Steely Dan are one of those acts who are spoken of in hushed tones. Be it their studio perfectionism, their increasingly deft blending of rock and jazz as their career progressed, or their smart arse lyrics, Steely Dan are a band beloved by those who take music very seriously indeed.
For many Steely Dan fans, the band got better in direct correlation to the complexity of their music, reaching a peak with the celebrated Aja, an album featuring a plethora of well respected session musos from the jazz world. For me though, my appreciation of Steely Dan runs contrary to this – The more elements of jazz Fagen and Becker assimilated into their smart pop rock sound, the less interested I became, having a far stronger preference for their first four albums.
For me, the Steely Dan album against which all others should be measured is their debut, the never less than impressive Can’t Buy a Thrill. With Donald Fagen sharing vocal duties with David Palmer, it has a different sonic texture to any other Steely Dan album, leaning more heavily on commercial pop smarts than any of their other albums. Of course, Palmer left the band before the band recorded their second album, making him little more than a footmote in the Steely Dan story, but it’s arguable that without him, their debut album would have been a far less impressive statement of intent.
Although Donald Fagen and Walter Becker were the hub of Steely Dan, the rest of the band were certainly no slouches, with Jeff “Skunk” Baxter and Denny Dias being wonderfully versatile guitar players (though it would be session player Elliott Randall that would provide the stunning guitar solo midway through the album’s big hit “Reelin’ in the Years”), and Jim Hodder being one of the most subtley impressive drummers in America. A wonderfully tight band, this original line up sans-Palmer would remain in place for the first four albums, while they continued to remain a touring concern.
One of Can’t Buy a Thrill’s great strengths is how consistantly accessible it is, with “Do it Again”, “Midnight Cruiser” and “Fire in the Hole” being among their very best work. “Reelin’ in the Years” is of course one of Becker and Fagen’s towering achievements, however my personal favourite is the Palmer-sung “Dirty Work”, one of the band’s most oddly under-appreciated numbers.
Perhaps my appreciation of Can’t Buy a Thrill over Steely Dan’s later, more sophisticated output, is down to me preferring its simplicity. It’s an album which doesn’t tie itself in knots trying to impress the listener, or alienate those of us who prefer their music to be less cluttered, it is simply a great album and a springboard for one of the most consistently creative bands of the decade.