Steely Dan, just a bunch of perfectionists?

The sophistication of their music and the amount of time and effort they’ve put in the recording proces created a lot of mythology. But is it true?

pic from Reddit

I have already written a lot about Steely Dan on my Dutch blog but I hardly ever mentioned them here at Melodiefabriek. Well, wel, well…

Steely Dan set the norm for me way back. I believe it was when I first heart Hey Nineteen. Maybe that happend in 1980 when I was 12 years old…

Never go safe

I love the sophistication of their arrangements in combination with the cryptic lyrics which show great amounts of black humor. Listen for example to Black Cow:

You should never put too much sugar on music. This is where Steely Dan differs from many other bands which are also sophisticated. Donald spits out his spicy lyrics over super smooth chord changes. The dark matter gives it an edge. Also in the way it’s played, there’s a high amount of fire in it. It’s never like safe music.

If you listen to Aja, my favourite Dan album, you hear this very fine arranged music which sounds alive and well. You don’t hear machines. It’s all very well played by musicians who are on top of their game.

Take Five

If you go back to the sixties both Bach pianist Glenn Gould and The Beatles stopped playing live because they thought it sucked. The studio became their workspace for creating the music. They pioneered the proces, being able to fix things. Redo them in several takes and cut and paste the best pieces together.

In popmusic you hardly ever hear mistakes. This is not because you are listening to perfect musicians, hell no, this is because the stuff gets recorded over and over and over again. The Beatles were not supreme players, they were okay. But they had brilliant ideas. It took a lot of time to create these brilliant songs.

Rockmusic, popmusic, has always been recorded on multitracks. Now on computers. Most guitar solos come to life by punching in a couple of times, to cut and paste the best parts together. The amazing solo by Jay Graydon was recorded that way.

There were three punch-ins.

Anatomy of a Song: Jay Graydon Discusses Steely Dan’s “Peg”

With ONLY three punch-ins I should say. A brilliant solo. A classic.

Here’s Graydon showing us how it’s done in a video by Tim Pierce (who’s also a great player):

But the question remains: is this perfection?

In the documentary Classic Albums: Steely Dan – Aja Don and Walt show us a few of the others solos for Peg which were recorded, but didn’t make the record:

Voila! These solos are totally not working. So it makes perfect sense that Becker and Fagen kept looking for something better.

Same as for the rhythm section. Here’s Peg with Steve Gadd on drums:

I will not say that this is bad but I totally understand why this rhythm section was not a keeper. It doesn’t groove as heavy as the version with Rick Marotta on drums.

I play just what I feel

What Fagen and Becker didn’t do is write it all out and let the musicians perform it. Instead Becker and Fagen were looking for spontaneity. They were searching for a vibe, when stuff started to swing.

Don’t confuse this with perfectionism.

My background is the same as for Fagen and Becker, jazz, although I am much younger (1968). Jazz cats embrace playing in the moment, embrace improvisation and not repeating stuff over and over again every time you play it. They embrace the magic that happens when you are in the zone.

Today people are using Autotune to undo any of the pitch modulations which are a natural part of when someone’s singing. And it totally makes sense, these natural modulations are very nice. It makes us sound human instead of sounding like a fucking robot. You never ever want to be 100% in tune all the time. It’s all about tension and release. Bending notes. Never miss the chance for adding some blues to it.

And today people are using the quantise button to undo any groove related material which you can only capture when you actually play an instrument in real time. Why would you bore people to death just to make a bunch of notes land on the same beat?

People are using machines because they are looking for perfection. But this is so unlike Steely Dan. They were not looking for perfection. They were looking for nifty songs with tight arrangements performed by mighty fine musicians. As if Steely Dan wants to tell us this: yeah life sucks sometimes, but this is the best we can do as human beings. Make it swing.

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