Because Reasons…Katy Lied – Steely Dan

by David Schwittek

Steely_Dan-Katy_Lied

Thank God I was in my thirties when I seriously got into Steely Dan. None of my twentysomething friends would have understood why. Now that they are thirtysomething friends, they don’t understand it any better. But they’re all in their thirties, so fuck them. That’s how music works: it brings us together… until it no longer does.

I listen to Steely Dan all over the place: on the toilet, getting ready to leave a hotel room, at work, doing laundry, driving, at parties (quietly, subversively – in a back bedroom out of the speaker of my iPhone). But the first time I listened – really fucking listened – to Steely Dan was in a hot tub, alone, drunk, with a great pair of headphones…naked. Take from this what you will.

But first, a little history:  among many other things, Steely Dan is a seventies band, and seventies bands produced delightful things called albums. These albums were crafted so that all the songs present on them blended well with each other. There was no shuffling songs, no way to buy individual tracks (leaving aside the seven inch), and the intent of the musicians was, at the very least, for the audience to listen to the entire album, sequentially… to really fucking listen.

So I did, naked, in a hot tub.

The album I chose? Katy Lied.   This album was released – not ‘dropped’ – in 1975 and reached gold status (which back then really used to mean something). Walter Becker and Donald Fagan, musicans-cum-audio engineers, worked feverishly in the studio for months to ensure that everything was just exactly perfect. There is much to like about Katy Lied, but I’ll start with the most notable: Michael McDonald.

It’s not what you think: I’m not a Michael McDonald fan in the traditional sense – not the way your divorced aunt is.  McDonald, to me, is merely an eccentric instrument that Steely Dan installed alongside a whole cabinet full of strange and unusual instruments. Michael McDonald: he fits right in there. Like one of those pretentious lutes Sting has been known to play. Your divorced aunt likes Sting, too.

Throughout the album, and subsequent Steely albums, McDonald’s bluesy baritone is nestled high atop the sultry background vocals for which this band is so well known. His voice, somehow so queer and annoying at the forefront of The Doobie Brothers, obnoxious solo efforts, and most other organs of Yacht Rock, is here both silky and majestic. Listen – really fucking listen – and I think you’ll agree that here, in its mere infancy, Michael McDonald’s future career looked promising indeed.

The truth, as we now know, is far more complex. But that’s not why I love this album.

Fuck Jeff Beck. Fuck Duane Allman. Guitar lovers, if they truly had their ears open during the heady days of Katy Lied‘s 1975 release (or it’s 1979 re-release), would have rightly seen this album as one of the higher points of Seventies guitar rock. For the jammy, guitar driven Throw Back the Little Ones  and Your Gold Teeth II, or the bluesy Daddy Don’t Live in That New York City No More,  have as much reason to be on this album as they do on, say, a Zappa or Allman Brothers offering.  Steely Dan was, without question, a guitar lover’s wet dream: Walter Becker, Hugh McCracken, Denny Dias, Rick Derringer, Dean Parks, Elliott Randall, and Larry Carlton were amongst the best of their time, and they all appeared here, on this album.

Never heard of them? That’s cause you’re ignorant… which is fine.

I know what you’re probably saying at this point, and you’re totally wrong: Steely Dan is not a gross, annoying Seventies band. And I shall not see them relegated to the annals of post-Sixties kitsch, like disco or wide ties. True, these are just cliches and it’s lazy of you to ascribe them to any and all cultural memes, but you’re wrong for an entirely different reason: you’re not actually listening to Katy Lied.

Listen to the goofy, almost surreal Bad Sneakers; Listen to the catchy, yet subversively shocking Everyone’s Gone to the Movies (read the lyrics); Bask in the weirdness of the praiseful (and auto-biographical) Dr. Wu.  But none of these are why I  love with this album.  I love this album precisely because of everything you hate about it: 1.) it’s Steely Dan (“yuck!”), 2.) it features Larry Carlton and Michael McDonald (“why they do that?!“), and 3.) there are some truly annoying – and entirely skippable – songs thrown in here to throw you off: Rose Darling and  Chain Lightning.  

Still confused?  Well, dear reader… all I can say is that there are things about the Seventies that you and I will never understand. There are things about the Seventies that your mom will never understand. There are even things about the Seventies that Walter Becker and Donald Fagan will never understand. And yet, from this magma of misunderstood culture, a magma that is at once horrifying and provocative, arises a myriad of imperfect jewels – jewels that split harsh sunlight into the warm rainbows that still adorn college dorm rooms, t-shirts at Urban Outfitters, and the more imaginative cavities of my mind.

Listen to Katy Lied, for it is one such jewel. 

3 thoughts on “Because Reasons…Katy Lied – Steely Dan

  1. Well, I took your advice and listened to the album. I had never heard it and decided to give it a shot. All of my previous Steely Dan exposure had been what was played on classic rock radio. Honestly, none of those radio hits ever moved me to explore any deeper in this band’s catalog.

    Two of the songs you mention, “Your Gold Teeth II” and “Daddy Don’t Live…” are by far the best songs on the album to my ears. They have something that grabs me. Whether it’s the groovin’ grittiness of “Daddy” or the outer space rock Giorgio Tsoukalos listens to when he does his hair, these are the tunes that stand out for me.
    However, the rest of the album suffers from a disease known as blandness. I wouldn’t say any of the tunes are bad per se, it’s just none of them hit me in my gut. There’s an overwhelming “smoothness” that I can’t overlook. I need urgency, grit and soul to really get my juices flowing and most of the album didn’t give me that.

    I do appreciate you giving me something new to check out, but if I had my druthers I’d just download my two favorites off itunes and forget the rest.

    1. I must admit. I was skeptical. Just like Dave K., I too have always made a habit of changing the channel back to the modern rock station when Steely Dan came on the classic rock station. As of yesterday, my favorite Steely Dan song was “Money for Nothing” by Dire Straits. I found Steely Dan’s songs too be unaware of their own utter lameness. I was embarrassed for Steely Dan and for anyone who liked Steely Dan.
      I had heard that people start listening to this band when they got old and I swore it would never happen to me. But here we are. Having listened to this record I am starting to see that I may have always seen the band through the foggied lenz of modernity. I am starting to realize that the sound of the band is not inadvertent. These guys were making music at the exact same time as Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run,” was on the radio, Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffitti and Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Review was touring the country. These guys were making music that sounded like this on purpose. As Dave S. points out, they had an arsenal of musicians, One of whom was named Skunk who would go on to be in the Doobie Brothers playing music that sounds more of a piece with the rest of the 70s acts (since the Doobies were basically a CCR rip off, albeit a good one).
      The way to listen to this band came into full clarity once I realized that their modern day contemporaries are MGMT. Both bands are adopting sounds from genres not commonly used by the tastemakers of the era. In SD’s case it is the use of hip jazz phrases, while MGMT seizes danceable 80s synthpop and whatever genre Brian Eno belongs in. Both bands lovingly re-create their appropriations in a new context and both bands do it in a straight-faced way that sounds out of place compared to the other bands that are making music at the same time as them. MGMT doesn’t sound like Justice, nor Arcade fire. They don’t sound like The Flaming Lips nor M83. There is something about them that is corny. But they embrace the corny. They embrace the goofy. They lean into it and it disarms the corny.
      And if you listen for it, the same thing happens with The Dan. The licks are tasty and lovingly curated. The sections are clean and bright and polished. And they choose not to incorporate pedals, psychedelic sounds, funk riffs, heavy drums. They choose to be polite and delicate because that is the unpopulated sonic area these cats are inhabiting. There is something brave and daring about that.
      It doesn’t mean all the songs work, because they don’t. As a matter of fact, I would argue that besides the weird herky-jerky of “Throw back the little ones,” the entire second half of this record fizzles out. “Chain Lightning” has little of the bite the songmakers intend and “Any World” is somewhat slippery, dull, and loungey. Few of their songs show any example of an edge, but this song in particular sounds like it would get beat up by a Billy Joel song.
      I will say this, though, Dave S. I am pretty psyched to rediscover the weirdness that is a decade of Steely Dan. I hope I don’t become “that guy.”

  2. Dude, I love your statement that Michael McDonald is just another instrument being utilized by Steely Dan. This accurately articulates something I’ve been thinking for years. Thanks also for making fun of all the “divorced aunts” whose sexual fantasies revolve around their vaginal secretions dripping from the tendrils of McD’s beard. What could be more gross?

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