Pearl Of The Quarter
My first full-blown band obsession was Steely Dan. Ironically, I discovered them at the moment of their break-up in the early eighties, and spent a couple of years committing their seven records to memory. It’s easy to love melody (ever met anyone who didn’t?), and 20th century popular music enshrined rhythm (the backbeat of rock n’ roll; the all-important “swing” in jazz), but I’ve always had a special place in my heart for harmony (chords). And to my ears, Steely Dan’s chord progressions were rich and flavorsome like nothing I’d ever heard before. I didn’t realize at the time how much they owed to jazz.
A few elements of the Steely Dan sound:
A bohemian, sarcastic, slightly weary take on the world. Both Becker and Fagen went to Bard College and their hipster literariness shows. Their songs could be satirical but deep down they were poignant. "I cried when I wrote this song," Fagen sang on "Deacon Blues", "Sue me if I play too long."
Masterful use of the recording studio as a sort of grand musical instrument. Two years after it was formed, the band stopped touring, devoting their time exclusively to the studio. Their albums are fastidiously arranged, immaculately recorded. The southern California production (e.g. spending days getting the snare sound just right), which sounds fetishistic and sterile on other people’s records, inexplicably only adds to the intelligence and sophistication of Steely Dan's records.
Sorry, but some of the music labeled as jazz-rock fusion of the early 70s sounds a little masturbatory to me, possessing neither the elegance of jazz nor the vitality of rock n’ roll. But Steely Dan figured out the alchemical formula to blend jazz with pop music forms by somehow keeping the "best selves" of those two musics intact and making them resonate off each other. Perhaps they did it by remembering that jazz once was pop music, in the swing era, when it relied on economy of form (its material consisted of the songs now known as the Great American Songbook) and creative large-group arranging with a rich instrumental palette.
The influence of jazzy Hollywood arrangers which can be heard, for example, in occasional guitar-bass unison lines that stand up and walk right over from Mancini’s Peter Gunn. Steely Dan had a penchant for un-rock-like elaborate charts employing scores of session musicans who came in and (yikes) sight-read their parts. Not exactly the “three-chords-and-the-truth” paradigm, but looking back, the well-known fussiness of the band's recording process appears to have been a sound long-term choice. Today, the records sound gem-like, lovingly wrought, still fresh.
A word about the song: "Pearl Of The Quarter" is tucked away into a corner of their second album, Countdown To Ecstasy (1973). It's an outwardly dry but secretly touching love song to a New Orleans hooker. I vividly remember that the first time I heard it, I found a tear in my eye; I have no idea why. Maybe it was Jeff "Skunk" Baxter's pedal steel fills.
So, your first band obsession?