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Revisit: Steely Dan: Katy Lied

Revisit: Steely Dan: Katy Lied

Katy Lied is the ideal fulcrum of Steely Dan’s sympathies for both jazz and rock, both sophistication and clamor.

Meeting at Bard College in the 1960s, Donald Fagen (keys and lead vocals) and Walter Becker (bass and guitar) started some bands and ultimately set out as songwriters, initially in the mold of the Brill Building writers such as Carole King and Gerry Goffin. They sold very little, though Barbra Streisand recorded their tune “I Mean to Shine” on her 1971 album Barbra Joan Streisand. Finally someone pointed out to them that their tunes were so idiosyncratic that they should record them themselves.

The result was a string of quirky rock albums that were drunk with a love for jazz harmonies, ripping-melodic guitar solos and oddball tales of losers, creeps, injured folks and other marginal figures whose vocabularies and sensibilities were conversant with both the literary avant-garde and the vernacular speech of hipsters across the decades. These records might not have produced certifiable hit songs at any other moment, but the 1970s were different. The Dan’s 1972 debut, Can’t Buy a Thrill, boasted two that cracked the top 10: “Reelin’ in the Years,” a snarky commentary on how nostalgia distorts us, and “Do It Again,” with lyrics obscure enough to justify its rockin’ sitar solo.

For two more albums, Steely Dan was actually a band, a group of young American dudes on the road with guitars, playing shows and tearing it up. They were playing weird songs, sure, music packed full of tricky jazz stuff, but theoretically the albums were being made by a band. That would end with Katy Lied.

In the summer of 1974, Becker and Fagen called off the touring, preferring to focus on composing and recording. The bulk of the band quit or was let go (except for guitarist Denny Dias, who would appear on later records in various spots), and the duo was, for all intents and purposes, back where they started: writing weird songs by themselves. Except that now they were rock stars and could hire any musicians they wanted to realize their vision.

The first result of this process was Katy Lied, released in 1975. Becker and Fagen were now working with studio musicians, and the music takes on a new sophistication and polish that would be a dividing point for many rock aficionados. The ones who cherished the Dan’s interest in Charlie Parker or Duke Ellington (“Parker’s Band” and “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo,” respectively, from Pretzel Logic) or its fixation with critiquing materialism through arch pop forms (“Razor Boy” from Countdown to Ecstasy) were on board for this new direction. Plenty of others heard too much slickness, L.A. polish, what many would later feel was a precursor to “smooth jazz.” But that is dead wrong.

From the jump, Katy Lied is the ideal fulcrum of Steely Dan’s sympathies for both jazz and rock, both sophistication and clamor. “Black Friday” was the first single, a tale of the abandon of an investor who loses all his money on the day the stock market crashed in 1929, catching “the grey men” when they “dive from the 14th floor” in suicides. Our narrator, instead, decides he’s “Gonna do just what I please/ Gonna wear no socks and shoes.” The choked, glorious Telecaster solo is not by one of the hired-gun guitarists, but rather by Becker himself. The tune would be a shit-kicker of a start but for the stacked jazz harmonies on the chorus, with voices rising up in sevenths and ninths like a Count Basie saxophone section. On this song, you get the noise and the sweetness.

Throughout Katy Lied, there are little moments that are so hip and detailed that they can take your breath away even though you might miss them. For example, the eight-bar ending to “Bad Sneakers” is a perfect musical moment. The odd guitar intro is repeated, then the rhythm section plays a syncopated coda that features vibes (Victor Feldman), piano (Michael Omartian), Chuck Rainey’s bass, and the guitars in a little miracle that takes a countermelody that had been played underneath each verse and lifts it into the foreground. Once you lock into it, the rest of the song becomes almost secondary to this brilliant lick. And the song itself is great: a weird tale of a paranoid loner who is dragging along down the street hoping for rescue with the incredible benefit of a Michael McDonald backing vocal (“Yes I’m going insane/ And I’m laughing at the frozen rain/ And I’m so alone“) and another Becker guitar solo that is played over a thumping piano accompaniment.

For all the great guitar solos on this record, the instrument that dominates the band is Omartian’s acoustic piano, which defines “Doctor Wu,” “Your Gold Teeth II,” “Any World (That I’m Welcome To),” “Throw Back the Little Ones,” and “Rose Darling.” The Dan is hardly thought of as a precursor to the piano rock of, say, Ben Folds (or anything particularly like the piano rock of contemporaries Elton John or Billy Joel), but that is the key to Katy Lied. On “Throw Back the Little Ones,” the piano creates a hopping groove with alternating left-hand octaves and right-hand chords that is wonderfully suspended around piano arpeggios. At the end, however, Becker and Fagen give Omartian a little Bach-ian moment of two-part invention, ending the album on a curiously precise note. Why not?

“Rose Darling” might be considered the most “normal” of these driving piano-rock tunes. It is, after all, that rare beast: a Steely Dan love song. Each verse begins, “Rose darling, come to me…,” and the chorus is a positively sumptuous rondo, with three layers of vocals. The love is compromised or perhaps simply shot through with lust, however, as the narrator admits his are “empty words of love” that “can never screen the flash I feel”, particularly as he asks Rose to “make my wildest dreams come true” as their chaperone “Snake Mary” sleeps despite their “steaming sounds of love”. Yeah, that’s a Steely Dan kind of love song. You knew the band was named after a dildo from William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, right?

If perversion is your thing, the most delicious song is “Everyone’s Gone to the Movies,” a song that uses a funky tango feel played on the vibes to lure some underage friends into real trouble. “Kids, if you want some fun/ Mr. LaPage is your man/ He’s always laughin’, having fun/ Showing his films in the den/ Come on.” Not clear enough? “Soon you will be 18/ I think you know what I mean/ Don’t tell your mama/ Your daddy or mama / They’ll never know where you been.” But because Becker and Fagen are masters of a certain kind of pop irony, the chorus that follows these lines is as sunny and bright as a romantic Brian Wilson Beach Boys hook: “Everyone’s gone to the movies/ Now we’re alone at last,” with those vibes ringing and female harmony singers making it shine like the Supremes.

There are oddities here that groove hard. “Chain Lightning” is a blues about a cult leader that features a catchy vamp. “Daddy Don’t Live in that New York City No More” is a bouncing funk number about a man down on his luck whose good times actually sound pretty desperate. The glorious guitar solos are by Larry Carlton, a player who would be critical to the Dan sound for years to come. “Your Gold Teeth II” is a strange one for several reasons. First, it is a sequel to a song from a previous album, a variation. Second, the tune is as harmonically tricky and as rhythmically flowing as any jazz composition from that era. The song is lyrically obscure but, well, beautiful.

Two other tracks, however, stand out for lyricism. “Any World (That I’m Welcome To)” is a wistful mid-tempo rocker that skips the irony. The narrator is a classic Dan misfit but also a dreamer, looking for a new place that “is better than the one I come from.” Again, McDonald makes the harmonies of the chorus soar, and Becker and Fagen are not immune to giving us a dramatic key change upward at the song’s end. You practically feel lifted.

The album’s best song, however, is “Doctor Wu.” It seems to be the story of a Vietnam vet looking for a fix from a mysterious character, pining for a woman (or just the drug?) he knows won’t be coming. This is the Katy from the album’s punning title (“Katy lies/ I could see it in her eyes”). The ache in the story feels real for two reasons. First, the lyrics are canny enough to open up to anyone’s experience: “I’ve been waiting for the taste/ You said you’d bring to me,” and “I went searching for the song/ You used to sing to me.” Second, the music is breathtaking. Rainey plays a bass part that throbs like a heartbeat, swinging the song forward against Jeff Porcaro’s steady snare. Omartian’s piano, from the intro through the end, alternates between syncopated punches and gentle jazz comping. And the highlight is an improvised alto saxophone solo from jazz legend Phil Woods that puts more melody and feeling into about 16 bars than seems possible. Behind the sax solo, the piano and drums play dramatic stop-time figures that prefigure by a couple of years the brilliant Wayne Shorter tenor sax solo on “Aja.” But we hear the idea on this track first, in a slightly more direct form.

On the LP, “Doctor Wu” was the end of side one. Woods plays more saxophone over the repeated lines “Are you with me, doctor?/ Can you hear me, doctor?” as the song fades out. He cracks his tone as he reaches up, he trills on a high note and then swirls downward. And if you listen carefully, you can hear Becker, who didn’t sing on Steely Dan albums during this era, yelling out the words. It was the end to a near-perfect 17-plus minutes of hip, yearning, sophisticated, literary, veiled but visceral rock music.

In 1975, rock was in a weird place. The Beatles and their ilk were gone, a squishy patch of singer-songwriter music was everywhere, the indulgences of progressive rock and corporate rock were up-and-running, and the subversions of punk rock and hip-hop hadn’t yet arrived. There was great popular music, no doubt—Stevie Wonder in his prime and Joni Mitchell spinning her life into gold are just two examples—but Steely Dan was unique. They played rock without being a rock band; they harnessed jazz without pretension; they sang about love and alienation equally and at the same time. Love and lust? Who can even tell them apart?

Just as they had already recorded three albums before Katy Lied, they would make three more albums in the next five years: The Royal Scam, Aja and Gaucho before taking a long hiatus. Katy Lied sits in the middle, a pivot point, a new way of making this kind of music. Some people will always prefer the earlier Dan music, the stuff that was really rock. Some hail Aja, their most complex statement. Katy Lied is both. Or neither, exactly. But it’s great. Are you with me, doctor?

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