Steely Dan – Can’t Buy A Thrill (1972)
Welcome back to YDCS! It’s been a year since I last covered a Steely Dan album; despite wanting to review one for the past few months, I’ve controlled myself. This week is the week though, we’re taking a listen to Steely Dan’s first studio album, Can’t Buy A Thrill. Known for their cryptic lyrics, complex musical arrangements, and disregard for genre, Steely Dan cemented their sound from the first song on this record. They knew that they wanted to reject everyone’s expectations of what rock music was supposed to sound like and make their own music without compromise. Sometimes it came across as pretentious and others it came across as musically genius, but through all of that, Steely Dan has always had their loyal followers who love that rejection of the norm for the sake of good music. Can’t Buy A Thrill would be their starting point too. Albums would grow to be more experimental and cryptic up until the release of Aja.
I really enjoy Steely Dan, but the band has a problem as far as classic rock is concerned that I will coin the “Steely Dan Problem.” Is their music rock or pop/easy-listening? Each song has to be evaluated separately to get to that truth on their albums. Some are easier than others. “Do It Again” is solidly in the rock camp and “Brooklyn” is solidly in the easy-listening camp. Others like “Dirty Work” are a little more difficult. My criteria for deciding whether it’s rock or not is this: Would I be okay with it if I’m listening to a classic rock radio station, they just finished playing “Communication Breakdown” by the Zep and a Steely Dan song comes on. If I’m okay with that song following the Zep then it’s rock. If it makes me want to switch the channel then it’s not rock.
This sparks a larger conversation about what we can really call rock music. Is Steely Dan a rock band? Most of the time I would say yes. I think that the majority of their work could safely be called rock, however; a lot of the songs that are their most popular would not fall into that rock camp. If we call Steely Dan rock then what does that open us up to? Alternatively, we exclude them from the rock genre, who else are we leaving out? Arguably we would start to leave out people and groups like Jackson Brown, Crosby Stills and Nash, The Marshall Tucker Band, and a lot of the acts on the softer side of rock. I don’t think that’s the right answer. All of those acts have something in common and it pulls us back to a central question:” What’s rock about anyway?”. If you ask me, it’s about pushing boundaries and making new sounds. The Dan have clearly done that, and for that alone I’d be willing to call them a rock group.
Dad’s Thoughts- The Breakdown
Do It Again: I was 12 the first time I heard “Do It Again.” I remember exactly where I was and I remember thinking it was a Carlos Santana song. I had never heard anything like it before and I was instantly hooked. “Do It Again” was the perfect way for Steely Dan to open their first album and show the world the kind of music that they wanted to make; complex multi-instrumental rock that wouldn’t be bound to traditional influences. The latin flavor is strong on “Do It Again,” and I find myself still amazed at the high degree of musicianship and multi-tracking. Listening to it this time, I noticed more backing instruments than before and they’re all playing these absurdly difficult runs. No one else would think it’s necessary, but it adds greatly to the song. A classic song and great start to the album. Dad’s Rating 10/10
Dirty Work: “Dirty Work” is such a weird song and I love it. The slightly distorted vocal harmony that is hallmark of a recording from the late 60s-early 70s is one of my favorite sounds in music. The Dan was well-known for their tight harmonies and this is one of the best ones in their catalog. Having said that, it is also a prime example of the “Steely Dan Problem” though; is it rock or is it pop? Tough to say on this one, but I put it solidly in the soft rock camp. Maybe that’s so I can rate it higher than I would an easy listening song, but if I heard this on a classic rock radio station, I wouldn’t feel like it’s out of place. Dad’s Rating 7/10
Kings: “Kings” is one of the best hidden gems in Steely Dan’s discography and is gold mine of depth in lyrics and music. There aren’t many groups that would have the courage to do a song comparing medieval kings of England to drug bosses, but the Dan did it! If the comparison flies by, don’t worry because the song still stands up well on its own. It’s got a great, funky feeling to it and some of the best musical performances on the album. It’s one of my favorite Steely Dan songs and one of my favorite classic rock songs. Dad’s Rating 9/10
Midnite Cruiser: “Midnite Cruiser” is one of the least rocking songs on Can’t Buy A Thrill and about the limit for what I can call rockbefore I have to start classifying songs as easy listening. The song is average but it doesn’t make you want to rock out or push the boundary of the weird jazz fusion-rock that the band was known for. It feels more like an average pop song from the early 1970s than anything else but doesn’t quite cross into the realm of easy listening like some of the songs on this record do. Dad’s Rating 5/10
Only A Fool Would Say That: Now this is some elevator/yacht rock! Just imagine it; standing in an elevator in an office building with an instrumental version of this song playing. It fits so perfectly! Besides that, “Only A Fool” is a tight, latin/jazz-fusion inspired soft rock track. This just feels like a very polished piece with some great moments of jazz inspired guitar solos working to accent the lyrics. “Only A Fool” is on the softer side of rock, but it’s a high point for the album. Dad’s Rating 8/10
Reelin’ In The Years: If you’ve never heard of Steely Dan before, please allow me to introduce you to one of their songs that you might know without knowing it. “Reelin’ In The Years” was one of the most popular songs off this record and still receives heavy airplay. It’s a great rocker of a song, but I actually don’t think it’s one of their best. The Dan was known for complex musical arrangements and cryptic, poetic lyrics. “Reelin’ In The Years” feels like it was written to generate singles sales and I feel like it strays from their principles. It won’t stop me from listening to it, but there’s other songs on this record that are better representations of the band. Dad’s Rating 7/10
Fire In The Hole: As a song, I like “Fire In The Hole.” It has an interesting, free-flowing jazz structure in the solos that makes it great to listen to. The question we need to answer here though is, ‘Does it rock?’ Decidedly not. This is one of the problems with Steely Dan; because they weren’t limited by genre, you get some tracks that are great rockers and others that are more suited for easy listening radio. “Fire In The Hole” is in the latter camp. Dad’s Rating 4/10
Brooklyn (Owes The Charmer Under Me): See my comments on “Fire In The Hole.” I actually think this is worse than “Fire In The Hole” because it’s less interesting to listen to. There was some musical complexity to the former that has been replaced with a standard soft folk riff. Skip! Dad’s Rating 3/10
Change Of The Guard: “Change Of The Guard” improves on the last two songs significantly. We have a real rocker here, but it took me a minute to get there. I had to really think about whether this was rock or something else with the forward tambourine, keyboard driven riff and guitar that seems to be more backing vocals than actual guitar, but sure enough it’s rock! This is a track worth listening to in order to better understand Becker and Fagen’s genius and what they wanted the band to be; a laboratory for music. Dad’s Rating 6/10
Turn That Heartbeat Over Again: Skip. This is easy listening and it’s actually dull. It’s not what I expect from Steely Dan and doesn’t fit with the album. This is a real missed opportunity and an unfortunate closer to an otherwise great album. Dad’s Rating 2/10
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