Take 5: Steely Dan
Steely Dan released their debut album Can’t Buy a Thrill 50 years ago. The idiosyncratic ensemble led by Walter Becker and Donald Fagen would achieve notoriety as a non-touring collective that drew upon top session players to create its inimitable, jazz-favored rock. But in the early days, Steely Dan was an actual group, one that had a stable, conventional lineup and a run of live dates. Can’t Buy a Thrill was a near-immediate success, with two hit singles (“Do It Again” and “Reelin’ in the Years”) as well as popular album cuts. But even with all that success, there are little-known recordings from that era of the band’s activity. Here are five of the least-known and most notable.
“Reelin’ in the Years” (quad mix)
One of the many qualities that made “Reelin’ in the Years” so popular (Billboard #11, Cash Box #7) is the lead guitar work of session player Elliott Randall. His licks between Fagen’s vocal phrasings are a defining component of the song. But a rare quadraphonic mix of the song features even more – lots more, in fact – of those tasty licks. This unique version is available only on the quad 8-track release of the original album.
The first-ever release from Steely Dan was a 45 r.p.m. single. Backed by “Sail the Waterway,” the tune featured a heartfelt lead vocal by the group’s drummer, Jim Hodder. With a country feel a bit reminiscent of Little Feat, the uncharacteristic “Dallas” wasn’t included on Can’t Buy a Thrill. In fact Becker and Fagen made sure it has never appeared on any subsequent Steely Dan reissue or compilation (though it did surface on a Japan-only release). It’s a fine tune, and it did show up on a famous 1979 various-artists vinyl bootleg called T’anks for the Mammaries. That’s Jeff “Skunk” Baxter on pedal steel guitar.
“Funky Scare Tactic Orchestral Blues” (live concert recording)
A brief piano ragtime blues number, this song never appeared on a Steely Dan studio release. But the song did surface on a tape documenting an FM radio broadcast of a Memphis, Tennessee concert in April 1974.
“Bodhisattva” (live-in-the-studio recording)
It would be easy to assume that the staggeringly intricate and complex arrangements of Steely Dan’s music were the product of painstaking studio sessions. And indeed they were. But the band could pull it off every bit as well in a live setting, as this blazing-fast reading of one of the band’s trickiest compositions demonstrates.
“I Mean to Shine” (Linda Hoover)
Nearly two years before launching Steely Dan, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen (plus other future members of the group) backed singer-songwriter Linda Hoover on sessions for her planned debut release. With a sound that splits the difference between Laura Nyro and the style of Becker and Fagen’s future band, this stirring, soulful tune would have been the title track of Hoover’s LP. But record industry snags caused the album to be shelved for a half century; it finally received official release in 2022 and is reviewed here.