I’ll admit. I love albums. Not songs. Not “Greatest Hits” compilations. But actual start-to-finish studio-made albums. Albums can have concepts, themes, feels and can encapsulate a period in musical history much better than a single song or compilation could ever hope to do.
For as long as I can remember I have always tried to learn the stories behind the albums that I liked. How were they created? What was going on with the group or artist at the time? What was the music scene like at the time it was recorded? What influences might there have been?
Understanding an album’s place in an artist’s creative journey can make the difference between considering an album to be mediocre, and understanding that the album was a necessary step for that artist to get to something bigger. So for that reason I wanted to highlight some albums that may not be the featured artist’s most well-known or commercially successful work, but are still well worth listening to. Since I have thousands of words I could say about any number of albums, I thought I would start off with an album by Steely Dan that has a very interesting history.
By 1975 Steely Dan had undergone a number of changes since their debut album Can’t Buy A Thrill three years earlier. While the group had always just been an outlet for Walter Becker and Donald Fagen’s songwriting, there was a basic framework for a group lineup, including guitarists Denny Dias and Jeff Baxter, and drummer Jim Hodder. As Becker and Fagen’s jazz-influenced compositions became more complex, the limitations of the group’s musicians became evident. So for their 1974 album Pretzel Logic they began to rely more on session musicians than they had in the past. By the time they entered the studio in late 1974 to record what would become Katy Lied Becker and Fagen had made the decision to stop touring and become a studio-only band. Realizing that they did not need a regular lineup with which to tour and having been inspired creatively by the quality of the session players with which they had recorded Pretzel Logic the entire band was dismissed (with the exception of Denny Dias who would continue to record the occasional guitar part on their subsequent albums). From this point on Steely Dan would be Walter Becker, Donald Fagen, and the cream of the music industry’s session players.
The Recording and (Almost) Destruction of the Album
Fans of Steely Dan are no doubt aware of Becker and Fagen’s perfectionism -both musically and sonically (Steely Dan albums garnered four Grammys for Engineering). As they entered the studio in late 1974 they decided to utilize what was at that time the height of recording technology, the DBX Noise Reduction System. Without getting technical (which I am not) the system basically compresses and encodes the recorded signal as it is committed to tape and expands them upon playback, reducing the tape’s contaminant noise. While Dolby technology had been available since the late 1960’s, the DBX system was seen as the next step in noise reduction technology.
After the sessions were complete and the album was mixed the DBX system lost the ability to decode the mixes correctly, so the tapes sounded terrible. To understand how much this can impact an album, if your stereo has an equalizer readjust a few of the settings and listen to your favorite songs. Too much bass and the song sounds muddy. Too much midrange and the high-end is lost. Steely Dan was in a quandary because the DBX system could only be decoded by DBX equipment. And nothing was working.
The mixed tapes were brought to DBX headquarters in Boston where a team of technicians tried to figure out how to save the tapes. They soon discovered that they could not. By this time the group was losing patience with the process and were not excited to go back to the master tapes (which were still okay) and start the mixing process from scratch using Dolby. And even if they tried, could they make tapes recorded using specific noise reduction technology in mind sound good using another? There was a decent chance that the entire album could be scrapped. In the end Walter Becker produced something that was seen as a passable mix for vinyl. For more about the history of the problems surrounding the mixing of Katy Lied please see Denny Dias’s wonderfully written piece for www.steelydan.com called “Katy and the Gremlin”.
It is telling that both Walter Becker and Donald Fagen refused to listen to the finished product and did not spend much time talking about the album. Listening to the album you can hear why. The album has a sound that I can only describe as “shiny.” The drums (mostly snare and cymbals) and vocals just sound off. Trebly in some places, dull in others. It is unfortunate that the difficult mixing process and the disappointing final results soured them on what is otherwise one of their best collections of songs.
“Black Friday”- The album opens with “Black Friday,” an uptempo shuffle about the one man’s plans for the impending economic collapse. Michael McDonald can be heard singing background vocals and Walter Becker provides a very nice guitar solo. As a single the song reached #37, although that may have been a result of the lack of a tour or any real promotion by the band. This is considered one of Steely Dan’s more enduring tracks.
“Bad Sneakers” – This song fared even worse than “Black Friday” on the singles market, reaching only #103. But it is, in this writer’s opinion, one of their masterpieces. With Katy Lied Steely Dan was continuing to pull away from rock and roll towards jazz (which would culminate in their early incarnation with the albums Aja and Gaucho). It can be debated whether or not they ever truly belonged to rock music. They were always a very unique jazz-rock hybrid. But their earlier albums have a “pop” quality to them that their later albums did not. A song like “Bad Sneakers” is not exactly geared to the expectations of your average pop music fan in 1975. But it does not diminish the quality of the performance. Once again Walter Becker provides a quality guitar solo, and the grand piano, played by Michael Omartian gives the piece (and the overall album, actually) an air of elegance.
“Rose Darling” – Three songs, three Steely Dan classics. Not a bad average for an album that seems to be passed over in favor of Aja and Pretzel Logic in any discussion of great Steely Dan albums. More radio friendly than “Bad Sneakers” it is surprising that this was not selected as the second single from the album (perhaps the suggestive subject matter of the song had something to do with it).
“Daddy Don’t Live in That New York City No More” – More blues than jazz. To me it would have sounded at home on Pretzel Logic. Still a fun song to listen to with some nice fills by jazz guitar great Larry Carlton.
“Doctor Wu” – Classic #4 and inspiration for the album’s title with the lyric “Katy lies, you can see it in her eyes.” As with most Steely Dan songs the lyrics offer suggestions as to the meaning behind the song, but they always leave the listener wondering. And for their part Becker and Fagen rarely revealed what each song was about. This song deals with addiction and self-reflection, but the true beauty of the lyrics is in the imagery. This is one of those songs where you realize midway through you are listening to an important piece of work. And the saxophone solo (by Phil Woods) is one of the best I’ve ever heard.
“Everyone’s Gone To The Movies” – This is probably the weakest song on the album. As with “Daddy…” above this song would probably have sounded more at home on Pretzel Logic, which I regard as more of a grab bag than a cohesive album with a feel. The song uses upbeat music to tell the, frankly, disturbing story of Mr. LaPage, showing his “films” to teenagers.
“Your Gold Teeth II” – Not to be confused with “Your Gold Teeth” from their 1973 album “Countdown to Ecstasy.” The lyric “throw out your gold teeth (and) see how they roll” remains from the earlier version, but that’s where the similarity ends. The song has a definite jazz influence, with a beat straight out of Dave Brubeck and time changes to match. The grand piano, again played by Michael Omartian, stands out here with beautiful flourishes throughout. Denny Dias’s guitar solo is probably my second favorite on a Steely Dan album (behind “Kid Charlemagne,” of course).
“Chain Lightning” -The fifth Steely Dan Classic is another shuffle, albeit a breezy and bluesier one than “Black Friday.” Rick Derringer was called in to record the guitar solo. But the mystery of this song lies (again) in the lyrics. Most people did not realize what the song was about until it was revealed that an early version of the song featured the lyric “thirty years later” before the final verse. One popular interpretation is that the song is about the quiet return of fascism (more specifically, about Nazism). Becker and Fagen have never revealed the song’s meaning. But it remains a conversation piece among Steely Dan fans.
Some turnout, a hundred grand;
Get with it, we’ll shake his hand.
Don’t bother to understand;
Don’t question the little man.
Be part of the brotherhood;
Yes, it’s chain lightning,
It feels so good.
Hush brother, we cross the square;
Act nat’ral, like you don’t care.
Turn slowly and comb your hair;
Don’t trouble the midnight air.
We’re standing just where he stood;
It was chain lightning,
It feels so good.
“Any World (That I’m Welcome To)” – Becker and Fagen dipped into the reserves for this song, which was originally recorded as a demo some time between 1968 and 1971 when they were aspiring Brill Building songwriters. The lyrical content illustrates a common theme in Steely Dan’s work, the misplaced dreaming of someplace better (as one writer once put it, “the faded hipster”). Unfortunately the song doesn’t quite live up to the other material on the album.
“Throw Back The Little Ones” – Possibly the most unusual song on the album. It takes a while to grow on you, but once it does it becomes a favorite of the album. Don’t ask what it’s about. I have no idea. But the piano coda at the end makes the whole song worthwhile.
Katy Lied is seen as by some as the “bridge album” -the link between the more rock based group and the jazz dominated ensemble cast. I think there is something to that. As I mentioned above there are several complex jazz influenced pieces sitting alongside a pure pop piece like “Daddy Don’t Live In That New York City No More.” But why is it overlooked?
Well, I mentioned above that Steely Dan had stopped touring in 1974 and did very little (if any) promotion for an album they were eager to put behind them due to the technical difficulties they experienced trying to mix it. Their label was basically contending with a group that did not want to tour, and which was thoroughly disinterested in releasing pop hits. So a lack of enthusiasm in pushing the album was not surprising.
But while Katy Lied did not have the chart hits that the more commercially (and critically) popular Cant Buy A Thrill and Pretzel Logic had, it featured more quality compositions than either album. And listened to as a whole it is a far more cohesive album than any of their three previous albums. You can listen to a Katy Lied track and it has a “sound” that you won’t find on any other album (perhaps due to the DBX debacle, but I digress). It’s not Aja by a long shot, but it gives a good account of itself. And I think it comes off better than most of their other albums.
It’s not easy to find tracks from Steely Dan albums on YouTube. I’m including “Your Gold Teeth II” and “Doctor Wu” because I like them and they’re all I could find. But mostly because they were all I could find. Luckily, thanks to the fan interest in Katy Lied bootleg tracks (due to the recording details mentioned above) there are several outtakes in circulation. I’m including two of them, “Mr. Sam” and an instrumental called “Funky Driver” (sometimes called “Gullywater”). Both are great songs and are representative of the overall sound of the album.