FEATURE: Vinyl Corner: Steely Dan – Can’t Buy a Thrill



Vinyl Corner


PHOTO/IMAGE CREDITS (unless stated otherwise): Getty Images

Steely Dan – Can’t Buy a Thrill


IT has been a while since I ventured into…


IN THIS PHOTO: Steely Dan, 1972: (L-R): Jeff 'Skunk' Baxter, Walter Becker; David Palmer, Denny Dia; Donald Fagen and Jim Hodder/PHOTO CREDIT: Michael Ochs Archives

the dusty nostalgia of Vinyl Corner. The last album, I think, I featured in this spot (last year) was Joni Mitchell’s Blue. The reason for this feature is to highlight albums, I feel, are best heard on a record player. There are a few that have that potential: coming to life when you drop the needle and take them back to their true home. There was another reason I wanted to include Steely Dan’s debut, Can’t Buy a Thrilltwo, in fact. The first concerns the timing: the fact the record was released forty-five years ago (last November, in fact). I forgot to feature the record back in November so that is a good reason to focus on it now. The other reason is the fact Walter Becker is no longer with us. The co-founder (alongside Donald Fagen) died suddenly last year and shocked the music world. Although there will be, sadly, no new Steely Dan albums anymore – we can rejoice and preserve the memories and wonderful songs. I go back and forth when it comes to the issue of the ‘best Steely Dan album’. I have been leaning towards Pretzel Logic (their third) because it is, to me, the moment the band became a duo. By that; I mean the sound was cemented and all the experimentation of the first two albums was crystallised into a coherent whole (on Pretzel Logic).


PHOTO CREDIT: Chris Walter/WireImage

I have been leaning back towards Can’t Buy a Thrill because, as I look at the where Steely Dan came from; one is amazed at the confidence and quality that was evident right from the off! My favourite song of Steely Dan’s is my favourite of all-time, ever: Deacon Blues. That song is the jewel of Aja (their penultimate album before they took a long hiatus) and sees Becker and Fagen in full-fat, all-in-the-pot mode. The sumptuous horns and incredible percussion; the luscious backing vocals and the musicianship that makes it a work of genius – it never gets boring and does everything that music should do. The Gary Katz-produced debut was recorded at Los Angeles’ The Village Recorder and, even in 1972, was seen as a luxury. Most big bands have the option to record in esteemed surroundings and pull in as many musicians as possible. That box of toys meant, conversely, it was a challenge and breeze for the ambitious duo. Fagen and Becker were not, strictly, the only members of Steely Dan at that point. They wrote the songs and created the drive but other singers/musicians were present from the off. One of the biggest issues of the album was the numerous bodies! The biggest criticisms levied at the album – very few in total – was the lack of leadership and some ill-advised inclusions.


David Palmer, the soulful, blue-eyed voice you hear on Dirty Work and Brooklyn (Owes the Charmer Under Me) – that was something critics jumped on. The as-yet-solidified band were trying out singers and, in an attempt to fit into the mainstream, perhaps; hiring a popular, conventional singer seemed like a way to get the singles out to the masses quickly. The problem with created spectacular music from the very start meant many could see a distinct sound coming through; a unique personality that was to define future albums. Palmer’s oversung, impassioned performances seemed jarring against the looser, more sardonic performances of Donald Fagen. That said; Dirty Work is seen as one of the best Steely Dan songs ever. Closer Turn That Heartbeat Over Again sees Palmer co-lead with Fagen and Becker – the blend of three voices makes it a more pleasing brew; without the distinct and unaccompanied sound of Palmer alone. If one feels non-Fagen vocals are a bad thing; they might try and explain the brilliant Midnite Cruiser. Some claim the vocal from Jim Hodder – the band’s drummer sadly drowned a few years after the album was released – was not very Steely-esque and did not fit into the ethos. Others protest against the chorus: dropped from nowhere and not as intelligent and complex as other songs on the album. I refuse all assumptions completely. The song is a blissful anthem and, unlike Palmer’s over-earnest and soulful croon; there is enough beard and whiskey in Hodder’s voice to make it stand out and impress. It is the enriching, soul-lifting chorus that, to me, seems to define what Can’t Buy a Thrill is all about: songs that get into the head and remain there for years (decades, even!).


IN THIS PHOTO: The band during a recording session for Can't Buy a Thrill

Originally released in a two-channel stereo format; there was a four-channel quadraphonic mix, too. There are differences between the two mixes but, whatever version you have; it is the sonics and audio richness that makes the music inspire and endure. The lyrics and vocals are sublime and consistently impressive but it is the complete package that makes the album such a scary-good debut – all the players and elements fusing to create a Californian symphonic. A lot of the popularity and renewed interest in Steely Dan’s debut revolves around the sheer accessibility of the record. Its music shifts from Mambo and Soft-Rock to Swing and Rock. It is a fantastic spectrum and freewheelin’ record that manages to have a simple breeze and studious countenance all within the same moment. The lyrics are sardonic, cryptic and humorous; the vocals are varied and nuanced; the music takes you somewhere special and safe. Maybe, in a good and bad way, the album’s cover defines what is contained within. Steely Dan went to create some near-iconic sleeves – Pretzel Logic and Aja spring to mind – but many mauled the debut’s cover because it was messy and crude; childish and garish. In fact; it is the colours, images and tripped-out sensations one discovers that creates intrigue and showcase the tropical flavours of the record. On a song-by-song basis, there are few stronger Steely Dan albums. Can’t Buy a Thrill might not have the coherence and faultless nature of Pretzel Logic; the authority, richness and sheer audacity of Aja; the hidden treasures and layers of Katy Lied – it is, however, their most addicting and record player-perfect creation.


It is a vinyl you hear from beginning to end; immersed in the obvious highs (Dirty Work, Reelin’ in the Years and Do It Again) and underrated gems (Midnite Cruiser, Kings and Change of the Guard). The ten-track L.P. is rife with discovery and brilliance. Do It Again and Dirty Work are the perfect opening one-two. The latter, despite criticisms of Palmer’s vocal, has that swirling organ and amazing chorus. The chorus, in fact, seems to define the album. Every one gets into the brain - but each is different. Do It Again is a sharper, Fagen-sung chorus that contrasts from the semi-operatic qualities of Palmer. That contrast, in lesser albums, would seem like a weakness and lack of focus. Here, in the hands of accomplished musicians; they are natural companions and, in a sense, embodiments of different personalities and lovers (the sharp-tongued and romantic; the soulful and sensitive against the wise and cragged elder). After the two big hits come two corking underdogs: Kings and Midnite Cruiser. The latter, I have talked about; the former is a historical song – almost cliché when it comes to debuts by Californian Jazz bands! – that sees the power-shift from King Richard to King John. The patrons and subjects raise their pitchers and glasses; the scene is set and, with a rousing chorus; it is a song that departs from the love-and-lies predictable and offers something truly different. Only a Fool Would Say That pairs Fagen and Palmer but gives the bigger role to the former. It is one of those Steely Dan songs that could have been taken from their latter, more assured records. On their first outing, it sounds completely alien and alarming – how, like all the other songs, it sounds so confident and free from nerves.


The second side is a little weaker but contains the album’s best-known song: Reelin’ in the Years is the one most highlight from Can’t Buy a Thrill. Those cutting, awesome guitar licks and funky-as-sh*t riffs are breezy and sunny as California but have the smog and danger of a New York neighbourhood. The solo was played by Elliott Randall and is often cited as one of the greatest from all of music! That is another reason Steely Dan succeeded from the off: not only relying on the two creators to produce the music. From Randall’s guitar and Hodder’s exceptional vocals/percussion; Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter’s guitar and Denny Dias’ guitar and sitar – all of the bodies that are crammed into the studio add their own textures and D.N.A. The remaining four songs on the record – Fire in the Hole, Brooklyn (Owes the Charmer Under Me); Change of the Guard and Turn That Heartbeat Over Again – provide rises and lows; plenty of lyrical brilliance and some of the finest music that year could handle. In a year where Exile on Main Street (The Rolling Stones), Pink Moon (Nick Drake); The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (David Bowie) and Harvest (Neil Young) were released…it would be hard work muscling into the crowd and getting critical attention. Not only did Can’t Buy a Thrill get reviews and attention: many saw the potential that would flourish in future albums; knowing, full-well, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen were onto something!


IN THIS PHOTO: Original album advertising art

There are faults and little knocks here and there – the cover-art and some of the Palmer vocals; the fact the first side is much stronger than the second; the lack of Jazz experimentation and interludes (too many different genres and commercial elements) – but they are excusable for a debut album. They, on their own, do not weight the album down or provide any disappointing visions. Their name might have derived from a dildo from a William S. Burroughs novel but there was nothing crude and sexual about the album. The hard work, quality and maturity come through from the first notes. Each song sounds free and unhindered but, at the same time, the result of perfectionist-pursuit and long nights honing and tinkering. It is a fantastically detailed album that interweaves and delves; it takes you by the arm and gets you to connect with music in a new way. For a debut album from an untested musical force; Can’t Buy a Thrill could have been a big failure and pretentious mess. The result was a record that has stayed in the collective mindset for over forty-five years and started the career of the mighty Steely Dan. I would suggest anyone who has an interest in music, texture and musicianship investigate Can’t Buy a Thrill - and, if you can afford, buy it on vinyl. Place it down, let the needle drop and close the eyes - and let every note wash over you. It would be forgivable to suggest an album like Can’t Buy a Thrill would lose some of its charm and potency so many years from its creation. If anything; the Steely Dan debut has grown stronger…


WITH each passing year.