Saturday, May 2, 2009

The Twelve Tasks Of ToffeeBoy #4 - Steely Dan




As I’m sure you all know by now, the ToffeeBoy music collection, both digital and vinyl, is home to a large amount of what we might broadly term ‘pop music’. What may not be so apparent is that said collection is also heavily Anglo-centric – or at least Brito-centric. I suspect that at least 75% of the music I own originated on these shores. Much of the remainder of the music that I listen to on a regular basis hails from one of two areas: either Scandinavialand (The Wannadies, The Cardigans, Kings Of Convenience, Gangway, The Concretes, The Hives, Sondre Lerch to name but a few) or the former colonies of Australia and New Zealand (The Go-Betweens and Crowded House spring instantly to mind). What is perhaps surprising (well, it was to me when I started to think about it) is that, apart from a fair amount of Jazz, I listen to comparatively little music from the birthplace of rock’n’roll, across the big pond.

There are of course exceptions to this rule* and one of those exceptions is (are?) the subject of this month’s ToffeeTask (OK, last month’s – I haven’t quite caught up).

Musically, I think we can place Steely Dan at the centre of an imaginary compass whose four cardinal points are: Pop, Rock, Jazz, and Prog. Perhaps we need to include Funk and R&B in there somewhere but that would make for an odd-looking and unconventional compass – so let’s not.

Their first album (Can’t Buy A Thrill) was released in 1972, and by the end of the decade the Dan had produced a further six (Countdown To Ecstacy, Pretzel Logic, Katy Lied, The Royal Scam, Aja and Gaucho) – any one of which I would gladly listen to right now. After disbanding in 1981, they reunited in 1993 and have been touring ever since, recording two further albums to date, including the Grammy-winning Two Against Nature which was released to huge critical acclaim in 2003.

There has been some discussion in previous Tasks about whether pop has to be musically ‘simple’ – I would argue that the crucial point is that it should at least have the initial appearance of simplicity, and this is a point that I want to use Steely Dan to illustrate. On the surface, much of their music has a foot-tapping, sing-along feel to it – it would pass the granny test with flying colours and not a single horse would be frightened, should it chance upon the music of Steely Dan while ambling down the street.

But listen more closely to their music and you’ll see that it is, in fact, genuinely complex. The melodies sit on top of chord sequences which shift in countless unexpected and un-pop-conventional patterns, taking you to places where simple music simply doesn’t venture. Rikki Don't Lose That Number (see the YouTube link above) is a great example of this - it sounds like a throwaway pop song - but try singing along to it, or better still, try playing along, and you'll see what a truly complex song it really is.

Steely Dan have always been essentially an album band: only Haitian Divorce troubled the UK top 20, reaching number 17 in 1976. They had slightly more single success stateside with six entries in the US top 30 but it’s the seven platinum-selling albums (including the double platinum Aja) which tell the real story. 30 million album sales worldwide is an impressive statistic by any standards.

The song-writing duo at the heart of Steely Dan, Walter Becker & Donald Fagen, are the only ever-present members of the band – essentially they are Steely Dan – but over the years they have been supported by some of the very best jazz and rock session musicians around: Denny Dias and Jeff “Skunk” Baxter were an integral part of Steely Dan in the early years but over the course of the first few albums the band became a duo, stopped touring and an increasing number of session musicians were called in. This peaked on the 1978 album Aja when the talents of Steve Gadd, Lee Ritenour, Larry Carlton, Victor Feldman and Wayne Shorter, among others, were used to stunning effect.

If you were to buy one Steely Dan album I would go for Katy Lied - but Aja would be a good alternative, particularly for the more jazz-minded among you

I’m not arguing for a minute that everything you’ll hear from Steely Dan is pop – the track Aja, for a start, quite clearly isn’t – but ask your self this: if you were the owner of a record shop and had to file your Steely Dan albums, where would you put them?

One more Dan-related issue I need to deal with before letting you loose on the music: Becker & Fagen some times get accused of committing A.O.R. – I won’t have it d’y’hear? I won’t have it!Links:
Official website
Wikipedia
Last.fm
MySpace

* Some other notable American acts wot I like – a LOT: James Taylor, Dean Friedman, Little Feat, REM, 10,000 Maniacs

20 comments:

treefrogdemon said...

Hooray! I have the first two Steely Dan albums, though I never really got into the second one. But I love love love the first one and am looking forward to hearing some of the later stuff.

Thanks, TB.

Chris said...

Hi TB! I'm not going to pursue the 'Is this Pop?' discussion any more, you'll be glad to hear...
But I must say that, on this evidence, Steely Dan are definitely AOR, very similar to The Eagles and Little Feat (after Lowell George). I saw them accidentally last year and the smooooth jazz aspect of their music evident in these tracks had superseded everything else. 'Nice'. However, I won't deny the musical ability here, unlike the last lot...

Abahachi said...

Hmmm. Can an 'albums band' really ever be pop? Can we imagine Steely Dan making it into Smash Hits? Haven't had time to listen to any of this yet - 20-mile cycle ride to keep Mrs Abahachi happy and win me a couple of hours to work on a bit of writing before cooking supper, just about to collect MsStepAbahachi from bus station, but hope to find some time to contemplate this by next week.

AliMunday said...

Hi Toffeboy - my ex had several of the early Steeley Dan albums and I used to enjoy them, particularly songs like "Reeling in the Years" and "Rikki don't Lose that Number". He liked the Eagles and James Taylor too, they're all very evocative for me - sunny afternoons in his bedsit, with friends we knew at the time. I'm a bit selective it about it now, I very much like certain songs but couldn't listen to it all day. I'm lost in reverie now ...

AliMunday said...

Sorry, should read "selective about it". Walks off humming "Bitter Creek" and "Mud Slide Slim" ...

Chris said...

As usual, my initial reaction was a little harsh. I know several people who rate Steely Dan and, as is evidenced by tfd's and Ali's comments, they are held in nostalgic memory by many. They were contemporaries of The Eagles and Little Feat and this phase 2 of the West Coast sound (after the San Francisco-based era of the Dead, Airplane,etc) was very popular indeed at the time.
Whilst it wasn't then considered AOR - it was viewed as sophisticated rock - it became part of that huge body of stuff instantly dumped by the Punk collective. Rather than change into something acceptable to a new younger generation, it slid off the map for a decade until the climate changed. When I saw them - it must have been in 2007, not last year - the jazz filter was opened up wider.
Reelin In The Years is, one has to admit, a classic of its type; the other songs are not as good but still easy on the ear.

ToffeeBoy said...

@ Chris - just popping in at half time on the footie - we should be winning this. Anyway, now look what you've gone and done. Now we're going to have to define AOR!!!!!

Chris said...

TB: Nooooooooooooo!!!!!!!!!!!

Good result. Come on Hull!

DarceysDad said...

Sorry, TB, but my first couple of thoughts were exactly what Shiv & Abahachi said, namely being an 'album' band ≠ pop, and SD are surely AOR poster boys, no?

Having said that, I actually genuinely know so little of their music, compared to Little Feat and The Eagles (to use the two already mentioned), that you probably will have me listening, when I get my feet back under my desk on Tuesday afternoon.

And I'm not trying to deny your lot fifth, but can I also say I want Villa to win on Mon eve, just to hasten Hull's departure from the PL, as I can't abide Phil Brown. He has shown himself to be a vindictive, blame-avoiding, two-faced little shite this year. Also I figure that ten Wolves shirts will be enough orange in the PL next season; there's no place for Phil's face!

And I'm not being anti-Everton; you are Merseyside's only remaining hope of footy silverware - the Mancs'll never slip up enough for us to pip them - so I will be wearing my virtual Fellaini wig at the end of the month.

ToffeeBoy said...

@ DsD - yes, it really hurts to want Hull to win - I would love to see them head back to where they belong (largely for the same anti-Phil perma-tan Brown reasons you expressed so eloquently) but just for one night, I'll be rooting for them. Thanks for the support from across the park - I'm still hoping I can somehow lay my hands on a couple of tickets for the big day. I'm shamelessly playing the "It would mean so much to my daughter" card - not a tickle yet...

I'll be interested to hear what you think of Steely Dan. In retrospect, I'm not sure that the tracks I chose are truly representative - I think I may have fallen into the trap of choosing my favoruites from each album, which tend to be the most melodic, tuneful, dare-I-say-it? - "poppy" tracks. The Dan were capable of rocking out and getting funky at times and I don't think I really got that elelment of their music across.

I've been thinking about the whole AOR thing and, without wanting to get into the whole definition thing, I suspect the problem may be that AOR has two only-slightly connected meanings. I've always used it to mean Adult Orientated Rock and felt that it carries quite negative connotations. I would populate the category with acts such as REO Speedwagon, Starship, later Fleetwood Mac, some of The Eagles and (sorry blimpy) Toto. To me, AOR tends to be bland, cliched, unimaginative, cold music and that's why I balk at the suggestion that Steely Dan commit AOR.

But now I find that AOR originally referred to Album Orientated Rock and that the term was coined in the early-mid 70s by FM radio stations in the US who wanted to promote bands whose success didn't depend on the singles market. And for those of who grew up in that era, that doesn't seem like such a bad thing. So if by AOR, this is what you mean, I'll go along with it - but if you want to lump the Dan in with Toto (sorry again blimpy) I WON'T HAVE IT!!!!!!!!

The songs may sound "easy on the ear" as Chris put it but that's really my point. They are easy on the ear but they have depth and (although this is difficult to prove in laboaratory conditions) they will survive repeated listenings. I've been listening to tracks such as Doctor Wu for over thirty years and the little saxophone break (played by Phil Woods who married Charlie Parker's widow - bet you didn't know that!) that comes in low in the mix at 03:09 still sends shivers down my spine when I hear it today.

And surely no one could describe Aja as AOR - whatever definition you're using!

One last thing to say here - in the original post I referred to the paucity of American music in my collection. I hereby retract that statement - having thought of The Decemberists, Death Cab For Cutie, Sufjan Stevens and ... errr.. Jonathan Richman (!) - I really don't know what I was thinking of. Go USA!!!

ToffeeBoy said...

@ Aba - I'd be interested to hear your thoughts - particularly on Wayne Shorter and Steve Gadd's contributions on Aja. I'm wondering (in light of your Smash Hits comment) whether your definition of pop is somewhat narrower than mine. To me (putting aside all the discussions we've had over the past few months) 'pop' is a catch-all for everything that doesn't comfortably fit anywhere else.

As you may know, I worked for Our Price for several years in the mid-late 80s and, clearly, categorizing music was an important aspect of the job. We needed to put the records in the places that people were likely to look for them. We had a very broad category called "Rock & Pop" which encompassed everything from the latest chart sensations to Captain Beefheart, from ABC to ZZ Top. I think HMV do the same today. When I talk about pop music, I mean pretty much everything in this category with the exception of the rockier, guitar-based elements. I suspect this is NOT what you mean.

Chris said...

'When I talk about pop music, I mean pretty much everything in this category ["Rock & Pop" ] with the exception of the rockier, guitar-based elements.'

Now he tells us!

Given your statements in this thread, TB, I'd almost put money on you liking the Grateful Dead's 'In The Dark' (maybe you came across it in your Our Price years). That would be a turn-up!

And thanks, DsD, for your support. It is fantastic that the Merseyside rivalry gets put aside as easily as it does. Never happen in Manchester (but then United are the most arrogant bunch of.......)

Shoey said...

Well I'll give it a go, but just the thought of listening to "Rikki" again is making me feel queasy. Some things need a little more "pop" to be pop, but I might be wrong.

Abahachi said...

I don't think of 'pop' as a negative, "everything that doesn't fit anywhere else" category, but rather as a positive (albeit hard to define) quality. Imagining a given band appearing in Smash Hits (or at least the Smash Hits of the mid-1980s) isn't a defining characteristic, but one of the attributes that might indicate pop-ness. Ditto the 'singles' question, which I think out-trumps the guitar-heavy rock question; I'm quite happy, as I suggested before, to see some of the output of, say, Rainbow or Deep Purple as pop, and that's partly because some of their songs are definitely singles; ditto Led Zep, even if they refused to issue them as singles, whereas Yes are definitely not pop until they come up with Owner of a Lonely Heart.

As for Steely Dan, well, Rikki sounds pop to me, albeit not my taste in pop (and I'm too distracted by the Horace Silver quote to appreciate the rest of it). Actually half these songs remind me strongly of other things: a load of Hot Chocolate in Rikki, lots of Thin Lizzy in Pearl of the Quarter, and lots of generic Eagles/Dr Hook everywhere. Overall for some reason the whole thing reminds me of Deacon Blue - which makes it a fair away from my sort of thing, but means I'm happy to see quite a lot of this as falling in the 'pop' category for positive reasons.

Blimpy said...

Have you heard Kurt Vile? Currently getting blogosphere love - does seem to update the who steely dan thing for the noughties:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tXpvJVEJxDU

I likey!

Blimpy said...

*whole - not who

ToffeeBoy said...

Dr Hook??? Dr fucking Hook?????????????????? Please god, no!! Let's not even consider Sylvia's Mother in the same breath as Doctor Wu!!!!!!!!!

Japanther said...

I gave all the tracks a listen and I agree pretty much with all the descriptions and observations, I would agree that it is A(dult)OR or even MOR more than it's Pop, but......it just didn't do it for me, i'm afraid......it summoned nothing more than vague images of a 70's Hall and Oates

Abahachi said...

But I like Dr Hook...

ToffeeBoy said...

@ Abahachi - sorry. Pardon my rant!