Happy 45th Anniversary to Steely Dan’s second studio album Countdown to Ecstasy, originally released in July of 1973 (specific date N/A).
When I was going to grad school in Maine, my friend Matthew and I would drive up to our residencies every January and July, a six-hour trip from Manhattan to Freeport. As the traffic of the Bronx eased to something more akin to the Trans-Island Skyway and less like Fury Road, he would put on Disc One of Citizen Steely Dan and let that—and plenty of coffee—carry us smoothly to our destination.
The songs of Countdown to Ecstasy started, appropriately, somewhere around the Connecticut state line. From the highway, the state looked like a wasteland of adult video stores and abandoned factories, a pre-apocalypse in many ways, the struggles between the rich and the poor, the Kings of the World and the Show Biz Kids. That was 10 years ago, and I can still map out the landmarks—IKEA, the donut shop, Wells Dinosaur Haven.
Countdown is probably my least favorite Steely Dan album, if one ranks such things, but Becker and Fagen’s worst output still outpaces everyone else’s absolute best. This caused a lot of playful arguments between Matthew and I as we drove; “Razor Boy” is one of his favorites.
But I get into moods where this album sounds so right. It kicks right off with “Bodhisattva,” a wry look at the pseudo-mystical outlook of rich hippies attempting to buy and sell their way to instant nirvana. The song is pure, unadulterated Dan as guitarists Denny Diaz and Jeff “Skunk” Baxter battle it out against Fagen’s spiky keys. The song is a staple of their live shows; if you can’t see them in concert, the next best thing is the live track from the second disc of Citizen, with the rambling, drunken introduction by tour driver Jerome Aniton.
“Razor Boy” and “The Boston Rag” join “Kings” (off Can’t Buy a Thrill) at the bottom of my Steely Dan song rankings. “The Boston Rag” is deliberately discordant in a way that just doesn’t work, sounding more like a noir detective’s migraine and less like a rock song. “Razor Boy” is lovely enough, but also sounds like what people think of when they think derisively of the Steely Dan sound.
The album picks back up again on “Your Gold Teeth,” which gives us another one of The Dan’s femme fatales. “Your fortune is your roving eyes / your mouth and legs / your gift for the run-around,” paints a very attractive picture of a Chicago con artist against a Latin-tinged rhythm. But that’s not all; Fagen cribs “There ain’t nothing in Chicago for a monkey woman to do” from Count Basie and Joe Williams’ rendition of “Going to Chicago Blues,” and name-drops avant-garde singer Cathy Berberian. They would revisit this song, albeit in a softer way, on Katy Lied in 1975.
The B-side is stronger, in many ways, than the A-side, because the B-side has “King of the World” and that’s the best song on the whole goddamn album. This song is so good that it changed how Joe Jackson wrote songs, as he wrote in his autobiography A Cure for Gravity. I imagine this is how Becker and Fagen saw themselves, smoking and cracking jokes in a fallout-baked desert. Better still, it’s the last track on the album, leaving you there in your chair, watching the sun go down as you take your last drag. Jackson actually does a great cover of this song on the live album Summer in the City that drives up the tempo a bit.
But before that, we have “Show Biz Kids,” which has Fagen dropping an F-bomb, which is, frankly, a turn-on I didn’t know I had. Steely Dan has built an empire on dark sarcasm, but “Show Biz Kids” is one of the strongest support beams, painting a cynical picture of Los Angeles scenesters. “They got the shapely bodies / they got the Steely Dan t-shirts” describes me perfectly, and honestly, I’m pretty good with that.
“My Old School” is the song everyone knows and there’s good reason. It’s great. Recounting the G. Gordon Liddy-lead drug bust that soured Becker and Fagen on their alma mater, Bard College, it hops right into Baxter’s guitar solo after the first chorus, leaving two verses still to play. This song has a lot of personal resonance; Matthew and I aren’t great fans of our alma mater either, following two years of cronyism, sexual harassment, bullshit and a thesis sabotaged by a once-relevant short story writer, who has since become a Steely Dan-esque protagonist in his own right. Feel free to speculate in the comments.
“Pearl of the Quarter” is another song in the classic “falling in love with a prostitute” genre, joining The Police’s “Roxanne,” fellow Yacht Rockers Pages (“Sesatia”), and newcomers Young Gun Silver Fox (“Emelia”). Mellow and the least-directly melancholy song on the album, Becker would occasionally sing this one in concert. But it wouldn’t be a Steely Dan song without a hapless hero—bless him for respecting her job as a sex worker, but you almost cringe listening when Fagen earnestly sings “She said she loved me and was on her way.” Do the guy a favor and tell Louise he loves her. Boz Scaggs covered this one on 2013’s Memphis and it’s one of the standouts of that album.
Like all Steely Dan albums, Countdown to Ecstasy hasn’t aged a day. Nothing about it betrays any sense of the time and space in which it was recorded, sounding as fresh and relevant now as it did upon its release. And if this is your favorite album and you’re in the neighborhood of New York City’s legendary Beacon Theatre, you can see Fagen still fronting the long-time touring band—Becker died last September—when they perform the album in full on October 24th.