Sounds Like Steely Dan?

They were of course the pop/jazz masters whose harmonic and lyrical sophistication 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 (this article rounds them up nicely).

None of them 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’ and come pretty close. 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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Larry Carlton: Last Nite 30 Years On

MCA Records, released June 1987

Bought: Our Price Hammersmith, summer 1987

9/10

In a previous piece about Robert Cray, I talked about ‘touch’ guitarists, those whose sounds are almost entirely ‘in their fingers’ and not dependent on pedals or amps. Larry Carlton is certainly one of them. He played some of the great guitar of the 1970s with Steely Dan, The Crusaders, Michael Jackson and Joni Mitchell, his sound characterised by a deceptively ‘sweet’ take on the blues, alongside elements of jazz and rock. In the early ’80s, he released some fine studio solo albums including Sleepwalk and Friends, but ’87’s Last Nite was his first official live release.

And what an album. In 1987, I was a big fan of his playing on Steely Dan’s albums but had never heard any of his solo stuff. A glowing review of Last Nite in Q Magazine sent me scuttling off to my local Our Price. Recorded on 17th February 1986 at the Baked Potato club in North Hollywood (good old YouTube has preserved some of the gig for posterity – see below), the album is Larry uncut, blowing on a mixture of originals and jazz standards, with no thought of commercial or airplay potential.

It’s hard to think of another guitarist who could cover such a stylistic range with such aplomb. He destroys the slow blues, tears up the fast Texas-style shuffle, delivers some deliciously ‘out’ fusion on the title track and swings his ass off on ‘All Blues and ‘So What’, though with a pleasingly piercing tone as opposed to the warm sound favoured by most ‘jazz’ players. He’s also endlessly melodic, producing memorable phrase after memorable phrase. But don’t be fooled by the beatific expression and cream jacket – he isn’t afraid of throwing in some pretty wacky modal curveballs too.

Another key aspect of Last Nite is Carlton’s band. He uses the cream of the LA studio scene – John ‘JR’ Robinson on drums, Abe Laboriel on bass, Alex Acuna on percussion – and brings them right out of their comfort zone. Apparently they didn’t know ‘So What’ and ‘All Blues’ were on the setlist until Larry called them. JR in particular is a revelation, sounding like he’s been cooped up in the studio for far too long. And who knew he could swing like he does on the jazz cuts. Keyboard player Terry Trotter also impresses with his rich voicings and empathetic accompaniment.

Sadly, Last Nite turns out to be a bit of an anomaly in Larry’s discography, marking the beginning of an era when he was veering more and more towards a much smoother studio sound. But he’s always ripped it up in the live arena and he’ll be back on the road in July. I will try to get along to his London gig and pay my respects to a master.

Happy Blues? Robben Ford’s Talk To Your Daughter

robben fordWarner Bros, released 1988

Bought: Virgin Megastore Oxford Street 1991?

7/10

Robben is surely guaranteed a place in the pantheon of modern blues guitar greats, and, like his contemporary and good buddy Larry Carlton, he makes guitar playing sound ridiculously easy however complicated the chord changes.

Fagen and Becker had been told about Robben’s prodigious soloing ability over changes, hiring him to play the break on Steely Dan’s altered blues ‘Peg’ in 1977, but he ended up on the cutting room floor (they famously went through six other guitarists before Jay Graydon smashed it at the eleventh hour).

But sometimes Ford’s good looks, cheerful stage persona and sweet sound can obscure his more extreme guitar statements; fusion drum monster Kirk Covington somewhat disparagingly called Robben’s style of music ‘happy blues’ in a recent interview with Drumhead magazine (admittedly after a failed audition for Robben’s band!).

miles robben ford

Robben cut his teeth with the likes of George Harrison, Joni Mitchell and Jimmy Witherspoon, but started off the 1980s playing beautifully at the Montreux Jazz Festival with David Sanborn, Randy Crawford, Al Jarreau et al, contributing three of my favourite ever guitar solos to the Casino Lights live document of that gig.

Then, in 1986, the dream sideman gig materialised: he replaced Mike Stern in Miles Davis‘s band, gaining a new confidence in his abilities and a renewed love for the blues. Apparently Miles believed he’d found his perfect guitar player. But Robben didn’t stay long – he left Miles to make his second solo album Talk To Your Daughter for Warner Bros in 1987.

It’s funny to think of Robben playing guitar with Miles just before this recording because sometimes his music could use a bit of Miles’s obliqueness and use of space. Robben’s voice might not be to everyone’s tastes either, firmly in the Jackson Browne/Michael Franks school, but his guitar solos are always engaging and risk-taking, and a stellar band featuring monster drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, bassist Roscoe Beck and Yellowjackets keyboardist Russell Ferrante makes the music breathe. The album sounds like it was recorded live in the studio too, a big plus especially in the over-produced late-’80s.

The gospel-tinged ‘Revelation’ is worth the price of the album alone, possibly Robben’s finest recorded work to date and the only instrumental here. Robben’s take on ‘Ain’t Got Nothing But The Blues’, co-written by Duke Ellington and best-known as a Mose Allison number, is also superb, a feast of jazz chords and tasteful band accompaniment.

Down-and-dirty blues it ain’t, but Talk To Your Daughter definitely brought something fresh to the party. Other modern guitar greats Scott Henderson, Gary Moore, Frank Gambale and Larry Carlton were listening; within a few years, they’d all reacquaint themselves with the blues in a big way too.