Book Review: Steely Dan FAQ by Anthony Robustelli

The general consensus seems to be that there’s relatively little published analysis of Steely’s work. But is that accurate? Brian Sweet’s ‘Reelin’ In The Years’ was uncritical but biographically exhaustive; Don Breithaupt’s Aja book was excellent on The Dan’s musical methods, while Ian MacDonald wrote briefly but evocatively about Gaucho (probably my favourite album of the 1980s). And then of course there are the intriguing, sometimes amusing ‘geek’ websites Fever Dreams and The Steely Dan Dictionary.

So it seems there’s actually quite a lot out there, but all the same I was intrigued when ‘Steely Dan FAQ (All That’s Left To Know About This Elusive Band)’ appeared recently. Is there anything left to ‘know’?

The first thing to say about the book is that it’s hard to know exactly which ‘frequently asked questions’ it’s answering – it’s structured more in the style of Omnibus Press’s old ‘Complete Guides’ series, with chapters on individual albums containing summaries of each song. Then there are some extra sections ladled in dealing with Steely’s early days, their concert history, session players, solo projects and other aspects.

But, despite its rigid structure and a lack of any input from the two protagonists, ‘Steely FAQ’ comes up with some nice surprises. Robustelli is particularly good on Dylan and The Beatles’ influence on Becker and Fagen’s songs. There’s the odd musical detail which hits the spot (during ‘Show Biz Kids’, I’d never noticed that guitarist Rick Derringer references Elliott Randall’s famous ‘Reelin’ In The Years‘ solo after the ‘They got the Steely Dan t-shirts’ line) and there are some excellent, rare photos throughout.

Steely in all their scuzzy glory circa 1973. From left: Jim Hodder, Walter Becker, Denny Dias, Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter, Donald Fagen

The book is good too on the recent history of the Dan (though musically it’s an era I generally struggle with), with everything you’d ever need to know about the albums and tours since the 1990s. There’s also a great chapter on cover versions, many of which I’d never heard (including Earl Klugh, The Pointer Sisters, Howard Jones, Dave Valentin, Grover Washington Jr. – approach them at your peril…).

On the minus side, musical/lyrical analysis is often scant and/or inaccurate – Michael Omartian’s solo piano outro on ‘Throw Back The Little Ones‘ is described as ‘discordant’; the song ‘Pretzel Logic’ is summarised as ‘their first shuffle’ (what about ‘Reelin’ and ‘Bodhisattva‘ then?) and the tutti line that kicks off ‘Parker’s Band’ is falsely characterised as a ‘dissonant chord’. It’s weird too that Robustelli doesn’t mention the websites listed above and pretty much ignores their (sometimes) excellent lyrical analysis in his song summaries.

But, in the end, the success of such a book is measured by whether it takes you back to the music with a fresh ear; ‘Steely Dan FAQ’ certainly does that, despite its shortcomings and rather matter-of-fact style. It’s well worth chucking into your holiday bag this summer.

‘Steely Dan FAQ’ is published by Backbeat Books.

Steve Khan talks about recording Steely Dan’s ‘Gaucho’

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When I was about 12 or 13 years old, I was obsessed with my dad’s very old ABC Records cassette of Steely’s Greatest Hits. I think it may have been the opening eight bars of ‘Do It Again‘ that did it. I never looked back; they quickly became my favourite ‘band’, and remain so to this day.

I heard Gaucho – which turns 35 today – a few years later, maybe in 1986 or ’87, not even knowing of its existence until then. The album knocked me out. I practiced my drums to it every day. By all accounts, it was a laborious and very expensive record to make, with various obstacles including whole songs being inadvertently erased (‘The Second Arrangement‘) and other classics being shelved, Walter Becker’s serious injury after being hit by a cab and a later lawsuit from Keith Jarrett regarding the similarity between the title track and his 1974 composition ‘Long As You Know You’re Living Yours’.

But the man-hours certainly paid off in the end; Gaucho was sumptuously mixed and mastered with songs that were built to last. Guitarist Steve Khan was a key contributor to Gaucho. Along with Larry Carlton, he would seem the perfect player for their later work, combining a jazz sensibility with a great feeling for the blues and also speedy sight-reading skills. I was delighted to catch up with Steve from his New York base to talk about his role on the album and the ‘Glamour Profession’ session that led to one of the great guitar solos in the Steely canon.

On getting the call to play on Gaucho:

SK: I had played on almost all the tracks for Gaucho (even though I was erased from some, and some tracks didn’t survive), so I was a pretty healthy part of that recording. As to why they thought of me, who the hell really knows? Donald tends to like players who have a jazz sensibility but who also have a bluesiness or soulfulness about their playing. I guess, in his eyes, I fall into that category of possibilities.  I was the last thing to go on ‘Glamour Profession’, just as I was the last one to go on ‘Third World Man‘ as well.

‘Glamour Profession’ lead sheet, prepared by Steve Khan. Click to enlarge

On playing the ‘Glamour Profession’ rhythm parts:

SK: The first thing we did was all the rhythm parts. In a sense that was very simple because they just wanted me to double what some kind of synth had already played – probably sequenced – and with perfect time. At about 3:30 in the track, there’s a little four-bar guitar chorale that Donald wanted me to play, so we wrote out the four voices and I played each voice individually, giving each one a touch of ‘soul’ with a little personal phrasing and vibrato here and there. Then, I think that we returned to doing the rest of the rhythm part. Honestly, I don’t recall if I did the rhythm part on my Telecaster Custom or not – when I listen now, there’s a crispness to the sound which leads me to believe that this was the Tele.

On recording the famous ‘Glamour Profession’ solo:

SK: I used my new Gibson ES-Artist (with active electronics) – which is really a 335 – and after that solo, I never used it again – I sold it back to Manny’s Music! In the end, all the fancy things that they can do to guitars are fine but everything comes down to one’s touch, and I’m mostly speaking about the fingertips on the left-hand. If one has a good touch, the music will translate through virtually any amp. Equipment is just a tool.

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In concept, the solo represents a lot of linear concepts that I had been working on for years. And only in hindsight, many years later, after the publication of my second theory book ‘PENTATONIC KHANCEPTS‘, I hear these kinds of linear ideas at work. Based upon the chord progressions, it all seemed to work perfectly because, in the end, it is a combination of the angular with a bluesy feeling to it – and that’s what Donald and Walter like – with a touch of harmonic sophistication.  I think that the things that I was working on, a long time ago, in terms of other approaches to changing up the normal jazz/bebop-oriented construction of lines, seemed to be very present on ‘Glamour Profession’. If you apply the Pentatonic Khancepts to those chords, you’ll see/hear exactly what I was doing then, mixed in with a healthy dose of blues too.

The horns and the synth lines were already there, so it becomes like playing through a bit of a minefield because you have to dance around those other linear elements. I did one complete take which I actually liked very much. Then, of course, they asked me to do another one. Because of track space, I couldn’t have done more than three of them. Then, thank goodness, I think that we all felt that the first one had the most ‘meat’ to it, and so we would work from that. Then we went back through it. They kept all the phrases that they loved and asked me to try something else in a number of spots. Whether I wanted to or not, it’s still a job and you do what you are asked to do!

For more on Steve’s contribution to Gaucho and the rest of his career, check out his website and this great interview with Leo Sidran.

For much more about Steely Dan, check out ‘Reeling In The Years‘ by Brian Sweet and ‘Aja 33 and 1/3′ by Don Breithaupt.