Monday, August 20, 2007

Steely Dan's Top 10 Guitar Records

sd.jpg Steely Dan. Just hearing the name conjures up all sorts of superlatives in my mind. Fantastic songs with interesting and unique chords and chord progressions, lush and expansive arrangements, slick yet inspired instrumentation, immaculate state-of-the art recordings , literate, obtuse and hilarious lyrics (often derisive, ironic and even sarcastic character studies sung in the first person) and the list just goes on and on.

And then there were the guitars. Steely Dan records had some of the best guitar playing going. While rock radio in the 70's was being dominated by the likes of Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, David Gilmour, etc., Steely Dan were featuring many brilliant guitarists who were often anonymous except to industry insiders. Their classic first 6 albums (Can't Buy a Thrill, Countdown to Ecstasy, Pretzel Logic, Katy Lied, The Royal Scam and Aja) in my mind remain unparalleled in terms of pure quality and consistency by any other musical ensemble since The Beatles. Those albums feature some of the best guitar playing ever committed to tape. So, without further adieu, here are my top ten Steely Dan guitar records, not in any order save the last two:

Home at Last
From Aja
Lead Guitar: Walter Becker

Easily one of my favorite Steely Dan songs from their perfect album. Homer's Odyssey and Joyce's Ulysses as pop / jazz. The whole track just reeks of the sea. You can smell the salty air and feel the boat bobbing in the waves while being pushed forward by the wind from Bernard Purdie's signature shuffle. Indeed, the eccentric Purdie wanted to share writing credits for the song because of his drumming. Walter Becker's economical guitar solo is gentle and watery. Not a single note is misplaced. (As an aside, I've included a most memorable moment regarding this song at the end of this post.)

Night By Night
From Pretzel Logic
Lead Guitar: Jeff “Skunk” Baxter.

Okay, so the tune is a bit derivative (listen to it back to back with Traffic's Rock and Roll Stew) and the lyrics are perhaps not their best, but the song is expertly arranged (love the horns and clavichord) and Skunk just tears it up on the solo in is own imitable style.

My Old School
From Countdown to Ecstasy
Lead Guitar: Jeff “Skunk” Baxter

Becker and Fagen reminiscing about some of their misadventures at Bard College. Baxter rose to the occasion with a number of blistering guitar breaks that get hotter at each turn.

Don't Take Me Alive
From The Royal Scam
Lead Guitar: Larry Carlton

The song starts off with Larry's explosive playing, and doesn't let up until the break at the end, just before the repeat of the last chorus. Superb.

Chain Lightening
From Katy Lied
Lead Guitar: Rick Derringer

Such a cool, bluesy record. Rick's understated licks are carefully placed between the vocals on the verses, never descending into the cliches that often dominate the genre. His solo is breathtaking - subtle and easy the first half and then kicked into high gear for the second, ending with an unexpected sustained note that hangs in mid-air for a couple of eternal seconds and then just melts into the last verse.

Your Gold Teeth II
From Katy Lied
Lead Guitar: Denny Dias

The solo in this pop / jazz masterpiece as played by unsung guitar hero and founding member of Steely Dan Denny Dias is nothing short of stunning. There's a bootleg floating around someplace that has Fagen listening as it was being played and expressing his unbridled approval peppered with some serious 70's profanity. Who can blame him?

Parker's Band
From Pretzel Logic
Lead Guitar: Denny Dias

Avid bop fans Becker and Fagen paying tribute to Charlie Parker. Denny Dias opens the track with a guitar solo unlike any other. Brilliant.

Kid Charlemagne
From The Royal Scam
Lead Guitar: Larry Carlton

Kid Charlemagne is a true Steely Dan classic. Telling the story of a famed producer of LSD (rumored but never verified to be one Augustus Stanley Owsley,) the song features what surely must be Larry Carlton's most celebrated work. We are treated to not one, but two guitar solos that burn the house down.

From Countdown to Ecstasy
Lead Guitar: Denny Dias and Jeff Baxter

Arguably The Dan's hardest rocking tune (ostensibly about people dabbling in eastern philosophy as if it was a trifle,) opens their second album, allaying any fears that they were just a flash-in-the-pan. From the opening snare-hits to the closing ringing licks courtesy of Jeff Baxter, the record is just relentless. The high point of the song is Denny Dias' guitar solo, putting to rest any doubt that he was anything but an “A” player. There are no words that can adequately convey the depth and breadth of his playing. Crank it up.

Reelin' in the Years
From Can't Buy A Thrill
Lead Guitar: Elliot Randall

Ahh. The birth of a legend. The first Steely Dan song I ever heard was Do It Again, and I loved it immediately. Little did I know that the follow-up single Reelin in the Years was waiting just around the corner. Can anyone argue that Elliot Randall, for that 4 or 5 minutes was the best lead guitarist on the planet? Legend has it that the song was virtually finished, including the transitional guitar vamp by original member Jeff Baxter. Trouble was, neither Skunk nor Denny could come up with a guitar solo that seemed apt to the song. Supposedly Elliot Randall just happened to be in the studio the day that Baxter had just about had it. The frustrated Baxter suggested that Randall take a crack at it. On many occasions the members of the band have claimed that Randall listened to the track once, uncermoniously plugged in his guitar, and blew the room away. What we hear is what he played in one take. Whether that is truth or exaggeration, the lead guitar part on Reelin' in the Years remains as one of the best recorded guitar solos on a rock / pop record. Every time the song comes on, my first reaction is always “Yay – turn it up!”


Home At Last – as performed by The New York Rock and
Soul Revue at Jones Beach, Long Island circa 1992.
(originally written by yours truly December 2003)

Ok, they announced the show – Donald Fagen, Boz Scaggs, Michael
McDonald, Phoebe Snow etc. We ran out an bought tickets figuring a
least a couple of Steely Dan songs would get played, and besides,
we'd hear some vintage Scaggs tunes, (we did) and some good music
from McDonald ("Minute By Minute" was a definite high point
of the show.) What we didn't know, was that a few days before
the performance, they announced that Walter Becker was going to be
there. You have to remember that Steely Dan had been dead and buried
since "Gaucho" with (up to this point) little hope of ever
seeing them live.

The night of the show was perfect weather for an outdoor concert. It
was about 75 degrees with a gentle breeze blowing out over the
audience from the bay. The air had that pleasant salty seaside
aroma, not that "fishy" low-tide stench that one might have
to endure on the wrong night. About three-quarters of the way
through the show, (with three or four Steely Dan songs already in the
bag, and the crowd never knowing when the band would play another,
but hopeful at every turn) the lights went down and they put the spot
on Donald behind the grand piano. He began to improvise some of
their famous "mu major" ;^) jazz- chords and the audience was
trans-fixed wondering which Steely Dan classic we were we going to be
treated to – and he got to a stopping point, with a typical trill
on the mice keys – and at that moment you could have heard a
pin-drop! We were all holding our collective breath, teetering on
the edge of our collective excitement. After what seemed like a long
time, but was probably 5 seconds, he played the opening chords to
"Home At Last" and virtually everyone at the theater leaped
to their feet and exploded into a frenzy of cheers, whistles and
applause. It was probably the most electric moment I've ever
experienced at a live show. The song was exquisitely played,
flawless and clean. The fact that we were at the beach, with the sea
just a stone's throw from the theater was not lost on us –
and for those few moments we were on the ship, bobbing to the waves
dreaming about being served the smooth retsina and being kept safe
and warm, but anticipating the impending storm. It was perfection for
6 minutes in time, a time that I will never ever forget.

cross posted over at


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Aaahh...Steely Dan. Great post.

1:09 AM  
Blogger Sticky said...

Man, I seen that Rock and Soul Revue shit, too, don't ya know. 'Course, for me, it was free, AND I was with Deanna!

9:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jeez, M. le Viscount. Ya really make me miss being, what, 25, 30 years old? I haven't experienced a concert like that for quite a number of years. Don't get me wrong, I haven't completely disappeared into my burrow. But my favorite concert memories from my 20's (I'm 60) were probably Joni Mitchell, the Dead, Zappa, Jackson Browne/ Bonnie Raitt. And, without a doubt, Dylan & The Band. But Steely Dan remains a memory and a present-day thrill like no other. The acerbic lyrics, the world-weary sensibility, the jazz riffs-- no one was or is working the same territory as Steely Dan. May they continue for years & years.

9:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Viscount – A great list with good detail and insight. As a fan of the Dan, I appreciate your posting. I have Royal Scam remastered which sounds incredible and has liner notes to die for including the funniest observation yet about Los Angeles – “where bad taste abhors a vacuum”. Wondering if others are available even in the now dead dvd-audio format. But hey, these songs sounded great on an AM car radio in the 70s. Saw the band on the second tour in London and also at Jones Beach.

Also, R&R Stew is fantastic Traffic, the remastered Low Spark has two versions of it.


11:56 AM  
Blogger The Viscount LaCarte said...

DVD Audio dead? Bummer man. I've got The Nightfly, Two Against Nature and Kamikiarad (and a few more from various artists) and I love them!

1:22 PM  

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