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Steely Dan - Countdown to Ecstasy (MCA)

31 October 2008

October 1973 (35 years ago) marked ABC’s last-ditch attempt to garner a hit for this album: They released the single “My Old School,” backed by “Pearl of the Quarter.” It didn’t work.

Steely Dan’s second album tends to be overlooked. Unlike their debut, which spawned hit singles with “Do It Again” and “Reelin’ in the Years,” neither of Countdown to Ecstasy’s singles made the Top 50. Where all the other Steely Dan albums prior to the 1980 breakup made it to at least the Top 20 region on the album chart, the sophomore release peaked at No. 35. And from the perspective of their slicker, jazzier later work, its rougher, rockier edge seems like an anomaly. But just that quality is what endears Countdown to Ecstasy to me.

It was a considerable change from Can’t Buy a Thrill, which had been released just eight months earlier. Less lip service was being paid to the idea of the group as an actual band, with vocalist DAVID PALMER ousted and songwriters DONALD FAGEN and WALTER BECKER taking all the lead vocals, and the songs had less of an eager-to-please pop feel. The lyrics, already relatively enigmatic, became downright obscure at times—and outright nasty at others. In an era dominated, at least in the rock realm, by happy hippie platitudes, Steely Dan dared to be cynical, as on the rave-up “Bodhisattva,” lampooning the eagerness of those seeking enlightenment in the Far East.

The first single, “Showbiz Kids” (who “don’t give a fuck about anybody else”), seems perversely chosen in retrospect; one wonders what the logic behind it was. Unmelodic, droning, without much that could function as a hit, it was musically apt for its lyrics but highly unlikely to entrance a mass audience, especially in July when programmers look for feel-good ditties.

“My Old School,” has a considerably more upbeat feeling to it (with a great funk/soul horn chart and some dazzling guitar solos – the last one comes in the fadeout, and I have often turned the volume up to counter the fade and hear as much as possible) and is vastly catchier, but its tale of a college screw-up who’s apparently knocked up his girlfriend and has to ship her out of the country for an abortion also made it unlikely Top 40 fodder in 1973.

The uptempo “Bodhisattva” (the sarcasm of which could have been overlooked more easily) or the pretty ballad “Pearl of the Quarter” would have stood a better chance of racking up sales. But the oddly unspecific period nostalgia of “The Boston Rag” (halfway between a slow drag and a perversely squared-off tango), the vibraphone-hooked semi-samba “Razor Boy” with its obscure lyrics and dabs of pedal steel guitar, the off-kilter “Your Gold Teeth,” and the smoothly frenetic “King of the World” weren’t likely to overwhelm the masses either. However, it all added up to a remarkably cohesive and darkly disturbing album, and nearly three decades on, that’s all that matters.