Steely Dan – Can’t Buy a Thrill – Classic Music Review

Steely Dan’s début album is probably one of the best début albums of all-time, though it hardly reflects their best work.

The songs themselves show the mastery of songwriting basics you’d expect from two guys who tried to work their way into The Brill Building: strong hooks, memorable lines and sexy grooves. Three of the songs have deservedly reached iconic status: “Do It Again,” “Dirty Work,” and “Reelin’ in the Years.” A few of the songs rely too much on formula, and the album in general lacks the intensity and excitement of some of their later works, when Fagen and Becker had greater control. Can’t Buy a Thrill establishes Fagen and Becker as more-than-credible songwriters and successfully mixes elements from jazz, soul and rock in a way that few had done before.

The album opens with one of the three iconic numbers, “Do It Again.” The seductive Latin rhythms hook you from the start, made fresher by the diversity of piano, maracas, guitar fills and a solid bass line. Donald Fagen’s double-tracked vocal commands your attention with its impressive range and soulful, street-wise qualities. The lengthy instrumental passage featuring electric sitar, guitar and plastic organ is an absolute delight, but this song is all about that hip-swaying groove and the memorable lyrics, full of both catchwords and penetrating insight.

Most critics have interpreted the song to be about the addictive behavior of a hopeless loser, but I think that interpretation is an example of the American obsession with the addiction paradigm getting in the way of a more accurate read. No other culture whines about victims as much as the United States and no other culture celebrates self-generated victims with such morbid pity. Wanna win an Oscar? Play a drunk or a drug addict. Wanna become immortal? Die of a drug overdose or drown yourself in booze. Victimized by the seductive evil of food? Tune in The Biggest Loser and empathize with the struggles of the unpleasantly plump and revel in agonizing guilt when the scale fails to move downward. Americans claim to hate those who play victimization card, but the truth is that Americans are consumed with self-hatred about their own self-generated, neurotic victimization.

“Do It Again” isn’t about addiction—that’s just the convenient tagline Americans apply to a much more difficult problem they do their best to deny. “Do It Again” is about the holy trinity at the core of American culture, the three fabled paths of the pursuit of happiness: violence, sex and gambling. With breathtaking naiveté, Americans believe if they can defeat all their enemies, conquer others through sexual prowess and beat the system via the stock market, lottery or Las Vegas, they will experience happiness. On the surface, Americans view life as a competition, and the problem that needs to be solved is the enemy out there, never the enemy within. The guy in “Do It Again” gets away with murder without suffering a consequence, so he will kill again. He finds his lover cheating on him with his only friend and seeks to recover his collapsing self-esteem through more meaningless sex. In the final verse he buys into the undying American myth that wealth is just around the corner, and though his rational mind knows the house has the ultimate edge, he has to pull the handle and place his bets. “Do It Again” is an indictment of a culture that individually and collectively refuses to engage in self-reflection, and is forever strapped to the “wheel turning ’round and ’round.”

“Dirty Work” has once again entered American consciousness due to the film American Hustler, a horrid and stupid film where nearly everyone except DeNiro was miscast and the idiots who came up with the soundtrack couldn’t get their dates straight. Abscam was late 70’s/early 80’s, so why on earth did we hear ELO’s “10538 Overture” instead of the shitty disco-tinged crap they were making at the time? “Dirty Work” pops up in the film a few years before its time, probably because of the song title’s connection to the film’s theme. Talk about obvious! Back to the song. . .  it feels weird to hear someone other than Donald Fagen singing a Steely Dan song, and really, David Palmer’s wimpy vocal completely fails to capture the bitter undertone of the story about a guy being used as a living dildo while the hubby is out-of-town. Alan Hull’s “Breakfast” is a far superior treatment of the topic, but I really think Donald Fagen would have delivered a vocal that realized the song’s potential.

“Kings” comes next, one of the best arrangements on an album full of good arrangements. I’m mesmerized by the shifting rhythms and changing melodic flows, but the complex guitar integration, the female background vocals and Elliot Randall’s solo send me into a state approaching ecstasy. I hear songs as well-arranged as this one and think, “This is a fucking début album?” I’ll take their word for it and move on to “Midnite Cruiser,” another song that might have been better with Fagen doing the vocal (drummer Jim Hodder gets the call on this one), but I’m not sure that even Donald could have saved this one—the hook is too contrived and the chorus sounds like it was dropped in by a rescue helicopter. They do much better with “Only a Fool Could Say That,” an upbeat samba-like number with a more integrated hook and a sweet guitar solo from Jeff Baxter. It’s also as good an epitaph for the 1960’s as The National Lampoon’s “Deteriorata,” but expressed in a more down-to-earth fashion:

The man in the street 
Draggin’ his feet 
Don’t wanna hear the bad news 
Imagine your face 
There is his place 
Standing inside his brown shoes 
You do his nine to five 
Drag yourself home half alive 
And there on the screen 
A man with a dream 

I heard it was you 
Talkin’ ’bout a world 
Where all is free 
It just couldn’t be 
And only a fool would say that 

Although Donald Fagen has dismissed “Reelin’ in the Years” as a song knocked off in a few minutes, I rarely believe anything an artist says, so why start now? This song is a complete knockout, from the crammed-syllable phrasing that so accurately mirrors real conversation to the driving beat and to the oh-my-fucking-god lead guitar from the amazing Elliot Randall. When I hear that first lick coming out of nowhere I feel my juices starting to flow, and I can’t get through the intro without putting my fingers on my sweet spot to release a little tension. When Fagen comes in with his “Babe, you’re so full of shit” vocal, the effect is doubly powerful. Oh my god! Intellect and sexuality at the same time! Altrockchick Nirvana! The harmonies on the chorus are as good as it gets, and when we get to the real solo, I’m ready for some action. With Walter Becker supplying exceptionally tight bass, Elliot goes to town and yes! Drive it home, baby! Once I calm down and go back through the lyrics, I find many of my favorite bits of Steely Dan wisdom—the wisdom of those who hear the bullshit that people feel they have to present and shake their heads in wonder:

You been tellin’ me you’re a genius 
Since you were seventeen 
In all the time I’ve known you 
I still don’t know what you mean 
The weekend at the college 
Didn’t turn out like you planned 
The things that pass for knowledge 
I can’t understand

I don’t know how you can follow a song like that, but that’s why I don’t make records and guys like Donald Fagen and Walter Becker do! Once I’ve freshened up like we ladies have to do from time to time, “Fire in the Hole” comes along with an opening piano passage that is as just as memorable as Elliot Randall’s work on the fretboard. This soulful, slightly dark and reflective song is a rich combination of unexpected chord shifts, pedal steel guitar, subtle changes in dynamics, and one of Fagen’s best vocals on the album. But that piano! Fagen cooks up a melange of amazing runs, clever blues vamps and sweet melodic restraint that captures everything I love about the piano’s versatility. The lyrics express the classic conflict between artist and real world, a battle usually won by the authorities, leaving the passion for life smoldering with no outlet:

I decline 
To walk the line 
They tell me that I’m lazy 
Worldly wise 
I realize 
That everybody’s crazy 
A woman’s voice reminds me 
To serve and not to speak 
Am I myself or just another freak 

Don’t you know 
There’s fire in the hole 
And nothing left to burn 
I’d like to run out now 
There’s nowhere left to turn

“Brooklyn (Owes the Charmer Under Me)” leaves me flat, in part due to the vocal, but in greater part because the song doesn’t have the strong flow of the others. The same is true of “Change of the Guard,” a formulaic number without the power to overcome the formula. I find the album closer “Turn That Heartbeat Over Again” somewhat interesting for its diversity and shifting moods, but the diverse parts are too choppy and never form a satisfying whole.

No one should expect a début album to be perfect and Can’t Buy a Thrill has its imperfections. What you’re really looking for in a début album is freshness, potential, something different and exciting. Steely Dan delivered all of that and more in Can’t Buy a Thrill, and if I had been alive back in the dark days of 1972, I would have waited with great anticipation for whatever Fagen and Becker came up with next.

6 responses

  1. […] Steely Dan – Can’t Buy a Thrill […]

  2. Aja will always be my favorite, but this one and Katy Lied are next. I share your enthusiasm for the best songs on this album, but I like the lesser songs a lot more than you do. I like “Midnight Cruiser”‘s combination of grit and poppiness. The chorus is like a drinking song. “Change Of The Guard” also has an anthemic quality, and it contains a wonderful moment at the end of the instrumental break when the guitar makes a big whooshing sound that goes from one speaker to the other. Although the group was wise to turn all the vocals over to Donald Fagen after this album, I like the change of pace offered by the two David Palmer vocals. His performance on “Dirty Work” reminds me of Doug Yule’s vocal on the Velvet Underground’s “Candy Says” (which was written by Lou Reed): the song gains strength because the singer doesn’t seem to really understand what’s going on. I think Palmer’s smooth style fits “Brooklyn” as well.

    FYI: I’m almost finished with a Steely Dan book that just came out: Steely Dan FAQ by Anthony Robustelli. It is packed with information and a fair amount of analysis, but it makes for a choppy read due to an overabundance of information on the studio musicians as well as the musicians that Becker and Fagen played with outside of Steely Dan. It is also poorly edited and somewhat repetitive. But I do think it is worthwhile for the info on which studio musicians played on the album tracks, and the stories behind how some of those songs were recorded.

    1. I’ve found that poor editing and tons of useless information is common in modern music books, and tend to use them as reference guides rather than trying to follow the narrative. I really should circle back and do Katy Lied someday.

      1. You know, I just read another brand new book, this one about the Yes album Close To The Edge, and it was the same thing: lots of good information but also lots of useless information, and it was very poorly edited (or maybe not edited at all). Don’t these people have friends? All you have to do is give the manuscript to a friend who has basic editing skills so they can remove the most egregious errors. This guy also wasted a lot of time on his own pet theory about how Bill Bruford’s move from Yes to King Crimson resulted in a major power shift in the prog rock world. Yeah right. Here’s my theory: Bruford got out while the getting was good, and his departure had little or nothing to do with the band’s subsequent decline.

  3. Listening to the album again , after many years
    …..still fresh and a showcase for Becker’s and Fagen talent.
    Makes me feel that what passes for rock and roll today is so stale.

    Surprised that you have not referred to or linked those who check
    Out your blog to Dave Shiflett’s review of Fagen, Graham Nash and Ray Davies memoirs in
    WSJ November 22 2013.

    Fagen really is a talented character.
    For those New Yorkers , or ex New Yorkers he plays up in Woodstock
    Or at the Beacon Theater on the upper west side , frequently enough.
    Always has accomplished musicians on stage with him, puts on a great show.

    Thanks for including Steely Dan in your reviews.

    1. I’m glad to hear Fagen gets out of the studio and faces live audiences now. I know it’s not an entirely comfortable experience for him, but I’ll bet it does him good. Thanks for the tip on Shiflett’s reviews—don’t see the WSJ much!—I finally finished volume one of Lewinsohn’s Beatle bio so I can move on to other things.

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