Mary is strapping on a rubber penis. “Steely Dan III from Yokohama,” she says, caressing the shaft.
“What happen to Steely Dan I?”
“He was torn in two by a bull dyke. She could cave in a lead pipe.”
“And Steely Dan II?”
“Chewed to bits by a famished candiru in the Upper Baboonsasshole. And don’t say ‘wheeeeeeee!’ this time.”
— William S. Burroughs, Naked Lunch
I doubt that “wheee!” will be your response to this Steely Dan, an L.A. rock band that is headed by a pair of transplanted Gotham mavericks named Donald Fagen and Walter C. Becker. If you figure that the group’s moniker and the blow-job lips and floozies on the hideous cover portend an album of cast iron cuts, figure again, friend. The Dan’s forte is more cha-cha-cha than churning chomp.
The insipid liner notes tell us that the boys have paid their music-biz dues. One Dan was even a member of Ultimate Spinach. There is no mention, however, that composers Donald Fagen and Walter Becker learned the trade by playing the famed Catskills with the inimitable Jay and the Americans. As if that weren’t enough, they penned “I Mean to Shine,” recorded recently by Barbra Joan Streisand.
Somewhere in the course of two years many of the idiosyncratic touches of Fagen and Becker were scrapped in favor of a more salable songbook, borrowing liberally from CSN&Y, Procol Harum, Spirit, the Band and sundry Motown hits.
The set begins promisingly with “Do It Again,” which uses Spirit’s approach effectively. Employing a minor-key melody with a major-key bridge, the tune is fully developed and the mix is dense enough to give it AM possibilities, if some of its six minutes were chopped. Fagen’s rancorous voice effectively sells the engaging lyric, which deals with man’s propensity for repeating his folly. And give Denny Dias an “A” in chutzpah for that nice solo on electric sitar. “Dirty Work” works because it juxtaposes David Palmer’s sweet tenor voice with misogynistic lyrics. Side two opens with the superb “Reelin’ in the Years,” a rocking Moby Grape shuffle that spotlights guest Elliot Randall’s biting lead guitar, more acrid 1965 Dylanderived verse, Fagen’s best vocal and Becker’s tough, propulsive bass.
Can’t Buy a Thrill (the title, of course, was lifted from a line in Dylan’s “It Takes a Lot to Laugh”) is distinguished by three top-level cuts and scattered moments of inspiration, but there are those instances of Steely coming on like a limp dildo. Too bad — great title.