1. Bodhisattva (5:19)
2. Razor Boy (3:11)
3. The Boston Rag (5:40)
4. Your Gold Teeth (7:02)
5. Show Biz Kids (5:25)
6. My Old School (5:47)
7. Pearl of the Quarter (3:50)
8. King of the World (5:04)
Donald Fagen – piano, electric piano, synthesizer, vocals
Walter Becker – electric bass, harmonica, vocals
Ray Brown – string bass on Razor Boy
Denny Dias – guitar, Stereo Mixmaster General
Jeff “Skunk” Baxter – guitar, pedal steel guitar
Jim Hodder – drums, percussion, vocals
Ben Benay – acoustic guitar
Ray Brown – string bass (2)
Rick Derringer – slide guitar (5)
Victor Feldman – vibes, marimba, percussion
Ernie Watts – saxophone
Johnny Rotella – saxophone
Lanny Morgan – saxophone
Bill Perkins – saxophone
Sherlie Matthews, Myrna Matthews, Patricia Hall, David Palmer, Royce Jones, James Rolleston, Michael Fennelly – background vocals
Steely Dan are one of those bands that are loved passionately by a great many progressive rock fans, but whose legitimacy as a genuinely progressive outfit can spark some really heated debate. Now, while their music has definitely little in common with ‘traditional’ prog (as in 30-minute epics, head-spinning time signature changes, and all that jazz), its sheer complexity, sophistication and technical brilliance – not to mention Donald Fagen’s literate, sarcastic lyrics – deserves a place in any self-respecting, comprehensive account of progressive music.
Though I was already vaguely familiar with the band, it was only in the past few years that I really got to know them in depth – thanks to the man who is now my husband. Having listened to all of their albums, I can safely state that I consider Countdown to Ecstasy (the band’s sophomore effort) their masterpiece, superior even to the much-praised Aja. Almost every track on it is a gem, a perfectly crafted example of music that is at the same time accessible and demanding, intricate and smoothly flowing. Steely Dan can do great hooks with the same ease as any seasoned pop band, and stun you with complex instrumental interplay that would do any ‘classic’ prog band proud. Their choruses are infectiously memorable, but a dark, often seedy reality is hidden beneath those apparently carefree melodies.
Coundown to Ecstasy opens in upbeat mode with “Bodhisattva”, which targets the hippie fad for Eastern philosophies (the pun in ‘the sparkle of your China’ is quite priceless). Rich with horns, guitar and piano, the song has a brisk, almost danceable rhythm, but (unlike other songs on the album) no recognizable verse-chorus-verse structure. “Razor Boy” follows with its melancholy, laid-back vibe underlying one of Steely Dan’s many seedy tales of lost lives: “Will you still have a song to sing/When the razor boy comes and takes your fancy things away….” The presence of an unusual instrument like the vibraphone lends a haunting quality to the song. The initial triple-whammy is closed by my favourite number, the moody, somewhat menacing “The Boston Rag”, another tale hinting at crime and punishment with one of the best choruses ever known to man (“Bring back the Boston rag/ Tell all your buddies that it ain’t no drag”), and the closest Steely Dan get to guitar power chords.
Out of the remaining songs, the hit “My Old School” and the romantic, French-flavoured “Pearl of the Quarter” lean more towards the more commercial side of things. The former is a real delight for lovers of brass rock, but as a whole leaves me somewhat cold; while I agree with those who think the latter is the weakest track on the album. “Your Gold Teeth”, the longest song at over 7 minutes, is instead an exercise in slinky elegance, deceptively lazy and effortlessly sophisticated. That leaves us with another couple of crackers – the venomous “Showbiz Kids”, punctuated by relentless background chants of ‘outrageous’, and featuring some killer slide guitar courtesy of Rick Derringer; and album closer “King of the World”, another lyrically intriguing tour-de-force enhanced by distinctive, slightly cheesy synth sounds.
Even though at a superficial listen the Dan may sound like an entertaining, yet ultimately hollow pop/jazz band, if you bother to peel away the layers you will find a lot to keep even the most demanding prog fan on their toes. Everything is there – the technical proficiency, the sterling production values, the intelligent lyrics, the expressive singing, the flawless songwriting. So, forget any labels and preconceptions, and get hold of a copy of this gem. You will not regret it.