I've been playing a lot of guitar recently. Playing like a 15 year old obsessive might, for hours at a time. This week I will turn 45. Damn that 9 year old kid who kicked a whiffle ball out of my hand in 1976, breaking my left little finger. It was never right after that and playing a lot of guitar 35 years later keeps reminding me. It sometimes doesn't do what I want it to after playing for long periods. But I guess our imperfections are part of our individual styles. Django Reinhart only had two working fingers fercrissakes. Tony Iommi chopped the tips off his in a metal press.
So anyway, there I was playing in a new set of DR black beauty strings on my red Music Man. I looped some simple-ish chords on the delay and played along. There was a phrase I kept returning to that I knew sounded familiar. It bugged me all day and I kept playing it and replaying it my head until it suddenly struck me that was a tiny bit of the guitar solo from My Old School by Steely Dan.
So for the next week or two I started listening to Steely Dan a lot. Two long road trips later and I'd covered the 'Citizen' box set twice over in two days. That's all the albums plus The Nightfly trilogy plus one two other tracks. Twice in two days.
They are an odd prospect, but fascinating. People get obsessed by them in a nerdy kind of way. To some ears they are fatally easy listening and bland. But maybe that's because they kind of invented that smooth California sounding jazz-rock or rock-jazz that was maybe too soft for rock fans and too rock for jazz fans. That kind of muso music that was made for hi-fi systems, when hi-fi was entirely the preserve of the people who are now computer and gadget geeks. Then there's the lyrics, which because they aren't ooh-baby-baby, rock and roll lyrics get pored over and dissected and deconstructed and analysed ad nauseum. There are pages on the web that contain glossaries, dictionaries and entire rambling essays about Steely Dan Lyrics.
I must say, there are plenty of Dan tracks (songs? cuts? sides?) that don't excite me too much. Yes, the playing is superb and the production pin sharp. But the songs. Some of them are too welded together - trying to fix clever-clever lyrics to clever-clever chord sequences. Let's see how many Minor ninths with an added fifth and a dropped second we can string together - on a chorussed electric piano even dreary chords sound dreamy. Green Earrings, for example.
Which is fair enough. Great songs somehow perform alchemy from mundane elements. Chords, melody, rhythm, meter, arrangements and lyrics somehow fit perfectly together as if they always were that way. Think of Cole Porter's Anything Goes. How could you improve that song? And most bands and artists hit the heights maybe once or twice in a career. So I'll forgive Steely Dan for the forced noodly non-melodies, the repetitive syncopated piano that appears too much too often and the songs that have a great lyric but a boring arrangement. I'll forgive them for inspiring uninspired bands like Deacon Blue and a million and one late 70s/early80s TV and movie soundtracks. I'll even forgive them for the overuse of that really annoying synthesised harmonica/unidentifiable reed instrument sound that they overused on later recordings, rendering them almost unlistenable.
I have a general theory of bands and artists that they have done well if you can make a best-of that reaches 8 tracks. Most good bands' truly best work amounts to somewhere between one and five tracks i.e. almost nobody even makes one entire album where every track is a killer. If you can get past ten outstanding tracks, even in a decades long career, then a band is pretty great. It's a fun game. You have try to be objective and have a super-high quality threshold. So you can't have track that has a great riff, or a great line, or a great chorus, or a great solo. The best-of songs have to have pretty much all the elements in place.
Let's use REM as an example. Most people (including me) likes their song Everybody Hurts. But it just doesn't make it, because it's a terrific vocal performance, and it has one terrific chord change (don't let yourself go: Amajor to Eminor), but is not really a great song. On my list Coldplay have a best-of that amounts to one song (Don't Panic), as do U2 (With or Without You).
As I said, it's a fun game. You can skewer peoples' favourites and they get really riled, partly because true objectivity is impossible and is always a cover for personal prejudice. But in music I think there is a real difference between favourite and best.
Anyway, I digress. Back to Steely Dan. Off the top of my head: Pearl of the Quarter, Peg, Do It Again, Only a Fool Would Say That, Reelin in the Years, My Old School, Pretzel Logic, Kid Charlemagne, Any Major Dude, Deacon Blues - there's 10 without even thinking, and not even touching The Nightfly, which IS one of those albums where pretty much every track is outstanding (although I hate that song IGY - ironically the one that was a hit of sorts and everyone else likes).
When I was a High School English Teacher I used to do this thing with songs. I would take a lyric, pick out lines and use them as a jumping off point for discussion, analysis and creative work.
"I would go out tomorrow, if I could borrow a coat to wear" was a favourite. I was always struck, even as a child, by what a weird song Simon Smith and His Amazing Dancing Bear is. It somehow ended up in the kids' songs category due to its jauntiness and the fact that it has a dancing bear in the title. But the story in the lyric contains such scope for interpretation that it is far too complex for Tony Blackburn and Arnold the dog. I guess this is Randy Newman's trick. Levels of irony piled high in apparently simple songs and almost always something disturbing lurking in the subtext. Even 'I Love LA' has these odd minor key bits in the music that deliver a slightly disturbing haunted circussy undertow to the enthusiasm of the lyric. And I always liked Same Girl. Apparently a simple, beautiful paen to a long time or long lost love. But there's that bit about the nights on the streets and the holes her arm that give it that undermining twist. I especially liked Mathilde Santing's version, which gives the song a gender makeover.
It'a amazing, (alarming outrageous and charming) actually, how quickly 13 and 14 year old kids get into Simon Smith and weave stories around the lyrics as they are revealed line by line. He's an outsider, the bear is is in his head, that sort of thing.
Another one I used was from Green Flower Street (which is Donald Fagen, but firmly in the Steely Dan ouevre) : "Lou Chang, her brother, is burning with rage." I remember one kid putting up his hand and saying that it's about a white guy going out with a Chinese girl and the brother doesn't like it. Just like that, from one line.
Which is one of the reasons I like Steely Dan. They take care over their lyrics and write songs about odd stuff. But somehow, to my ears, it's mostly not pretentious. And if you feel like it you can construct the story and work out the viewpoints. At their best, the songs are as good as anything American music has ever produced.