Great Albums: You Should Be Listening To
Released in the summer of ’73 ‘Countdown To Ecstasy’ was recorded by the original Steely Dan ensemble during their brief heyday as a funloving bunch of hippies. It was a slow selling Top 40 album that nevertheless showcased the wonderful talent of the various players that made up the ‘Dan at that moment.
Guitar playing was the big thing during the ’70s and Steely Dan had two of the best in Jeff Baxter and Denny Dias. Both guitarist are showcased on the LP’s opening track ‘Bodhisattva’- a sort of ‘Dharma Bums’ ode to zen Buddhism. Not releasing this track as a single was one of the big mistakes for Steely Dan in promoting the album.
When ‘Countdown To Ecstasy’ ws issued by ABC Dunhill Records in July of 1973 Steely Dan was coming off a series of well received concerts and the huge success of 2 major hit singles- the most recent being ‘Reeling In the Years’- a wonderful ode to college days gone by. Perhaps thinking too much about things at this point- and already cynical of their record company’s motives- the band chose ‘Show Biz Kids’- the LP’s opening track on of side 2- as their 3rd single. ‘Show Biz Kids’ is perhaps the oddest song in Steely Dan’s entire catalogue and is a murky, funky summer of ’73 audio zeitgeist. It slinks along with cryptic lyrics that even give namechecks to the “Guernsey Fair”, “El Supremo”…”the Washington Zoo” and celebrities who wear “Steely Dan T-shirts”. Musically the track utilizes the percussion of one Victor Feldman– a forgotten jazz genius- on vibes and the slide guitar of noted rock star Rick Derringer, a close personal friend of Steely Dan’s bass player Walter Becker.
As hit singles go ‘Show Biz Kids’ was not a hit, reaching only 61 on the Billboard Hot 100. The same can be said for ‘My Old School’ which hit #59 in the fall of 1973.
‘My Old School’ however has had a long shelf life and remains one of the songs Steely Dan uses to close out its concerts in the 21st century (yes their still touring). Lyrically ‘My Old School’ chronicles the 1969 days of Becker and Fagen (and his girlfriend Dorothy A. White..aka Dotty of Hollywood-the creator of the funny LP artwork) when they attended Bard College in Annandale-on the Hudson, New York. Fagen detailed the entire farce in his funny book ‘Eminent Hipsters’ and musically this track showcased the funky guitar of Baxter who had had unique style that combined hippie psychedelica and Brill Building fuzztone. The unedited version of ‘School features a wonderful horn arrangement by the great Jimmie Haskell (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jimmie_Haskell)- longtime collaborator with fellow ABC Dunhill stars the Grass Roots.
The five other tracks on ‘Countdown To Ecstasy’- are themselves wonderful creations of Fagen and Becker’s own little Hollywood Brill Building machine.
Razor Boy- A bizarre lyric pulled straight from ‘Naked Lunch’ draped on an acousitc ambiance that features jazz great Ray Brown on stand up bass and Victor Feldman again on vibes.
The Boston Rag- Another college day flashback with strong guitar from Baxter and wonderful hippie vocals from Fagen and Palmer.
Your Gold Teeth- Early ‘Dan jazz…..a 7 minute ode to waking up in an Asian brothel…yeah baby—cool electric piano solo by (?) either Fagen or Feldman
Pearl of the Quarter- an odd cajun country poem with perfect pedal steel from Baxter and King Of the World- a computerized country-rock classic about life after a nuclear bomb has exploded on the Rio Grande- Denny Dias dazzles and a surprising vocal input from Becker make this track an outstanding way to close out the LP and the year of 1973.
All n all a fine musical product from the days of leisure suits, the Brady Bunch…..and Quinn Martin Productions.