Review of Steely Dan's album The Very Best Of
Younger readers probably won't have heard the name Steely Dan (Appropriated from a sex toy featured in William Burroughs lysergic epic the Naked Lunch) - but they'll definitely have heard their music. Between 1972 and 1980 the band, based around hipster college drop outs Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, plus a host of floating session musicians - recorded seven albums, each progressively more successful than the last. Loved and hated in roughly equal measure, they split following the release of Gaucho, by which the partnership's creative impetus had burned out, thanks in no small part to Becker's drug problems.
During that period of fecundity however the duo stood large in the US and Europe, both commercially and artistically, a success fuelled by the rise of more adult orientated FM programming in their home country. Their sound was the embodiment of laid back seventies California, one which Fagen, talking to Jazzwise in 2000, described as 'A kind of rhythm and blues foundation with jazz harmonies'.
Surrounded by a supporting/rotating cast of virtuoso help and working with producer Gary Katz, the duo openly admitted that they had no set plan and recorded pretty much what they liked, the way they wanted to do it. With Fagen's distinctively reedy voice and instrumentally a chameleon like ability to change styles almost mid-bar, this freewheeling approach still allowed them to colonise the soft-rock market.
One point to mention before we get into the content: this two disc set, as immaculately packaged as it is, only counts as a 'Very Best Of' if you conveniently ignore the fact that Becker and Fagen reformed in 2000. And after this twenty year hiatus they've subsequently released two further records. This would be a particularly big oversight for any Dan head, especially as the first, Two Against Nature picked up that year's Grammy for best album.
However, to be reasonable it's unlikely any original fans would be that interested in another best of, so for those who either can't figure what to buy dad for his birthday, or equally nostalgics those who now have more head than hair, this surely ticks all the boxes.
Opening with the brooding Do It Again, the first instalment proves again that Becker and Fagen were more than a pair of stoners reimagining jazz with hippy values. Little short of a masterclass in structure and technique, songs like Reelin' In The Years, Rikki Don't Lose That Number and My Old School are undoubtedly legends of the form. Each of the seven ABC/MCA era albums are duly represented, with everything you'd expect all present and correct.
The verdict? Well, the chronological sequencing will challenge: this rather odd choice means that the second disk begins to sag about halfway, and the Gaucho material is at best the noble efforts of a band running on empty. There's also nothing new either, no remastering or previously unreleased out-takes, which as we said previously rules out the enthusiasts. Taking these facts into consideration, you have to say this looks more like a label cash-in than an attempt to engage a new generation of potential fans.
For some this music was the enemy, a cynically louche cross between a cruise ship house band and arty jazz. On hearing it, they immediately went out and formed punk groups. True, there are lots of other people doing lots of other more interesting things these days, but a Steely Dan compilation should be a welcome addition to anyone's collection. Just not this one.