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Steely Dan The Very Best of Steely Dan Review

Compilation. Released 2009.  

BBC Review

Simply the most perfect band on the planet.

Chris Jones 2009

Emerging from New York's Brill building in the early 70s, songwriting duo Walter Becker and Donald Fagen were two smart Jewish kids raised on jazz and with a healthy cynicism about the so-called music 'business' and its attendant follies. Landing a deal as staff writers with Capitol they re-located to LA and proceeded to cast themselves as ironic outsiders. This double disc compilation charts their decade-long rise from ultra brainy pop technicians to ultra brainy jazz fusionists.

From the off theirs was no ordinary rock band although the employment of two major guitarists (Jeff 'Skunk' Baxter and Denny Dias) saw them appropriately kitted out to impress a public yearning for wailing axes. Albums Can't Buy A Thrill and Countdown To Ectasy match concise (if knotty) writing with musical dexterity. But still, naming yourselves after a mechanised dildo from a Burroughs' novel and writing songs about dissatisfied gigolos (Dirty Work), Buddhist philosophy (Bodhisattva), economic ruin (Black Friday), time travel (Pretzel Logic) and copious drug use (The Boston Rag) wasn't all that conventional for the times.

That's not to say that they couldn't write love songs (cf: Rikki Don't Lose That Number) but by album number three (Pretzel Logic) the pair had tired of touring and begun to employ session musicians to achieve the sonic idealism to match their acerbic, dark wit.

By The Royal Scam (1976) they'd found their modus operandi. Guitars were still the focus, but by now the players were mainly jazz adepts. Kid Charlemagne, in particular, beggars belief. Larry Carlton's solo is impeccable, especially when borne aloft by Bernard 'Pretty' Purdie's drum shuffle and matched by wry lyrics about an anti-hero at the chemical centre of the hippy dream.

By 1977's Aja obsessive compulsive tendencies had a monstrous grip; leading to soloists being wheeled in one after the other to nail the elusive takes that lived in their heads. Michael McDonald famously recalls how his backing vocals for Peg were recorded syllable by painful syllable. The icy gleam of jazz rock rubs up against tales of damaged lives lived in spoiled seclusion: a lifestyle the pair were themselves courting.

By 1980's Gaucho their material was impeccable (Third World Man, Time Out Of Mind: featuring a cruelly buried Mark Knopfler solo) but they now regarded the youthcentric West Coast as a living embodiment of civilization's last days (Babylon Sisters). They retired to lick their wounds.

Unfairly used as shorthand for worthy musos your dad would like, The Very Best Of, while joining a long line of Dan compilations, is a reminder that, for a period, they matched Zappa-esque smarts to 60s songcraft and were simply the most perfect band on the planet.

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