How Steely Dan’s Darkly Humorous Debut ‘Can’t Buy a Thrill’ Finally Got Made
Donald Fagen didn’t want to sing. He didn’t think he had a voice – limited range, low power – that was worthy of fronting a rock ’n’ roll band, despite the encouragement of Steely Dan’s own members. It had been a long road to get here.
After meeting in the late ’60s as students at New York's Bard College, Fagen and his buddy Walter Becker formed a musical partnership that took them to New York City’s famed Brill Building, where they attempted to sell their songs. When that met with little success, guitarist Becker and keyboardist Fagen became backing musicians for the pop group Jay and the Americans. The duo’s dry humor and antisocial behavior led singer Jay Black to call them “the Manson and Starkweather of rock ’n’ roll.”
Barbra Streisand recorded the pair’s “I Mean to Shine” in 1971, but it wasn’t a hit. By that time, Fagen and Becker had amassed a horde of demo recordings, crafted in between official jobs, but no one seemed to like the tunes as much as their creators. That is, until the twosome were hired by Gary Katz as songwriters for ABC/Dunhill, moved to Los Angeles in late 1971 and their recordings became of interest to some at the label. Although Becker and Fagen proved inept at writing pop tunes for the label’s big stars – Three Dog Night, the Grass Roots – ABC/Dunhill was seeking to move into the underground album-oriented rock market. The duo’s jazzy and darkly humorous demos were just interesting enough to give these showbiz kids a shot.
So, after years of unfulfilling gigs and humiliating rejection, Fagen and Becker had finally convinced a record label to allow them to put together a band (including guitarists Jeff “Skunk” Baxter and Denny Dias and drummer Jim Hodder), record a full-length studio album (Can’t Buy a Thrill) and put it in stores. And it was then that Fagen announced that he didn’t want to be the singer.
“I didn’t think I was gonna be the lead singer,” Fagen recalled to Tablet in 2012. “I knew I had the right attitude, but I didn’t think I was technically equipped or psychologically equipped. … I just never felt confidence in it. I admired people like Steve Winwood. I like Marvin Gaye, you know. Coming from the jazz world, I wanted to hear a real singer, someone who dealt some shit out.”
Fagen, who had sung on the demo tapes, acquiesced to pressure from his bandmates and ABC/Dunhill to sing on the sessions for the album (drummer Hodder sang on “Midnite Cruiser”). The keyboard player was relieved when Baxter suggested the addition of singer David Palmer, a friend of the guitarist’s from back east. He got a call to fly to L.A. and become the sixth member of a group that would be called Steely Dan, the name of a dildo in William Burroughs’ book Naked Lunch. Becker and Fagen, so eager to be out of the spotlight, let him join the group sight unseen, which turned out to be a mistake.
“After Dave Palmer did a few tracks – which he did quite well – it wasn’t really representative of what the thing was all about,” Fagen told In the Studio With Redbeard. Even though Palmer stayed on for a while to front the band’s live performances, Becker said, “It was obvious at the time to us that the real sound of the band was Donald’s vocals, and moreover David’s live performance style was kind of at odds with what we were trying to project as a musical entity. … It just didn’t really pan out that well.”
Listen to Steely Dan's 'Dirty Work'
On Steely Dan’s debut LP, Palmer sang solo lead on “Brooklyn (Owes the Charmer Under Me)” – which dated from Becker and Fagen’s New York demos – and “Dirty Work,” perhaps the most conventional-sounding song on the record (and, as a result, the only one ABC/Dunhill thought might be suitable for their pop artists to cover). The story goes that the Steely Dan brain trust nearly left the song, written about an incredibly bad relationship, off the album – although Fagen and Becker were making a concerted effort at taking baby steps with their idiosyncratic blend of jazz, rock, soul and pop. They even let the record company edit the nearly six-minute “Do It Again” down to less than four for a single.
“We were trying to widen the public’s appreciation of some more interesting rock ’n’ roll than they’d been hearing,” said Fagen in Steely Dan: Reelin’ in the Years, referring to the Latin jazz feel of the record’s lead single. “We couldn’t get a bite until we did ‘Do It Again,’ which I think is very good, but we’d like to start working from there.”
Although many of the songs on Can’t Buy a Thrill had less of a pronounced jazz influence than Steely Dan’s later material, Side Two opener “Reelin’ in the Years” matched a rock gallop with jazzy flourishes, particularly its stand-out lead guitar part. Yet, that fluid, buzzing sound wasn’t delivered by any of the three talented guitarists in the band (Becker, Dias or Baxter). Rather it was the work of session guy Elliott Randall, who had turned down Fagen and Becker’s offer to join Steely Dan but was game to play on a couple tracks: “Kings” and “Reelin’ in the Years.”
Listen to Steely Dan's 'Reelin' in the Years'
“My second pass was what you hear on the record – it was completely unedited. It was just from top-to-bottom all the way through. And it worked – we all just laughed afterwards,” Randall recalled to Guitarist magazine in 2012. “What I find in retrospect is that – especially in the introductory measures of the solo – I was playing the equivalent of what a jazz saxophonist would play to a standard tune in that I was quoting the melody.”
Although ABC/Dunhill initially had high hopes for “Dirty Work,” “Do It Again” and “Reelin’ in the Years” became the singles off Steely Dan’s debut album, with the former hitting No. 6 and the latter going to No. 11 on the Billboard chart, following the November 1972 release of Can’t Buy a Thrill. A couple of huge Bob Dylan fans, Becker and Fagen borrowed the title from one of the songwriter’s lyrics, part of the opening line of “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry.”
The album’s strange cover – some, including Fagen and Becker, would call it ugly – perhaps references the title with a photo collage that involves a line of prostitutes awaiting business. The Steely Dan head honchos originally wanted a picture of a little girl looking into a pornography store, with the owner leering back at her. When that was deemed unacceptable, the band got stuck with this. Still, Becker found ways to implant their sense of humor in the packaging, coming up with goofy liner notes and erroneously crediting “Do It Again” as a traditional song, like it was “She’ll Be Coming ’Round the Mountain.”
If “Do It Again,” “Dirty Work” and “Reelin’ in the Years” aren’t traditional tunes, all have become rock classics and remain among Steely Dan’s best-known songs. The Pointer Sisters ended up covering “Dirty Work” and no less than Donny and Marie Osmond sang “Reelin’ in the Years” on their ’70s variety show.
The music press greeted Can’t Buy a Thrill warmly and it eventually went platinum, supported by Steely Dan’s live performances, first as a six-piece, then as a quintet when Palmer left the band. After Becker and Fagen were told for years that their songs were too strange for the mainstream, they had become successful songwriters and – even with Fagen’s voice out front – rock stars.
“We had zero expectations,” Becker said. “In fact, we were amazed that ABC bought the album at all. It was like a dream come true.”