Story Of A Song: Donald Fagen’s True Companion

Steely Dan’s breakup was officially announced on 17th June 1981 when Donald Fagen gave a scoop to journalist and long-time fan Robert Palmer in the New York Times. In the interview, Fagen didn’t rule out the possibility that he would one day reunite with Steely co-leader/co-songwriter Walter Becker, but neglected to mention that he had already returned to the studio as a solo artist.  

Until a few years ago, I assumed The Nightfly was Fagen’s ’80s debut, but the one-off track ‘True Companion’ preceded it by a year. It was part of the ‘Heavy Metal’ soundtrack, an animated film based on the sex’n’slash fantasy comic book of the same name. Fagen used the song as an excuse to get back into the studio after a few years off.

‘True Companion’ was recorded at Automated Sound in New York and co-produced by Fagen and legendary engineer Elliot Scheiner (Dan helmer Gary Katz was busy producing Eye To Eye’s debut album). Lyrically, the song seemed to be a ‘Dark Star‘-esque meditation on the spiritually-bereft inhabitants of a spaceship, possibly narrated by God, or at least some kind of omniscient being…

Crewmen of the True Companion
I can see you’re tired of action
In this everlasting twilight
Home is just a sad abstraction

Just beyond the troubled skyways
Young men dream of fire and starshine
I’ve been dreaming of my own green world
Far across the reach of space time

Musically, the track showcased some exceptionally dense Fagen vocal harmonies (prefiguring a similar approach on The Nightfly‘s ‘Maxine’), and typically tasty Fender Rhodes playing by Steely regular Don Grolnick. But the first half of the tune was almost a mini guitar symphony for Steve Khan.

I asked Steve for his recollections of recording ‘True Companion’:

During those years, I think that Donald was trying  to find the confidence to move forward with a solo career because, after Gaucho, it seemed that he and Walter were going to need a long, long break! “True Companion” was one of a few experiments Donald recorded just to test the waters, as it were. To be in the studio with old friends and bandmates like Don Grolnick, Will Lee and Steve Jordan and with Elliot Scheiner engineering, nothing could have felt more familiar. Actually, for working with Donald, things went really fast. I would imagine that I played the electric parts first, then overdubbed the solo, and thereafter the acoustic steel-string. With the Les Paul, I know that I was playing REALLY loud in the room, but I did that because I felt that this was the underlying attitude of the song. It was a blend of subtlety and power. So I tried to give it both…’

On the ‘Heavy Metal’ soundtrack album, ‘True Companion’ sat incongruously alongside tracks by Black Sabbath, Grand Funk Railroad, Journey, Sammy Hagar and Stevie Nicks, a state of affairs that no doubt tickled Fagen. But, most importantly, he had taken his first major steps back into the recording studio, and by late summer 1981 was recording The Nightfly.

Almost 15 years later, a reunited Steely Dan also played ‘True Companion’ live on their second comeback tour:

The Human League’s Dare: 35 Years Old Today

human-leagueVirgin Records, released 16th October 1981

Produced by Martin Rushent/The Human League

Recorded at Genetic Sound Studios, Reading, Berkshire, UK

UK album chart position: #1
US album chart position: #3

Singles released: ‘The Sound Of The Crowd’ (UK #12)
‘Love Action (I Believe In Love)’ (UK #3)
‘Open Your Heart’ (UK #6)
‘Don’t You Want Me’ (UK #1, US #1)

Phil Oakey (vocals/co-composer): ‘Martin really knew what pop was. He could take your mad sounds and make them pop. I still reckon “The Sound Of The Crowd” is one of the maddest songs that’s ever got in the Top 20. “Love Action” hasn’t got a proper chorus. I remember smashing the phone after I was told “Don’t You Want Me” was number 1 in America. It’s so much to live up to. Everyone and their grandma knows about you so no one wants to wear your badges any more…’

Martin Rushent: ‘To a large extent, I was their band. I was certainly their drummer because I programmed all the rhythms and made all the decisions about the grooves. I learned a lot from working with the arranger Johnny Harris. He was bandleader for all the show singers like Petula Clark, Tom Jones and Shirley Bassey. I learned about voicing instruments and how the most important element of music is silence. If you listen to Dare, there’s lots of space in the songs and lots of little parts and you can sing them all…’

King Crimson’s Discipline: 35 Years Old Today

crimson-coverEG Records, released 10th October 1981

14th April 1981: King Crimson – or Discipline, as they are currently named – are rehearsing new material in deepest Dorset. But all is not well. Guitarist/de facto leader Robert Fripp is getting seriously ticked off with Bill Bruford’s drumming. He outlines the pertinent issues in his diary (available to read in the remastered CD’s liner notes):

Bill is really getting to me, so I’m trying to understand how he works:
1. He’s a very busy player and doesn’t enjoy playing sparsely.
2. His parts have lots of fills and major changes of texture.
3. His fills are dramatic ie., they shock.

So Fripp comes up with some suggestions for Bruford:

1. Repeat yourself.
2. Take your time.
3. Leave room.
4. Listen to everybody else.
5. Develop a new set of clichés.
6. Develop a new vocabulary of drum sounds.
7. Listen to the sound of what you play.

Bruford’s autobiography outlines his general attitude to these instructions. But he gamely meets Fripp halfway and adapts his style accordingly, laying off the hi-hats, ride and crash cymbals unless absolutely necessary and adding a set of Octobans, a China cymbal and a few electric drums to his kit.

There are other stipulations. The music’s high frequencies should be saved for the electric guitar (Fripp was perhaps influenced by the ‘rules’ set by Peter Gabriel for his groundbreaking third album) and the 16th notes usually played by the hi-hat or ride cymbal should also now be the guitarists’ responsibility.

The formula was set. And one of the great albums (and bands) of the ’80s was born.

There was something very exciting in the air around late ’70s/early ’80s rock. The talk was all of ‘village music’ – an African concept wherein each player’s contribution is vital but only a small part of the mighty whole. Talking Heads’ Remain In Light, Brian Eno/David Byrne’s My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, David Bowie’s Lodger, Japan’s Tin Drum and Gabriel III showed how ‘world’ influences could integrate with ‘rock’ to thrilling effect, and Discipline fits in very neatly with those albums.

Musical references might come from Mozambique, Java, China, Bali or South Africa, or from the soundworlds of Karlheinz Stockhausen, Glenn Branca, Philip Glass and Steve Reich. Like Talking Heads, King Crimson filtered these influences through a New York art-rock/post-punk perspective but, arguably, no one integrated them more successfully.

Fripp and Bruford recruited Adrian Belew (who chose Crimson over Talking Heads) and Tony Levin in New York. Belew had grown into an incredibly assured vocalist – according to Bruford, he was literally incapable of singing out of tune – and master of unusual guitar textures. His solos featured tones and approaches never heard before.

Levin had already played bass with a plethora of heavyweights including Paul Simon, John Lennon and Gabriel, and had also just turned down an invitation to join Weather Report at the beginning of 1981. He unleashed a new weapon for the Crimson gig – the ten-stringed Chapman Stick, played by tapping or ‘hammering on’ (heard to great effect during the opening of ‘Elephant Talk’).

Back in the mid-’80s, my brother and I used to peruse Discipline‘s liner notes for clues as to the powerful and mysterious music therein. We didn’t have a clue what a ‘Stick’ was, concluding wrongly that it must be the slightly synthetic woodblock sound heard throughout ‘The Sheltering Sky’ and title track (I’m still not sure what that sound is – maybe a ‘triggered’ Bruford hi-hat?).

Tony Levin and Chapman Stick

Tony Levin and Chapman Stick

The band wrote an hour of new material fairly quickly and toured modestly in the UK during April and May 1981, calling themselves Discipline. The album of the same name was recorded over the summer at Island’s Basing Street Studio in Notting Hill (later Trevor Horn’s Sarm complex) with producer Rhett Davies, fresh from helming Roxy Music’s Flesh And Blood. By September, pleasantly surprised by the quality of music in the can, Fripp was issuing a lengthy (and fairly incomprehensible) press release explaining why the band would henceforth be known as King Crimson.

As Bruford says in his book, ‘For a couple of years at the beginning of the ’80s, we were the right band in the right place at the right time – not to get hits, but to do useful, fascinating and right work.’ He also says that the Crimson drum stool was one of the three best rock gigs in the last few decades of the 20th century, naming the other two as Gabriel and Frank Zappa.