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.

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:

9 More Great Album Covers Of The 1980s

Check out the first instalment here in case you missed it.

9. XTC: Oranges & Lemons (1989)

Artwork and Design by Andy Partridge, Dave Dragon and Ken Ansell

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8. David Sylvian/Holger Czukay: Plight And Premonition (1988)

Photography and Design by Yuka Fujii

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7. Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe (1989)

Artwork by Roger Dean

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6. Grace Jones: Nightclubbing (1981)

Photography and Design by Jean-Paul Goude

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5. Debbie Harry: KooKoo (1981)

Photography by Brian Aris, Design by HR Giger

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4. Steve Khan: Eyewitness (1981)

Artwork by Jean-Michel Folon

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3. King Crimson: Three Of A Perfect Pair (1984)

Artwork by Peter Willis

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2. Donald Fagen: The Nightfly (1982)

Photography by James Hamilton

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1. Tackhead: Friendly As A Hand Grenade (1989)

Artwork by Gee Vaucher.

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So what is the tenth (or 20th) greatest cover of the ’80s? Suggestions below, please…

13 Memorable B-Sides Of The 1980s

princeThere 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″ single – maybe a new direction, bold experiment, glorious failure, 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 certainly 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)

We’ll close with something in the ‘fairly random’ category. 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.

Let me know your killer B’s below.