Sounds Like Steely Dan?

They are of course the pop/jazz masters whose harmonic and lyrical sophistication have had the critics purring since 1972. They’ve also often been described as ‘influential’. But is that true? Does any other music sound remotely like Steely Dan?

In the 1980s, the term ‘Steely Dan-influenced’ was bandied about particularly in relation to British bands of the ‘sophisti-pop’ variety: The Big Dish, Style Council, Everything But The Girl, Curiosity Killed The Cat, Hue & Cry, Sade, Swing Out Sister, even Prefab Sprout and Deacon Blue. More recently, it’s The High Llamas, Athlete, Mark Ronson, Toy Matinee, The Norwegian Fords, Mayer Hawthorne, State Cows and even Pharrell.

None really sound like Steely. Sure, they show off some slick grooves, jazzy solos and nice chord changes. But they also generally scrimp on the hooks, harmonic sophistication, production values and soulful, distinctive vocals which characterise Becker and Fagen’s oeuvre.

However, there are random tracks over the years – by artists one wouldn’t necessarily have predicted – that have seemingly ‘cracked the code’. Here’s a smattering, not all necessarily from the ’80s. More suggestions welcome if you can think of any.

10. Billy Joel: ‘Zanzibar’

Lush production (Phil Ramone), cool chords, great arrangements, biting Fagenesque vocals, quirky lyrics and nice guitar from Steely regular Steve Khan. Also featuring two kick-ass solos by trumpet/flugelhorn legend Freddie Hubbard.

9. The Stepkids: ‘The Lottery’

Underrated American psych-soulsters deliver jazzy weirdness, a nice groove, cool chords, memorable hooks and a distinctly Fagen-like croon from vocalist Tim Walsh.

8. The Tubes: ‘Attack Of The 50ft Woman’

The bridge and backing vocals always remind me of Steely, and I’m sure the boys would also appreciate the ‘50s B-movie lyric concept and ‘easy listening’ middle eight.

7. Danny Wilson: ‘Lorraine Parade’

The Dundonians’ superb debut is full of Dan-ish moments but this (sorry about the sound quality) could almost be an outtake from Katy Lied. See also the B-side ‘Monkey’s Shiny Day’.

6. Frank Gambale: ‘Faster Than An Arrow’

The Aussie guitar master swapped the chops-based fusion for this slick, lushly-chorded, Steely-style shuffle. Gambale sings, plays piano and guitar and also wrote the excellent horn chart.

5. Maxus: ‘Nobody’s Business’

The little-known AOR supergroup came up with this standout in 1981. Jay Gruska’s vocals and Robbie Buchanan’s keys particularly stand out as Steely-like (apologies for the creepy video).

4. Cliff Richard: ‘Carrie’

More than a hint of ‘Don’t Take Me Alive’ in the chorus, lovely production and Cliff does a neat Fagen impression throughout. And hey, isn’t that ‘Mike’ McDonald on backup? (No. Ed.) Apparently co-songwriter Terry Britten was a huge Steely fan (as Cliff told this writer during a live radio interview circa 2008).

3. Boz Scaggs: ‘We’re Waiting’

Steely regulars Michael Omartian, Victor Feldman, Jeff Porcaro and Chuck Findley contribute to this enigmatic cracker which could almost be an Aja outtake. The oblique lyrics possibly relate to Hollywood in some way. See also Boz’s ‘Gimme The Goods’ which sounds suspiciously like ‘Kid Charlemagne’.

2. Tina Turner: ‘Private Dancer’

This Mark Knopfler-written gem pulls off the Steely tricks of simple melody/elaborate harmony and a risqué lyrical theme. There’s also more than a touch of ‘FM’ in the intro riff. Knopfler was always a big Dan fan and of course guested on ‘Time Out Of Mind’. See also Dire Straits’ ‘Private Investigations’ whose outro bears more than a passing resemblance to ‘The Royal Scam’.

1. Christopher Cross: ‘I Really Don’t Know Anymore’

From one of the biggest-selling debut albums in US chart history, this features the production/piano skills of Omartian, backing vocals from McDonald and a majestic guitar solo by Dan legend Larry Carlton. See also ‘Minstrel Gigolo’ from the same album.

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Stanley Clarke: If This Bass Could Only Talk

stanley_clarke-1988-if_this_bass_could_only_talk

Portrait/CBS Records, released summer 1988

8/10

Bought: Our Price Richmond, 1988

This album was a substantial breath of fresh air when it came out in 1988. I remember walking into Our Price and hearing Wayne Shorter’s majestic soprano sax over some swooning chord changes and thinking: ‘What the hell is this?!’ It was a relief and total surprise when it turned out to be Stanley’s cover of Mingus’s ‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat’ (and what a brave choice of track to play in the shop…).

It wasn’t just the Baby Boom rockers who struggled a bit during the 1980s. Stanley started the decade very well with Rocks Pebbles & Sand but then there were a few middling collaborations with George Duke and a very patchy run of albums: Let Me Know You, Time Exposure and Hideaway. 1985’s Find Out had some brilliant moments though.

But ITBCOT put Stanley back on the jazz map. Its full-on playing – with admittedly a few late-’80s production values in tow – brought to mind classic ’70s albums Journey To Love and School Days. Drum machines were out: drummers were back in (Ndugu Chancler, John Robinson, Gerry Brown and Stewart Copeland, all of whom play beautifully). The album also emphasised how much of a singular voice Clarke had now developed on piccolo bass, as distinctive on his instrument as Parker, Miles, Monk or Rollins were on theirs.

‘Working Man’ is an update of ‘Lopsu Lu’ from Stanley’s classic first album and features some ridiculously brilliant soloing leaning very heavily towards John Coltrane’s ‘sheets of sound’ approach. Gerry Brown stays toe-to-toe with Stanley, providing some spectacularly-unhinged drums, though maybe with a bit too much ’80s ‘gated’ snare for some ears.

My cassette copy of ITBCOT didn’t have any personnel listed on it, so when I first heard ‘Stories To Tell’ I didn’t realise I was getting my first exposure to the extraordinary guitar playing of Allan Holdsworth. I’m very thankful that Stanley unleashed Holdsworth onto my sensibilities. He delivers some remarkably-fluid playing with a shrill, almost reedy tone. The first and last four bars of his solo are really special. Copeland plays superbly too, with more restraint than usual.

Freddie Hubbard shines on a fine cover of Janet Jackson/Jam and Lewis’s ‘Funny How Time Flies (When You’re Having Fun)’ while Stanley brings the funk with a great take-off of Zapp’s Roger Troutman on ‘I Want To Play For You’. Elsewhere there are two fun but rather dispensable duets with tapdancer Gregory Hines but they don’t outstay their welcome. Finally, ‘Tradition’ may feature Stanley’s finest recorded playing bar none and highlights a strong John McLaughlin influence (via Coltrane, of course).

In a much-maligned genre of music, ’80s fusion, ITBCOT is a minor classic that deserves critical reappraisal. It also led to a really good period for Stanley – he joined Shorter in Lenny White’s short-lived but intriguing Manhattan Project, of which more soon, and also toured as part of a supergroup with Herbie Hancock, Shorter and Omar Hakim.

Stanley was back, back, back.