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.

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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:

Steve Khan’s Backlog: Interview & Album Review

backlog_esccov_hires600Steve Khan, one of jazz’s most underrated and distinctive guitarists, made two fine fusion albums during the 1980s: Eyewitness and Casa Loco.

His unique chord voicings, intriguing melodic sense and subtle use of effects have also illuminated work by The Brecker Brothers, Steely Dan, Billy Cobham and Joe Zawinul.

Khan’s other solo albums across a 40-year career showcase his enormous versatility, from overdubbed guitar tributes to Thelonious Monk (Evidence) and jazz trios (Headline, Let’s Call This) to large fusion ensembles featuring the likes of Steve Gadd, Don Grolnick, Michael Brecker and David Sanborn (The Blue Man, Arrows).

Khan has also become well known as a master-interpreter and reharmoniser of non-guitar jazz compositions by the likes of Andrew Hill, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Ornette Coleman, Lee Morgan and Randy Brecker. His new collection Backlog, the third in a Latin Jazz triptych following Parting Shot (2011) and Subtext (2014), continues to plunder the songbooks of his favourite composers.

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The album kicks off with the killer one-two of Monk’s ‘Criss Cross’ and Greg Osby’s ‘Concepticus In C’. The former is inspired by the late great pianist Kenny Kirkland’s Latin version which first appeared on his fine 1991 debut album.

Says Khan, ‘It’s a wonderful arrangement and so good that it’s hard to escape its influence. It took me years to find a way to do the tune in a way where I could put my own stamp on it. As everyone already knows, I love Monk’s compositions and have recorded many of them. I happen to feel that Monk’s tunes have a way of fitting into a Latin context, as if they were made to be interpreted in that style.’

The Osby tune was played by Khan during their tenure together in the New Sound Collective band; the guitarist clearly relishes arranging his version of ‘Concepticus’ on Backlog, adding a funky Joe Zawinul flavour to the tasty harmonies and quirky rhythmic concept.

‘Latin Genetics’, composed by Ornette Coleman and first appearing on his In All Languages album, features a fine guest spot from Randy Brecker on trumpet. On first listening, it seems a light, almost joyous piece of music, but Khan has a different take on it: ‘It’s funny to me that people see this tune as being so happy – I actually see it as a rather dark piece of music, one with many sinister and even humorous qualities.’

Backlog‘s other Coleman cover version is ‘Invisible‘, featuring Bob Mintzer on sax, originally recorded in 1958: ‘It comes from one of his earliest albums, Something Else!!!!, featuring an acoustic piano,’ says Khan. ‘Every time I hear this tune, I feel that Ornette’s playing and improvisational concepts are a bit constricted by having the chord changes applied so literally. There seems to be an absence of space. So, in my interpretation, though there are chord changes, both Bob and I play pretty much unaccompanied, and that’s really how I like it.’

Elsewhere on Backlog, Khan reimagines the music of Stevie Wonder, his father Sammy Cahn, Johnny Mandel, Bobby Hutcherson and Andrew Hill.

Clearly a labour of love, Khan wonders whether it will be his final album: ‘When I recorded Parting Shot, for reasons of the health and condition of my left hand, I thought that was going to be the final album. Then when I decided that I felt well enough to record Subtext, I was even more certain that that would be the final album. But, as 2015 unfolded, I came to the simple conclusion that I just do not feel alive unless I am creatively involved in the formation of new music. So, while I can still do it, I had to do everything possible to record. Can I foresee ever being able to self-finance another recording of my own again? I don’t want to utter the word “never” in conjunction with such a thought, but honestly, I really don’t know. With the release of any new piece of work, there is always hope for better days and better times, but this remains to be seen…’

Backlog is out now on ESC/Tone Center.

Read the full interview with Steve at his website.

9 More Great Album Covers Of The 1980s

Check out the first instalment here in case you missed it.

9. XTC: Oranges & Lemons (1989)

Artwork and Design by Andy Partridge, Dave Dragon and Ken Ansell

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8. David Sylvian/Holger Czukay: Plight And Premonition (1988)

Photography and Design by Yuka Fujii

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7. Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe (1989)

Artwork by Roger Dean

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6. Grace Jones: Nightclubbing (1981)

Photography and Design by Jean-Paul Goude

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5. Debbie Harry: KooKoo (1981)

Photography by Brian Aris, Design by HR Giger

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4. Steve Khan: Eyewitness (1981)

Artwork by Jean-Michel Folon

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3. King Crimson: Three Of A Perfect Pair (1984)

Artwork by Peter Willis

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2. Donald Fagen: The Nightfly (1982)

Photography by James Hamilton

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1. Tackhead: Friendly As A Hand Grenade (1989)

Artwork by Gee Vaucher.

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So what is the tenth (or 20th) greatest cover of the ’80s? Suggestions below, please…

Steve Khan: The Eyewitness Trilogy

51jiJqsP8ML._SX425_I’ve just had the absolute pleasure of writing the liner notes for a brand new Steve Khan 2-CD reissue featuring his three classic albums of the early ’80s, Eyewitness, Modern Times and Casa Loco, just released on BGO Records.

It was an honour to work with Steve on this project. He couldn’t have been more generous with his time/memories and hopefully the package does justice to the quality of the music.

Here’s an excerpt from the liner notes, giving some background to the three albums and also the legendary Eyewitness band:

Acclaimed guitarist/composer Steve Khan’s three classic albums of the early ’80s – Eyewitness, Modern Times and Casa Loco – came about seemingly against all the odds. By the end of the 1970s, the jazz/rock boom had come to an end, and the record industry was entering a major post-Punk/post-Disco recession. Khan’s tenure with Columbia Records – which had produced three well-received solo albums, and a ‘Best Of’ compilation – ended in early 1980. Acts such as Weather Report, John McLaughlin, Return To Forever and Herbie Hancock, all of whom had been signed to Columbia before Khan, were no longer selling the same quantities of records, and the ‘Young Lions’, Neo-Bop boom of the early ’80s was just around the corner.

Khan’s response was to go back to basics. The stripped-down masterpiece Evidence (1980) was a one-man-band project featuring an arsenal of multi-tracked acoustic guitars; the album showcased excellent takes on Lee Morgan, Joe Zawinul, Wayne Shorter and Horace Silver as well as the famous ‘Thelonious Monk Medley’.

The purity of the acoustic guitar sound on the album inspired a new approach to his electric playing too: “In 1981, I was still searching for a direction on the electric guitar, and it led me to go back to the most basic sound, the one I began with when I was 19 years old at UCLA: just plug into an amp with a Gibson, dial in a little reverb, and play!” The time was also right to move away from classic song-form and branch out into more improvised music-making. “I was ready to surround myself with a totally different group of players in conjunction with a new spirit of making music, something much looser, something not so married to having everything perfectly placed and played. Phone calls were made to three special and very unique players. We got together and the experiment began.”

Drummer Steve Jordan and bassist Anthony Jackson were two of the most in-demand musicians on the New York scene and first-call rhythm section on numerous high-profile sessions including John Scofield’s Who’s Who album. Jackson had also recently joined Khan on the recording of Steely Dan’s Gaucho while Jordan had been busy working with a huge variety of world-class artists as part of David Letterman’s ‘World’s Most Dangerous Band’. And when Khan hooked up with ex-Weather Report percussionist Manolo Badrena during the recording of Mike Mainieri’s Wanderlust album, the final piece of the jigsaw clicked into place. Khan, Jackson, Jordan and Badrena began to jam regularly at Steve Jordan’s Chelsea loft.

It was quickly clear to Khan that something very significant was happening during those informal get-togethers. “I’m still not certain just what to call what we did”, he says today. “We would begin to play ideas that didn’t seem to have a place in any other musical setting. Here you had four very distinct perspectives on music-making, and four of the most stubborn maniacs one could gather in a room, but somehow it was working. It was magical!” Khan recorded the sessions on a cheap cassette player and, listening back to them at home, quickly realised that the music should be recorded, “before we actually figured out what it was that we were doing!”

In the experimental era of King Crimson’s Discipline, Japan’s Tin Drum and Peter Gabriel’s Melt, the Eyewitness band began with very basic sounds and concepts but over the course of its existence came to use some fairly unique instrumentation to produce music that was complex but always accessible. Jordan’s hybrid drum set included a cowbell, a broken splash cymbal, two hi-hats, two snare drums (tuned slightly differently) and a Simmons bass drum. Jackson developed, designed and played a state-of-the-art six-string bass, while Badrena’s constantly-mutating percussion kit included a turtle shell, timbales, congas and eventually Pearl’s Syncussion synthesizer. He also employed a multitude of eerie vocal effects. This clearly was not your standard ‘fusion’ band.

Co-produced by Khan and Doug Epstein, Eyewitness was recorded at Mediasound Studios over a single weekend in November 1981. It has the spontaneity of a great jazz album and the high production values of a contemporary pop album…

To hear the three albums and read the full article, check out the 2-CD reissue.

Steve Khan talks about recording Steely Dan’s ‘Gaucho’

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When I was about 12 or 13 years old, I was obsessed with my dad’s very old ABC Records cassette of Steely’s Greatest Hits. I think it may have been the opening eight bars of ‘Do It Again‘ that did it. I never looked back; they quickly became my favourite ‘band’, and remain so to this day.

I heard Gaucho – which turns 35 today – a few years later, maybe in 1986 or ’87, not even knowing of its existence until then. The album knocked me out. I practiced my drums to it every day. By all accounts, it was a laborious and very expensive record to make, with various obstacles including whole songs being inadvertently erased (‘The Second Arrangement‘) and other classics being shelved, Walter Becker’s serious injury after being hit by a cab and a later lawsuit from Keith Jarrett regarding the similarity between the title track and his 1974 composition ‘Long As You Know You’re Living Yours’.

But the man-hours certainly paid off in the end; Gaucho was sumptuously mixed and mastered with songs that were built to last. Guitarist Steve Khan was a key contributor to Gaucho. Along with Larry Carlton, he would seem the perfect player for their later work, combining a jazz sensibility with a great feeling for the blues and also speedy sight-reading skills. I was delighted to catch up with Steve from his New York base to talk about his role on the album and the ‘Glamour Profession’ session that led to one of the great guitar solos in the Steely canon.

On getting the call to play on Gaucho:

SK: I had played on almost all the tracks for Gaucho (even though I was erased from some, and some tracks didn’t survive), so I was a pretty healthy part of that recording. As to why they thought of me, who the hell really knows? Donald tends to like players who have a jazz sensibility but who also have a bluesiness or soulfulness about their playing. I guess, in his eyes, I fall into that category of possibilities.  I was the last thing to go on ‘Glamour Profession’, just as I was the last one to go on ‘Third World Man‘ as well.

‘Glamour Profession’ lead sheet, prepared by Steve Khan. Click to enlarge

On playing the ‘Glamour Profession’ rhythm parts:

SK: The first thing we did was all the rhythm parts. In a sense that was very simple because they just wanted me to double what some kind of synth had already played – probably sequenced – and with perfect time. At about 3:30 in the track, there’s a little four-bar guitar chorale that Donald wanted me to play, so we wrote out the four voices and I played each voice individually, giving each one a touch of ‘soul’ with a little personal phrasing and vibrato here and there. Then, I think that we returned to doing the rest of the rhythm part. Honestly, I don’t recall if I did the rhythm part on my Telecaster Custom or not – when I listen now, there’s a crispness to the sound which leads me to believe that this was the Tele.

On recording the famous ‘Glamour Profession’ solo:

SK: I used my new Gibson ES-Artist (with active electronics) – which is really a 335 – and after that solo, I never used it again – I sold it back to Manny’s Music! In the end, all the fancy things that they can do to guitars are fine but everything comes down to one’s touch, and I’m mostly speaking about the fingertips on the left-hand. If one has a good touch, the music will translate through virtually any amp. Equipment is just a tool.

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In concept, the solo represents a lot of linear concepts that I had been working on for years. And only in hindsight, many years later, after the publication of my second theory book ‘PENTATONIC KHANCEPTS‘, I hear these kinds of linear ideas at work. Based upon the chord progressions, it all seemed to work perfectly because, in the end, it is a combination of the angular with a bluesy feeling to it – and that’s what Donald and Walter like – with a touch of harmonic sophistication.  I think that the things that I was working on, a long time ago, in terms of other approaches to changing up the normal jazz/bebop-oriented construction of lines, seemed to be very present on ‘Glamour Profession’. If you apply the Pentatonic Khancepts to those chords, you’ll see/hear exactly what I was doing then, mixed in with a healthy dose of blues too.

The horns and the synth lines were already there, so it becomes like playing through a bit of a minefield because you have to dance around those other linear elements. I did one complete take which I actually liked very much. Then, of course, they asked me to do another one. Because of track space, I couldn’t have done more than three of them. Then, thank goodness, I think that we all felt that the first one had the most ‘meat’ to it, and so we would work from that. Then we went back through it. They kept all the phrases that they loved and asked me to try something else in a number of spots. Whether I wanted to or not, it’s still a job and you do what you are asked to do!

For more on Steve’s contribution to Gaucho and the rest of his career, check out his website and this great interview with Leo Sidran.

For much more about Steely Dan, check out ‘Reeling In The Years‘ by Brian Sweet and ‘Aja 33 and 1/3′ by Don Breithaupt.