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…
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, oblique lyrics, 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 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’.
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.
In the miasma of soap-opera tie-ins, boy-band debuts, one-hit wonders and Stock, Aitken and Waterman productions that constituted late-’80s pop, Love and Money’s second album Strange Kind Of Love was a breath of fresh air.
Released in December 1988 and produced by legendary Steely Dan helmer Gary Katz, the record was a triumph. James Grant’s literate, dramatic songs of romantic anguish and corporate avarice were built to last.
Musicians had a field day with Grant’s intricate guitar work and the rock-solid grooves courtesy of drum legend Jeff Porcaro and underrated bassist Bobby Paterson. Critics of the time were generally confused but I was sold from the first bar of ‘Hallejulah Man’.
Funkier than the likes of Curiosity Killed The Cat or Hipsway but lyrically just as piquant as The Smiths or The The, Love And Money joined Prefab Sprout, Prince, The Blue Nile, Danny Wilson, David Sylvian, De La Soul, Scritti Politti and Cocteau Twins in my list of late-’80s pop saviours.
I caught up with singer/songwriter/guitarist James Grant to talk Strange Kind Of Love, Jeff Porcaro, Tom Waits, touring with Tina Turner, ‘Top of the Pops’ and ’80s marketing meltdowns.
Love And Money 1988
MP: Could you just give us a quick bit of background to Strange Kind Of Love – what were the expectations for album number two and how did you come to work with Gary Katz?
JG: I always felt the first album was disparate and didn’t marry the different influences well. We sounded too desperate to impress. I was also anxious to prove that I was more than just a haircut. For Strange Kind Of Love, I had written the album and we had lived with the songs for a while. The mantra was: the song is king. Meaning that the song would dictate how it was meant to be, what was appropriate and what was not. The desire was to create something timeless and the man to facilitate that was Gary Katz. He had a track record that spoke for itself. He just seemed perfect. We set up a meeting – I flew to New York – and we just hit it off right away. There was a symbiosis, a shared desire to make great records, and we liked each other. We’re still pals to this day.
Lyrically, SKOL focuses mainly on the anguish, pain but also joy of romantic infatuation. Was there a particular relationship that precipitated this or had these songs built up over time?
Yes, there was someone in particular, but obviously there’s poetic license. Songwriters deify those we love. I just happened to think – and still do – that besides knowing you are going to die, being in love is the utmost existential experience there is. I was young, heartbroken and hungry; the right ingredients to make great music! I also had the distinct feeling that great songs contain a truth, perhaps not the literal truth but a truth. I wrote about myself; this tended to get uncomfortably forensic at times for those close to me.
Jeff Porcaro 1988
How much of a contribution did the great Jeff Porcaro make to SKOL‘s arrangements and why is his surname misspelt in the credits? Was there enough budget to get him for rehearsals? His playing seems so integral to the material.
Jeff didn’t make any contribution to the arrangements – that was all planned months before we even met. I have no idea why his name is misspelt. We did the drums over a month in LA. Sometimes we just jammed the thing till we got the right vibe. On other tracks, I had a more concrete idea of what I wanted. For example, on ‘Razorsedge’, I wanted a go-go beat. I just went in with my guitar and told him what I was hearing. He just started playing this incredible, jaw-dropping stuff. Yes, we had the budget. Jeff was a brilliant, phenomenal musician. I felt like I had f***ing boxing gloves on sometimes when we were jamming but he never ever made me feel like that. He was a beautiful guy, great fun to be with and genuinely humble about his achievements and ability.
The four sublime singles from the album just missed out on the UK Top 40 – was that a disappointment? Was there pressure from Phonogram to get that first UK or US hit?
Yes – it was always a disappointment. You try and be stoic and say, ‘That’s not what it was about’, but we were gutted. We so nearly made it with Strange Kind Of Love. I always wanted to do ‘Top of the Pops’. If that’s shallow, then so be it. I grew up watching Slade and Bowie and prancing around in front of my bedroom mirror imitating them – it was my dream to be part of that, just like any kid. There wasn’t pressure from Phonogram as such; they were trying their best with us. It just wasn’t to be. I do believe that if we had had the success, Dogs In the Traffic may not have happened. That’s the Love And Money record I’m most proud of and it’s most representative of who I am. Perhaps that’s why I find it so hard to listen to…
Why is Tom Waits thanked in the album credits? And presumably (Steely Dan singer/co-leader) Donald Fagen is thanked because of the Katz connection?
Because I’m a fan and he was and still is a massive inspiration. It wouldn’t be easy to tell if you were judging this from the record. Donald Fagen played a little something. I’ve always kept that a secret. We didn’t want to make an issue of it or make it something marketable.
You play some fantastic lead guitar on the album and also some really inventive acoustic/electric textural stuff – did Gary Katz’s experience with the likes of Larry Carlton and Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter have any bearing on your playing?
Not really – Gary would have me playing for weeks on end though. I reckon I came on a bit during my time with him. And thank you.
SKOL doesn’t really sound like anyone else from the era and stands up exceptionally well today. At the time of release, some critics rather snootily compared it to Dire Straits and Deacon Blue but were there contemporary artists the band admired or were influenced by?
No, not especially – my tastes have always been very eclectic. In terms of marketing, this always led to problems; ‘Are you guys rock, pop, funk or country?’ ‘Yes…’ I did love Bowie, Talking Heads, Chic, Led Zeppelin and Prince – I can hear certain little things from all of them here and there.
Who is Beatrice Colin? Her voice compliments yours beautifully, especially on ‘Walk The Last Mile’.
She was my girlfriend. She’s an author now.
Who came up with the album cover concept? Studying it again, it’s one of the weirder covers of the ’80s…
Someone in the marketing department at Phonogram saw a photograph like the one on the cover and we decided to recreate it. Though I’ve always believed it to be extremely important, the amount of time and money invested in things like artwork was, by today’s standards, science fiction. We would have months of meetings discussing details. People would have nervous breakdowns!
You toured with and supported various US acts such as BB King and Tina Turner in the late-’80s – any memories that stand out? I loved your playing with Tom Verlaine on The Tube.
The one anecdote that would perhaps stand out is that when we supported Tina Turner, when I introduced the band, I said, ‘Hi, we’re not Tina Turner, she’ll be on a bit later.’ I thought this was amusing. Tina’s management did not. We were kicked off the tour. You’d think we would have been disappointed by such a thing, but – and I’m really proud of this – we did not give a f*ck.
I saw you revisiting SKOL on a memorable night at the Shepherds Bush Empire a few years ago – how do you feel about the album and its place in ’80s music now?
I’m really proud of it. It’s of its time, certainly, but a bit more than that. I think sonically it’s absolutely spot-on – it still sounds fantastic. I always think of the band’s place in the greater scheme of things as awkward. I think, as I said previously, we were difficult to categorise. This seemed to be a huge problem for some people. I never tried to make ‘difficult’ music. I still don’t. I think my tastes are fairly mainstream. Perhaps lyrically things are a bit more challenging at times, but even so, I don’t think they are wilfully arcane or esoteric.
In which freelance writer Malcolm Wyatt jealously guards his own corner of web hyperspace, featuring interviews, reviews and rants involving big names from across the world of music, comedy, literature, film, TV, the arts, and sport.