Are you with me, Doctor Wu?

This is the tenth and final (for now!) in a series of posts that feature analysis and commentary about some of my all-time favorite albums and artists.

To recap:  The following albums and artists have been singled out:  Crosby, Stills and Nash (and Young)’s “Crosby Stills and Nash” and “Deja Vu”;  The Who’s “Tommy” and “Who’s Next”;  Jethro Tull’s “Aqualung” and “Thick as a Brick”;  Bruce Springsteen’s “The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle” and “Born to Run”;  The James Gang’s “Yer’ Album” and Joe Walsh’s “The Smoker You Drink, the Player You Get”;  The Beatles’ “Rubber Soul,” “Revolver,” “The White Album” and “Abbey Road”;  Dire Straits’ “Making Movies” and “On Every Street”;  Joe Jackson’s “Night and Day” and “Blaze of Glory”;  and Led Zeppelin’s “Led Zeppelin” and “Led Zeppelin II.”  This final installment lauds Steely Dan’s “Countdown to Ecstasy” and “Katy Lied.”

At some point, several months from now, I will again offer analysis and commentary on more of what I consider some of my all-time favorite albums, but I felt it was time to get back to addressing other topics and milestones in the world of rock music of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s.  Rock on! 

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My introduction to the wondrous talents that comprise the curious musical entity known as Steely Dan came as it did, I suspect, for most rock music listeners:  the hypnotic salsa beat of the hit single “Do It Again,” which reached #6 on the US pop charts in late 1972/early 1973.  (I was a senior in high school then, and our basketball team featured a hot shooter named Jack, and whenever he made a basket, those of us in the stands would cheer, “Go back, Jack, do it again…”)

Six months later at graduation time, Steely Dan returned to the charts with “Reelin’ in the Years,” which provided a marvelous soundtrack for us to reminisce about our transition from high school to college.  At that point, I decided the band was worthy of d324f5cc4a16c309e75b5bc4200c6079.1000x1000x1further exploration and bought the debut LP, “Can’t Buy a Thrill.”  I was pleased to find a very appealing array of styles, textures, arrangements and lyrics contained in the ten tracks, especially “Dirty Work,” “Only a Fool Would Say That,” “Brooklyn” and “Kings.”

Soon enough, though, I turned my attentions elsewhere for the next year or so, concentrating on other stuff, mostly progressive rock, as I recall.  It was freshman year, after all, and I lived in a dorm full of like-minded stoners.

Then in May of 1974, I became aware of a new single by Steely Dan called “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” and, remembering how much I had enjoyed the first album, I raced to the record store to pick up their new LP.  To my surprise, I found not one but two “new” Steely Dan albums in the bins.  There was the just-released “Pretzel Logic,” featuring “Rikki,” but there was also “Countdown to Ecstasy,” their second album which had apparently been released with little fanfare, and no hit single, nine months earlier in  July 1973.

What a treat to suddenly have two Steely Dan LPs to delve into!  I found the accessible three-minute pop songs on “Pretzel Logic” to be instantly likable, catchy and captivating, especially “Night By Night,” “Parker’s Band,” “Barrytown” and “Charlie Freak.”  Donald Fagen’s enunciated vocals, embellished with rich harmonies behind them, brought the quirky lyrics to life, and the songs seemed to gallop along on the strength of sizzling guitar parts, sax solos and horn sections packed into each arrangement.

But I was much more intrigued by the longer tunes heard on “Countdown.”  Here, I thought, were some really substantive tracks on which the musicians could really stretch out.  Fagen and songwriting partner Walter Becker had come up with some more cover_4538717112009-1diversely challenging material that was at once accessible and more sophisticated, and the band members responded with obvious enthusiasm.

Take, for example, “My Old School,” an exuberant number about the duo’s days at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, where they met in the late ’60s.  They weren’t exactly fond of the place (hence the line, “California tumbles into the sea, that’ll be the day I go back to Annandale”), but nonetheless, many college reunions I’ve attended in the years since have featured old friends joyously singing this track at the top of their lungs.  The horn charts are, to my ears, among the most spectacular you’ll ever hear on a pop tune, expertly captured by producer Gary Katz, who manned the boards for all of Steely Dan’s albums.

Another impressive track is “Bodhisattva,” basically a blues-rock structure with jazz

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Baxter (left) and Dias from a 1973 TV appearance

underpinnings and a swing beat, and lots of room for some amazingly fluid guitar solos from Steely Dan’s original axemen, Denny Dias and Jeff “Skunk” Baxter.”  Baxter also shines on the delightful “Pearl of the Quarter,” an irresistibly heartfelt tribute to Louise, a New Orleans hooker, where he offers some sweet pedal steel guitar.

 

The song I can never get enough of is the album closer, “King of the World,” which utilizes Dias’s dexterous guitar and Fagen’s middle-break synthesizer on which to build a riveting work about what it might feel like to survive a nuclear apocalypse.  Few bands have ever come up with lines like these:  “No marigolds in the promised land, there’s a hole in the ground where they used to grow, any man left on the Rio Grande is the king of the world as far as I know…”

Although “Countdown to Ecstasy” really grew on me, to the point where it stands as one of my all-time favorites, none of its eight songs grabbed the denizens of 1973 pop radio.  “My Old School” and the celebrity-centric “Show Biz Kids” stiffed at #63 and #61, and the album managed to reach only #35, although earning gold-record status eventually.

Said Baxter at the time, “I think the diversity you hear on ‘Countdown’ makes it much more interesting for us and, we hope, for the people who buy the albums.  There are a lot of things you can grab on to, but that doesn’t mean we’re so predictable that you can instantly associated one cut with the next.  We’d rather have people looking forward to a song that might be completely different than looking forward to a song they know is going to sound the same as the last song.  It’s not the accepted commercial formula, which we think is usually a big mistake.”

As most observers now know, Steely Dan began in 1972 as a six-piece rock group that

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The original lineup (L-to-R):  drummer Jim Hodder, vocalist David Palmer, guitarist Denny Dias, keyboardist/vocalist Donald Fagen, guitarist Jeff “Skunk” Baxter” and bassist Walter Becker

could take the embraceable music and profoundly weird lyrics that Fagen and Becker were writing and turn them into solid recordings and play them convincingly in concert. And for two years, they did just that.  Fagen on keyboards and vocals, Becker on bass, Dias and Baxter on guitars, Jim Hodder on drums, and second singer David Palmer worked reasonably well as a unit, and racked up the early hit singles.

 

But Palmer proved to be an unnatural element and was dismissed, and Fagen and Becker quickly found that they loathed touring, largely because, as fussy perfectionists, they couldn’t rely on the notoriously unpredictable sound quality of concert venues and their often sketchy equipment and technicians.  Steely Dan soon became the first major pop group to openly defy their record label by refusing to tour at all, and rarely doing interviews, concentrating all their efforts instead on songwriting and recording.

That decision may have irked the guys in the suits, but it fascinated critics and fans, who liked what they heard and were satisfied to let the music on the albums do the talking.  The other casualty was Baxter, who made his money from touring and couldn’t afford to hang around for the periodic studio gig, and instead joined The Doobie Brothers, a hard-working touring band for the remainder of the ’70s.

Fagen and Becker, who both tended to prefer jazz music over rock, thought they could AR-AK759_DEACON_8S_20150904180010bring that sort of loose-formed sensibility to what they were doing in the studio.  In a 1975 article, Fagen described it this way:  “We find that we want to pick musicians we think will fit a particular song.  Sometimes we’ll hear somebody on a record and hire them for the date, and if it works out, great.  Jazz musicians are always playing with different people, and I don’t see why that can’t happen here.  Of course, some rock musicians don’t like that.  We might have chords that constantly modulate, and they don’t know what’s going on, and they freak out and leave.  That’s okay.  We find somebody else.”

Beginning in 1975 with the stunning “Katy Lied,” that’s exactly what transpired.  Seven different guitarists are used on the album’s ten tracks, from Becker and Dias to jazz greats Larry Carlton and Elliott Randall and rock stalwart Rick Derringer.  Future vocal superstar steelydan~~_katyliedj_101bMichael McDonald beefs up the background voices, and eventual Toto founders Jeff Porcaro on drums and David Paich on keyboards bring muscle to the arrangements as well.

Even though there were technical problems in bringing the album to realization, and Fagen still has regrets with the final mix, I was among those who was completely floored by how amazing it sounded through a good sound system in 1975.  And Side One (remember when the songs were divided into Side One and Side Two?) remains, for me, one of the all-time best album sides ever recorded.  “Black Friday,” “Bad Sneakers,” “Rose Darling,” “Daddy Don’t Live in New York City No More” and “Doctor Wu” are five back-to-back killer Fagen-Becker masterpieces, each expertly performed by some of the best musicians in the business.

Which is not to detract from Side Two’s fine moments, including Derringer’s solo on the bluesy “Chain Lightning,” McDonald’s prominent voice on “Any World That I’m Welcome To,” and the cheesy funk of Fagen’s keyboards on the perverse “Everyone’s Gone to the Movies,” wherein a local weirdo delights in showing stag films to the neighborhood kids in his den.  Such a motley stew of sounds and themes coming at you in Steely Dan’s albums…

The trend toward multiple guest musicians and lyrics about fringe outcasts continued with 1976’s “The Royal Scam,” hailed by some critics as Steely Dan’s finest achievement, and there are certainly tracks found there that rank among the true gems of Steely Dan’s catalog, like “Kid Charlemagne,” “Don’t Take Me Alive” and the harrowing title track.

Their commercial peak was “Aja,” which reached #3 on the album charts and sold many millions of copies on the strength of its three hit singles (“Deacon Blues,” “Peg” and “Josie”), and it often served as the go-to album played at concert venues as the roadies changed equipment from the warm-up act to the headliner.  Its impossibly slick production values were held up as the gold standard by many, while others criticized that perfection as the antithesis of what rock’s dirty rebel soul was supposed to sound like.

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“The Dan,” circa 1974

And sure enough, the tipping point came within the next couple of years, as the sound that eventually became pejoratively known as “yacht rock” gave way to a quirkier New Wave vibe, injecting fresh ideas into what had become a relatively ho-hum scene.   “Gaucho,” Steely Dan’s last album for three decades, explored the decadence of LA like never before on ear-candy tracks like “Babylon Sisters” and “Glamour Profession,” more slick sounding than even anything on “Aja.”  It’s unquestionably a worthy entry in the Dan catalog.

But I will always prefer, and invariably return to, what I heard from the Fagen-Becker team in their 1973-1975 period than what followed.  There was something so radical and yet comforting, so inventive and yet familiar, in the songs they made at that point in the evolution of their song crafting.  I invite you all to wrap your heads around these albums and breathe deep.  This is amazing stuff.

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The Spotify list below offers “Countdown to Ecstasy” and “Katy Lied” in their entirety, but I couldn’t resist sneaking in another couple of tracks from “Pretzel Logic” in between, just to remind you of the stellar quality of Steely Dan’s work found elsewhere during that period.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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I’m not foolin’, I’m gonna send you back to schoolin’

This is the ninth in a series of posts that feature analysis and commentary about some of my all-time favorite albums and artists.

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In 1966, Yardbirds guitarist Jeff Beck gathered some of his favorite musician friends to help him record a track he was working on for an upcoming solo project.  He invited fellow Yardbirds guitarist Jimmy Page, and drummer Keith Moon and bassist John Entwistle from The Who, and veteran session musicians John Paul Jones and Nicky Hopkins.

This assemblage produced the recording “Beck’s Bolero,” based on Ravel’s classical 1928 masterpiece, and when someone mentioned it sounded so good they should form a supergroup together, Moon’s response was “Ha!  Right.  That’d go over like a lead balloon!

Two years later, as Page was forming a new group following the demise of The Yardbirds, he recalled Moon’s comment.  “A lead balloon is a metaphor for certain 01failure,” Page recalls.  “I took it a step further and thought of a lead zeppelin, which is even more of a contrast.  It strikes a balance between heavy and light, or between combustibility and grace.”

And with that, Led Zeppelin was born.

(It was manager Peter Grant who suggested the group use “Led” instead of “Lead” to prevent fans from mispronouncing it as “leed.”)

Page, after several years honing his skills in London recording studios as a guitarist and producer, and then as a touring member of The Yardbirds, was ready to realize his vision of a new band that would incorporate heavy blues-based rock with occasional elements of more delicate folk-based melodies and arrangements (the “balance between heavy and light” he had referred to in discussing the group’s name).

Page was certain he wanted Jones to be his bass/keyboards guy, and he had his sights set on promising new vocalist Terry Reid to be the singer, but Reid declined the offer and instead suggested Robert Plant, singer in a Birmingham-based group called Band of Joy, Plant, in turn, recommended Band of Joy’s drummer, John Bonham.

Led-Zep-first-performance-7th-sept--1968_0Even at the foursome’s first rehearsal in August 1968, within minutes after they took a stab at the Yardbirds’ explosive version of the ’50s blues chestnut “Train Kept A-Rollin’,” they knew they had a wicked chemistry.  They soon headed off to fulfill a few remaining Yardbirds gigs in Scandinavia (booked as The New Yardbirds) before settling into the studio to lay down nine tracks that would become their monumental debut LP, entitled simply “Led Zeppelin.”

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Cut to February 1969.  A small record shop in the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio.  I wasn’t yet 14, but I had begun buying albums (instead of 45s), and I was already scanning the popular music bins looking for new and interesting groups.  This was a pretty conservative store, with clientele that favored classical music, film soundtracks, show tunes and Sinatra-type crooners, so the pickings were slim.

One bin in the back, though, was labeled “underground rock” and included LPs by bands Led-Zeppelin-Iwith strange names like Blue Cheer, The Electric Prunes, Quicksilver Messenger Service and The Fugs.  My eyes fell upon an album cover that featured an artistic treatment of the famous 1937 photo of the Hindenburg explosion, with two words:  Led Zeppelin.  The back cover was a faded photo of the four band members, and a listing of the song titles and times.  I don’t know what persuaded me to plunk down four dollars for this record.  I hadn’t heard a note of it, not in the store nor on the radio.  I guess I was intrigued by the album cover and name.

Anyway, I took it home, cranked up the volume, and was instantly stunned by the power of the opening track, “Good Times Bad Times.”  Less than three minutes long, it grabbed me by the throat with its thunderous mix of guitar, vocals, drums and bass.  Wow!  But it was the second song, “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You,” that really hooked me.  Here was truly

Led Zeppelin Live In Copenhagen

“the balance of heavy and light.”  The opening passage featured Page fingerpicking an acoustic guitar as Plant gently, sensuously, sang lyrics about a doomed relationship.    Drums entered briefly, hinting of what was coming, then subsided.  By the 2:20 mark, the band kicked in with a relentless rock beat that took the song to another level entirely, as Plant’s low-key vocal became a delicious howl.

The album includes Jones’ organ-dominated piece, “Your Time is Gonna Come”; Page’s acoustic instrumental standout, “Black Mountain Side”;  inventive covers of serious blues standards like Willie Dixon’s “You Shook Me” and “I Can’t Quit You Babe,” dominated by Page’s workouts on his Les Paul electric.

The game changers, however, were “Dazed and Confused” and “How Many More Times,” tumblr_na9s8u5fkm1stbyx4o1_1280lengthy tracks which gave the band room to stretch out, borrowing snatches of other songs to enhance the extraordinary arrangements.  “Dazed and Confused” marks the first and best example of Page playing guitar with a violin bow, which became a crowd-pleaser in every concert appearance the group did thereafter.

Surprisingly, in retrospect, most critics weren’t kind to the “Led Zeppelin” debut album.  In a slap at Page’s producing, arranging and songwriting, Rolling Stone wrote, “If they hope to fill the void left by the demise of Cream, they’ll have to find a producer, editor and material worthy of their collective talents.”  But the band toured relentlessly, earning oustanding word-of-mouth raves for their live shows, which helped the album go gold and reach #10 on the US charts.  Years later, it is rightly singled out as the progenitor of blues-based heavy metal, and metal bands have been living in its shadow ever since.

But Page had plenty more up his sleeve.  He said this in the summer of 1969:  “It’s a good period for guitarists.  I think every guitarist has something unique to say musically.  My only ambition now is to keep a consistent record product coming out.  Too many groups sit led_zeppelin_-_led_zeppelin_II-front-1back after the first album, and the second one is a down trip.  I want every new album to reach out farther.  That’s what I’m trying to do here.

 

The group toured so much that they had to fit in their recording sessions on the fly, laying down basic tracks in one city, adding vocals in another studio on the opposite coast, writing new material in a hotel room in a third city, with Page overseeing it all as producer.  The result was the phenomenal “Led Zeppelin II,” arguably stronger than the first.  The sonic inventions found on the single, “Whole Lotta Love,” reached a much broader audience as it ascended to the #4 slot in the US charts, and the album reached #1, knocking “Abbey Road” from its perch.  Although it wasn’t public knowledge yet, The Beatles were done, and Led Zeppelin was taking over as the

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Promotional poster for 10/24/1969 concert

world’s top rock band.

I was fortunate enough to see them in concert during this initial period, in October 1969, just two days after the release of “II,” and I’ve never quite gotten over it.  They performed just about every song from those two records, and that evening became the jumping-off point for my infatuation with rock concerts and blues-based rock.

In my bedroom at the time, I had a nook with a huge chair, and two speakers mounted on the wall facing each other.  When I cranked up the volume, the effect was like wearing headphones without the headphones.  My friends reminisce about how they “saw God” when they sat in that chair and listened to “Whole Lotta Love” when the sound would travel back and forth between channels, first slowly, then more rapidly, as Page, Plant, Jones and Bonham did their thing.

“Led Zeppelin II” also included “Heartbreaker,” which featured what many still feel is one of the most incredible guitar solos ever recorded.  It’s also the first inkling of Plant’s way with words on tracks like the majestic “Ramble On,” where he showed his affection for the work of J.R.R. Tolkien, and the lovely “Thank You,” a touching love song of gratitude to his wife.

jb1969And let’s not forget “Moby Dick,” where Bonham demonstrates why, more than three decades after his death, he is regarded as one of the best drummers ever, and why the band chose to call it quits in 1980 after his death.  Drum solos are notorious for being self-indulgent and non-musical, but this track proves the exception to the rule, and it dovetails perfectly into the closing track, “Bring It On Home,” yet another Willie Dixon tune reworked with original material in its midsection.

Led Zeppelin went on to become legends in their own time and, sadly, in their own minds.  They made plenty of earthshaking music like “Kashmir” and “No Quarter,” sprinkled with some of that lightness Page and Plant seemed to favor (“Going to California,” “The Rain Song”), but in my mind, they never quite matched the impact of their first two albums.  They developed a reputation for unbridled ego, refusing to speak to the press, as their manager and road crew routinely threatened and assaulted people who got in their way.  Bad karma started to follow the band, cursed with injury and death, which some blamed on Page’s fascination with the occult, although I think that’s probably hogwash.

Every album they released from “II” on went straight to #1 and sold many millions of copies.  The group broke attendance records and enjoyed the fierce loyalty of fans worldwide.  And of course, “Stairway to Heaven” remains one of the most played songs in the history of rock radio.  But for me, the group’s work in the latter half of the ’70s (1975’s “Physical Graffiti,”1976’s “Presence” and 1979’s “In Through the Out Door”) weren’t even remotely in the same league as their initial efforts.

s-l300-3It’s truly rare and remarkable when a visionary (Page) happens upon just the right combination of talent and personalities (Jones, Plant, Bonham) in just the right time period (late 1968) to create a revolutionary sound and get it all down on vinyl.

So when you’re tired of hearing classic rock radio trot out the same half-dozen songs to represent the canon of Led Zeppelin (“Black Dog,” “Immigrant Song,” “Dancing Days,” etc.), I recommend you return to “Led Zeppelin” and Led Zeppelin II,” when they were young and hungry, and not at all sure yet how the world would react to the magical music they were coming up with.

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The Spotify list includes all 18 tracks from the group’s first two albums, plus a few early tracks that show Led Zeppelin has unquestionably been guilty of lifting riffs, melody lines, and song titles from other artists over the years, and unwilling to give proper songwriting credit until challenged in court.  To wit:  “Whole Lotta Love” is derived from Muddy Waters’ “You Need Love” and Small Faces’ “You Need Loving”; “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” is not an LZ original but a 1962 song by Anne Breton, sung here by Joan Baez; and “Dazed and Confused” is a 1967 song written and recorded by Jake Holmes.