09. Steely Dan (part one of two)

As a teen listening to Bauhaus, Magazine, Gang of Four, and Joy Division, it seemed that Steely Dan represented everything I was rebelling against.  This band sounded like a musical interpretation of the sort of slick ladies' man that might be parodied in contemporary comedy films.  Like some 1970s swinger on Three's Company or Warren Beatty in Shampoo.  When I think of Steely Dan, I picture self-absorbed and wealthy men in designer sunglasses, blow-dried hair, and shirts unbuttoned to show off their chest hair.  With a stunning party girl on each arm (who never stayed with them very long), they'd drive off in their bitchin' Camaro toward the yacht club.  That was exactly the sort of guy I studiously avoided aspiring to be.  

Decades later, the Millennials described Steely Dan and their contemporaries as "Yacht Rock" which is a stunningly appropriate sobriquet.  Well done, kids.  No one ever uttered the term "Yacht Rock" until 2005 or so.  It was then that the generation who were born as a result of all those slick players getting lucky at the disco came along and codified the term.  Sorry Millennials, you're all Yacht Rock Spawn.  But at least you got the privilege of retroactively naming the genre of music your divorced parents were listening to when they conceived you.

Avoiding Steely Dan for the rest of my life would have been a no-brainer... but as a professional sound engineer, a large cadre of my peers would routinely cite Steely Dan records as the gold standard for quality sound engineering in popular music (classical is a whole other topic).  When this conversation inevitably came up, I'd always sort of nod my head noncommittally, without ever really having any idea what they were talking about.  

Time to find out.  Grabbed a twenty-song collection of their "best".  Looking over the track list, there are four songs that I know for sure pretty well (including "Peg" which I do kinda like), and four more that I suspect will be familiar, but I can't quite... peg... them.

What else do I know about this band?  They're Donald Fagan and Walter Becker with an army of further session players, and they never played live during their heyday.  That's about it.  Not even sure which guy is singing, or which is Walter and which is Donald, or who plays what instruments.  As always, I did no research when preparing this listening session, and my comments below were written in real-time, stream-of-consciousness as the songs unfolded, with later editing only performed for spelling and clarity.
Steely Dan
The Very Best Of

"Do It Again"
Latin groove.  Oh, right, I know this song.  He's gonna sing something like "Go back, Jack, do it again".  Man, this intro is endless. Not digging the doubled and panned lead vocal.  Sounds gimmicky.  Song is cruising along... I'm pretty indifferent.  Oh, this guitar solo has a cool weird tone.  Like a heavily distorted and compressed sitar with a tiny boxy reverb.  That's fun.  Then a synth and an organ playing at the same time?  Or two organ parts.  Yeah, two organs I think.  One is near the center and the other is way in the right channel.  The right one is kinda shrill, there are a few resonances that I'd pull out with EQ.  It's buggin' me.  So much for gold-standard engineering on these records.  Bam.  Shots fired!  Lyric is competent.  Seems like he's singing about learning from mistakes, about the wheel of life, there are verses about violence, women, money.  Get it right, Jack!  Other than that keyboard, the mix here seems a little thin.  That could be the mastering.  It's certainly better than a lot of the other stuff I've listened to for this project.  This seems like early years for this band though.  Let's see where it goes.

"Reeling In The Years"
This one I definitely know. Guitar lead is instantly recognizable from the get-go.  Similar processing to the solo as on the previous tune, but nowhere near as extreme.  Drums sound nice for the era, and played well.  Guitar solos.  Two of 'em.  Different tones, different vibes.  Interesting chord and rhythm changes behind the second one.  I can take or leave the chorus on this song, but the playing on it is pretty good. Oh, another guitar solo!  Oh, then an edit.  Definitely an edit at 3:52.  So, good musicianship here for sure, but I can take or leave the song.  Lyric seems to be about a guy who knows a woman for a lot of years; she hasn't figured out that she needs to be with him, not some other dope.  Life is short and zooming by.  

"Rikki Don't Lose That Number"
This one I know too, of course.  But this intro?  I've never heard it.  They must have done a single edit for the radio.  Kinda cool, something heavily processed.  I'm going to have to come back and listen to this later to determine what instrument that is.  I always figured this song was about a guy who just met a great girl and got her phone number.  But maybe now, hearing it closely after ignoring it for four decades, it might be about a guy who is depressed and his friend is letting him know he's got someone to call?  Definitely kind of a jazz arrangement here.  The choruses are totally jazz.  But there's a little Brazilian groove here too in places.  That odd sound from the intro pops up in the background here and there.  Surprising bit of studio experimentalism within an arrangement that is otherwise very traditional.  Same reaction though: this song is carefully constructed and performed, but "it's just not my kind.  And I do know my mind, but I won't have a change of heart".	

"Midnite Cruiser"
Mastering is off on this one.  It's too loud compared to the previous song.  Who is this singing?  Not the usual guy(s).  Sound is still pretty thin.  But clean.  Everything is clear, but it needs some more lower midrange.  Playing is super tight.  Those staccato piano chords during the solos are locked in with the bass and drums.  Like the previous tune, this one seems to be someone addressing a friend in need.   This titular cruiser isn't a satisfied lad, or a happy yacht-rocker. 

"Hey Nineteen"
Ok, this is one of their big hits.  Is this lyric a Lolita thing?  Yeah, this old creeper guy is macking on the sorority girls.  This is like a version of "Christine Sixteen" by Kiss but way less unashamedly sleazy.  No, actually it's still pretty sleazy.  

"The Cuervo Gold
The fine Colombian
Make tonight a wonderful thing"

Ha.  That's freakin' hilarious.  I never knew that's what they were singing in that part.  Somewhere, there must be an additional verse about the Camaro and the gold bling.  Give the college kids tequila and blow.  Good job.  Man, I sure nailed one thing: this song is like the yacht rock national anthem.  

The engineering takes a huge leap forward.  I have no idea if these songs are chronological or not, but the previous ones were clearly all from early in Dan's career.  Sonically, this reminds me of Avalon by Roxy.  Similar tones.  Avalon was mixed by the untouchable Bob Clearmountain.  I wonder who mixed this.  The drums are a bit loud though.  No surprise there given the era and the groove.  They don't sound real.  Too tonally consistent.  Every hit is the same.  Would this band use a drum machine?  No way.  Oh wait, I know what that is: this record was engineered by Roger Nichols.  Very famous guy in the profession.  This is the Wendel drum sound.  I'll come back to that [below].  The little conga and picked guitar groove in the left channel during the outro reminds me a little of "Low Rider" by War.

"Kid Charlemagne"
Vaguely heavy groove.  Squishy clavinet.  Good idea.  Is this about a drug dealer?  The source for that "fine Columbian"?  No, he's got a drug lab of his own.  Another song talking to a friend: get out of the business, it's too dangerous.  The playing on this record is too good for these people to have played it while loaded.  All the drug references are just posturing. Playing to the audience.    

"My Old School"
Another letter to a friend, and another drug song.  This one is clearly reminiscing about the good old days of getting busted for pot at college.  We did indeed get spoiled with the quality of the production on the past few songs.  This one sounds kinda low-fi by comparison, but it would probably sound fine earlier in the running order.  Like "Charlemagne", the playing here is tight, but the arrangement feels a little bit busy.  In parts of the song, everyone - including the horn section, which this band haven't used much before this - are competing with each other.  Some of the players need to chill out and let the others shine.

This one seems vaguely familiar.  It's got a manic energy.  I'm buying the commitment.  Nice guitar solo, with that deep grungy guitar behind it.  This keyboard solo doing a question-answer with the guitar definitely recalls 1950s rock, ah yes, they totally bring in more of that rockabilly groove in later, but updated.  This one is probably a big jam live.  Oh, that ending, yeah, that's the concert closer.

"Doctor Wu"
Are these songs grouped by theme?  We seem to be over the drug trilogy, but now we've got two in a row about the far east.  No wait: we have drugs!  And it's phrased like a letter to a friend!  This one brings it all together.  The ultimate Steely Dan lyric.  These guys could give Tom Waits a run for his money in their depictions of all the sleazy people they know.  They're wrapping it all up in a veneer of slick opulence though, whereas Waits kept it more on the street level.

OK, that's half of this collection.  I'm going to do my best to go for that whole brevity thing here, so we'll finish up Steely Dan next time.

Next: Steely Dan, part two (of two) coming September 01, 2021

Roger and Wendel and Elliot and Dan:

The recording engineer on "Hey Nineteen" was indeed Roger Nichols, and the mix engineer was Elliot Scheiner.  I remembered that this record was one of the first, if not the first, to use drum triggers.  Nichols custom-built a machine he nicknamed Wendel.  It was later commercially released as Wendel Jr.  One of the recording studios I worked in during the 1990s had one.  

For decades, writers who are not pro sound engineers have discussed the Wendel in articles about 1980s music.  Since they don't understand what it actually does, they always get it wrong.  There's a lot of misinformation out there about this device.  It often gets called a drum machine, but it is absolutely not a drum machine.  It's a trigger device.

Here is how it works: Wendel (and many similar devices that came out later) has two sounds stored in its memory: one example of a snare drum and one example of a kick (or bass) drum.  These are sounds that Nichols recorded from real drums and processed to sound "perfect".  He then had someone burn these two perfect examples of single drum hits to ROM chips.  This is an early use of the technology that we call sampling today.  Four decades later, laptop beat-makers can download libraries with literally thousands of different kick and/or snare drums in them.  Back then, the "sound library" of the Wendel was one of each.  One!

The mix engineer would then run a cable from the snare drum recording into the Wendel's first input jack, and a line from the kick recording  into Wendel's second input.  When the Wendel sensed the kick or snare drums being struck (via the current coming in from the tracks), it would respond by playing its kick or snare samples, which the engineer would mix into the music.

Unlike a drum machine, which allows you to program complete beats, the Wendel has no capacity for programming anything.  It just plays back its two internal sounds in response to pulses of current coming in.  This gives the kick and snare drums an uncanny tonal consistency and a very clean sound.  The original sound that the mics recorded never makes it into the mix and are never heard by the listener.  Since mics pick up all sounds around them, not just the one instrument directly in front of them, we get a much cleaner sound using triggered drums from a Wendel-type device since we no longer hear the results of mics picking up background sounds.

This is both a curse and a benefit. For songs with a straightforward and steady snare beat, triggers can work wonders.  But listen carefully to the snare playing in "Reeling In The Years".  The drummer is doing all sorts of subtle things, playing the snare with varying amounts of intensity, and putting a whole lot of of dynamic musicianship into his drumming.  Now imagine that song if every single snare hit was exactly the same.  It would sound terrible.  Now go listen to "Hey Nineteen" again.  Every single snare hit is exactly the same.  All the subtlety, the feeling, the details, that a drummer might bring to the performance are gone.  The subtlety in timing is intact because the Wendel is triggering exactly when the drummer plays the live drum (which we're not hearing), but the subtleties in intensity and the different tonal colors that a drummer can bring to to each strike of the drum are gone.  

The toms, hi-hat, and cymbals are miked, so those acoustic remnants of the drummer's performance are preserved along with the Wendel-triggered kick and snare.  There are a couple of little fills at the end of the verses.  Wendel would have a hard time with those.  We might be hearing Scheiner pulling the original snare mic up for just a moment, as needed, to catch the dynamics of the fill.  Hard to tell.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *