Steely Dan’s Original ABC/Dunhill Reissue Notes, Part 2: Countdown to Ecstasy

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

COUNTDOWN TO ECSTASY 

Thought + Feeling = Action – Dr. Eric G. Page 

And how. Countdown to Ecstasy is unique amongst the Steely Dan albums in that it’s the only one written and arranged for a working ensemble. For this reason, the arrangements were influenced for the better by the known instrumental textures and musical personalities of the band itself, and for the worse by the raw horror and prolonged ennui of the odious weekend outings forced on us by our new manager (a schmendrick foisted on us by the record company) during the very recording process itself. 

So, for example, the period charm of Jeff Baxter’s cunning Echoplex work was somewhat offset by the damage done to his amplifier (and nervous system) from last weekend’s debacle in, say, Tucson, or maybe Seattle, where we opened for the James Gang (Joe Walsh had already left the group and been replaced by our old NYC session mate Dom Troiano). As was typical in those days, we were blasted off the stage by a more practiced, experienced band, e.g, the Beach Boys, Frank Zappa, the Doobie Brothers, Elton John, Rare Earth, Chuck Berry (yes, even old, apathetic Chuck), Cheech and Chong and the Kinks, just to name a few (actually, the Kinks were so shitfaced that they weren’t that much of a threat). 

In any case, the pleasing stretched-out quality of some of the charts was diminished by the fact that the lyrics were not written until the last moment, and then by a songwriting duo who were now certain that a steroidal Hellhound was on their trail. The public humiliation we were subjected to as a result of some of our appearances during this period – let’s say most or even all of our appearances in those days – while in the long run perhaps a powerful character-building element in the young lives of the authors – proved in the short term disruptive and generally detrimental to the creative process. Even our all-too-infrequent rounds of Percodan Scrabble™were increasingly useless in dispelling the unrelieved existential angst that surrounded our little excursions and the days and nights of shame and terror which preceded and followed them. 

Nor was there any solace in the realization that our bandmates were having the time of their lives, up to their necks in weed, alcohol and “poozle”, as they called it. It’s a pity that there’s no textual sign available to us now which would be the equivalent of that plangent sound which Harvey Keitel made towards the end of The Bad Lieutenant – because that, o loyal fandom, would go a long way towards clueing you in on how we felt about touring in that long, heinous year. 

Nonetheless, the recording process was not completely unrewarding. In truth, there’s a substantial body of opinion that would rank Countdown as one of our best albums. Generally speaking, the type of person who typically holds this position is not the sort of individual you want sitting across the table from you at a dinner party, especially one where hard liquor is being served. Nor would you be well advised to give one of these guys your email address or (gasp) your phone number. Should it happen that such a fan gets a hold of your street address or place of employment, caution would dictate that you inform the police, pronto, before the situation deteriorates any further. You get the general idea. 

Having established that the Countdown album is not without its admirers, perhaps we should spend a few moments wondering why. Well do we recall our chagrin during the mastering sessions, when listening to the introductory drum beats on Bodhisattva. Mastering engineer Doug Sax certainly noticed, as we did, that, about halfway through, there was a slight, unwanted ritard. Did he not concur with us that the reverse tape echo effect in King of the World was a questionable idea, imperfectly executed? And what about that drum loop we used for Show Biz Kids? Was that the stroke of genius we originally thought it was, or just another regrettable miscalculation? 

As a matter of fact, the loop itself was quite a tricky bit of business to put into practice. We were using four inch tape in those days running at 180 ips, and to make a thirty-two bar loop at that tempo required the construction of a special apparatus to accommodate the 1200-plus feet of tape which ran from one end of Studio A to the other, out the fucking door, into the hall, through the door of Ed Michel’s space-jazz production headquarters and back out into the entrance area where Spooky, our favorite receptionist, was ordering grilled cheese and bacon sandwiches for the gang. 

Alright, actually two inch tape, 30 ips, four bars, 30 feet, out into the hall and back, that’s all. These notes are meant to be of a certain length, and we were encouraged to give the whole thing a folksy, mythic strain. Nevertheless, the loop still took a bit of doing. 

One miserable weekend, we were forced to leave town for a gig in Phoenix where we’d been booked into some sort of outdoor venue at an amusement park which featured a huge saltwater pool with hydraulically generated waves. With the ambient temperature hovering at about 116 degrees, some band members undertook enthusiastic but misguided attempts to stay hydrated in these harsh conditions by imbibing large quantities of the local beer. 

These factors and the Carnival of Souls-like quality of the gig itself conspired to produce a bizarre and dissatisfying performance, marked by some unintentional quarter-tone tuning effects as well as other anomalies. The upshot of this core-rattling experience was that the six-man configuration inaugurated towards the end of the recording of Can’t Buy A Thrill was deemed obsolete: the band reverted to its original five man lineup, with Dave Palmer departing for greener pastures without having sung a note on the actual Countdown recording. 

Towards the end of the project, we were working on the intro theme of a tune, The Boston Rag. No matter how many times we punched in on the only available track, the same three notes of Denny’s guitar line would not record.. Finally, Roger made a spiffy little window edit (look it up), and we were able to punch in the missing notes. Curiosity (and a perverse sense of fun) demanded that we send the little piece of defective tape back to 3M for analysis. 

Months later, they sent us their report. The piece of tape had a tiny blister where the oxide had bubbled up from the backing. Inside this little blister was a drop of dried mustard. Obviously, some ass-crack minion up in Minnesota had taken his disgusting hoagie or whatever into the room where the huge sheets of mylar were coated with oxide and dribbled a tiny drop of yellow mustard onto the mylar on the exact spot where we were going to put Denny’s guitar part. In effect, our efforts had been sabotaged in advance by a careless employee. This sort of thing was to haunt us over and over in the years to come. 

Listening back to Countdown now (something we haven’t actually done ourselves), who could know that the track Razor Boy originally had a reggae-ish drum part that was replaced after all the other stuff was almost done? Or that Denny’s meticulous all-night-long mix of King of the World had to be scrapped because it was “too perfect”? Or that several figures were added to Dotty White’s original cover painting at the insistence of Dunhill’s cheroot-huffing president Jay Lasker, who found the discrepancy between five band members and three figures on the cover unacceptable? 

When the album was finally completed and mastered, a playback was arranged for the executives and promotion staff. The idea was to get everybody excited about the new “product” and send the radio guys running out into the streets foaming at the mouths. Folding chairs were set up in the little studio upstairs and the big boys filed in, Hawaiian shirts, cigars and all. They listened in silence to the playback and at the end offered up some tepid congratulations. The confusion and disappointment that filled the room was as thick as a horny mother. Coming on the heels of a commercially successful first album, the company had been hoping for a second album blockbuster that would zoom to the top of the charts and stay there for weeks, months, years. Instead they found themselves with what must have sounded to them like some sort of strange, neo-Weimar art music, or worse. Later, when they found out that we’d fired our suave Daltryesque lead singer, stolen the proofs for the album cover during the dispute over the final layout and perversely insisted on choosing a tune that had a lyric containing the F-word as our choice for a “single” – this was a major taboo at the time – they were not really surprised. They’d seen this kind of spitework before. We were forced to edit out the offending line, leaving the setup line intact – a third-rate joke without a punchline. 

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