[Review] Steely Dan: Can’t Buy A Thrill (1972)

The debut album from the band that almost single-handedly saved FM radio in the Seventies.

Kronomyth 1.0: An anal history of rock.

Steely Dan has always been one of the great guilty pleasures in my life. Like reading Bukowski or Burroughs, there was a salacious genius at work in the music of Steely Dan that appealed to both my intellectual half (in its noble pursuit of self-betterment) and the emotionally stunted half of me that lingered on the lingerie pages of the Sears catalog. Progressive rock inspired me, but with Steely Dan I felt understood.

Their first official album, Can’t Buy A Thrill, set into motion some of the best music to come out of the Seventies. “Do It Again,” with its razor-sharp interpretation of Santana’s Latin-jazz fusion, and the cerebral rush of “Reelin’ In The Years” quickly became FM radio staples. Even “Dirty Work,” one of the few Steely Dan songs to feature David Palmer on lead vocals, got into the act. Now, if you’re waiting for me to rank this in reference to their later albums, don’t hold your breath. Steely Dan albums don’t shake out like that, for me anyway. The children of Steely Dan are all brilliant (yes, even Gaucho) and beautiful. They’re different, but as for having a favorite, it’s whatever Steely Dan album I’m listening to at the time.

If you’ve heard the earlier Dan demos and the songs from the soundtrack for You Gotta Walk It Like You Talk It, you’ll know that Steely Dan didn’t arrive at their impossibly tight studio sound and seamlessly blended jazz/pop sensibilities overnight. All by way of saying that you’ll find a few relatively “rough” patches on Can’t Buy A Thrill. “Midnite Cruiser” (featuring Jim Hodder on vocals), “Kings” and “Change of the Guard,” for example, probably would have sounded more polished in a year or two. That’s not to suggest that anything on Thrill is half-baked. Given a little time, the album tracks will get under your skin. On any given day, I’ve been known to hum “Only A Fool Would Say That” or dance with the unseen ghost of the guitar solo in “Fire In The Hole.”

It would be a crime to review this album without mentioning the guitar (and, in the case of “Do It Again,” electric sitar) solos. Elliot Randall’s contribution to “Reelin’ In The Years” is still talked about reverently as one of the greatest guitar solos of all time. (He also slips a short, impressive solo into “Kings.”) Denny Dias’ electric sitar solo on “Do It Again” is another classic in the canon. Jeff Baxter’s pedal steel solo on “Fire In The Hole” would get an honorable mention from me. You don’t typically hear Steely Dan talked of as a guitar band—perhaps because Donald Fagen’s piano figured so prominently in many of the arrangements—but few bands have contributed so many immortal guitar solos over the years.

The other thing that jumps out on Dan’s first (and every subsequent) album is its flair for dark character studies. Like figures out of a Burroughs novel (no coincidence there), the denizens of Steely Dan’s songs are anti-heroes: users, boozers, three-time losers. No rose-colored glasses for Donald Fagen; behind the beautiful arrangements is a brutal honesty as the low state of mankind is elevated to high art. For my money, these guys were the smartest rock band on the radio during the Seventies. If you’re not a fan of Steely Dan after this album, well, you know where you can stick it.

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Original elpee version

A1. Do It Again (5:56)
A2. Dirty Work (3:08)
A3. Kings (3:45)
A4. Midnite Cruiser (4:09)
A5. Only A Fool Would Say That (2:54)
B1. Reelin’ In The Years (4:35)
B2. Fire In The Hole (3:26)
B3. Brooklyn (Owes The Charmer Under Me) (4:20)
B4. Change of the Guard (3:28
B5. Turn That Heartbeat Over Again (4:58)

All songs written by Walter Becker and Donald Fagen.

The Players

Jeff “Skunk” Baxter (guitar, pedal steel guitar, Spanish on A5), Walter Becker (electric bass guitar, dual lead vocals on B5, backing vocals), Denny Dias (guitar, electric sitar), Donald Fagen (piano, electric piano, plastic organ, vocals), Jim Hodder (drums, percussion, lead vocals on A4, backing vocals), David Palmer (lead vocals on A2/B3, backing vocals) with Victor Feldman (percussion), Venetta Fields (background vocals on A3/B3), Clydie King (background vocals on A3/B3), Shirley Mathews (background vocals on A3/B3), Elliot Randall (lead guitar on A3/B1), Jerome Richardson (tenor sax), Snooky Young (fluegel horn). Produced by Gary Katz; engineered by Roger Nichols (The Immortal).

The Pictures

Cover design by Robert Lockhart.

The Plastic

Released on elpee, 8-track and cassette in October 1972 in the US (ABC Dunhill, SMAS-94976)(ABC, ABCX/802 20-758) {black label}, the UK (Probe, SPB/TC-SPB 1062), Australia (Probe, TC-SPBA-3057) and Japan (Probe, IPS-80015) with gatefold cover; reached #17 on the US charts (RIAA-certified platinum record). 8-track and UK cassette feature different track order.

  1. Re-issued on elpee in the US (ABC, ABCX-758) {orange label} and on gold vinyl elpee in Canada (ABC, 9022 758) {orange label} with gatefold cover.
  2. Re-issued on cassette and 8-track in the US (ABC/GRT, 5022/V 8022-758) with A and B sides switched. 8-track features different track order.
  3. Re-issued on elpee and cassette in 1974 in the UK (ABC, ABCL/CAB-5024).
  4. Re-released on quadrophonic elpee in 1974 in the US (ABC Command Quadrophonic, CQD-40009) with gatefold cover.
  5. Re-issued on elpee in 1976 in Brazil (ABC, 6-26-404-015).
  6. Re-issued on elpee in 1978 in Japan (ABC, YW-8023-AB).
  7. Re-issued on elpee and cassette in 1980 in the US (MCA Coral, MCA-37040)(MCA, MCAC-37040), Canada (MCA, MCA-37040) and Japan (MCA, VIM-4044).
  8. Re-issued on compact disc in 1985 in the US (MCA, MCAD-37040).
  9. Re-issued on elpee and cassette in 1987 in the US (MCA, MCA/MCAC-1591) and the UK (MCA, MCLC 1769).
  10. Re-issued on cassette in Australia (MCA, 61049-4).
  11. Re-issued on compact disc in 1987 in the US (MCA, MCAD-31192).
  12. Re-released on remastered compact disc in 1998 in the US (MCA, MCAD-11886), the UK (MCA, MCD-11886) and Canada (MCA, MCAMD-11886).
  13. Re-issued on remastered compact disc on May 3, 2000 in Japan (Universal Victor, MVCZ-10072).
  14. Re-released on 180g vinyl elpee in 2005 in the US (ABC, ABCX-758) with gatefold cover.
  15. Re-released on super-high material compact disc in 2008 in Japan (Geffen, UICY-93515).
  16. Re-packaged w. Gaucho on 2-for-1 2CD on April 30, 2010 (Universal).
  17. Re-issued on SHMCD on December 22, 2010 in Japan (Geffen, UICY-20122).

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