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 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.

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: