One of the more unique sounds of the 1970s is the band Steely Dan. I will be forever grateful to a friend of mine who indoctrinated me to Steely Dan late in my college years, which was perfect as Steely Dan is basically perfect late-night college music, made by two guys who went to college together. Their debut album, “Can’t Buy A Thrill” presents some interesting looks as a first release, and is rated #168 on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.
I have noticed with many artists, one of two directions we see with a debut album. For some artists, it proves to be their peak, and while they may do other good things, nothing ever hits the mark quite like that first album. I can think of many artists on that list. For others, the first album is a starting point, and while it may have highlights and moments of greatness, it is surpassed by other works as the artist develops and grows with time. That is the category I will put this album in for Steely Dan. Led by Donald Fagen on vocals and keyboards, and Walter Becker on guitar, there is some really impressive work on this record. The opening track, “Do It Again”, is a remarkable first song, with a lot going on with unique percussion and rhythm, an excellent vocal track, and lyrics I absolutely love. What comes next is interesting, another notable Steely Dan song, “Dirty Work”, but this is one of a very few songs that Donald Fagen does not sing lead on. David Palmer sings lead on “Dirty Work” and “Brooklyn”, as Donald Fagen was still finding his confidence, both in studio and on the road. By the next album, Fagen fully assumes the mantle, so these songs are a rarity, even though “Dirty Work” is a great song. It also features the lush and distinguished backing vocals that become a signature of many Steely Dan songs.
The other recognizable song on this album is “Reelin’ In The Years”, another interesting and well-told tale by Fagen, prominently featuring Becker’s guitar work. This has never been a big favorite of mine among their greatest hits, but I do still rate it a solid song. Songs like “Kings” and “Midnite Cruiser” are more central to the Steely Dan sound, although “Midnite Cruiser” is the other non-Fagen track, with drummer Jim Hodder on lead vocals.
Steely Dan has always felt like an interesting hybrid of jazz, funk, R&B, and a uniquely white twist on hipster funk, if there is such a thing. The musical expertise is high on this and all Steely Dan music, it is easy to see why the principles were previously in high demand as session musicians and songwriters. Again, I’m fairly confident there is even better Steely Dan ahead, but “Can’t Buy A Thrill” is simply, a very accomplished, evolved, and sophisticated debut performance for a couple of guys and their crew not too far removed from their own college experience.