Of all the albums on this year’s impressive golden anniversary list, Can’t Buy a Thrill from unsung song peddlers Steely Dan may be the most evergreen. When I casually run the list in my head of the most significant debut albums in rock history (The Doors, Are You Experienced, Please Please Me, Van Halen, Led Zeppelin 1, Boston, Chicago Transit Authority, Appetite for Destruction, My Generation, Never Mind the Bollocks, Mr Tambourine Man, The Ramones ) invariably I forget to include Can’t Buy a Thrill in November 1972 from Steely Dan. Possibly it is because this first varied assortment of smart pop from the songwriters Donald Fagen and Walter Becker sounds the least like any Steely Dan album which would follow, but there are some very clear reasons why.
From the mid-1960s up through the early Eighties it was standard in the music business to release a lead single (or even two) from “baby bands” to North American radio stations in order to generate some interest at retail record stores, as well as to gauge how many copies to press. In June 1972 when my opportunity knocked to move from middle-of-the-road AM pop radio to free-form progressive FM, precious few of the pop playlist songs (Tony Orlando and Dawn, Helen Reddy, Anne Murray, Bread, the Carpenters ) crossed over with me. Two which did were by this new band then called Steely Dan.
At that time I had no knowledge that the band’s name came from a dildo which William Burroughs had personified in Naked Lunch, nor did I realize that their debut album’s title Can’t Buy a Thrill had been lifted lock, stock, and Zimmerman from Bob Dylan’s “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry” off of Highway 61 Revisited. What was obvious, though, was that the two initial singles from Can’t Buy a Thrill, “Do It Again” and “Reelin’ in the Years”, were some of the most inventive pop/rock to liven up Top 40 playlists in years, and the subsequent Steely Dan debut in October 1972 declared this baby band full term on delivery.
Bringing the songs of New York college buddies Donald Fagen and Walter Becker to life included guitarists Denny Dias and Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, plus singer David Palmer and singing drummer Jim Hodder on album tracks “Dirty Work” and “Midnight Cruiser”, respectively, but it was the distinctive vocals of stage-shy Donald Fagen on the hits “Do It Again” (Billboard #6) and “Reelin’ in the Years” (Billboard #11), plus the tasty jazz-inflected “Fire in the Hole” that quickly settled the Steely Dan “quarterback controversy” after just the first album, which Rolling Stone magazine ranks at #238 on their “Top 500 Albums of All Time”. In early September 2017 Steely Dan co-founder/ guitarist Walter Becker passed away in Maui, where he lived with his wife, after a very long illness battling hepatitus C. Walter was 67. –Redbeard
( The late Walter Becker (L) with Donald Fagen of Steely Dan )