I discovered the universe of Steely Dan through an interview of one of my favorite session drummers, Steve Gadd. Gadd is renowned for his simple yet intricate drumming patterns and built most of his career around triplet fills. He’s played in sessions with Paul Simon and Eric Clapton, most notably on J.J. Cale’s cover “Cocaine” and Simon’s “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover”.
In 1977, the songwriting duo consisting of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker released Aja, a groundbreaking album heavily infused with jazz influences. On its eponymous track “Aja”, Gadd along with saxophonist Wayne Shorter trade-in solos that will shake the music world forever. Well, at least my world if not.
However, this is not the story of Can’t Buy a Thrill. As with previous discoveries of new artists, it happened in… a coffee shop! When casually having lunch, I notice a pleasing track that reminds me of Thin Lizzy guitar harmonies. I then desperately search the Thin Lizzy catalogue to only realize a week later that I was totally barking the wrong tree.
Fortunately that day, the barista remembered the playlist and shone a light on the quest I was struggling to resolve for days. It was in fact “Reelin’ in the Years”, a hit single and classic rock staple from 1972 that appears on their debut album Can’t Buy a Thrill. It is also said that Elliot Randall’s guitar solo on this track is Jimmy Page’s all-time favorite, which does tell something about the track.
Compared to Aja and other subsequent albums, Can’t Buy a Thrill is a lot less jazzy but the result is an album that became more accessible to the general public and consequently produced several chart toppers.
Another important element that differentiates this album to the latter ones in Steely Dan’s career is that several session singers were used on different tracks. Due to the fact that Donald Fagen wasn’t feeling confident singing on stage and in the studio at the time contributed in an album that manifest songs with varying moods.
Needless to say that Fagen’s voice can be quite charming and special at times, but in my opinion, another vocalist that shines is David Palmer on the tracks “Dirty Work” and “Brooklyn (Owes the Charmer Under Me)”. It seems counter-intuitive but there is a nasal quality to his voice that, when combined with the right microphone, gives this fragile tonal quality, conveying strong emotions to the listener.
There is of course, the staple electric sitar solo on “Do It Again”, that will resonate in many people’s ears as both foreign and familiar sounding due to the intricate qualities of this instrument.
Overall, the record is a festival of musical harmonies and I invite anyone who hasn’t listened to the Dan catalogue to start with this one. You won’t be disappointed.