Deconstructing Steely Dan: The Band That Was More Than Just a Band

How do you explain Steely Dan to someone who’s never heard of them? Two pretentious, perfectionistic, and very talented white guys who love Bebop and R&B meet in passing at Bard College in 1967. They start a series of bands, one of them featuring Chevy Chase on drums. They rub everyone the wrong way and write songs too complicated for pop and TV but too good to go away, so they become a celebrated studio unit, named after a fictional steam-powered dildo in a William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch.

They obsess over studio production, putting together a revolving cast of high-end session musicians and pushing them through take after take. They carefully edit songs together from hours and hours of tape. And somehow, they end up creating some of the funkiest music of the 70s—the smoothest of smooth jazz, the yacht-iest of yacht rock… then, a generation later, they become perhaps the most sampled band of all time, their grooves a sine qua non of hip hop’s evolution….

Hardly sounds plausible. But there it is: Donald Fagen and Walter Becker—two super-fans of the genres they creatively appropriated—made some incredible, snarling, cynical, viciously groovy easy listening music, and it has more than held up over the decades since they released their debut album Can’t Buy a Thrill in 1972. Despite decades of critical praise and hit after hit, they also remain a profoundly misunderstood band.

That is, if we can even call them a band. The Polyphonic video above convincingly argues otherwise. Becker and Fagen maintained total control at all times over the project, and mostly resisted touring to focus on building albums out of thousands of perfect takes. They were curating “an aesthetic… one that relied on intense perfectionism” and satirical, oblique lyricism. Something of a conceptual art project that never once broke character.

The elements were there from the beginning—in “Do it Again,” for example, from their first album—and they grew more sophisticated and calculated throughout the decade. The band’s obsession with quality culminated in their masterpiece Aja and their swan song (before re-uniting 20 years later), the slick and bitter Gaucho. Their hyper-critical detachment can be off-putting to people who prefer to see musicians telegraph passionate authenticity, but for Steely Dan fans, the aloofness is part of the appeal.

Major guitar-rock hit “Reelin’ in the Years,” a song Fagen called “dumb, but effective,” satirizes 60s nostalgia long before that became a major cultural phenomenon. The song mocks the very people who most respond to it, like Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” tips the sacred cows of many of its biggest fans. Even Steely Dan’s detractors can’t help but admire their ability to choose the perfect players for every song and to coax, or browbeat, out of them the best possible performances.

Their perfectionism and studio polish, qualities you’ll learn much more about in the video, masked a dark, subversive core. “For Fagen and Becker,” writes Chris Morris at Variety, “the beautifully tooled music they made with their studio cohorts served as the ultimate alienation effect. The true import of their work, which addressed forbidden impulses that moved to the edge of crime and frequently beyond, was always garbed in satiny elegance; its sardonic and horrific essence was marketed as the purest ear candy.”

Or, maybe, put differently, if you get the dark humor of Patrick Bateman earnestly extolling the virtues of Huey Lewis and the News, Whitney Houston, and Phil Collins before a captive audience of his murder victims in Mary Harron’s American Psycho, there’s a good chance you get Steely Dan. As Jay Black, lead singer of Jay and the Americans, once said, Becker and Fagen were “the Manson and Starkweather of rock ‘n’ roll,” referring, of course, to Charles Manson and spree killer Charles Starkweather. With that in mind, you might never hear “Rikki Don’t Lose that Number” the same way again.

Related Content:

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Home Taping Is Killing Music: When the Music Industry Waged War on the Cassette Tape in the 1980s, and Punk Bands Fought Back

The first time I saw the infamous Skullcassette-and-Bones logo was on holiday in the UK and purchased the very un-punky Chariots of Fire soundtrack. It was on the inner sleeve. “Home Taping Is Killing Music” it proclaimed. It was? I asked myself. “And it’s illegal” a subhead added. It is? I also asked myself. (Ironically, this was a few months before I came into possession of my first combination turntable-cassette deck.)

Ten years and racks and racks of homemade cassette dubs on my shelves later, music seemed to be doing very well. (Later, by going digital, the music industry killed itself, and I had absolutely nothing to do with it.)

British record collectors will no doubt remember this campaign that started in 1981, another business-backed "moral" panic. And funnily enough it had nothing to do with dubbing vinyl.

Instead, the British Phonographic Industry (BPI) were taking aim at people who were recording songs off the radio instead of purchasing records. With the rise of the cassette tape in popularity, the BPI saw pounds and pence leaving their pockets.

Now, figuring out lost profits from home taping could be a fools’ errand, but let’s focus on the “illegal” part. Technically, this is true. Radio stations pay licensing fees to play music, so a consumer taping that song off the radio is infringing on the song’s copyright. Britain has very different “fair use” laws than America. In addition, digital radio and a clearer signals have complicated matters over the years.

In practice, however, the whole thing was bunkum. Radio recordings are historic. Mixtapes are culture. I have my tapes of John Peel’s BBC shows, which I recorded for the music. Now, I listen to them for Peel’s intros and outros.

Seriously, the Napalm Death Peel Sessions *only* make sense with his commentary. Whoever taped this is an unknown legend:

The post-punk crowd knew the campaign was bunkum too. Malcolm McLaren, always the provocateur, released Bow Wow Wow’s cassette-only-single C-30 C-60 C-90 Go with a blank B-side that urged consumers to record their own music. EMI quickly dropped the band.

The Dead Kennedys also repeated the black b-side gimmick with In God We Trust, Inc. (I would be interested in anybody who picks up a copy used of either to see what *is* on the b-side).

And then there were the parodies. The metal group Venom used “Home Taping Is Killing Music; So Are Venom” on an album; Peter Principle offered “Home Taping Is Making Music”: Billy Bragg kept it Marxist: “Capitalism is killing music - pay no more than £4.99 for this record”. For the industry, music was the product; for the regular folks, music was communication, it was art, it was a language.

The campaign never did much damage. Attempts to levy a tax on blank cassettes didn’t get traction in the UK. And BPI’s director general John Deacon was frustrated that record companies didn’t want to splash the Jolly Roger on inner sleeves. The logo lives on, however, as part of torrent site Pirate Bay's sails:

Just after the hysteria died down, compact discs began their rise, planting the seeds for the digital revolution, the mp3, file sharing, and now streaming.

(Wait, is it possible to record internet streams? Why, yes.)

If you have any stories about how you helped “kill music” by recording your favorite DJs, confess your crimes in the comments.

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Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the artist interview-based FunkZone Podcast and is the producer of KCRW's Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.

Tibetan Musical Notation Is Beautiful

Religions take the cast and hue of the cultures in which they find root. This was certainly true in Tibet when Buddhism arrived in the 7th century. It transformed and was transformed by the native religion of Bon. Of the many creative practices that arose from this synthesis, Tibetan Buddhist music ranks very highly in importance.

As in sacred music in the West, Tibetan music has complex systems of musical notation and a long history of written religious song. “A vital component of Tibetan Buddhist experience,” explains Google Arts & Cultures Buddhist Digital Resource Center, “musical notation allows for the transference of sacred sound and ceremony across generations. A means to memorize sacred text, express devotion, ward off feral spirts, and invoke deities.”

Some of these features may be alien to secular Western Buddhists focused on mindfulness and silent meditation, but to varying degrees, Tibetan schools place considerable value on the aesthetic experience of extra-human realms. As University of Tulsa musicologist John Powell writes, “the use of sacred sound” in Tibetan Buddhism, a “Mantrayana” tradition, acts “as a formula for the transformation of human consciousness.”

Tibetan musical notations, Google points out, “symbolically represent the melodies, rhythm patterns, and instrumental arrangements. In harmony with chanting, visualizations, and hand gestures, [Tibetan] music crucially guides ritual performance." It is characterized not only by its integration of ritual dance, but also by a large collection of ritual instruments—including the long, Swiss-like horns suited to a mountain environment—and unique forms of polyphonic overtone singing.

The examples of musical notation you see here came from the appropriately-named Twitter account Musical Notation is Beautiful and typeface designer and researcher Jo De Baerdemaeker. At the top is a 19th century manuscript belonging to the “Yang” tradition, “the most highly involved and regarded chant tradition in Tibetan music,” notes the Schoyen Collection, “and the only one to rely on a system of notation (Yang-Yig).”

The curved lines represent “smoothly effected rises and falls in intonation.” The notation also “frequently contains detailed instructions concerning in what spirit the music should be sung (e.g. flowing like a river, light like bird song) and the smallest modifications to be made to the voice in the utterance of a vowel.” The Yang-Yig goes all the way back to the 6th century, predating Tibetan Buddhism, and “does not record neither the rhythmic pattern nor duration of notes.” Other kinds of music have their own types of notation, such as that in the piece above for voice, drums, trumpets, horns, and cymbals.

Though they articulate and elaborate on religious ideas from India, Tibet's musical traditions are entirely its own. “It is essential to rethink the entire concept of melody and rhythm" to understand Tibetan Buddhist chant, writes Powell in a detailed overview of Tibetan music’s vocal and instrumental qualities. “Many outside Tibetan culture are accustomed to think of melody as a sequence of rising or falling pitches,” he says. “In Tibetan Tantric chanting, however, the melodic content occurs in terms of vowel modification and the careful contouring of tones.”  Hear an example of traditional Tibetan Buddhist chant just above, and learn more about Tibetan musical notation at Google Arts & Culture.

via @NotationIsGreat

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Alan Lomax’s Massive Music Archive Is Online: Features 17,000 Historic Blues & Folk Recordings

A huge treasure trove of songs and interviews recorded by the legendary folklorist Alan Lomax from the 1940s into the 1990s have been digitized and made available online for free listening. The Association for Cultural Equity, a nonprofit organization founded by Lomax in the 1980s, has posted some 17,000 recordings. When you click to this page, see the navigation on the right.

"For the first time," Cultural Equity Executive Director Don Fleming told NPR's Joel Rose, "everything that we've digitized of Alan's field recording trips are online, on our Web site. It's every take, all the way through. False takes, interviews, music."

It's an amazing resource. For a quick taste, here are a few examples from one of the best-known areas of Lomax's research, his recordings of traditional African American culture:

But that's just scratching the surface of what's inside the enormous archive. Lomax's work extended far beyond the Deep South, into other areas and cultures of America, the Caribbean, Europe and Asia. "He believed that all cultures should be looked at on an even playing field," his daughter Anna Lomax Wood told NPR. "Not that they're all alike. But they should be given the same dignity, or they had the same dignity and worth as any other."

You can listen to Rose's piece about the archive on the NPR website, as well as a 1990 interview with Lomax by Terry Gross of Fresh Air, which includes sample recordings from Woody Guthrie, Jelly Roll Morton, Lead Belly and Mississippi Fred McDowell. To dive into the Lomax audio archive, you can search the vast collection by artist, date, genre, country and other categories, or go to the Sound Collections Guide for easy browsing.

Note: An earlier version of this post originally appeared on our site in March 2012.

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See Classic Performances of Joni Mitchell from the Very Early Years–Before She Was Even Named Joni Mitchell (1965/66)

A photograph of two old friends—Joni Mitchell and David Hockney—holding hands at Hockney’s L.A. solo exhibition took over the internet for a moment, for sentimental reasons Guy Trebay laid out in The New York Times. These include the fact that “Ms. Mitchell has seldom been seen in public since she says she was given a diagnosis of Morgellons disease, and suffered a brain aneurysm in 2015,” and “despite the presence of the cane she uses since having learned again to walk, Ms. Mitchell appears radiant and robust.”

Trebay does not include another reason that comes to mind: the two elderly artists, in their sweaters and adorable matching snap-brim hats, look like regular old folks on the way to a weekly chess match in the park. It’s a humanizing portrait of two giants of the art and music world, two people who, despite their wealth and fame, seem imminently down-to-earth and approachable; a warm and cheerful image, says Irish poet Sean Hewitt, who first shared it on Twitter, of “two successful people enjoying their old age.”

Doesn't everyone especially want that for Joni Mitchell? Of all the beloved septuagenarian stars on the public’s radar these days, Mitchell garners more well-wishes than anyone—rallying generations of stars and musicians for a 75th birthday tribute concert last November. The show appeared in theaters (see a trailer below) and has been released as a superb album of live covers called Joni 75. So much of the love for Mitchell—her undisputed brilliance as a songwriter, guitarist, and performer notwithstanding—has to do with the amount of personal pain she overcame to make it as an artist.

Born Roberta Joan Anderson in Alberta, Canada, her early struggles gave her musical voice so much poignancy and authenticity. As she herself has said, “I wouldn’t have pursued music but for trouble.” A bout with polio at age nine, a push against her parents' expectations to claim her identity as a visual artist and musician... then, at age 20, Mitchell’s boyfriend left her, “three months pregnant in an attic room with no money and winter coming on,” she later wrote. She gave up the baby for adoption, and the decision haunted her for years. In 1982’s “Chinese Café,” she sang “Your kids are coming up straight / My child’s a stranger / I bore her / But I could not raise her.”

The following year, 1966, she married American folk singer Chuck Mitchell, took the name we know her by, and left Canada for the first time to make musical history. But first, she appeared on a Canadian television program called Let’s Sing Out, hosted by folk singer Oscar Brand and recorded on college campuses across the country between 1963 and 1967. The first ’65 episode at the top captures Mitchell—then Joan Anderson—singing her unreleased “Born to Take the Highway” at the University of Manitoba, a prescient song that “imagined cars and women differently” than the typical road songs of “powerful muscle cars” and “jacked-up masculinity and sexual conquest,” writes the blog Women in Rock.

“I was born to take the highway / I was born to chase a dream,” she sings, certainties that reverberate through her music and her life. Brand introduces Mitchell as an example of the movement in folk music toward the “self-written song.” She appears with him later on that same broadcast to sing “Blow Away the Morning Dew” (a young Dave Van Ronk also appeared on the show). In subsequent broadcasts in the compilation, we see "Joan Anderson" more confidently inhabit the persona that would propel her to fame first in Canada, then the States, then the world. She performs solo and with the Chapins, then, finally as Joni Mitchell, in two 1966 broadcasts. Find a tracklist of each classic performance below, and, if you haven’t already, take some time out to celebrate Mitchell's 75th by revisiting the beginnings of her career over fifty years ago.

 

October 4, 1965 - With The Chapins and Dave Van Ronk

00:00 - Opening

01:22 - Born to Take the Highway

04:25 - Blow Away the Morning Dew

 

October 4, 1965 - With The Chapins and Patrick Sky

07:52 - Opening

09:05 - Favorite Color

12:00 - Me and My Uncle

 

October 24, 1966 - With Bob Jason and Jimmy Driftwood

15:08 - Opening

17:20 - Just Like Me

20:15 - Urge for Going

 

October 24, 1966 - With Bob Jason and the Allen-Ward Trio

24:08 - Opening

25:05 - Night in the City

27:55 - Blue on Blue

30:30 - Let's Get Together (Allen-Ward Trio)

33:37 - Prithee, Pretty Maiden

 

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

David Bowie Songs Reimagined as Pulp Fiction Book Covers: Space Oddity, Heroes, Life on Mars & More

In the last year, screenwriter Todd Alcott’s hobby has blown up into a legit side career.

This Etsy seller isn’t peddling kombucha SCOBYs, letter pressing new baby announcements, or repurposing old barns for use as cutting boards.

No, Alcott’s crafty fortunes fall squarely at the intersection of pulp fiction and rock and roll, with classic song titles, lyrics, and other cunning references replacing the cover text of pre-existing vintage paperbacks.

David Bowie’s lifelong fascination with space travel, tortured anti heroes, and outrageous fashion make him a natural fit with Alcott’s ongoing project, which has lavished similar attention on such luminaries as Bob Dylan, RadioheadTalking Heads, and Elvis Costello.

As Alcott, who conceives of his mash ups as tributes to his long time musical favorites, told Open Culture:

Bowie dressed as an androgynous alien, went out onstage and told his audience "You're not alone, give me your hands," I can't think of a more encompassing gesture to a misfit. No matter how weird you were in your community, you would always find someone like you at a Bowie concert. During a time of my life when I felt incredibly isolated and alone, (Bowie was one of) the key artists who made me feel like I was part of a bigger world, an artistic continuum.

Meanwhile, Alcott is tending to another continuum by posthumously pairing such late greats as Bowie and Queen’s Freddie Mercury (“co-author” of the deep sea-themed Under Pressure cover, above) with the sort of adventurous, occasionally steamy reading material that were among the hallmarks of their 1950s' boyhoods.

Many of these items have found their way to used book and thrift stores, where, tattered and worn, they provide a vast trove for someone like Alcott, who browses with his favorite acts’ catalogues deeply imprinted on his mental hard drive.

It must’ve been a grand day when he happened across the above 1970s sci fi cover. A few deft tweaks, and Life on Mars, a nonexistent “new adventure from the author of Space Oddity," was born.

(Hardcore fans, take note of the doctored publisher in the upper left corner)

Heroes, which takes its inspiration from the 1981 X-Men comic Days of Future Past, is crammed full of such Easter eggs. Can you spot them all?

What a fitting tribute to the Starman’s enduring hold on the public’s imagination.

Browse Todd Alcott’s Bowie-themed pulp fiction collection in his Etsy shop.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in New York City April 15 for the next installment of her book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

The Amazing Isolated Drums of Dennis Davis, David Bowie’s Master Drummer, Revisited by Producer Tony Visconti

“Look Back in Anger” is an underrated Bowie song on an underrated Bowie album (Lodger) but it’s always been a favorite because of the fury and thunder of the backing band. And the MVP of that six person group is drummer Dennis Davis. A member of Roy Ayers’ jazz-funk group at first, he joined Bowie’s session/touring band during the Young Americans sessions and stayed through Scary Monsters. He’s that most perfect of drummers too: endlessly inventive, yet never gets in the way of the funk.

But this track might be one of his crowning achievements. A nervous, propulsive rhythm on the drums carries the song, doubled on congas/percussion, but producer Tony Visconti buries it in the mix a bit so it doesn’t overwhelm the operatic arc of the song.

Recently, Davis’ young son Hikaru has been making a video exploring his father’s legacy, after Dennis passed away in 2016. Which means that this adorable elementary school student has been sitting down with the likes of Bowie sidemen Sterling Campbell, Carlos Alomar, Jan Michael Alejandro, Emir Ksasan, and George Murray, along with Roy Ayers and the members of his band.

In the above video, Hikaru interviews Tony Visconti about the aforementioned track (the producer’s favorite) and we get to hear for the first time ever Davis’ isolated drum and conga tracks.
“He’s playing so many things at once...and yet it never sounds busy,” Visconti says.

Davis incorporated a lot of Latin influences and loved triplets wherever he could drop them in.
Visconti doesn’t really add much more. They, like most of you will probably do, just sit there and listen, jaws hanging open.

Because Davis is on pretty much every post-Spiders Bowie album of the ‘70s he really should be mentioned in the same breath as the Bonhams and Keith Moons of the world, but in the meantime here’s a few more classic Davis moments:

Although slathered with Brian Eno's noise-gate treatments, Davis' beat is solid and prominent on "Sound and Vision"

This live version of "Station to Station" from 1978 showcases what an unstoppable force Davis was live. Adrian Belew (King Crimson, Talking Heads) provides searing guitar work. Transcendent.

A classic track from Roy Ayers Ubiquity, heavy in the Afro-Cuban groove, and Davis is front and center.

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Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the artist interview-based FunkZone Podcast and is the producer of KCRW's Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.

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