Between 1972 and 1980, Steely Dan - the loose unit of like-minded musicians and singers led by songwriter-producers Walter Becker and Donald Fagen - released seven albums on the ABC and MCA labels. While Steely Dan was never a "singles artist," charting just three top ten hits, the band's albums were era-defining affairs; six of their LPs have attained at least Platinum status in the United States, with the seventh respectably going Gold. Now, that epochal catalogue defined by immaculate production, top-notch musicianship, irresistible pop hooks, intricate jazz-based arrangements, and quirky, biting lyrics is returning to vinyl in a partnership between UMe and Analogue Productions.
All seven original ABC/MCA Steely Dan albums will be available as standard 33-1/3 RPM 180-gram black vinyl editions via Geffen/UMe, and as limited-edition premium 45 RPM versions on Ultra High-Quality Vinyl (UHQR) from Analogue Productions. The label arm of audiophile storefront Acoustic Sounds will also release the catalogue in stereo hybrid SACD format (playable on all CD players).
The campaign, overseen by Donald Fagen, begins on November 4 with a 50th anniversary edition of the Dan's debut, 1972's Can't Buy a Thrill. The album found Becker and Fagen mining a fully-formed sound that was broadly in a soft rock vein but incorporated diverse influences including the jazz sensibility that would define their later records. The top 20 album success yielded two hit singles (the sly "Do It Again" and buoyant "Reelin' in the Years") and also included the future rock-era standard "Dirty Work," the latter of which was sung by original lead vocalist David Palmer.
Keyboardist Donald Fagen assumed lead vocal duties for 1973's Countdown to Ecstasy, once again joined by bassist Becker, guitarists Jeff "Skunk" Baxter and Denny Dias, and drummer Jim Hodder. The album (which spun off the moderate hits "My Old School" and "Show Biz Kids" and the fan favorite "Bodhisattva") augured for the Dan's future as it welcomed jazz veterans Ernie Watts, Ray Brown, and Victor Feldman as well as rock guitarist Rick Derringer. On 1974's Pretzel Logic, the band, producer Gary Katz, and engineer Roger Nichols restored Steely Dan to the charts with the slinky top five hit "Rikki, Don't Lose That Number." It would be the final album to feature the full original line-up as Becker and Fagen became more reliant on studio musicians and singers - in this case, including Watts, Eagles' Timothy B. Schmit, Michael Omartian, Toto's David Paich and Jeff Porcaro, The Crusaders' Wilton Felder, "Pink Panther" saxophone legend Plas Johnson, and veteran bassist Chuck Rainey. Becker also began to assume guitar duties as well as bass, previewing the departure of Skunk Baxter for The Doobie Brothers. Pretzel Logic was also Steely Dan's final album to be released during their time as a touring outfit; soon, Becker and Fagen would concentrate exclusively on the studio and its infinite possibilities.
Katy Lied (1975) welcomed keyboardist-singer (and future Doobie) Michael McDonald to the fold along with a host of familiar names including Wrecking Crew drum legend Hal Blaine (who brought his singular style to "Any World (That I'm Welcome To))," guitarist Larry Carlton, saxophonist Phil Woods, and the returning Paich, Porcaro, Feldman, and company. The album continued, and refined, the sleek sound of its predecessor with such tracks as the top 40 entry "Black Friday." For The Royal Scam (1976), Becker, Fagen, and their all-star band embraced a more guitar-oriented sound though hardly a more straightforward one. Of the album's three singles, "Kid Charlemagne" and "The Fez" both placed in the lower reaches of the Hot 100.
The stage had been set, though, for Steely Dan's most successful album and, arguably, biggest triumph. With a lean seven tracks, Aja (1977) was all-killer, no-filler. Jazz-rock of the highest order (with an emphasis on the jazz, thanks to the striking brass charts), Aja moved the band into a new level of musical sophistication. While the sonics were so clean and slick that its songs have found new life on yacht rock playlists, Aja thrived on seemingly-effortless complexity. The ode to "Peg" featuring Michael McDonald's prominent vocals, reached No. 11 on the Pop survey while the indelible portraits of "Deacon Blues" and "Josie" weren't far behind at No. 19 and No. 26. But every track on Aja was instantly memorable, including the epic title track and the irresistible "Black Cow." More than three years passed, however, before Steely Dan returned with their final album for 15 years. Gaucho (1980) shared many of the same hallmarks as Aja and introduced the No. 10 hit "Hey Nineteen" and shimmering "Time Out of Mind," the latter with Mark Knopfler on guitar. Though many found it paling in comparison only to the pinnacle that was Aja, Gaucho, a top ten LP, allowed Steely Dan to go out on top. Two years later, Donald Fagen would carry on the Dan sound with his acclaimed solo debut The Nightfly.
All albums in this campaign have been newly remastered by Bernie Grundman from the original analog tapes except for Aja, which will be mastered from an analog, non-EQ'd tape copy, and Gaucho, which will be sourced from a 1980 analog tape copy originally EQ'd by Bob Ludwig. (The press release indicates that there is no evidence the original masters containing the flat mixes of Aja and Gaucho were delivered to the record label. As a result, it's presumed the tapes no longer exist.) Lacquers for UMe's standard 33 1/3 RPM 180-gram LPs will be cut by Alex Abrash at AA Mastering studio from high-resolution digital files of Grundman's new masters and pressed at Precision. They will be housed in reproductions of the original artwork.
The super deluxe 45 RPM UHQR editions will be pressed at Analogue Productions' Quality Record Pressings on 200-gram Clarity Vinyl and packaged in a lavish box. Tip-on jackets have been printed by Stoughton. They will include a booklet detailing the process of making a UHQR along with a certificate of inspection. Each UHQR is strictly limited to 20,000 copies.
Can't Buy a Thrill arrives on November 4 in standard 180-gram vinyl from Geffen/UMe and UHQR and SACD from Analogue Productions. You'll find pre-order links below! Watch this space for news of other titles in the series as they roll out; in the meantime, all UHQR and SACD titles are up for pre-order at Acoustic Sounds (with release dates TBD).
Steely Dan, Can't Buy a Thrill (ABC Records ABCX-758, 1972 - reissued UMe/Analogue Productions, 2022)
- Do It Again
- Dirty Work
- Midnite Cruiser
- Only a Fool Would Say That
- Reelin' in the Years
- Fire in the Hole
- Change of the Guard
- Turn That Heartbeat Over Again