Sounds Like Steely Dan?

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, 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.

The Tubes: Completion Backward Principle

tubesCapitol Records, released April 1981

8/10

From Loose Tubes to The Tubes. Even as a teenager, I picked up something faintly illicit about this band. A cool friend of my dad’s stuck ‘Attack Of The Fifty Foot Woman’ on a cassette for me alongside Donald Fagen’s The Nightfly and Bill Withers’ Greatest Hits sometime around the late-’80s. I loved it, though it would take me a good few years to find out who had recorded it. A lot of detective work was called for – The Tubes weren’t exactly big in the UK.

The band’s earlier career had taken them through glam/punk, Spector-style pop and new-wave rock, but The Completion Backward Principle was the first Tubes album produced by David Foster, a gifted Canadian keyboardist who already had a proven track record as a first-call session player, arranger and songwriter. He had worked extensively on Earth Wind & Fire’s I Am (co-writing the megahit ‘After The Love Has Gone’), Lee Ritenour’s Rit and Boz Scaggs’ Middle Man. According to most accounts, as a producer he was a pretty hard taskmaster, demanding absolute perfection. He wasn’t above telling a band member to go home early and calling in a name session player in his place (which he frequently did during the recording of Chicago 17).

tubes

But the results speak for themselves. The band had made a quantum leap since 1979’s Todd Rundgren-produced Remote Control. Fee Waybill had turned into a pretty damn good singer. Drummer Prairie Prince is hardly the most subtle player in the world (Jeff Porcaro was surely waiting in the wings) but he’s every bit the human metronome on these songs and plays a blinder on the brilliant ‘Think About Me’.

Maybe ‘Don’t Wanna Wait Anymore’ and ‘Amnesia’ sound more like Chicago than Devo but they are subtle, memorable and interesting with great chord changes, while the fairly risqué ‘Sushi Girl’ could have come from Zappa’s You Are What You Is. ‘Let’s Make Some Noise’ even taps into the kind of pop/funk that Let’s Dance took to the bank a few years later. The album is also beautifully recorded, engineered and mastered, sounding superb on my original vinyl copy.

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I also love the cover concept. The band’s corporate attire and conservative ‘message’ were apparently a satirical take on Reagan’s inauguration and the rise of motivational business concepts. But the smarter the clothes, the weirder the content, as the Surrealists proved decades before.

According to this interview with Fee Waybill, The Tubes imploded a few years later after The Completion Backward Principle when David Foster suggested that only he, Waybill and a few outside songwriters should compose singles for the band. He would appear to have a point, that team having co-written ‘Talk To Ya Later’, the Top 40 hit ‘Don’t Want To Wait Anymore’ and the number 10 hit a few years later, ‘She’s A Beauty’.

Waybill believes they might have become as big as Foreigner or Journey had they taken Foster’s advice, but it wasn’t to be – the rest of the band vetoed the suggestion and Waybill left in 1985 after the disastrous Rundgren-produced Love Bomb. However, they have continued to be a successful live band to this day. I loved seeing them in 2000 at the much-missed London Astoria.