On its November 1972 release, Can’t Buy A Thrill, the debut album from Steely Dan, sounded like the work of a band who’d arrived fully formed. Here was sophisticated, accessible pop loaded with maverick musical ideas and oblique lyrics with melodic hooks to die for. Critical and commercial success was near instant – the album hit the US Top 20, its first single, “Do It Again” the Top 10 – but acclaim had been a long time coming for the dual brains behind the group, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker.
The two fledging musicians met while studying at Bard College. In his memoir, Eminent Hipsters, Fagen remembers their meeting, “One afternoon in 1967, I walked over to the Red Balloon, a crummy little shack in the woods that served as an on-campus music club. As I approached, I could hear someone playing some electric blues guitar inside, just messing around. But his wasn’t the trebly, surfadelic, white-guy sound I was used to hearing from other student guitarists. This fellow had an authentic blues touch and feel, and a convincing vibrato… Inside, playing a cranberry red Epiphone guitar, was a severe-looking bespectacled kid who would turn out to be my partner and bandmate for the next forty years.”
The students bonded over a shared love of literature (Nabokov, black humor, sci-fi), Frank Zappa, and Miles Davis. It wasn’t long before the kindred spirits started collaborating, as Fagen recalled, “One of us would come up with some clowny idea, and we’d bounce it around until we were so convulsed with laughter that we’d have to quit. For whatever reason, the combination of the funky grooves, the jazz chords, and the sensibility of the lyrics, which seemed to fall somewhere between Tom Lehrer and Pale Fire, really cracked us up.”
Stints in a string of local groups followed, one of the bands featured comedian Chevy Chase on drums and went under various, increasingly outré, names – The Don Fagen Jazz Trio, The Bad Rock Group, Leather Canary. After graduating, Becker and Fagen moved to Brooklyn, where they attempted to earn a living as songwriters.
After a slow start, they agreed to join the touring line-up of early 60s popsters Jay & The Americans, an arrangement that lasted 18 months and gave the pair steady work, as Fagen told MOJO in 1995, “It was a great job for us – we were straight out of college, and we got paid in cash!” Still, the stint was most significant in that it led to their meeting Gary Katz, a producer who had just moved to Los Angeles to work for ABC Records.
The producer suggested their songs were too complex to work for other artists, and they form a band to record their material themselves. Fagen told the Los Angeles Free Press in 1972, “We had a lot of strange material that no one could do. Until just now, when we found these people who were able to play it and make it sound like music. For some reason, we had a lot of trouble finding musicians all those years.”
Katz suggested guitarist Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter and drummer Jim Hodder. Becker and Fagen added jazz guitarist Denny Dias, who they’d met while working in New York. The core of the band in place, and with a name borrowed from William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, Steely Dan was born.
At this point, they were looking for a singer, they’d found that the idiosyncratic material was a struggle for most vocalists, as Fagen told MOJO, “[The songs] have to be performed with a certain attitude, and we couldn’t find the right singer when we started. I became the singer by default because I was the only one with the right attitude, essentially, even though I didn’t consider myself a singer at the time.”
Indeed, the band’s debut single, “Dallas” and Can’t Buy A Thrill’s “Midnite Cruiser” featured drummer Hodder on lead vocals while singer David Palmer was brought in for the Can’t Buy A Thrill sessions, eventually contributing lead vocals to “Dirty Work” and “Brooklyn (Owes The Charmer Under Me)” and backing vocals elsewhere. But while Fagen might not have meant to be a frontman, his nasal sneer worked so perfectly on hit singles “Do It Again” and “Reelin’ In The Years” that he became the only choice for the role.
That counterpoint of Fagen’s often sardonic delivery with polished ear-candy was key to their early success. Still, even the most radio-friendly of Steely Dan’s early material has the capacity to cut loose. Take “Reelin’ In The Years” – its chorus is synonymous with nostalgic television montages, yet session ace Elliot Randall’s guitar solo is a mind-bending masterclass in jazz technique and rock’n’roll abandon.
That ingenuity and off-kilter approach informs Can’t Buy A Thrill, setting Steely Dan apart from their contemporaries. Who else would have opted to set the lush melodies of “Only A Fool Would Say That” to a lounge lizard-friendly mambo shuffle? Or place a stuttering sax solo in the middle of the sleek AOR of “Dirty Work”? Elsewhere, “Kings” and “Fire In The Groove” feature a jazz-informed thickness of groove that’d point towards future glories.
Can’t Buy A Thrill’s songs were Trojan horses – gleaming and catchy pop marvels with witty, bizarre lyrics and sophisticated musical ideas bubbling under the surface. The album’s success gave Walter Becker and Donald Fagen the momentum they needed to go further still, which would result in some of the greatest albums of the 70s. Turns out you can buy thrills, plenty of them.