Sunday, September 3, 2017

If You're Only Going to Buy One Greatest Hits Set From... Steely Dan

With the death today of Walter Becker, Steely Dan’s career is likely at an end (unless Donald Fagen decides to tour using the band name going forward, which may well happen). The group started in 1972 as a six-member band (although Becker and Fagen had been working together since 1968, when they met at Bard College; one of their early bands had Chevy Chase on drums), with Becker and Fagen at the core as chief songwriters – and gradually, the only permanent members of the band when they decided they weren’t interested in touring any longer. Their commercial fortunes were solid until the late 1970s, when Aja took them to another level – however, after 1980’s Gaucho, then duo pursued their own interests for over a decade. Getting back together in the 1990s, they reversed their previous attitude toward live performances and toured constantly until this year, recording two more studio albums along the way and occasionally releasing solo albums as well. Their music was almost the antithesis of much of the album-oriented rock music of the era: intricate arrangements, horns and strings as needed, and world-weary, cynical lyrics.

The first six of the band’s studio albums were released on the now-defunct ABC Records label; when ABC was bought out by MCA in 1979, Steely Dan was contractually obligated to release Gaucho for them, even though they had a pending deal with Warner Brothers. After they reunited, a live album, Alive in America, and their 2000 studio album Two Against Nature were released on former manager Irving Azoff’s Giant imprint for Warner Brothers; Everything Must Go came out in 2003 for Reprise. Nevertheless, most of the “classic” Steely Dan material is now available through corporate behemoth UMG – but at least there’s one decent all-encompassing choice available:


It’s a couple songs short of almost perfect (I would have preferred to include “Pretzel Logic,” “Josie,” and “Time Out of Mind”), but this is a good selection, with no single edits, and one song each from Two Against Nature and Everything Must Go (the skeevy “Cousin Dupree” and the skeptical/wistful “Things I Miss the Most,” respectively), so it all fits nicely onto one CD. As a result, it’s the only compilation that encompasses their entire career – everything else reflects only the ABC/MCA releases between 1972 and 1980. Plus at $5.99 for the download on Amazon and $7.99 on disc, it’s a bargain (even if the package is standard for UMG reissues and probably contains few, if any, liner notes). Oddly, it’s not on iTunes.

Other options (links, when available, go to Wikipedia):

Greatest Hits (1979) – Released as a Christmas gift (or cash grab, depending on your point of view) when ABC Records was in its death throes, this is actually the first Steely Dan album I bought. A double album on vinyl, it contains at least song from each of the first six studio albums, plus the previously-unreleased song from the Katy Lied era, “Here at the Western World” (which instantly became an AOR favorite, mostly because the rest of radio had gone mad for disco and there wasn’t enough product left for album rock jocks to play). “FM,” which had been released as a single from the soundtrack for the flop movie of the same name earlier that year, was inexplicably left off (even though “Josie,” which was released as a single after “FM,” is here). A nifty CD option (the running time of 79:17 allowed it to just squeeze onto one disc without editing), this one has been left behind by UMG, which seems to be favoring other compilations (it’s not available for download). It is available new on Amazon for $15.82 as an import.

Gold (1982) – This may set a record for cynical record label compilations. After Gaucho was released in 1980, the group took a long hiatus and was assumed to have broken up – and Donald Fagen released his first solo album, The Nightfly, on Warner Brothers in 1982. So what does a label like MCA do when only one studio album has come out since the last greatest hits set and the band is no more? You release another one anyway! Gold (which even had a similar cover design to Greatest Hits) included three of Gaucho’s seven songs, the aforementioned “FM,” two songs from 1977’s Aja (the AOR hit “Black Cow” and the top 20 pop hit “Deacon Blues”), and two earlier songs – and was released in time to compete with The Nightfly. (I can’t imagine why Becker and Fagen were so unhappy about having to release Gaucho with MCA.) Released on CD in 1991 with four more songs: “Here at the Western World,” a live version of “Bodhisattva” from 1974 that was a B-side for 1980’s “Hey Nineteen” (the song features a rambling, drunken intro by the group’s truck driver Jerome Aniton that’s funny the first time or two you hear it, but gradually moves from annoying to unbearable the more often it’s played), and two Fagen solo soundtrack songs – 1981’s “True Companion” from Heavy Metal, and 1988’s “Century’s End” from the irksome (don’t get me started) Bright Lights, Big City. That’s what’s still around today – although, in a reversal, the download is only available on iTunes for $9.99, not Amazon. (The disc is on Amazon for $8.37, although it may be preparing to go out of print.)

A Decade of Steely Dan (1985) – the first one-disc hits CD (this predates the Gold rerelease); it includes “FM” and the usual AOR hits from throughout their career to this point. It’s not a bad option; I would prefer to hear them in chronological order, but that’s me. Out of print on CD, $9.49 for the download on Amazon and $9.99 on iTunes.

The Very Best of Steely Dan: Reelin’ in the Years (1985) – This is actually an import from Great Britain, but I’ve seen it in the States often enough to include it here. Nothing particularly exciting on the LP release (it was a two-album set that would have been bettered by Greatest Hits except there were two songs from Gaucho); the CD version that came out two years later had a truncated track listing that included “FM” but excluded the Gaucho songs. Used copies are available on Amazon (but be aware the “Double Disc Set” banner is from the LP version; the CD is one disc) for $10.64 and up, but it’s not available for download.

Citizen Steely Dan (1993) – I’m not sure why MCA decided it was a good idea to put all of the band’s seven studio albums on this four-disc box set (the only other band who’d done that to my knowledge was The Police, who only had five studio albums and filled up Message in a Box with piles of live versions, B-sides, and other goodies), but they did – which effectively meant, to me, that I was better off buying the box set rather than getting any of the studio albums on CD (I had gotten them all on vinyl by this point).
Here’s my Big List of Grievances:
          1. The badly-printed booklet has ghosting from other pages (perhaps that’s the fault of my BMG Music Service edition).
          2. Even though the liner notes are funny, they’re also full of crap – Becker and Fagen claim “the shelf is pretty much empty” when it came to alternate takes and rare tracks, but the band’s first two songs, “Sail the Water Way” and “Dallas,” have remained unavailable in CD/digital format (I mean, I know they’re not very good, but still), as well as their attempts at reviving the Gaucho song “The Second Arrangement” (an assistant engineer accidentally erased the song rather than archiving it, and after multiple attempts to recreate it failed, the band gave up), along with a few others from that era. Instead, we get “Here at the Western World” (previously released on CD on Greatest Hits), “FM,” the live “Bodhisattva” (both of which had come out on the Gold CD), and an early version of “Everyone’s Gone to the Movies” – and that’s it.
          3. I would have been happier if they’d kept the original album track order as well (switching “Pearl of the Quarter” and “King of the World” is particularly annoying; at least the switch of “Deacon Blues” and “Peg” was probably made to fit the discs properly).
Anyway, if you buy another hits set, love the band and want to get all the original studio albums, this is a viable option – if you already have some of them, don’t bother. (At least the four “rare tracks” are available for individual download.) $33.49 for the four-disc download on Amazon ($34.99 on iTunes), $46.05 for the box set – and you probably don’t need the liner notes that much.

Showbiz Kids: The Steely Dan Story, 1972-1980 (2000) – Apparently there’s a rule among heritage acts that you’ve got to make a one-disc, two-disc, and four-disc set of their stuff available; here’s the two-disc version. Nothing new here; the only song that isn’t on the studio albums is “FM.” Out of print on disc, $16.49 for the download on Amazon, $16.99 on iTunes. I inexplicably almost bought this a couple of years ago used (even though there’s not a note here that isn’t on Citizen Steely Dan), then dropped the CD case and cracked it – which made me decided it was a sign. (It’s not there anymore, so somebody else bought it; don’t worry.)

20th Century Masters: The Millennium Collection – The Best of Steely Dan (2007) – This is UMG’s budget-line release. $3.99 for the disc on Amazon, not available for download. I suppose if you see it at a Travel Centers of America or Love’s Travel Stops for five bucks or so and you’re jonesing to hear “Reelin’ in the Years,” this is an okay option, but there’s no reason to purchase it otherwise.

Finally, be aware that many of the songs from Becker and Fagen’s early years before Steely Dan – an early Richard Pryor soundtrack, You’ve Got to Walk It Like You Talk It Or You’ll Lose That Beat, and some other early demos – have been available on piles of grey market discs over the years. (They did get one of their early songwriting attempts, “I Mean to Shine,” onto a Barbra Streisand album; they also worked as staff writers for ABC Records for a couple of years, and toured as part of Jay and the Americans’ band; the group’s manager cut their salaries in half partway through the tour, while lead singer Jay Black has referred to Becker and Fagen as “the Manson and Starkweather of rock and roll.”) Anyway, these might be good for a listen, but don’t buy any anthology releases that aren’t from ABC, MCA, or UMG.