Dirty Work: Steely Dan’s Can’t Buy A Thrill at 50

Looking back on the band’s classic debut LP

Side B of Can’t Buy A Thrill (Image: Discogs)

No one would ever accuse Steely Dan of being made from sugar and spice and all things nice, but there’s no disputing the fact that one of the most subversive bands in the history of rock ‘n’ roll might not exist if not for a steady diet of “Apples, Peaches, Pumpkin Pie.”

That combination played a significant part in the early careers of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, who spent considerable time touring as part of Jay and the Americans. That already grizzled group’s leader, Jay Black, is said to have called the pair “the Manson and Starkweather of Rock ‘n’ Roll” – a slightly overstated description, but one that would come to make sense given their later propensity for songs about patricide, drug dealing and random acts of senseless violence.

Those tendencies were largely subsumed on Can’t Buy a Thrill, released 50 years ago this month, but not entirely. Fagen and Becker didn’t exactly play their cards close to the vest, naming their embryonic band after a steam-powered, milk-spewing strap-on dildo that was practically canonized in William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch and encasing the album in a cover – a photo collage by Robert Lockart – depicting a passel of Parisian prostitutes in full-on tease mode.

That mode carries through to the first grooves of the album-opening “Do It Again,” the song that would define Steely Dan 1.0. With its languidly extended intro, the song builds up tension, then builds it even further – and just when it seems like release is nowhere in sight, Fagen comes in with a clarion call of a vocal, one part carnival barker, one part fist-shaking preacher.

The six-minute tale of unglamorous distress offers up a veritable smorgasbord of vice as only Vegas can serve it up – a hopeless gambling jag and a loveless hotel room hook-up. The only thing missing is the 99-cent shrimp dinner special. But interestingly, Fagen doesn’t cast himself as the end-of-his-rope character who begins the song on the run from the law after murdering a pal who – and lucks out when nobody can be bothered to mete out the usual penalty for such an act.

While the omniscient narrator is relatively unusual for Fagen, who’d go on to specialize in first-person sociopathy for songs like “Black Friday” and “Don’t Take Me Alive,” the progression of the story isn’t – the spared sinner just goes back (Jack) to his old ways in an increasingly frenetic manner, a mood heightened by Denny Dias’s furtive, spiraling electric sitar solo.

That set the tone for the rest of the short-but-powerful collection. It’s not like there was a major shortage of decadence in the scene that dominated Los Angeles at the time, but Laurel Canyon was a den of feel-good libertinism, bereft of darkness and tension. In other words, there was plenty of cocaine, but it was delivered by the pool boy, not rustled up at the Greyhound station on a seamy stretch of Vine Street.

Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, on the other hand, came across as intimately familiar with that latter milieu. The songs here not only demonstrated an ability to come to terms with defeat, they practically celebrated it: The narrator of the laconically jazzy “Midnight Cruiser” (sung by drummer Jim Hodder, who quit when he was demoted from percussion to mere backing singer) shrugged off the fact that his best days were behind him, with his favorite haunts disappeared into the ether. But instead of lamenting those losses, he latches onto his old running partner for one last shot at glory, perfectly cognizant of the fact that nothing will come of it.

Steely Dan Can’t Buy A Thrill, ABC Records 1972

The doom and gloom – or, as some might say, realism – is pretty unrelenting here. It’s particularly thick on “Only a Fool Would Say That,” a scalpel-sharp evisceration of the remnants of the peace-sign brigade. Fagen sets up best-case scenario straw-men and takes them apart with a sardonic grin, reacting to the hero in the white Stetson hat by telling him and his supporters “Talkin’ ’bout a world/Where all is free/It just couldn’t be/And only a fool would say that.”

They dial things back just a little on what might be Thrill’s catchiest, most overtly radio-oriented track, “Reelin’ in the Years.” That song, driven by Elliott Randall’s instantly recognizable guitar solo – a flurry that Jimmy Page once called his favorite solo of all time – follows a protagonist who bears a striking similarity to Becker and Fagen themselves, a guy whose “weekend at the college didn’t work out like [he] planned,” leading to a more dissolute lifestyle, one that worked out fine for the Dan men, once they put their bongs aside long enough to actually focus on the music that started as a hobby.

Randall told Guitar World that his titanic solo wasn’t planned out in the least. As he recalls, “Most of the song was already complete, so I had the good fortune of having a very clear picture of what the solo was laying on top of. They played it for me without much dialog about what I should play. It just wasn’t necessary because we did it in one take and nothing was written. Jeff Baxter played the harmony parts, but my entire lead – intro/answers/solo/end solo – was one continuous take.

It’s intriguing to note how much delegation took place during the recording of Can’t Buy a Thrill – in part because the band’s two prime movers didn’t have complete confidence in their skills yet. While that would change quickly as they moved into their control-freak stage, back in 2012, Fagen told Tablet “I didn’t think I was gonna be the lead singer I knew I had the right attitude, but I didn’t think I was technically equipped or psychologically equipped. … I just never felt confidence in it. I admired people like Steve Winwood. I like Marvin Gaye, you know. Coming from the jazz world, I wanted to hear a real singer, someone who dealt some shit out.”

In this case, Fagen’s sense of self-deprecation was well off the mark. He ceded vocal duties to others a couple of times on the album, and neither of them were really up to the task of conveying the necessary blend of ennui and last-call dessication required by the lyrics. Hired hand David Palmer, who’d be fired before the Dan finished touring behind Can’t Buy a Thrill (but brought back for a short studio stint during the Countdown to Ecstasy period), had a so-laid-back-it’s-laid-out delivery that was perfectly suited to the dejected “Dirty Work.” But his other contribution to the album – “Brooklyn Owes the Charmer Under Me” – falls flat because of his failure to capture the streetwise vibe required of him.

Taken as a whole, Can’t Buy a Thrill can work on multiple levels. Fans of musical precision can get that in spades – while quickly recorded in the late summer of 1972, the album shows no sign of rush or sloppiness. But beneath that surface beats a subversive heart, one that pumps out a discomfiting subversion designed to  make the listener squirm, even if he or she relates in some way.

In Naked Lunch, the original Steely Dan was torn apart in a moment of passion. In the land of Becker and Fagen, the namesake was shredded agonizingly slowly and seemingly without passion. But for Can’t Buy a Thrill – and a good run afterwards – the Dan hit all the important pleasure points, leaving a lingering tingle behind.



Deborah Sprague

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Deborah Sprague

Deborah Sprague is a former editor of Creem magazine and a freelance writer whose work has appeared in such outlets as Variety, Billboard, Rolling Stone, New York Daily News and Newsday. She’s contributed to books including Woman Walk the Line: How the Women in Country Music Changed Our Lives, Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen, Kill Your Idols and Carpenters: The Musical Legacy. She lives in Queens, New York with her partner.

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