Wednesday, August 31, 2016

106. Steely Dan - Can't Buy a Thrill

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The cover of Can’t Buy a Thrill is a visual metonym for the music contained therein. The record sleeve’s front, designed by Robert Lockart,  is a pastiche of roughly a dozen images spliced
together into a sexually  surreal graphic loosely representing the thrill-buying  alluded to in the album title.  Although  Walter Becker and Donald Fagen  have since dismissed the cover as
one of the decade’s most hideous, it is oddly appropriate.  Whereas the album’s sonic product is the result of musicians cutting and splicing in the recording studio, the cover image is the
product of a designer cutting and splicing in a graphic studio.

Capping the front cover image is the band’s name in script. A careful inspection of this seemingly straightforward logo reveals another clue to the artifice that made Steely Dan’s musical
commodity a reality. The band’s name is written in script, seemingly drawn by a careful penman — yet not one working in the usual fashion.  The lower-case “a” in “Dan” could not have
been written by a pen  utilizing forward motion.  The same goes for the loops in the “eely” portion of “Steely”:  a person would have to write  ursive script backward  in order to present
the band name the way it appears on the album cover.  The absurdity, though, does not stop there: the cross of the “t” in “Steely” is unnaturally inserted into the middle of the loop. The
capital “S” and “D” could neither be written  forward or backward by a calligrapher’s pen in real time.  The bottom swirl of the “S” is pulled  back under the main part of the letter; the
terminal upward slash of the letter “D” is firmly tucked under its opening swoosh.

The logo is craftsmanship,  not penmanship.  It is a careful absurdity,  a surrealism crafted by an artist with the imagination, time, and ability to rework the image until it was just right.

Like a band that  created its magic  in the studio — a magic that could rarely,  if ever, be recreated on  stage in real time — the artist was using the tools  of his trade to openly mask the
artifice of his creation.  The designer  seemed to be saying something about the modern (or postmodern) world that  created art such as Steely Dan’s music.  To make the representations
that thrill, one has to embrace the artificial. The rehearsal must become the performance. You have to go back and do it again.
"Steely Dan Postmodern: A Meditation on Sonic and Visual Artifice" by Brian M. Ingrassia on Matters of Sense

The album cover  features a photomontage by Robert Lockart.  It includes an  image of a line of  prostitutes,  standing in a red light  area waiting for clients,
chosen because of its  relevance to the album title.  The title of the  album is taken in  reference to the opening line of the Bob Dylan song  "It Takes a Lot to
Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry".  Walter Becker and Donald Fagen themselves commented on the album art in their liner notes to the reissued The Royal Scam,
saying that the  album possessed  "the most hideous  album cover of the seventies,  bar none (excepting perhaps Can't Buy a Thrill)."  The cover was banned in
Francisco Franco's Spain and was replaced with a photograph of the band playing in concert. wikipedia

Here's the original album cover art design.

No. 207, The Virgin All-Time Album Top 1000; No. 261, Rolling Stone, The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.

Cover art design by Robert Lockart. Album produced by Gary Katz. ABC 1972.

The title of Steely Dan’s  debut album  may come from  Bob Dylan's "It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry",  and the band’s  name a dildo in William
Burroughs’ Naked Lunch,  but Can’t Buy a Thrill,  recorded in  Los Angeles  with the best session  musicians money  could buy,  seems somehow only  distantly
related to rock’n’roll.

Cock a cursory ear to this  melange of mambo muzak,  Latin, swing and  jazz and you could be listening to a lounge band on the Catskills circuit. But beneath
the charming melodies and sublime grooves are lyrics every bit as acrid if oblique as, well, Dylan’s, while the music packs a gorgeous, subtle punch.

It became clearer as time went on,  but even at this early  stage you can tell that  Steely Dan,  the titans of 70s  studio pop along with 10cc,  were less a band
and more a pair of transplanted  New Yorkers whose job it was to conduct their many players. They appeared to have it all worked out to the nth degree – not
one percussive  break or dab of  flugelhorn is out of place.  As with all of  Steely Dan’s   albums up to 1980’s Gaucho,  much credit for this  attention to detail
must go to producer Gary Katz.

So fully-formed is  Can’t Buy a Thrill  that you would  scarcely  believe  that it’s their debut.  Fagen’s  acerbic,  nasal croon  is not the only  vocal here – David
Palmer’s dulcet tenor  can be heard for the first  and last time on a Steely Dan album,  taking the lead on  "Dirty Work" and the exquisite  "Brooklyn (Owes the
Charmer Under Me)".  Drummer Jim Hodder and Fagen duet on "Midnight Cruiser" – the very definition of bittersweet – but elsewhere Fagen dominates, and so
the Steely Dan model is in place:  tightly constructed  songs with dazzling hooks,  clever, cryptic lyrics,  and vocals  that offer  teasing critiques for  those that
want them. BBC Music Review by Paul Lester, abridged

(A) Do It Again - Dirty Work - Kings - Midnite Cruiser - Only a Fool Would Say That

(B) Reelin' in the Years - Fire in the Hole - Brooklyn (Owes the Charmer Under Me) - Change of the Guard - Turn That Heartbeat Over Again

"Do It Again" live from Eduardo Montenegro on YouTube.



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