Happy 45th Anniversary to Steely Dan’s debut album Can’t Buy a Thrill, originally released in November 1972 (specific date N/A).
Stacked high in my list of Things I Regret But Have Literally No Control Over is that I was eleven years from being born when Can’t Buy a Thrill hit the airwaves. I like to imagine myself as a cool young hipster in 1972, placing the needle down on this album and hearing the first painfully cool rattle of the noose-tight percussion that opens “Do It Again.” How it must have sounded like nothing else on the airways; not the bluesy rattle of the Rolling Stones or the lush soundscape of Yes, closer to Curtis Mayfield than to The Eagles. I’ve got every note of this album memorized, but every time I put it on, it sounds brand new.
Right off the top, “Do It Again” is heist-committing music. It’s smoky and snide, introducing the listener to the effortless cool that would mark Steely Dan’s sound from here on out, right down to and including Denny Dias’ wire-tight, funky-as-fuck guitar solo. Hell, even my husband, who still saw fit to marry me despite the fact that he is not a Steely Dan fan, likes this song.
The biggest shame, of course, is that David Palmer was brought in to cover for Donald Fagen’s vocals on three of the album’s best tracks: “Brooklyn (Owes The Charmer Under Me),” “Dirty Work” and “Midnite Cruiser.” Palmer’s Quaalude-y So-Cal vocals lack the character of Fagen’s east coast rasp, and while it works for the album, it discouraged Fagen from ever performing these songs live. “Dirty Work” occasionally gets some stage time, either by the Dan-ettes (where Carolyn Leonhart is all but guaranteed to over-sing) or, in recent solo shows, by Nightflyers guitarist Connor Kennedy. (A Fagen-led demo of “Brooklyn” —with alternate lyrics—exists on The Old Regime and is worth a listen, just for comparison.)
But despite Palmer’s vocals, “Midnite Cruiser” feels more important than ever following Walter Becker’s passing this past September. “So glad that you’re here again / for one more time, let your madness run with mine.” While the love affairs in “Dirty Work” and “Reelin’ in the Years” are destined to fail badly, the quiet friendship of “Cruiser” is tender and precious, the first inklings that Fagen and Becker were, as they would sing nearly 30 years later, two against nature. It’s not hard to picture the two of them walking side-by-side around their neighborhood, talking about jazz, sci-fi paperbacks, and philosophy mixed with private jokes.
Elliot Randall plays one of many instantly-iconic Steely Dan solos on “Reelin’ in the Years,” laying the groundwork for Larry Carlton on “Kid Charlemagne,” Jeff “Skunk” Baxter’s sitar on “Bodhisattva” and, of course, Jay Graydon on “Peg.” It builds and builds, like an orgasm, hitting its stride and then mellowing out for an indulgent come-down into Fagen’s third verse.
But in between these songs are some of the darkest—musically, anyways—Dan melodies. “Kings” and “Fire in the Hole” are poetic dirges. Fagen’s vintage-jazz piano solo on “Fire” is meat-locker cold, the lyrics laden with that palpable anxiety that general neurotics know all-too-well. Despite the “no political significance” notation on the album’s liner notes, the implication is as transparent as honeymoon lingerie.
By contrast, if I ever run for president on the Smooth Music America party, I would 100 percent use “Change of the Guard” as my campaign theme song, and I would get elected in a landslide, because this song makes everybody feel so good that they would vote for me, regardless of previous political affiliation. (It’s almost too cheerful, which means it’s deeply undercut with sarcasm.)
Becker contributes his vocals to Fagen and Palmer’s “Turn That Heartbeat Over Again.” He wouldn’t sing again until “Slang of Ages” on 2003’s Everything Must Go, the band’s final album. The album’s closing track is elaborately structured; Fagen and Palmer trade off within the verse and the chorus woven together into a harmony that’s deceptively listenable, like the first turn into a labyrinth.
But what a labyrinth the entire album is!