by David Schwittek
Thank God I was in my thirties when I seriously got into Steely Dan. None of my twentysomething friends would have understood why. Now that they are thirtysomething friends, they don’t understand it any better. But they’re all in their thirties, so fuck them. That’s how music works: it brings us together… until it no longer does.
I listen to Steely Dan all over the place: on the toilet, getting ready to leave a hotel room, at work, doing laundry, driving, at parties (quietly, subversively – in a back bedroom out of the speaker of my iPhone). But the first time I listened – really fucking listened – to Steely Dan was in a hot tub, alone, drunk, with a great pair of headphones…naked. Take from this what you will.
But first, a little history: among many other things, Steely Dan is a seventies band, and seventies bands produced delightful things called albums. These albums were crafted so that all the songs present on them blended well with each other. There was no shuffling songs, no way to buy individual tracks (leaving aside the seven inch), and the intent of the musicians was, at the very least, for the audience to listen to the entire album, sequentially… to really fucking listen.
So I did, naked, in a hot tub.
The album I chose? Katy Lied. This album was released – not ‘dropped’ – in 1975 and reached gold status (which back then really used to mean something). Walter Becker and Donald Fagan, musicans-cum-audio engineers, worked feverishly in the studio for months to ensure that everything was just exactly perfect. There is much to like about Katy Lied, but I’ll start with the most notable: Michael McDonald.
It’s not what you think: I’m not a Michael McDonald fan in the traditional sense – not the way your divorced aunt is. McDonald, to me, is merely an eccentric instrument that Steely Dan installed alongside a whole cabinet full of strange and unusual instruments. Michael McDonald: he fits right in there. Like one of those pretentious lutes Sting has been known to play. Your divorced aunt likes Sting, too.
Throughout the album, and subsequent Steely albums, McDonald’s bluesy baritone is nestled high atop the sultry background vocals for which this band is so well known. His voice, somehow so queer and annoying at the forefront of The Doobie Brothers, obnoxious solo efforts, and most other organs of Yacht Rock, is here both silky and majestic. Listen – really fucking listen – and I think you’ll agree that here, in its mere infancy, Michael McDonald’s future career looked promising indeed.
The truth, as we now know, is far more complex. But that’s not why I love this album.
Fuck Jeff Beck. Fuck Duane Allman. Guitar lovers, if they truly had their ears open during the heady days of Katy Lied‘s 1975 release (or it’s 1979 re-release), would have rightly seen this album as one of the higher points of Seventies guitar rock. For the jammy, guitar driven Throw Back the Little Ones and Your Gold Teeth II, or the bluesy Daddy Don’t Live in That New York City No More, have as much reason to be on this album as they do on, say, a Zappa or Allman Brothers offering. Steely Dan was, without question, a guitar lover’s wet dream: Walter Becker, Hugh McCracken, Denny Dias, Rick Derringer, Dean Parks, Elliott Randall, and Larry Carlton were amongst the best of their time, and they all appeared here, on this album.
Never heard of them? That’s cause you’re ignorant… which is fine.
I know what you’re probably saying at this point, and you’re totally wrong: Steely Dan is not a gross, annoying Seventies band. And I shall not see them relegated to the annals of post-Sixties kitsch, like disco or wide ties. True, these are just cliches and it’s lazy of you to ascribe them to any and all cultural memes, but you’re wrong for an entirely different reason: you’re not actually listening to Katy Lied.
Listen to the goofy, almost surreal Bad Sneakers; Listen to the catchy, yet subversively shocking Everyone’s Gone to the Movies (read the lyrics); Bask in the weirdness of the praiseful (and auto-biographical) Dr. Wu. But none of these are why I love with this album. I love this album precisely because of everything you hate about it: 1.) it’s Steely Dan (“yuck!”), 2.) it features Larry Carlton and Michael McDonald (“why they do that?!“), and 3.) there are some truly annoying – and entirely skippable – songs thrown in here to throw you off: Rose Darling and Chain Lightning.
Still confused? Well, dear reader… all I can say is that there are things about the Seventies that you and I will never understand. There are things about the Seventies that your mom will never understand. There are even things about the Seventies that Walter Becker and Donald Fagan will never understand. And yet, from this magma of misunderstood culture, a magma that is at once horrifying and provocative, arises a myriad of imperfect jewels – jewels that split harsh sunlight into the warm rainbows that still adorn college dorm rooms, t-shirts at Urban Outfitters, and the more imaginative cavities of my mind.
Listen to Katy Lied, for it is one such jewel.