The gateway to a fascinating world
Donald Fagen and Walter Becker had been trying to make a living out of music for several years, had had a band, had tried their hand as songwriters at the Brill Building and had even been touring musicians for the band Jay & The Americans, but their luck changed when they decided to move to California and met producer Gary Katz. He had a feeling about their songs and allowed them to record them themselves, so they found themselves a dream band, with the two brilliant guitarists Denny Dias and Jeff "Skunk" Baxter, and Jim Hodder on drums, with Fagen on lead vocals and keyboards and Becker on bass - by that time a Gibson Thunderbird IV - and they called themselves Steely Dan. Together, they began to cut their debut album, Can't Buy A Thrill, which is now 50 years old.
Despite not being the most significant of their union between jazz and rock, it is one of their most accessible records, as the lead pair didn't want to waste the opportunity and wanted the record to sell, so it features some of the most commercial songs of their career, such as Do It Again, Dirty Work and the glorious Reelin' In The Years.
Once the process began, the record company began to put pressure on them to start giving concerts, but Fagen was quite insecure when it came to singing in front of people, so Baxter proposed his friend David Palmer who ended up singing on two songs on the album, Dirty Work and Brooklyn. Palmer, however, ended up leaving the group as neither Katz nor Becker were very happy with him and they preferred Fagen.
The two songwriters exerted an iron grip on the band with all the arrangements and songs. Only brilliant madmen like them would think of calling in a session guitarist with two musicians like Baxter and Dias in their ranks, but they did, and they already knew this guitarist from their sessions in New York in 1970, and the result of his appearance was nothing more and nothing less than Jimmy Page's favourite guitar solo. Specifically, the session musician was Elliot Randall who plays on Kings and Reelin' In The Years. In the former he delivers a crazy solo with a certain jazz rock flavour, while the latter is the jewel in the crown, the spectacular Reelin' In The Years, in which his guitar floats throughout the song. The song was already done when Fagen and Becker asked him to record his well-known solo, but let Randall himself explain: "We did it in one take and there was nothing written down. Jeff Baxter played the harmonic parts, but my whole main solo - intro/backing/solo/ending - was one continuous take played through a very simple setup: my old Strat, the same one I've been using since 1965, plugged directly into an Ampeg SVT amp, and plugged into an AKG 414. The whole solo came to me, and I feel very lucky to have had the chance to play it.” Anyone with even the slightest interest in our favourite instrument has an obligatory stop here.
By the way, this song also gives us a better understanding of how the band's creative partnership worked. After hearing the results, Randall was offered a permanent position in the band, but he decided not to accept because he knew he was a perfectionist, as he had already been made to repeat his solo when he thought it was perfect. Of course, Can't Buy A Thrill goes far beyond its best remembered song and Randall's celebrated appearance, the first of several legendary solos in Fagen and Becker's songs.
The album opened with the biggest hit of their career, number 6 on the Billboard charts, Do It Again, in which they mixed soft rock with touches of Latin percussion, a sophisticated melody and carefully crafted lyrics about a criminal named Jack, and the song was rounded off with an electric sitar solo by Dias. Then came the smooth Dirty Work, with a great use of saxophone and Palmer's sweet voice accompanied by Fagen in a great chorus.
The bossa nova class of Only A Fool Would Say That, a song that seemed almost 'easy listening' but was a sardonic response to the hippie idealism of John Lennon, one of his idols, in Imagine, also shone brightly. Baxter's guitar playing colours the whole song to perfection. Another ace winner on the album was Midnite Cruiser, sung by drummer Hodder, in which the guitars of Baxter and Dias once again work to perfection.
In short, much more rounded and complex works like Pretzel Logic or Aja would come later, but Can't Buy A Thrill is still a magnificent gateway to the fascinating world of Steely Dan, one of the bands with the best sound in the history of American popular music.