Steely Dan's 1972 debut Can't Buy A Thrill is one of the classic debut albums in rock history. Right out of the gate, their alluring blend of rock, jazz, pop, and a twisted sense of humour is evident, producing an album listenable from end to end. The lineup on Can't Buy A Thrill is significantly different than for later albums; at the time Steely Dan was more of a band and less identified with the partnership of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker. In particular, they had a frontman, David Palmer, who did nothing but sing, rather than relying solely on Donald Fagen's inimitable vocals. Nevertheless, his work on the album is comparable in scope to Nico's work on The Velvet Underground and Nico, and like Nico he was removed not long after the release of the album, having sung lead on only two Steely Dan songs.
This work of "enthusiastic amateurs", as Becker and Fagen characterised the band at the time (in the liner notes of the reissue of Pretzel Logic), contained Steely Dan's two biggest hits: Do It Again and Reelin' In The Years. Surprisingly, they do not stand out, but are surrounded by tracks of equal greatness.
- Do It Again (5:56)
"Go back, Jack, do it again"
A Latin beat and ringing keyboards introduce this song, which became Steely Dan's calling card after its trip up and down the charts. The elliptical music leads into Donald Fagen's unusually smooth vocals. The lyrics tell stories about the draw of addiction: to alcohol, to sex, to gambling. In the middle of this two casually-brilliant solos appear; one on electric sitar and one on an unusual, cheap electric organ (a Yamaha YC-30). Odd and offbeat, but memorable and famous.
- Dirty Work (3:08)
"I'm a fool to do your dirty work"
This song was David Palmer's showcase, a blue-eyed soul number about marital infidelity, narrated from the perspective of the "other man". While the saxophone-augmented instrumentation is interesting, the other musicians mostly stay out of the way, letting Palmer's over-the-top vocals carry the piece, outside a relatively brief saxophone solo.
- Kings (3:45)
"We've seen the last of Good King Richard"
Rolling piano and ringing guitar run through the core of this delightful song. After the restraint of the opener, Donald Fagen brings out his full sarcasm with a tale about a "Good" king who has died and the celebration of his successor. The instrumental break is highlighted with probably the best guitar solo on the album, and its momentum is continued with prominent ringing guitars in the last chorus.
- Midnight Cruiser (4:08)
"Where is your bounty of fortune and fame?"
Sung by the original Steely Dan drummer Jim Hodder, this warm piece is underscored with probably the best piano line on the album. Though an unusual Steely Dan song, its music is alternately dark in the verses and joyous in the chorus, a device that Becker and Fagen would return to in the future.
- Only A Fool Would Say That (2:57)
"Talkin' 'bout a world where all is free, it just couldn't be"
Another Latin-flavoured piece, the cha-cha beat and warm guitar give it a sunny-tropical-beach sound. The bitingly sarcastic lyrics implore the listener to take a realistic view of the world and not to simply put their heads in the sand. Short but sweet.
- Reelin' In The Years (4:37)
"The things you think are precious, I can't understand"
Another great guitar line from Elliot Randall propels Becker and Fagen's sarcastic farewell to a former lover. The smooth, rattled-off verbosity of the verses has an almost rap-like rhythmic sense and Randall's guitar is alternately buzzy and smooth. You can almost hear the onlookers cheering during the solo as it reaches ever greater heights. Legend has it that Randall required only a single take for his part.
- Fire In The Hole (3:27)
"There's fire in the hole, and nothing left to burn"
Bluesy piano and casual singing lead a slow-burn number about frustration and the ensuing resignation. The piano is the highlight here, subtly set off by steel guitar until the guitar's own solo, at which point the roles reverse.
- Brooklyn (4:21)
"Brooklyn owes the charmer under me"
Smooth joins and jumpy verses form the basis of this song's instrumentation, as David Palmer exercises slightly less restraint than on his other solo outing Dirty Work. The difference from Fagen's vocals makes this song, which could otherwise be very sarcastic, sound quite sincere around its dreamy pedal steel and guitar solos.
- Change Of The Guard (3:39)
"All the signs are right this time, you don't have to try so very hard"
More uptempo this time, the cheerful music belies, in true Steely Dan fashion, the somewhat alarming lyrical content. Vocals are nominally a duet between Fagen and Palmer, but the tone of the lyrics ensures that Fagen appears in front. The music builds to a climax at the guitar solo, which is more ferocious than typical on this album and ends with an almost AOR-like slide.
- Turn That Heartbeat Over Again (4:57)
"Oh Michael, oh Jesus, I'll keep my promise when... you turn that heartbeat over again"
Featuring some of the best and most intricate vocals on a Steely Dan song, this song alternates frantic verses with relaxed, almost laconic choruses. Short guitar and keyboard solos fill the gaps while the narrator pleads with whatever power he can find to keep on living. In the instrumental break, the guitar heroics of the rest of the album are replaced with a careful multi-instrumental passage, making this feel, at least at first, the most relaxed song on the album. The three-way harmonies of Walter Becker, Donald Fagen, and David Palmer make a vocal texture that was never repeated on a Steely Dan album to close off the album.
Steely Dan burst onto the scene with a bang following the release of this album. Classed as soft rock at the time, its 1972 'softness' is worlds apart from the soulless 'easy listening' music of the 1980s that co-opted the name. Not Steely Dan's masterpiece, but well worth the attention.
This writeup is copyright 2005 D.G. Roberge and is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs-NonCommercial licence. Details can be found at http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd-nc/2.0/ .