Bob Lefsetz: Welcome To My World - "Can't Buy A Thrill"
Steely Dan's 1972 debut gets no love, despite having two smash hits and a legendary track. Possibly this is because it features multiple lead singers. This was before we knew that Steely Dan was charting its own course in the history of rock and roll, positively sui generis, and all the talk is about the later albums, even the commercially disappointing second, "Countdown To Ecstasy," but before they were exploring, testing limits, taking us to heretofore unknown places, Steely Dan produced an album so exquisite it flummoxed the cognoscenti. They didn't know if it was a singles band, since at this point many hip bands had no hits, and the Top Forty crowd still listening to AM had no idea of the band's depth. Furthermore, the record came out on the positively lame label ABC and the only cred Donald Fagen and Walter Becker had was playing with Jay and the Americans, and that was no cred at all. But if I could only take one Steely Dan LP to a desert isle, "Can't Buy A Thrill" would be it.
DO IT AGAIN
"You go back Jack do it again"
A breath of fresh air, a tunnel into an unknown dark world that was so enticing, "Do It Again" lit up the radio in the winter of 72-73, it was a cut you could never burn out on, it was enticing.
There were hooks, but the magic was the sound itself, which was like nothing else on the radio, such a far cry from today.
Is it Denny Dias's electric sitar, Fagen's keyboards, Skunk Baxter's six string or ALL OF IT!
We had no idea this was the beginning of a legendary band, we thought it was just a single.
We were wrong.
"Do It Again" was the hit, but "Dirty Work" is the legendary track, prevalent for years on soft rock FM stations when they used to have those.
But...the lead is sung by David Palmer. And the song is such a classic the band still has to perform it live today, but it's done by a backup singer. Still...this is bittersweet in the best way. This is the track that convinces you the band may be something more.
A precursor to "Kid Charlemagne" and the rest of the "Royal Scam."
It was almost too pop, before we knew that Steely Dan was not. The tracks although sometimes sweet were anything but lowest common denominator.
Love the piano notes, the solo by Elliott Randall, the band always had the best players, but it's the overall concoction that enraptures, back when album tracks were no worse than the hits, when they took you on a journey of their own.
"Felonius my old friend"
Huh? When you finally bought "Can't Buy A Thrill" after hearing it in a friend's dorm room and you heard the above lyric you realized this was not a mainstream pop band, these were INTELLECTUALS!
You never hear this anymore. It's sung by drummer Jim Hodder and features a solo by Skunk and it's so sweet and melodic without being cloying...it's part of the underlying magic that makes "Can't Buy A Thrill" so great.
ONLY A FOOL WOULD SAY THAT
Lead vocals were shared by Fagen and Palmer. And it had jazz influences when we were suspicious of those. It's my least favorite song on the record, but it's far superior to so much of the dreck proffered today.
REELIN' IN THE YEARS
The other hit. With the instantly recognizable Elliott Randall guitar solo and those LYRICS!
No wasted words, it's hard to figure out what to quote.
"You've been tellin' me you're a genius
Since you were seventeen
In all the time I've known you
I still don't know what you mean"
Cutting. With attitude. Our hits didn't usually sound like this.
"Reelin' In The Years" didn't go as high up the chart as "Do It Again," but it had an even larger place in the public consciousness. It was a rager with an underbelly. You could appreciate it if you were a mindless idiot or a brilliant Ph.D. candidate.
"Are you reelin' in the years
Stowin' away the time"
That's what we baby boomers are doing. Reeling it all back, trying to make sense of what once, who we were, who we are now. Our music is part of our DNA, and it's songs like "Reelin' In The Years" that bridge the gap without playing as nostalgia. It's not a moment in time, but a sacred item that keeps providing insight.
FIRE IN THE HOLE
Whereas "Only A Fool Would Say That" was too jazzy and soft, "Fire In The Hole" had an edge that illustrated the band was not playing to our preconceptions.
The more you listen, the more you like it.
"I'd like to run out now
There's nowhere left to turn"
BROOKLYN (OWES THE CHARMER UNDER ME)
My favorite cut on the LP.
Maybe it's Skunk's steel guitar.
Maybe it's David Palmer's mellifluous vocal.
Maybe it's the changes.
Maybe it's the nearly incomprehensible lyrics.
Maybe it's the whole damn thing, perfect from another world yet so right in the one the listener inhabits.
The chorus with the full background vocals...
I sang this song in my head for months years after this album came out. I was playing the record and it stuck. It provided optimism in an era that was pretty damn good. It was the soundtrack to my first serious romance.
CHANGE OF THE GUARD
Totally solid. With shared vocals by Palmer and Fagen. It's pure pop without being such. You can't listen without having your head nod, you sway to the music. It's light and dark at the same time. How did they do this?
TURN THAT HEARTBEAT OVER AGAIN
A closer. A summation. The band is making its exit and your only choice is to flip the vinyl and play it all over again.
And there you have it. An album with no lowlights and extreme highlights. Something so good we didn't know how to categorize it. Was this future pop or credible album rock or..?
Sometimes you start and we have no idea where you're going.
Like with the first Led Zeppelin album.
Today bands start out as one thing and that's what they remain. And they don't get better, they just repeat themselves.
Steely Dan did not repeat itself. It expanded is oeuvre, became more edgy and then smoother and ultimately we got hooked and went along for the ride, despite the band giving up the road, despite the lack of huge hits, their music was all over FM radio, fans bought the LPs without hearing them first, dropped them on their turntables and went deeper.
And it all started with "Can't Buy A Thrill."
You should check it out. It's all there.