Full Albums features covers of every track off a classic album. Got an idea for a future pick? Leave a note in the comments!
Any artist who scores a major success with their debut–as Steely Dan accomplished with Can’t Buy a Thrill–just might lose some sleep while working on their follow-up. Will it be any good compared to the first?
But Steely Dan co-founders Walter Becker and Donald Fagen seemingly had no such worries about their sophomore release, Countdown to Ecstasy. In fact, they were cavalier about it to the point of self-sabotage. One example: they selected “Show Biz Kids” as the album’s first single. This is a song in which Fagen drops what we now call an f-bomb (unheard of in 1973); it’s a song that mocks the band’s own (very modest) fanbase.
The prematurely-jaded transplants from New York City adopted a fuck-all stance about show bidness [sic]and the LA lifestyle in general. In their darker moments they took aim at Western civilization itself. Even the album title is cynical, a jab at our collective eagerness to traffic in quick fixes–spiritual, political, and musical ones included.
At least the band toured steadily to promote their music. But even there they did nothing to dress it up–no light shows or stage antics. They simply played the music. In fact, for Countdown, they fired the only band member with any interest in being on stage (singer David Palmer). They shunned press interviews, never smiled for the camera. Looking back at this period decades later, Becker and Fagen blamed the punishing tour schedule for the shortcomings of their studio work.
Countdown did in fact fall short of their first album, if the metric is hit singles and Billboard chart positions. Countdown had no hits to match “Do It Again” or “Reelin’ in the Years” from the album before, and it had no staying power in the charts. What the album did have was a fresh fusion of jazz and rock, remixed within a Brill Building songwriting context. Its tracks featured horn arrangements, Hendrix-inspired guitar pyrotechnics, and flashes of Zappa-level musical mayhem. Lyrically, you have Dylan, Philip K. Dick, and Chuck Berry influences. There’s plenty of polish and precision, but the album makes room for the ramshackle too (the best instance coming from guest guitarist Rick Derringer). Romantic ballads sit beside funkathons. You have “Show Biz Kids”–basically a one-chord song–followed by “My Old School,” with its ornate horn charts, backing vocals galore, and at least a dozen chords. Plus some cowbell to keep it real.
Countdown is in no way a concept album, but consider that the opening track is about one man’s search for spiritual enlightenment, while the closing track concerns a man’s quest to find any other survivor of nuclear holocaust. There’s a message implied by those choice bookends. The songs in the middle explore various forms of sleaze and misadventure.
One admirer, Frank Zappa, called their style “downer surrealism,” overlooking the fact that the music itself is most often joyful and humorous. A line like “Bodhisattva! I’m gonna sell my house in town!” positively swings with dancing-in-the-streets jubilation. So what if it’s about a gullible bro with a trust fund?
Few fans consider Countdown to be Steely Dan’s greatest effort, but that’s not to say it ain’t great. Dedicated Dan followers consider several of its songs essential to the catalog. So do Becker and Fagen themselves: in all of the band’s concert tours of recent decades, they play “Bodhisattva” and “My Old School” as frequently as any mega-seller from their later albums, including “Kid Charlemagne,” “Peg,” and “Hey Nineteen.” They bring out “The Boston Rag” more often than not. Often they play “Show Biz Kids,” and you can guess that its sneering lyric about Steely Dan t-shirts (or is it updated to hoodies now?) gets a reaction loud enough to be heard at the top of the Custerdome.
It takes a special kind of talent or imagination to cover Steely Dan, and few are game to try. If you rule out tribute bands (and we do, immediately), pickings are pretty slim. But gems are out there to be found if you push the algorithms, and some of these finds may even improve upon the original songs. There’s space folk, chiptone, jazz, and indie rock ahead, so hang on to your fez.
Mark Masters Ensemble–“Bodhisattva” (Steely Dan cover)
If you lean heavily into the “jazz” part of “jazz-rock fusion,” this one is for you. Contemporary jazz composer Mark Masters likes to honor his musical heroes with full album tributes: he has honored Charles Mingus in this way, and Duke Ellington, and Becker/Fagen. His creative re-arrangement of “Bodhisattva” makes up for all the paint-by-number note-for-note recreations that exist. I mean, the live Toto version and the Brian Setzer Orchestra version both rock, but for all their impressive and sweaty guitar shredding there’s little new or unique about their slant. Imitations like these never escape from the uncanny valley. With Masters and his ensemble, you never have to worry about predictability; they honor the original by spring-boarding off from it; they celebrate both its shine and its sparkle.
Brian Chartrand–“Razor Boy” (Steely Dan cover)
Singer-songwriter Brian Chartrand rode out the COVID-19 waves by recording Steely Dan covers–excellent ones–releasing them in two volumes in 2020 and 2021. He brings an effortless no-drama bearing to the material. Chartrand’s emphasis is on the lyric and storytelling rather than the instrumental, though musically there’s a lot of nuance to admire. His ease with the vocals on the wistful “Razor Boy” are in contrast to Donald Fagen’s–the original should have been a step lower to be comfortably within Fagen’s range. As with Jeff Tweedy’s cover of “Any Major Dude,” an easygoing approach feels fresh when covering Steely Dan; the Dan can get a little overwrought sometimes. Brian Chartrand plays it chill and it works well.
Celia Navas–“The Boston Rag” (Steely Dan cover)
More musicians should take a tip from singer and multi-instrumentalist Celia Navas. You can do Steely Dan songs and to better effect without, like, a dozen Berklee College of Music graduates and a Pro Tools genius to help you out. Not that Navas is a minimalist or a purist–she digitally doubles herself to add accompaniment on various instruments (in this case, guitar and piano) and to add vocal harmonies. She does it all while singing in a second language (or third, or fourth…) rather than her native tongue. Navas began posting her takes on “The Boston Rag” and other Dan selections just a few months ago. Good timing for us, because this is good stuff from Navas.
Kung Fu–“Your Gold Teeth” (Steely Dan cover)
“New-funk” band Kung Fu has serious love for Steely Dan. (We noted them before in our look at The Royal Scam.) If they weren’t too busy with their own impressive songwriting and other creative activities, they’d probably do well as the core of a tribute band. Fantastic musicianship on display here, and plenty of funk–no wonder the dance-floor is crowded. The guy who works the saxophone plays just what he feels.
Rickie Lee Jones–“Show Biz Kids” (Steely Dan cover)
Rickie Lee Jones once opened for Steely Dan during a run of New York City shows, and joined them on stage for a song or two. Previous to that she had hired Walter Becker to produce her Flying Cowboys album, and on a different project had Donald Fagen sitting in. Jones seems like part of the extended Dan family. Even so, her version of “Show Biz Kids” feels like a distant cousin-in-law of the original. And that distance is a good thing: it shows her originality and skills as re-interpreter. Jones’s rendition makes it sound like one of her own artful pieces rather than a knock-off of Walter and Don.
Marja Hansen–“My Old School” (Steely Dan cover)
2021 wasn’t a great year for any number of reasons, but to its credit it produced intriguing new Steely Dan covers by younger artists. A case in point is Marja Hansen, who describes her style as space folk / dream pop. Seems about right. The vibe works best, maybe, when Hansen gives her dreamy-spacey phrasing to material you know to be amped up and over-heated in its original incarnation (in addition to “My Old School,” Hansen covers “In Bloom” by Nirvana). The contrast, the change of pace, grates for a second and then shifts into gratifying. Hear it out.
Hansen’s approach brings to mind the Fire in the Hole project by Sara Isaksson and Rebecca Tornqvist–Steely Dan covers in a pared-back and somewhat brooding mode. To make the strange familiar and the familiar strange, that’s the whole game.
On last year’s Covers EP, Hansen also takes on Garth Brooks and Patti Smith. I’m in.
Point Juncture WA–“Pearl of the Quarter” (Steely Dan cover)
Finally! Steely Dan in the hands of indie rock weirdos. After subjecting ourselves to a few too many smooth jazz covers and rather precious and careful interpretations–countdown to lethargy–it came as sweet relief to hear some howling feedback.
Point Juncture WA is (or was?) not from WA but from OR, namely Portland, which is (or was?) one of the leading epicenters of indie rock weirdness. It may be the power of suggestion, but there’s a hint of early Elliot Smith in this rendition.
“Pearl of the Quarter” is a curious selection: according to the stats, is the least played track on Countdown (but who’s counting)? The cover appears on a worthwhile compilation called Bridging the Distance, on which bands like The Minus 5, Blitzen Trapper, and The Decemberists revive songs from the ’70s and ’80s, sometimes in a less-than-reverent spirit.
MrHopeTelevision–“King of the World” (Steely Dan cover)
This song’s narrator, upon finding that he’s survived nuclear apocalypse, calls out in search other survivors on “an old ham radio.” Sometimes old tech is best tech. In that spirit, let’s close with a chiptone arrangement of “King of the World.”
Chiptone, or 8-bit music, stems from the golden age of video game arcades (which happens to coincide with Steely Dan’s golden age, but that’s beside the point). Non-gamers associate the game music with cheapness and cheesiness. But a crafty artist can apply the aesthetic in artful ways. To listen to a Steely Dan song recast into an 8-bit container (assuming the artist behind it isn’t a dope) is to renew your appreciation of that song’s melody, its rhythms, instrumental figures, and structure. Or it’s just to have mindless fun with the music again.
Moronic robot music, you say? Only a fool would say that.
The MrHopeTelevision Youtube channel has a trove of Steely Dan covers as good as this. Check it out before the end-times arrive.
Joe Jackson(!) did a pretty good King of the World on his live in NYC album circa ’08.
I rather liked Boz Scaggs’ take on Pearl of the Quarter.
Loved this list and shared with a fellow Dan freak like me!
And here’s a fantastical one I just saw on another blog…. it adds zero to the song in that it aims to just replicate exactly, but holy cow does it achieve liftoff:
Thank you Noel, and I agree with you about that version of My Old School. I found it while researching the article, but I’m biased against note-for-note recreations of this sort. Still, this is one is in a class of its own. SO well done, and well filmed, it’s truly exciting to watch. “Fantastical” is correct.