Almost 30 years ago to the day, my brother arrived home from a Richmond shopping spree bearing strange cargo – a new Donald Fagen 12” single.
To say that this was a surprise would be an understatement. After all, it was six years since The Nightfly and the late ’80s were generally a Steely Dan wasteland apart from occasional guest spots (China Crisis, Rosie Vela, Love And Money, Yellowjackets).
‘I think we felt that a lot of the energy was missing so we kind of sat out the ’80s,’ Fagen once said.
But, in his book ‘Eminent Hipsters’, he went further, talking about ‘falling apart like a cheap suit’ towards the end of the decade, with panic attacks, antidepressants and shrinks abundant.
But at least he didn’t need the money – ‘What supported me was that when CDs came out at the beginning of the ’80s, people had to buy the albums again.’
Fagen’s movie-producing cousin Mark Rosenberg headhunted him to come up with some music for the film version of Jay McInerney’s celebrated yuppie-in-peril book ‘Bright Lights Big City’. Fagen was typically reluctant but apparently swayed by the quality of McInerney’s writing.
There was also something distinctly Steely-esque about this tale of a disillusioned twentysomething’s descent into a drug-addled, paranoid New York hell. So Fagen fashioned his version of the movie, co-writing the lyric with Timothy Meher.
There are touches of ‘Bonfire Of The Vanities’ and ‘Wall Street’ in there. AIDS too, and ‘American Psycho’ was of course just around the corner.
The opening scene finds our hungover hero lamenting the roar of the Monday-morning garbage trucks. Cut to the floor of the NY Stock Exchange, where our yuppie daydreams about a conquest of the female variety: ‘We cut to this blonde/Dancing on a mirror/There’s no disbelief to suspend….‘
The image brilliantly conjures up Marilyn Monroe on the subway grate. Madonna should also probably come to mind. ‘She’s the concept, more or less, of love in the city at century’s end…‘
Nothing and nobody is real – it’s all pose and high-concept. There’s no hope for redemption either: ‘Nobody’s holding out for heaven‘. Greed is good. But then the mystery blonde is using her ‘pirate radar’ to find a likely escort or – even better – a minor celebrity to latch onto.
But no-one materialises, so you’ll do, although you know you’re only the second choice. But still: ‘Let’s get to the love scene, my friend‘…
Musically, ‘Century’s End’ is yet another brilliant Fagen concoction, initially based around a typical minor vamp and groovy half-time shuffle groove shepherded by Yellowjackets’ ‘Jim’ Haslip on bass and drummer Leroy Clouden (submerged in one or two different bits of rhythm programming).
Michael Brecker and Lew Soloff lead the horn section, and the raft of uncredited backing vocalists sounds like it might include Patti Austin. Gary Katz co-produced the song at Chelsea Sound.
Fagen’s vocals have rarely been better – check out his phrasing in the chorus. The 12” and CD also came with ‘Shanghai Confidential’, a neat little fuzak instrumental starring Marcus Miller on bass and Steve Khan on guitar.
The movie, starring Michael J Fox, stiffed. The casting didn’t help. But ‘Century’s End’ seems to be a bit of a guilty secret in Fagen’s discography, ripe for rediscovery…
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.
There was definitely a ‘thing’ about B-sides in the 1980s.
You never quite knew what you would find on the reverse of your favourite 7” or 12″ – maybe a new direction, bold experiment, engaging curio, self-produced shocker or even the drummer’s long-awaited-by-nobody songwriting debut. Sometimes a single track encapsulated all of the above…
I was never the biggest singles collector in the world, but I had to try and hear everything by Prince, Level 42 and It Bites during their peak years.
Some B-sides took on a kind of mythic stature and weren’t easy to access: you’d have to cadge from your mates, record things from the radio or trawl the Record & Tape Exchange.
Here’s a motley parade of ’80s backsides, some long-sought-after, some intriguing, some exciting, some fairly random but all inexplicably etched upon my memory. I gave myself three rules: no remixes, live tracks or album tracks allowed…
13. David Bowie: ‘Crystal Japan’ (1981)
Though originally released as an A-side for the Japanese market, this charming instrumental later turned up as the B-side to the ‘Up The Hill Backwards’ single of March 1981. I’m still waiting for Jeff Beck’s cover version.
12. Peter Gabriel: ‘Curtains’ (1987)
Almost every time this ‘Big Time’ B-side rolls around, it produces a slight chill and sense of wonder. One of PG’s most disquieting pieces, it has to be said, but with a lovely melody and ambience.
11. Danny Wilson: ‘Monkey’s Shiny Day’ (1987)
The Dundonians are at their most sublimely Steely-ish on this ‘Mary’s Prayer’ B-side. The track’s lo-fi production and slightly low-budget horn section/backing vocals hinder it not one jot.
10. Prince: ‘Alexa De Paris’ (1986)
Prince had always threatened a full-on guitar instrumental and this ‘Mountains’ B-side delivered it. And boy was it worth the wait. Sheila E plays some fantastically unhinged drums (check out how she reacts to Prince’s guitar throughout) and Clare Fischer weighs in with a widescreen orchestral arrangement. The composition is reimagined as a solo piano piece in the movie ‘Under The Cherry Moon’.
9. It Bites: ‘Vampires’ (1989)
The B-side of ‘Still Too Young To Remember’, this glam-prog classic is notable for its crunching riff, catchiness and Francis Dunnery’s most extreme It Bites guitar solo (muso alert: was it stitched together from multiple takes?). It’s also one of many fine IB B-sides, of which more to come soon. Pet Shop Boys were definitely listening – this is even in the same key.
8. David Sylvian: ‘A Brief Conversation Ending In Divorce’ (1989)
The accompanying track to one-off 12” single ‘Pop Song’, you get the feeling this micro-tonal, improvised miniature featuring late great pianist John Taylor was far more up Sylvian’s street than the hits requested by Virgin Records.
7. Donna Summer: ‘Sometimes Like Butterflies’ (1982)
This B-side to ‘Love Is In Control (Finger On The Trigger)’ is a bit of a guilty pleasure. But Summer’s exceptional performance transcends the schmaltz, as does a superb drum performance by…someone (Steve Gadd? Rick Marotta? Ed). Intriguingly, Dusty Springfield covered it in 1985.
6. Level 42: ‘The Return Of The Handsome Rugged Man’ (1982)
This irresistible B-side from the ‘Are You Hearing What I’m Hear’ 12” shows the lads in full-on Weather-Report-meets-Jeff-Beck mode. Drummer Phil Gould even gives Harvey Mason and Billy Cobham a run for their money.
5. Roxy Music: ‘Always Unknowing’ (1982)
This shimmering, beguiling Avalon outtake from the US single version of ‘More Than This’ was surely in competition with ‘While My Heart Is Still Beating’ and ‘Tara’ for an album spot. Beautiful playing from guitarist Neil Hubbard.
4. Donald Fagen: ‘Shanghai Confidential’ (1988)
This ‘Century’s End’ B-side is an intriguing slice of fuzak with lovely chord changes, some tasty Marcus Miller bass and a fine Steve Khan guitar solo. You can even feel Donald smirking slightly when he plays his synth motif.
3. Scritti Politti: ‘World Come Back To Life’ (1988)
The B-side of the ‘Boom There She Was’ 12-inch showcases all the charms of the Provision sound: intricate arrangements, pristine production, bittersweet lyrics and punchy vocals. For many fans, it’s better than a lot of stuff on the album.
2. China Crisis: ‘Animalistic’ (1985)
The Liverpudlians detour into minimalist jazz/funk with some success on this ‘Black Man Ray’ B-side. Gary Daly’s vocals have never been so wryly Lloyd Cole-esque (before Cole… Ed) and drummer Kevin Wilkinson is really in his element. Gorgeous synth sounds too.
1. Willy Finlayson: ‘After The Fall’ (1984)
The A-side, ‘On The Air Tonight’, was recently covered by The Zombies’ Colin Blunstone, but I’ve always had a soft spot for this B-side. Both tracks were written and produced by ex-Camel keyboardist Pete Bardens. Willy is still active on the (sadly ever-dwindling) West London gig scene.