Show Biz Kids: Steely Dan’s Countdown To Ecstasy at 50

Looking back at Becker and Fagen’s last “band” record

It’s common to say Steely Dan’s sixth studio LP Aja, released in 1977, is their piece de resistance. 

A mix of jazz, pop and rock that’s entirely unique. It’s meticulously crafted, sonically impeccable, among the best albums of that decade. It won an engineering Grammy in 1978. The biggest surprise came with its commercial success. Spawning 3 hit singles, peaking at #3 on the album chart, and according to Billboard, it was one of the first albums to be certified platinum (1,000,000 sold).

But when was the last time you listened to the second album from Steely Dan? Lately, I’m seeing these opinion pieces about how the jazz-rock (yacht rock?) band is hot right now, although in my house they never were not hot.

Now I’m not going to argue against all that Aja stuff, but if you really want to hear Steely Dan–come on they’re hot right now–you really have to listen to Countdown To Ecstasy. At the time of its making, they were still technically a band. By the time of Aja, main co-conspirators Donald Fagen and Walter Becker had shed any bandmates and were working with hired guns that were the crème de la crème among the day’s jazz musicians including Wayne Shorter, Steve Gadd, Joe Sample and Larry Carlton.

But Countdown To Ecstasy was a band record (besides Donald on keys and Walter on bass and guitar, it was Jeff “Skunk” Baxter and Denny Dias on guitar and Jim Hodder on drums) with some of Fagen and Becker’s most obtuse lyrics (that’s saying something), a plethora of influences and styles on display, think the music Zappa making at the time, plus southern soul, and a sort of jazz that was more rock than jazz. While the Dan’s first record, Can’t Buy A Thrill, featured two hit singles, “Do It Again” and “Reeling In The Years,” Countdown featured none. “Bodhisattva,” “My Old School” and “Show Biz Kids” managed some FM radio play at a time, however, when hit singles were important. So while not as big a seller as their debut, it still showed evolution in the styles they were capable of and pointed the way to the swaggering jazz fusion of their later work. Those latter two songs were released as singles but neither could escape the 60s on the Billboard Hot 100 by the end of 1973.

Steely Dan Countdown To Ecstasy, ABC Records 1973

“Bodhisattva” opens the set with a fast-paced jump and a suppressed chuckle. A Bodhisattva is a human who has reached enlightenment, as the Buddha did, and can leave physical existence behind, but chooses to remain in human form to help others achieve freedom. Fagen said this song was “sort of a parody on the way Western people look at Eastern religion – sort of oversimplify it. We thought it was rather amusing – most people didn’t get it.” Baxter and Dias exchange solos but no winner is announced.

Next is “Razor Boy,” a cha-cha of sorts with typically inscrutable lyrics and a vibraphone solo from Victor Feldman. Not Top 40 material. Track 3, side one feels like something Frank Zappa could have orchestrated with eerie keyboards and cryptic drug-related lyrics. “The Boston Rag” is supposedly about New York City and features one of Skunk’s finest solos. The side ends with an atypical jam. “Your Gold Teeth” boasts extended interplay between guitars and piano that was rare in the Dan’s time as a band. Something about gambling, maybe being swindled, pop vocals from the space age and more than one person says “The best Steely Dan song ever!”


VIDEO: Steely Dan “Bodhisattva” Live at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium 1980

The first two tunes on Side Two are among my all-time favorites from the group. “Show Biz Kids” leads it off in a way that felt entirely new when it first appeared. Becker/Fagen pile it on thick; chick background singers, slide guitar courtesy of Rick Derringer, unthinkable rhymes, a groove that chugs and (just maybe) a tune about young Hollywood venturing to Las Vegas (or is it Los Wages?). Then “My Old School” gets as autobiographical as the duo ever did. It’s a tale of a 1969 drug bust at Bard College in Annandale, New York. Fagen was scooped up along with 44 other students in a trumped raid led by “Daddy G” aka then Assistant District Attorney G. Gordon Liddy (and future Watergate defendant believe it or not). A funky ditty with syncopated saxophones, an effervescent backing chorus and a downright dangerous guitar solo from “Skunk,” it’s highlighted by Fagen vowing never to return to his old school until “California tumbles into the sea.” Unlike most of the other songs here, this one is pretty straightforward if you know a little bit of the songwriting duo’s history.

“Pearl Of The Quarter” is about as close to country as Steely Dan ever got, thanks to Baxter on pedal steel. It seems to be an ode to a hooker who the singer fell in love with in New Orleans, sad and charming, and she offers up “red beans and rice for a quarter.” How do you say unrequited in French? The album ends with a post-apocalyptic zinger, “King Of The World.” Fagen claims it was inspired by the 1962 science fiction flick Panic In Year Zero aka End Of The World starring Ray Milland, Jean Hagen, and Frankie Avalon. The song is the story of a survivor of a nuclear war, possibly in New Mexico, looking for other survivors by broadcasting on a ham radio and acknowledging, if he’s alone, he’s king of the world, although not for much longer. Lots of sound effects, a slinky synthesizer solo, and a jazzy guitar riff make this another song with Zappa influences. It’s not like other songs by the band, another reason Countdown To Ecstasy should qualify as their best.

Countdown To Ecstasy back cover (Image: Discogs)

Notes: The album’s title was selected as a joke about attempts to rationalize a state of spirituality. The original cover painting was done by Fagen’s girlfriend at the time, Dorothy White. At the insistence of ABC Records president Jay Lasker, however, several figures had to be added, reportedly because he found the discrepancy between five band members and three figures on the cover to be unacceptable. The proofs for the album cover were later stolen by Becker and Fagen during a dispute over the final layout. The photo on the back cover features the band members standing around a studio mixing console with a disembodied hand on the board; the hand evidently provided by legendary engineer Roger “The Immortal” Nichols.

More from Nichols on recording the album: The track “Show Biz Kids” had proved especially challenging in regards to a steady beat. As quoted in Brian Sweet’s biography of Steely Dan, Reelin’ in the Years, Nichols recalled: It was just one of those tunes that was so very difficult to play exactly in tempo, with every instrument in sync. There were no drum machines in those days, so we made a 24-track, eight-bar tape loop, which at 30 ips was a considerable length of tape, trailed it out through the door into the studio, around a little idler which was set up on a camera tripod, back into the studio and then copied that to a second 24 track machine. Everything was on tape except the lead vocal and the lead guitar. It worked like a dream.

Released in July of 1973, Countdown To Ecstasy is the only Steely Dan album written and arranged for a live band likely accounting for it standing apart in the band’s discography. Becker and Fagen weren’t too keen on touring with a band and recording a new record at the same time. The 1974 follow-up, Pretzel Logic, saw the use of L.A. sidemen mixing with Dias and Baxter, the end of touring, and the eventual dissolution of the original quintet.




Jim Caligiuri
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Jim Caligiuri

Jim Caligiuri is a semi-retired freelance writer living in Austin, Texas.

One thought on “Show Biz Kids: Steely Dan’s Countdown To Ecstasy at 50

  • July 2, 2023 at 1:59 pm

    Good stuff, Jim!

    I agree, it’s their best.



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