Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Deep Cuts Part Three: Steely Dan

There is a bar/restaurant in Greenwich Village that I had been going to weekly since 1985. Good food, great staff and great music. One night, I'd say five or six years ago, I stopped in, sat at the bar, ordered my usual and looked at the menu. Within seconds, I was greeted by two bartenders, two waiters, the manager and a bus boy. I LOVE THIS PLACE!

"What's going on with you tonight? You by yourself?"

"Yeah. Just grabbing a bite and then I am walking up 8th Avenue to the Beacon. Going to see Steely Dan."


Lots of laughter, none if it mine.

"HEY!" (calls out to waiter) He's going to see Steely Dan!"

(more laughter)

One of the two bartenders, came out from behind the bar, yelling "They suck!" He went outside, laughing.

True story.

I never felt the same way about that bar and those people I called my friends.

Is Steely Dan universally despised the way, say, Nickelback is? Am I missing something? Sure, they are smug and occasionally stiff, but when did playing your instruments well and writing songs with enough hooks for AM radio that also have enough solos for FM radio become something to scoff. (Or actually, when did seeing them live become something to laugh at?)

I haven't heard Steely Dan the same way since that night, and I recall not enjoying the concert. But yesterday, I listened to "Pretzel Logic" and I loved every minute of it. It also didn't feel like Steely Dan as much as "Peg" feels like Steely Dan. So, with all that said, I felt like tossing out ten deep cuts for those who might enjoy hating Steely Dan.

You've got three headstarts with the videos.

The Caves Of Altamira
Green Earrings
Home At Last
Night By Night
Razor Boy
Rose Darling
Sign In Stranger


buzzbabyjesus said...

Since I'm up to my eyeballs in The Grateful Dead, thinking about Steely Dan hurts my head.

They definitely don't suck, and they can really play. They hire good musicians. They craft their music carefully. Maybe too much. "Aja" sounds a little overworked and sterile to me.
Maybe I wish they'd either play rock or jazz instead of a hybrid which to my ears is neither.
Maybe it's the "We're Steely Dan and you're not" vibe I get.

Funny you mention Steely Dan as I'm watching "Oh, Hello On Broadway" on Netflix. Very funny, and they use Steely Dan at the Beacon for more than one sequence of jokes.
I'm pretty sure they are fans.

Shriner said...

I *love* Steely Dan -- all the way up until Gaucho (which is OK, but lost me because I felt it had no soul) The Fagan solo albums and the "reunion" albums -- did nothing for me because they sound like the direction Gaucho was going and I lost interest.

But everything up til Gaucho -- is just fab.

Seriously -- if "My Old School" doesn't get you moving -- you just don't like music!

And all 7+ minutes of Deacon Blues never gets tiresome. "Aja" as a whole is exceptionally polished (I don't know if I'd go so far as to call it "sterile", but I can see the criticism of it. But the songs -- all of them -- are stellar compositions.

Deep cuts I might have added off the top of my head:

Here at the Western World
Dallas/Sail The Waterway single (why has this been shunned by the band? It's awesome!)
Midnight Cruiser

Anonymous said...

I think the derision comes from being associated with Yacht Rock and giving Michael McDonald his big break. Personally, I think their creepy hipster vibe is hilarious. I heard Robert Klein interview Becker and Fagen before the release of "Aja" and I laughed out loud as much as at any comedian. "Is it true that one of the tracks for the album was accidently erased by an engineer?" "Not an engineer, not anymore." They also speculated that they would never tour after "Aja" - coordinating all the studio musicians' schedules was too complicated. Obviously, they solved that problem.

I enjoyed all the albums up through "Gaucho" but, starting with "The Royal Scam," they haven't aged well with me. My personal benchmark seems to be did it feature Denny Dias (or, if lucky, Elliott Randall), or was it the studio guys? From "Katy Lied" on back, the records have a more organic sound. My favorite is "Countdown to Ecstasy," but I can play any of the first four at any time.

cmealha said...

I really don't understand that reaction. While Steely Dan may not be on the top of my charts, I always thought that they produced quality recordings. Good songs, intricate and challenging arrangements, impeccable musicianship. Maybe it was an 'inside' thing at that restaurant. Certainly don't think it's a general opinion of the band.

Michael Giltz said...

I think you might live in an alternate universe. Surely Steely Dan's rep has grown tremendously over the years to the point where they're universally admired. Sure they won the Grammy for an album that didn't deserve it long after their heyday. But their peak years are pretty tremendous and the string of great singles is undeniable. I've always thought of them as a studio act, not a great live act, but I speak as someone who has never seen them live.

Mr. Baez said...

There are so many contrarians out there and some folks just gotta hate. Steely Dan have put out some much great music it makes my head spin. "Countdown to Ecstasy" is in my car's cd player right now. Great record. Thanks for the anecdote.

Sal Nunziato said...

The reaction in the restaurant was obviously an overreaction. But I know I don't live in an alternate universe. Steely Dan is NOT universally admired. They have been hipster-smug since birth, and often get trashed by rock and rollers, though maybe not as much as I was trashed by the waiters and bartenders. They're respected, of course, but by the same people who show no respect for say The Ramones or The Replacements. Rarely do the twain meet. This has come from 40 years of music retail. I used the story of the restaurant to set up the deep cuts. I am a fan, though I feel exactly like Shriner. "Gaucho" has a moment or two, but I find that record to be very cold.

Michael Giltz said...

PS Sure their hermetically sealed vision of musicianship seemed at odds to the jazz and soul traditions they drew upon. And their lyrics were dismissed by some as smart aleck collegiate know-it-alls. But cynicism ages very well and now it just sounds smart. Commercial success from the start, critical acclaim from the start and the body of work is impressive. I actually like the Donald Fagen Nightfly very much; it seems like everything Steely Dan strove for with a hint of nostalgic emotion. I've been thinking of a way to talk about music and had an idea and I planned to start with Steely Dan BECAUSE they're so universally popular and then do Billy Joel second.

As for the bar, that's a shame. I almost said the "phrase that should not be uttered" about numnuts' opinions on music. But I can't imagine laughing at someone who had paid good money to go see anyone in concert. Night Ranger? "Sister Christian" will be awesome; have fun.

Sal Nunziato said...

"I planned to start with Steely Dan BECAUSE they're so universally popular"

Make sure you have one or two Replacements fans on the panel.

steve simels said...

Anybody who claims not to like Steely Dan is just being difficult.

Noam Sane said...

Zappa's description, "downer surrealism," certainly works, as does Christgau's observation that Gaucho sounds like it was recorded in an operating room (I may be paraphrasing), but I love 'em and I think even Gaucho is a great listen. I saw them live several times back when I could afford them and the soundmix was phenomenal.

I'd add "Your Gold Teeth II" for Dias's guitar solo, snaking through those typically complex/cloudy chord changes. And "Negative Girl" from Two Against Nature, which is remarkable, a gorgeous, almost fragile love song about a guy who thinks (as Nina Simone once sang), maybe he can fix things up so they'll go.

Also on board with Fagen's solo stuff, though at some point you have to move on from the "old guy's young girlfriend doesn't get him" paradigm, hopefully he will eventually.

There's a certain Idiocracy vibe I get from SD haters. "Haw haw they use big werds and play jazz sometimes." Mary shut the garden door.

Sal Nunziato said...

"There's a certain Idiocracy vibe I get from SD haters"

So Noam, there are enough haters to have their own vibe, right? This is my point.

steve simels said...

"Junkie Girl" from Becker's solo album. Astoundingly great.

Anonymous said...

I love Steely Dan, Rickie Lee Jones, The Ramones and The Replacements. I don't like The Grateful Dead, Queen or Billy Joel. Deep Cut: New Frontier. Fagen and Rickie Lee are about as cool as it gets. Except for Miles.

Fuller said...

Seriously, you could have replaced 'Steely Dan' with 'Rush' and gotten the exact same reaction. Haha.

Ken D said...

I can understand not loving Steely Dan, but that restaurant staff should stick to mixing drinks and wiping off tables... and maybe learn that it ain't good business to openly insult their clientele.
I too, am a fan up until "Gaucho," then lose interest. (How did "Two Against Nature" win anything, much less a Best Album Grammy?) And perhaps the best thing you can say about SD is that they're unique—nobody else sounds like them. It's hard to point to a direct early influence or a band that picked up where SD left off. Pretty rare in pop music.

rick said...

A couple of weeks ago, I went to a poker game at a friend’s house. He was playing early 70s music on Pandora, full of Doobie Brothers, Seal and Crofts, etc. Suddenly two of my least favorite songs in the universe came on back to back. ‘You’re So Vain’ never made sense to me: whoever the You is, the song clearly IS about him. And ‘Horse with No Name’ is awful because of this line: “There were plants and birds and rocks and things…” At age 10, I understood that the word ‘things’ was unsuitable for a game of MadLibs (we need a noun, plural), let alone for a hit song. English teachers across this land would circle it in red and demand greater specificity.
And so, coming from the ‘Words Matter’ school of thought, I can openly declare my love for Steely Dan. More than smart alecks, I agree with Michael that their lyrics are smart, even occasionally brilliant, with word play like “…the shine of your Japan/The sparkle of your china…” The symmetry of “The things you things you think are precious…The things they pass for knowledge…The things you think are useless/I can’t understand” works very well. The one time the lyrics seem just a trifle off is when they sing “…oh no, William and Mary won’t do…oh no, Guadalajara won’t do…” and then repeat the Guadalajara line in the final verse; I wish they had come up with a third word combo; but that is just my pickiness. Great melodies, great lyrics, and a unique sound that is immediately recognizable. What’s not to love?

rob mullen said...


1973 - I'm seriously listening to Savoy Brown,T Rex,Ziggy,Climax Blues,Fleetwod...
We have a friend who plays Can't Buy A Thrill constantly.
Get back Jack, do it again...are you f'ing kidding me...UNTIL -

We have an "EL SUPREMO" revelation.
We are over visiting him and his wife and he brings out an orange box.
Flipping the cover over he retrieves, Numero Uno.
This is rare, he brought it back from Viet Nam under diplomatic parcel.

He drops the needle on the Dan.
I'm listening now as I would Clapton, Traffic.
How the hell did I miss this?

Countdown To Ecstasy is a desert island disc.
Some of the best guitar interplay ever recorded.

ps - when my wife saw the picture of the band on Countdown, she did a double take.
While going to Elmira College in upstate NY she went out for awhile with one of the guys in the picture ...a nice guy named Jeff Baxter...lol  

buzzbabyjesus said...

My reason for saying "We're Steely Dan and you're not" was to reference that Chevy Chase played drums in a Bard College band with Becker and Fagen called Leather Canary.
There was an album released to cash in on their fame and my Steely Dan fan roomates played that and The Dan to death.
I heard all the albums up to and including "Gaucho" often enough that I never bought any of them.

I recently d/l'd "Can't Buy A Thrill" and I heard it differently and better.

Anonymous said...

unlike alot of folks, i don't really mind 'haters' (especially when it comes to the opinion of 'what's cool/good music'). my older brother (who as an older brother should) turned me on to alot of great music back at the tail end of the 1960's
but i couldn't get angry with him because he despised steely dan. his very unfortunate indoctrination of their music (in his first, thin-walled apartment) nearly drove him to madness as his neighbor would play the first two albums over and over and over.
sadly, all my brother could 'hear' was walter becker's bass.....he couldn't hear the clever lyrics or the great musicianship.....just that awful, thumping bass.... wishing his neighbor would move or die or find any other band to listen to - which, he never did (causing my brother to move back home).
as much as he disliked them, i understood where he was coming from and never gave him crap about it and just wished that understanding was shared by others - as years later, i would run afoul of people that would compare winehouse to billie holiday and be so angry that they'd actually want to fight me (even though i could prove they were 'mad')......

A walk in the woods said...

I had the opposite experience early on, and it affected me in a good way.

I once worked with a guy who was a temp on the same job I was on - this was around 1982 or so. We worked together one day. We chatted about music, and at the end of the day, he said, "You know, the one album you must own is Katy Lied." I think he meant it , like, the one I must own overall in life, not just the one Steely Dan record.

Well, I got it that day, and to this day, it's one of my Top 10 LPs. Since then, I've grown to love almost everything they've ever done, except for the really late slick stuff after Aja - and even some of the later slick stuff is good.

The Jackal said...

C'mon, they made some great music. Fans as diverse as Ian Dury.
Lifted Horace Silver classics...Great Jazz references great playing and composition.
Sure, not always. Denny Dias ...Who dressed him ? Faark, check the live clips, hideous clothes even for the 70's and being out of it, no excuse.
Jeff Baxter nice guy ? Have you heard his politics......?

Jeff in Denton TX said...

I'm a late-comer to Steely Dan. For years, all I had was Pretzel Logic. I was tired of the big radio hits. Then, I got the 2-disc comp "Show Biz Kids"--it has the expected tracks with a few album gems and fan favorites, plus hilarious liner notes by B&F. I've since purchased all the studio albums. All your deep tracks are great, Sal. I'd add:
"With a Gun"
"Third World Man" (best thing on Gaucho, IMHO)
"Doctor Wu"
"Show Biz Kids"

Michael Giltz said...

I suppose you can find anyone that says anything. I suppose the BEATLES aren't universally admired. But Steely Dan is a Grammy-winning, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame group and I just don't think there were many raised eyebrows or folks thinking they didn't deserve it a la Rush or Yes or whomever.
Countdown to Ecstasy: A for Christgau and five stars from Rolling Stone and All Music, A- from Creem.
Pretzel Logic gets A+ from Christgau, A- from Creem, Five stars from Rolling Stone, All Music, Uncut.
Katy Lied gets A- from Christgau, 4 1/2 stars from Rolling Stone, 5 from All Music
The Royal Scam -- B from Christgau, five stars from Rolling Stone, and Q
Aja -- their masterpeice, B+ from Christgau cause he's a cranky bastard, one of Top albums of all time RS

That's five really good albums in a row. Add in their commercial acclaim, rising stock over the years, constant reappraisal of work in a positive vein and I think it's pretty clear they are safely in the pantheon. Like others have said, they sound like no one else and that's damn rare.

Ken D said...

Speaking of Christgau, I think "Pretzel Logic" topped the Pazz & Jop poll the year that it came out. A snobby "cool kids" list if ever there was one.

Sal Nunziato said...

I don't want to belabor this, especially since you did the research and found all the A+ reviews from critics, Michael Giltz, but I stand by what I said. Critically acclaimed is not universally acclaimed. The Velvet Underground is in the RNRHOF, as is Lou Reed. every band member I have ever played with HATES the VU and only likes Lou's "Transformer."

I posted the question "Do you like Steely Dan and if not, why?" in my vinyl group. While the majority said "Yes!" A bunch of those yesses, understood and agreed that the Dan were an acquired taste. I am not sticking up for the jerks in the restaurant. As I said, I LOVE Steely Dan. But it wasn't an isolated experience.

I can also say, though this might not bode well, 40 years of retail experience has shown me that MEN love Steely Dan and women, do not. This is my experience.

People hate Dylan's voice. Universally acclaimed. I think not. Not even Bob.

mauijim said...

Even my father liked SD cause they were on regular rotation on the smooth jazz radio station when that was a format. It took 20 years to listen to Aja but since someone else other than me was choosing the songs on an approved station it was deemed cool.

Anonymous said...

From Billy Joel (one song in my collection) to Queen (6 songs) to Steely Dan, of whom I own 15 songs, and used to own the debut... I renamed them 'Really Bland' as a kid, and have added a few to the ones I liked back then, but they still combine a voice and slickness that aren't my cup o' meat. One of my best buds and his bro were big fans, so I heard the albums, but must say that I like the hits best, unhip as that may be. The kinetic propulsiveness of Bodhisattva, the slinky groove of Do It Again, the crazy catchiness of Reelin' In The Years, the slow-burn spookiness of The Royal Scam -- all great stuff.
I of course don't know the staff of the restaurant in which you got laughed at, but it sounds like -- from here -- that they felt so comfortable with their friend that they did the kind of thing close buds feel comfortable doing with their buds. If they truly intended to make you feel bad, then shame on 'em; Steely Dan's quite easy to just ignore if you don't like 'em.
And what's up with hating on Michael McDonald's voice? But then, I like Steve Perry's voice, and Dylan's voice and Richard Thompson's voice (I didn't even know the latter's voice was a problem for some til it was mentioned in this here blog not too long ago!).
C in California

Michael Giltz said...

I think it was Dylan who went up to Steve Perry and told him how everyone loved Perry's voice and to keep doing what he was doing and Perry could never decide if Dylan was f'ing with him or not. (I think it was during "We Are The World" recording and I may be drunk so don't hold me to it.)

Sal, I think I've hit the heart of our seeming disagreement and it comes down to words and their meaning. My definition of "universally acclaimed" is that...the artist or work is universally acclaimed, which is to say widely acknowledged as being important/great/of lasting value. Your definition of universally acclaimed seems to mean that absolutely no one anywhere ever from fellow musicians (whose opinion on music means more to you, natch) to waiters in a restaurant ever diss an artist. Ever. By that definition, I humbly defer since indeed no one including the Beatles or Bob Dylan is "universally admired."

But by my own, sane definition, indeed many acts are in fact universally admired or at least widely admired (which is below universally but still damn good as these things go). You are accurate when saying Bob Dylan is NOT universally admired, which is a good time to ask why bother with such an impossible to meet standard that is by definition impossible to fulfill for anyone ever including Jesus, who I assume was a folkie and would have written some nice cat Stevens-style songs and wished He were as good on guitar as Richard Thompson?

By my more reasonable, non-brain melting standard, Bob Dylan and the Beatles and Billie Holiday and Miles Davis and Mark Twain and Charles Dickens and Pablo Picasso are all universally admired. Because they are. By yours, none of them are, making such a standard pretty useless. Can anyone come up with dozens of "complaints" or caveats or "but I prefer Trollope!" or the good ole "over-rated" to all of the above? Of course. That doesn't change the fact that their body of work in their fields has so far endured and proven influential and is of lasting value and worth a look/read/listen.

I personally don't listen a lot to Velvet Underground, though when I do I enjoy it a lot -- they're pretty great even if for whatever reason I'm not obsessive about them. I've never gone crazy over the Rolling Stones, always being a Beatles fan back when I thought you had to choose sides. The Stones are amazing and universally admired, but not as important as the Beatles. You know, there are filmmakers and musicians and novelists that don't quite push my buttons, but even still I recognize their quality. Velvet Underground is widely admired (and damn close to universally admired) and any musician who doesn't at least recognize the artistry and skill and massive importance involved in those three or four albums is just being silly. Truly.

David C said...

I'd have to agree with Sal, Michael.
Yes Steely Dan is critically respected, but like Rush, they have a predominately male, older, educated, white audience, and are despised by a disturbingly large portion of the general public. My most "I'm not allowed to like that band because of my-punk-as-a-lifestyle-choice" friends won't even try a taste.
All of us have a sacred cow band or two that everybody else loves that we just don't get ( for me, it's the Cure, the Smiths, Joy Division) but I think it's fair to say Sal is right on Steely Dan (whom I happen to love) having a larger portion of haters out there in the world than other similarly critically revered bands. Virtually everybody loves the Beatles and the Stones, but there's a lot of people who think the Dan are snooty east-coast intellectual jazz snobs with inscrutable lyrics and an inability to fully rock out. My punkest pal had to be dragged to a Dan show, and he liked a few songs, but the hard-core punk religion requires hating bands that play that well.
The reverse effect happens with the VU (whom I also love). They may be critically lionized, but they will never be appreciated by those who think their primitivism is a limitation, and so your including "skill" among their universal acclaim is a minor element I'll quibble with. They have feel, and they have monumental influence, but is their "skill" universally admired?
Yes, in the insular world of middle aged, white suburban and urban, North American music aficionado and critics, they are both bands of gods, but neither my oldest aunt, or my youngest niece, or the non-white audiences anywhere outside of our bubble cares much for either of those bands, but they do all love the Beatles.
And as an aside, calling your own point of view the only "sane" or "reasonable" one isn't good debate strategy, especially if the aim is to convince others, since, frankly, it's more a bit combative and (I'll assume, since I don't know you, unintentionally) insulting.
Just saying.
This forum is supposed to be for the passionate discussion of our shared love, music, not attacks on each other like the net's other comments sections. This is NOT an attack on you, just a plea for this to be different here in Sal's Burning Wood Garden.

Michael Giltz said...

David C,

Everything you say is true about Steely Dan and VU. (I retract my poor choice of "skill," which they too would disdain.) I believe Questlove appreciates Steely Dan and he's black! I do believe the reps of both are safe for the moment; I just don't sense any dramatic drop in their stock among cognoscenti over the past 20 years -- maybe VU is less discussed as more and more music is made so they're not quite the inevitable touchstone they were 30 years ago? To me, I would have guessed the stock of Steely Dan had actually risen from all the complaints you raise to elder statesmen with a lot of great songs I see them having now.

True the great masses may not care about them or may even actively dislike them, but popular appeal is not really the way we preserve and maintain the art that matters or "You Light Up My Life" and "Feelings" would be the giant works of 70s music and stuff like Big Star and Richard and Linda Thompson would have long ago faded from memory. Sometimes critical and popular acclaim merge as with Shakespeare and Dickens (and the Beatles), but often not and you just never know. I guess either could become a footnote or less, but they're in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and right now that doesn't seem silly or misguided to me.

I apologize for the sane and reasonable characterization sounding (being?) insulting. Not remotely the intent. Ever. Thanks for pointing that out. I deserve a trip to the Burning Woodshed.

To try to clarify my point one more time (hopefully without being obnoxious), you just can't get more acclaimed on every level than the Beatles and Bob Dylan and that includes all the arts, not just pop music. Some others may be AS acclaimed, but not more, not really, despite naysayers and detractors which all artists of stature suffer. (Hemingway? Over-rated!) People write books about Dylan's garbage, for Pete's sake. They are as safely ensconced in the pantheon of greatness as one can be while still alive.

(I listened to "Blood On The Tracks" while driving from San Fran to the South this week and practically wept it was so lovely. He could have retired on "Tangled Up In Blue" alone; just that one song and announced "I've said everything that can be said in this one song. Thank you and good night!" Then a few hours later I unintentionally put on the album "Belly Of the Sun" and heard Cassandra Wilson do a marvelous cover of "Shelter From the Storm." Damn!)

I think we all believe Dylan and the Beatles be listened to 100 and even 500 years from now. I mean, that's our best guess and I'll gladly stick around to find out. Whatever lofty phrase you want to use to describe this hallowed position they enjoy -- and apparently it's not "universal acclaim" -- they unquestionably deserve it.

Sadly, "they" do NOT all love the Beatles. My brother insists he doesn't like ANY of their songs. None. I said, "That's like saying you don't like any MUSIC." But he sticks to his no-like Beatles position. On the other hand, he is utterly clueless about music in general. When asked to guess an artist playing on the radio, no matter who it is -- even a woman -- he invariably responds, "Bryan Adams." At least he knows it's a joke.