric sitar, it made an immediate impression, becoming their first hit [#6]. Dirty Work features a strong vocal by Palmer (one of his two leads) and a lovely lyric. At once a straightforward song of infidelity and a look at the complexities of sexual politics, it’s a long time radio staple that dropped from the band’s repertoire when Palmer left. That’s a shame, since it’s one of their finest tracks. Kings features more practical politics, hinting at Nixonian misdeeds while celebrating the monarch of the Magna Carta. Surprisingly, despite the powerful guitar duo of Skunk and Dias, guest Elliot Randall provides the scorching solo on this track, presaging the amazing studio talent that would take over future Dan doings.

Drummer Hodder provides the vocal for Midnight Cruiser, sounding just enough like a mix of Fagen and Palmer to lend the song a curious flair. It’s a wonderful song of beautiful losers, celebrating the east coast home that most of the band had left behind. Only A Fool Would Say That plays the trademark cynicism over a lovely Latin beat. Palmer supports Fagen’s vocals nicely, and the band is especially tight as they cha-cha through the fun. Skunk provides one of his nicest solos, short and sweet. Reelin’ In the Years is a biting dissection of a flawed relationship, presaging some of the band’s finest songs to come. Once again Randall provides a stunning solo while Skunk supplies lovely steel guitar work. Fagen puts to rest any concerns about his vocal chops with a strong, emotional delivery that helps make this song a true classic and the second Top 20 single in a row, something Steely Dan wouldn’t accomplish again.

Fire In the Hole is a short, dark song of resignation, nicely constructed and perfectly delivered. It also shows off Fagen’s piano work, adding a more acoustic jazz note to the album. Brooklyn features another Palmer vocal on a sweet paean that works well but ultimately serves as the closest to filler on a strong disc. Change of the Guard is disarmingly optimistic for Steely Dan shining a bit of light around the dark edges of the band’s trademark worldview. The disc ends fittingly with Turn That Heartbeat Over Again, featuring vocals by Fagen, Becker, and Palmer. Taking the noir of Do It Again into a first person narrative, it’s a compelling tale of a man trying to make the world work the way he was taught it should. Perfectly blending the glimpses of hope with the dour outlook that runs through the album, it wraps up this stunning debut with just the right amount of determined ambiguity.

FURTHER LISTENING: Palmer left after the first tour and the Fagen/Becker/Katz/Nichols vision began to take over the band. By the end of the third album, touing was a thing of the past and the foursome was really all there was to Steely Dan, bringing in a stunning array of studio talent to round out the sound (including backing vocalist Michael McDonald, whom Skunk would later recruit into the Doobie Brothers). Given the complexity and perfectionism of the talented core, Steely Dan created an impressive seven albums in a decade; none of them are duds. The finest is the jazzy, complex Aja, which also features three decent-sized hits. Pretzel Logic is a close contender, the most cohesive set and the clear transition away from the pretense of a band. For a solid overview of Steely Dan’s magic, 1985’s A Decade of Steely Dan is nearly flawless.

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About Robert Hulshof-Schmidt
Freelance writer, researcher, online comic vendor, and project manager. Fan of a wide range of music -- especially folk and 80s pop -- vintage comics, British TV, and LGBT fiction.

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