Can't Buy a Thrill

The fact that The Daughter has taken to the album’s opening lazy Latin-tinged shuffle in such a big way testifies, I think, to the staying power of Steely Dan’s debut, which first saw the light of day in 1972. ‘Go back, Jack, do it again/Wheels turnin’ round again…’ Indeed.

I don't know how I came to hear all about it. I had given up reading the Melody Maker every week by then and I didn't listen to the radio. Working in fairly splendid isolation in a stately home in roughly the middle of nowhere, I certainly wouldn't have heard visitors to the Hall whispering about a great new band hailing from Brooklyn, New York, who took their name from a sordid novel by William Burroughs. No static at all.

And yet I picked it up early in 1974, the same year that the 'band' gave up touring and began the process of whittling themselves down to their co-founders, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, supported by a host of golden session musicians. I picked it up in Stafford's only record shop for the strange price of £2.13.![](upload://kOIqFJsnqcEB04FHkqXuCvHOfYg.jpg)

Strangeness has always been a hallmark of 'The Dan': from the business of who they actually were to the subject matter of their clever, intriguing but ultimately mystifying lyrics. Subsequent albums would become increasingly opaque, even deliberately obscure, but 'Can't Buy a Thrill' is actually quite restrained: 10 songs, five per side, with strong melodies, memorable hooks and some excellent sheer musicianship. Mind you, even in the age of Prog Rock pomposity there weren't too many popular songs about a pair of royal brothers from the Dark Ages of history – 'Kings' celebrates or laments 'the last of good King Richard' and raises a 'glass to good King John'. Nor did many carry such perplexing titles as 'Brooklyn (Owes the Charmer under Me)'.

In my room at the end of one wing of the Hall, with only the occasional cry of a pheasant in the grounds to remind me that there was life outside the rarefied hermetic confines of the Earl's stately pile, I needed an antidote to Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano and Dark as the Grave Wherein my Friend is Laid, in which I had immersed myself during a long but temperate winter. And Steely Dan's first album gave me that. I've always studiously avoided overplaying records lest they outstay their welcome, but Can't Buy a Thrill was often on the BSR MacDonald turntable at the end of a day's hard indexing.

I wrote excitedly about it to my girlfriend back in Belfast. In those days, we wrote long letters on Basildon Bond notepaper in longhand rather than tapping out rapid e-mails to be delivered instantaneously via the ether. I would leave my letters with the secretary to be stamped and placed on a little table in the vestibule, by the Earl's stuffed Great War 'charger' and a collection of his floppy felt trilbies, for the local postman or post-woman to collect.

In those letters, I would surely have quoted liberally to show what a clever band they were (and probably to show what a clever fellow I was to respond to lines like 'The time of our time has been and gone' from 'Midnite Cruiser', or 'A woman's voice reminds me to serve and not to speak' from 'Fire in the Hole', or even 'You've been telling me you're a genius since you were seventeen/The weekend in the college didn't turn out as we planned/The things you take for knowledge, I just don't understand' from 'Reelin' in the Years').

Such a good job of conveying my enthusiasm did I manage that I'm sure that when she came to visit me in the early summer, she was every bit as excited at the prospect of listening to the album as she was about seeing her boyfriend. We would have thrilled, no doubt, to top session musician, Elliott Randall's incredibly electric guitar playing in 'Reeling in the Years', which sounded as if it were plugged directly into New York's central generating station. And 'Skunk' Baxter's coruscating guitar on 'Midnite Cruiser'. And the elegant horn section of jazzmen Jerome Richardson on tenor sax and Snooky Young on flugelhorn. And Donald Fagen's distinctive singing voice.

On this album, Fagen shared the vocals with David Palmer, whose slightly higher voice sounded a little like Jackson Browne's. On all their subsequent albums, though, Fagen would increasingly stamp his personality on the proceedings until it became hard to distinguish a Steely Dan album from one of his solo efforts. 'Skunk' Baxter would join the Doobie Brothers and I don't know what happened to drummer Jim Hodder and guitarist Denny Dias, whose electric sitar solo on 'Do It Again' segues into Fagen's solo on the 'plastic organ', whatever that might be.

Judging by the observation of someone I met at college, who saw Steely Dan in concert with Little Feat at the Rainbow or somewhere in London, to the effect that Feat blew The Dan off the stage, it's perhaps not surprising that the band became a mere enhanced studio partnership. It didn't really matter, given the uniform quality of the albums that followed this one (even if The Royal Scam is a slightly weaker hand). The key thing was that they produced literate lyrical music that continues to delight.

In fact, I keep vacillating when it comes to my favourite Steely Dan album. In view of my jazzer’s proclivities, it’s often Gaucho and sometimes Donald Fagen’s Nightfly. For a while, it was the follow-up, Countdown to Ecstasy. But then I keep coming back to their debut, maybe as much for the associations as for the uniform quality of the songs. It was Can’t Buy a Thrill that nudged me towards the down-home and dirtier Little Feat and thence to New Orleans R&B, and probably towards another New York band whose music has lasted longer than anyone might have thought at the time, Talking Heads.

'You wouldn't even know a diamond if you held it in your hand/The things you think are precious I don't understand...' In my book, there's no refuting that Steel Dan's first album is a precious commodity.

I lived in Brighton in the late 70s, Steven and I remember The Hungry Years - but not the theme tune!

So you were at the infamous Charlton gig, Chris. I had no idea that Little Feat were part of the bill. My wife suffers from tinnitus and it's no joke, but hers didn't derive from loud music.

Brian, I didn't know Lowell George was on 'Paris 1919', another great favourite of mine, destined for the spotlight perhaps. I knew he was on 'Sneaking Sally...', which I often think is a very underrated album. As for what you were saying about '70s bands, there's probably an element of 'never had it so good' from us oldies, but I have to say that the proof of the pudding is in its longevity and I find the fact that The Daughter loves many of the old classics very reassuring. I saw John Cale by the way in about '76, with Chris Spedding on guitar and ice-hockey mask on face. Somewhat disturbing, but very good.

In the early 70s I lived in Brighton and used to frequent Rock orientated night club called The Hungry years. They adopted the now Classic "Reeling in the years" as their theme tune. Happy Days!

Mark, it was a pretty cool and wet day when we saw Little Feat. Charlton Football Ground 1976 and the Who headlined. Still got the ticket! The Police tried to stop anyone taking alcohol into the ground and consequently people were getting absolutely hammered before they went in and there were a number of fights as a result. Of course some of us had other ways to get mellow…We only went there to see Little Feat and another long forgotten band called the Outlaws. After a few numbers from the Who we decided to leave as neither of us were into their music at all really. The atmosphere was pretty bad in the crowd and not much better between Daltrey & co. The Feat played a great set but I don’t recall much interest from the assembled gathering at all, and for me I had the feeling that “times were indeed a changing” and the optimism and euphoria of the late 60s and early 70s was over. I read later that it was the loudest gig ever…not something for tinnitus sufferers to boast about…me included!

Last night before drifting into slumber I was thinking. The last few of these posts have reminded me of how the music scene has come along. Sure, the 1950s saw a real sea change and the 1960s were the big rush and beginning of experimentation but it was the 1970s when the best music happened. Bands and performers who survived out of the 60s did some of their best work and newer bands who had the previous decade still ringing in their ears in effect took music to new levels. Records that still sell well today are often 1970s classics which is perhaps how Steely Dan, Little Feat, Talking Heads and quite a few of the performers recently discussed not only have their deeply entrenched following but younger people who were usually not born until well after their time. Looking back on the 'they will never last' parent generation we now see that yes they are finding a place in history of music alongside a Frank Sinatra or Ella Fitzgerald, whoever... Whilst there are great bands and artists, some of whom come and go quickly whilst others endure, not withstanding some of them going very stale when they do go on (and on and on and on), many others are perhaps very dependent on the work of others in the past. Talking Heads, for instance, seem to either inspire or have produced numbers that today's crop of so-called mega-stars make versions of. Whilst it is a compliment and proves the impact of the old guys, it also seems to hint to the present lacking the creativity the 1970s particularly generated. Is it just us oldies who feel that? I suspect not because I have always been discerning and willing to listen to other things no matter what my particular tastes are at the core and do hear great music now.

I guess what remains is the sharp end of creativity that goes untouched though. As yet nobody but nobody seems to go back over Patti Smith and in the real experimental pool who fishes out an Laurie Anderson material? Are the present performers not yet brave enough or is it simply that the 1970s sounds that were new but not too far from conventionality are easier? I'd like to know, just out of idle curiosity.

Lowell George was the real force on John Cale's 1973 album Paris 1919. Although he plays umpteen instruments tolerably well his guitar does not cut it. George carried quite a bit of it with his guitar work. I saw Cale in Swansea on a tour gig just before we left to come here, but no shadows of Velvet Underground just an old bloke who didn't get floored by H. Without the dope and a few more years, perhaps Little Feat but most certainly his session work like the Robert Palmer first solo album slide guitar stuff, George may well have got his name up there with the guitar gods.

Hi Chris. Thanks for the anecdote about Elliott Randall's guitar solo. That's quite something to brag about, seeing Little Feat in concert with Lowell George. 'Pretzel' is probably my wife's favourite SD record, but I came to it a little later, by which time the first two albums had impressed themselves on my heart. I love the sample of Horace Silver's 'Song For My Father' on 'Rikki Don't Lose That Number'.

I was more of a Pretzel Logic fan really, but Reelin’ is something my ears will always enjoy. It’s all about the tone Elliott gets from his setup…it just hits you in the face. He played the solo twice and the second take was used because the engineer forgot to press record on the first one! Anyway I probably only love it because I’m addicted to guitar players. Never got to see them live, but I did see Little Feat before Lowell George died. Now he was really something…