Donald Fagen: Century’s End 30 Years On

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, and it’s ripe for rediscovery. I’m pretty sure he’s never played it live with Steely on the road – at least it’s not on YouTube anywhere.

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The 54 Best Albums Of The 1980s

OK, it’s cards on the table time. Time to ‘address’ the elephant in the room, no more waltzing around it, etc etc…

Regular readers of this site may already have an inkling about my favourite albums of the ’80s, but what the hell – here they are in no particular order (apart from the unimpeachable collection in the #1 spot).

Numbers have been crunched, playlists have been quantified. Only kidding. This is a totally sentimental, unscientific list. And I promise, dear reader, that my original intention was to narrow it down to only ten. But, to quote Hugh Grant: fuggedaboudit…

The rules: only one artist per slot, soundtracks allowed but no best-ofs, and all albums must have a no-skip guarantee. A few things pop out: 1981, 1985 and 1987 strike me as very good years, 1984 and 1986 as pretty barren ones. It wasn’t a great decade for straightahead jazz, soul or funk albums, at least not in my house, though Alexander O’Neal, Janet Jackson, Cameo and Terence Trent D’Arby nearly made the cut. And I wish there were more female artists, though Will Powers (Lynn Goldsmith), Wendy & Lisa, Sheila E, Chaka Khan, Rickie Lee Jones, Mary Margaret O’Hara, Donna Summer, Cocteau Twins, Randy Crawford and Madonna came close.

Let the countdown commence…

54. Bireli Lagrene: Foreign Affairs (1988)

53. Stanley Clarke: Rocks, Pebbles & Sand (1980)

52. Human Chain: Cashin’ In (1988)

51. The Tubes: The Completion Backward Principle (1981)

50. Terje Rypdal: The Singles Collection (1988)

49. The Blue Nile: Walk Across The Rooftops (1983)

48. David Sanborn: Voyeur (1981)

47. Randy Newman: Trouble In Paradise (1983)

46 De La Soul: Three Feet High And Rising (1989)

45. Nile Rodgers: Adventures In The Land Of The Good Groove (1983)

44. John Martyn: Glorious Fool (1981)

43. Gabriel Yared: Betty Blue Original Soundtrack (1987)

42. Mike Stern: Upside Downside (1986)

41. Wayne Shorter: Phantom Navigator (1987)

40. Jeff Beck: There And Back (1980)

39. The Robert Cray Band: Bad Influence (1983)

38. Kate Bush: Hounds Of Love (1985)

37. John Scofield: Still Warm (1985)

36. Steve Khan: Casa Loco (1982)

35. Donald Fagen: The Nightfly (1982)

34. It Bites: Once Around The World (1988)

33. Talking Heads: Speaking In Tongues (1983)

32. Michael Jackson: Thriller (1982)

31. Lyle Mays: Street Dreams (1988)

30. David Sylvian: Gone To Earth (1986)

29. Peter Gabriel: III (1980)

28. Roxy Music: Avalon (1982)

27. Grace Jones: Nightclubbing (1981)

26. Prince: Around The World In A Day (1985)

25. Joni Mitchell: Dog Eat Dog (1985)

24. Mark Isham: Vapor Drawings (1983)

23. David Bowie: Scary Monsters  (1980)

22. King Crimson: Discipline (1981)

21. Hue & Cry: Remote (1988)

20. Scritti Politti: Cupid & Psyche 85 (1985)

19. XTC: Skylarking (1985)

18. Prefab Sprout: Steve McQueen (1985)

17. Vladimir Cosma: Diva Original Soundtrack (1982)

16. Lee Ritenour: Rit (1981)

15. Larry Carlton: Friends (1983)

14. Japan: Oil On Canvas (1983)

13. Love And Money: Strange Kind Of Love (1988)

12. Level 42: World Machine (1985)

11. Weather Report: Sportin’ Life (1985)

10. Various Artists: That’s The Way I Feel Now: A Tribute To Thelonious Monk (1984)

9. Thomas Dolby: The Flat Earth (1984)

8. Stump: A Fierce Pancake (1988)

7. China Crisis: Flaunt The Imperfection (1985)

6. Propaganda: A Secret Wish (1985)

5. Danny Wilson: Meet Danny Wilson (1987)

4. Marc Johnson/Bass Desires: Second Sight (1987)

3. Miles Davis & Marcus Miller: Music From Siesta (1987)

2. Valentin Silvestrov: Symphony No.5 (1988)

And the 1980s album I would save if my flat was on fire…

1. Steely Dan: Gaucho (1980)

Walter Becker (1950-2017)

A statement from Donald Fagen:

‘Walter Becker was my friend, my writing partner and my bandmate since we met as students at Bard College in 1967. We started writing nutty little tunes on an upright piano in a small sitting room in the lobby of Ward Manor, a mouldering old mansion on the Hudson River that the college used as a dorm.

We liked a lot of the same things: jazz (from the twenties through the mid-sixties), W.C. Fields, the Marx Brothers, science fiction, Nabokov, Kurt Vonnegut, Thomas Berger, and Robert Altman films come to mind. Also soul music and Chicago blues.

Walter had a very rough childhood — I’ll spare you the details. Luckily, he was smart as a whip, an excellent guitarist and a great songwriter. He was cynical about human nature, including his own, and hysterically funny. Like a lot of kids from fractured families, he had the knack of creative mimicry, reading people’s hidden psychology and transforming what he saw into bubbly, incisive art. He used to write letters (never meant to be sent) in my wife Libby’s singular voice that made the three of us collapse with laughter.

His habits got the best of him by the end of the seventies, and we lost touch for a while. In the eighties, when I was putting together the NY Rock and Soul Review with Libby, we hooked up again, revived the Steely Dan concept and developed another terrific band.

I intend to keep the music we created together alive as long as I can with the Steely Dan band.

Donald Fagen

September 3 2017′

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’. 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.

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.

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 put out some fine studio 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 with Steely Dan 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 so effortlessly. He kills on the slow blues, tears up the fast Texas-style shuffle, delivers 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 has spent a lot more time on the road in his later years.