Steely Dan’s Original ABC/Dunhill Reissue Notes, Part 1: Can’t Buy a Thrill

Reprinted–nay, stolen from the band’s website whole cloth, out of fear it will be taken down there. (Hopefully they won’t force it to be taken down here. This is Dan Fan gold.)

In the 90s, Andy Mckay of ABC/Dunhill Records asked Donald and Walter if they’d write liner notes for a reissue of the their Dunhill albums. The notes appeared in sequence on each album as it was released. They are now collected here: 

THE ORIGINAL ABC/DUNHILL REISSUE NOTES by Walter Becker & Donald Fagen

CAN’T BUY A THRILL 

“Hebbel, in a surprising entry in his diary, asks what takes away ‘life’s magic in later years. It is because, in all the brightly colored contoured marionettes, we see the revolving cylinder that sets them in motion and, because for this very reason, a captivating variety of life is reduced to wooden monotony.’” 

So says Ted Adorno, and in spite of the indisputable veracity of this dire pronouncement, or perhaps because of it, neither one of us is able to remember exactly what we were doing when the long-awaited phone call from Los Angeles finally came. 

DF: Who did he call first? You or me? 

WB: You mean Gary? 

DF: Who else? 

WB: Maybe we were together when the call came… 

DF: Working on a song? 

WB: Possible. So, as it happened, we were working on a song when we got the call about a job in California… 

Now that Can’t Buy A Thrill is finally being released in its original 1972 packaging, complete with all notes, texts, photos, illustrations, etc., appropriately miniaturized for today’s digital medium, we would like to avail ourselves of this opportunity to set the “record” straight on a few important points:

1. The original members of the band were Donald Fagen and Walter Becker. Realizing that this ensemble was a bit thin, we decided to import to Los Angeles a few musicians of our acquaintance. Our producer Gary Katz (AKA Gary Kannon in compliance with the old show biz tradition of de-Semitizing Jewish names) suggested Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, whom we had actually met and played with back in New York, and Jim Hodder, whom we had not met but had only seen at a recording session, through a glass, darkly. Jeff’s credentials included a brief stint with a Boston band called “Ultimate Spinach” although, to his credit, he was not an original member of that outfit. Long Islander Hodder was a member of a Katz-produced band called The Bead Game, named for the illustrious but unreadable Hesse novel. Once these two potent talents had been added to the mix, the ensemble was still found wanting in several areas. So the call went out to Denny Dias, also from Long Island. Denny was a jazz guitarist with whom we had once tried and failed to start a “jazz-rock” band. Hicksville’s loss was Steely Dan’s gain, and for the next several months we thought we had everything we needed. More on this point, later.

2. As for material, no problem. We had touched down in Los Angeles with a fat notebook crammed with what Kenny Vance used to call “The Dyno” (short for dynamite). It was our best hope that the lyrics and music in this notebook, our life’s work to date, would somehow be transmuted into classic albums, the proceeds of which would supply swank, lifetime careers, juicy bank accounts, opulent houses with heated pools, powerful mid-engine sports cars, happiness, security, girls, girls, girls – in short, everything we needed to get by. In fact, it turned out later that only half the songs on the first Steely Dan album were already in the book. The rest were written in California, in a style that had been modified to take into account the new musical environment in which we found ourselves; and also to reflect our belated understanding of the aesthetic shortcomings of some of our less-than-accessible, more doggedly surrealist efforts. 

3. Our pal Gary Katz had preceded us in the move from New York to Encino and secured us work as “staff writers” at ABC Dunhill Records on the basis of some stinky demos we recorded at the tiny Peer-Southern studio in the Brill Building. Yes, it was Gary Katz who convinced Jay Lasker, the big. fat, scary cigar-in-mouth president of ABC Dunhill to hire us sight unseen. This was a good thing for us, because, as has been previously documented in story and song, New York in the early 1970s was a broke-ass, smut-ridden, crime-laden garbage planet. Gary picked us up at the L.A. airport and drove us to the terrible, dinky apartments he had rented for us in Encino. He had leased a nice Buick for himself on Dunhill’s dime – tobacco brown, same model that Kojak drove on TV. Because neither of us had cars or drivers licenses at that time. We drove to work with Gary in the morning, and back with him at night. It was during these drives that we became acquainted with the following record business concepts: “a buck-three-eighty” (that meant bupkis), “pick and roll” (from basketball strategy) and “keppelectomy” (don’t ask). Also: “Harvey you’re fired”; “I got a guy and the guy is good” (always followed about a year later by “That guy, he fucked me”); “power rotation”; the corrupt practice called “shlocking”; “mo’ kick, mo’ hat”; and “show business heaven.” 

4. Skunk Baxter had a theory that one of the secretaries at the ABC offices had several sets of interchangeable breasts which she would alternate wearing from day to day. This turned out to be incorrect. 

5. During our visits to the smallish but excellent recording studio adjoining the Dunhill offices, we were surprised and frightened to see a fellow dressed in an American flag shirt and matching pants working behind the console from time to time. This was recording engineer Roger Nichols. Later we found out that he drove a tiny yellow Lotus sports car which he referred to as the Screaming Yellow Zonker. Roger, who looked like an extra in Beach Blanket Bingo and who claimed never to have seen a Jew till he moved to Los Angeles, couldn’t help peppering his conversation with odd, disturbing Borscht Belt jokes. If you said, “Are you kidding”?, he’d say, “No, it’s just the way my shirt hangs”. 

6. When our careers as staff writers didn’t take off, we naturally reverted to our original dream, a cozy but wildly optimistic projection: When our album became a runaway hit, it would insure us unlimited funding for future albums. All of this would take place without it becoming necessary for us to leave Los Angeles, where we could lead our modest but comfy lifestyles indefinitely. Our career template was modeled on the likes of stay-at-home studio moles like Stan Freberg, Ken Nordine (of Word Jazz fame) and, more recently, The Beatles. 

So, when certain executives at ABC started pestering us about “the tour” – we were only halfway through with the recording of the first album – the idea that we were now expected to go out and perform in public came as a total surprise. This was not a nice surprise, especially for Donald, who had reluctantly agreed to be the band’s lead vocalist for the purposes of recording but who was horrified when confronted with the idea of singing in public and extremely reluctant to be pressed into service as the frontman for a touring rock band. That’s when Skunk called his buddy David Palmer, and Dave came out from New Jersey to try out for the job. Luckily, the remaining tracks -Dirty Work and Brooklyn – were in his key, more or less. 

7. We had worked with guitarist Elliot Randall in New York City. Elliot was a big-time studio cat at the time, as far as we could tell. We had done a few sessions with him in NYC and noticed that, aside from his elegant playing style, he looked really good holding a guitar. When we found out he was in town, it was only natural for us to ask Elliot to “fall by”. His solo on one of our tunes sounded so good that we asked him to join the band, even though we already had two or three guitarists. He demurred. 

Other people who turned us down: Joe Gordon, Loudon Wainwright III, Dom Troiano, Hank Medress (who used to be in the Tokens), Rick Derringer (who we knew as Ricky Zehringer back in NYC), Chevy Chase, we think maybe Nils Lofgren, and Janice Baker from college (a couple of times).

8. When we first met Denny out in Hicksville, he was playing a Gibson Barney Kessel hollow-body guitar through a Kustom amplifier. The guitar was a sunburst with double Neo-Venetian cutaways, an offense to the eyes and the ears alike. We prevailed upon him to find something a bit more, er, modern-sounding and he ended up trading in the Kessel for a Dan Armstrong guitar with a clear plexiglas body. This was okay for a while but by the time Denny came out to California we were hankering, on Denny’s behalf, for another sonic upgrade. So Denny went down to Sound City where Jeff Baxter was then employed as a guitar repairman and picked himself out a honey of a Fender Telecaster with a rosewood neck. Fitted with the appropriate humbuckers in neck and bridge position and amplified by a beefy Marshall 100 watt amp head and short stack cabinet, Denny was ready to rock. 

Of course, for the occasion of Denny’s solo on Do It Again, we rented a Coral Electric Sitar. This novel instrument, replete with dual lipstick tube pickups, sympathetic strings and a special bridge that produced the sitar-like buzzing sound, added that extra something the tune called for. For the same track, Donald rented for himself a sad Yamaha organ that had, amongst other things, a felt strip for producing glissandos that was heretofore only available on their Electone living room models. 

9. Because of our current location (an undistinguished Italian restaurant on Madison Ave.), we are unable to reacquaint ourselves with the Can’t Buy A Thrill album at this time. However, we do seem to recall a few highlights, which include the aforementioned Do It Again, begun in Encino, polished in our Dunhill writing dungeon and soon to be come a big hit. To say that the lyrics somehow expressed the desperate career gamble on which we were embarking, to say that would be more than a bit precious; let today’s listener draw his own conclusions. But it most definitely solidified what became a long and satisfying collaboration with percussionist/vibist/pianist Victor Feldman, known to and venerated by us for his work with Miles Davis. The aforementioned Elliot Randall solo on Reeling in the Years, also a huge hit, that was a helluva thing, wasn’t it? And lastly, the Veal Bird Special at Dolores’ Restaurant, a regular Thursday night favorite for the gang in Studio A, should not go unmentioned. 

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