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.