Countdown to Ecstasy. Steely Dan.
1973, ABC. Producer: Gary Katz.
IN A NUTSHELL: Countdown to Ecstasy, by Steely Dan, is a showcase for musicianship – a collection of songs from the days when Steely Dan was a band. Leaders Donald Fagan and Walter Becker write great songs, but talented guitarists Jeff “Skunk” Baxter and Denny Dias steal the show. The songs are fun and diverse and Fagan’s voice sells each and every one. They may be a dark, sarcastic duo, but Fagan and Becker write songs that their talented friends can devour.
NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
My favorite high school teacher, Mrs. Meyers, was fond of quoting Benjamin Franklin’s1 old axiom, “Nothing’s certain except death and taxes.” However, she always pointed out that Mr. Franklin2 mistakenly left out one other guarantee in life. “Nothing’s certain except death and taxes,” she’d say, then add, “… and CHANGE! Everything changes!” For many folks, change may be scarier than either taxes or death.
I now believe Mrs. Meyers was even smarter than Ben Franklin3 in her assessment. As researchers push against aging and death, and billionaires, most of whom inherited or finagled their dough, convince more and more dumb Americans that taxes are bad, one can imagine a world where death and taxes become an uncertainty. (This confluence of events could hilariously lead to five quintillionaires remaining alone on Earth after devastating the planet in their race to “win,” lying atop their piles of money, unable to die4.) The fact that our relationship to death and taxes has the potential to change only proves what Mrs. Meyers said: change is certain.
Very little from the culture and society I knew in 1983, as a 15-year old in Mrs. Meyers’s history class, remains as it was back then. Everything has changed. Some things have gotten better, some things have gotten worse, but very little is the same. I’m fascinated by this change over time, and I’m happy it’s happened. In fact, it gives me hope that people can continue to improve their lives. You see, I’m one of those people who is not scared by change, but, in fact, am rather comfortable with it.
Now, for sure, the 1983, teenaged me would be horrified by all that’s changed since then. At that time I was a small-town kid, scared by the world around me and subconsciously trying to allay those fears by mocking, resisting and remaining willfully obtuse to anything new or different around me. Computers, gay people, strong women, the DH5, non-English speakers6, non-comedy movies, city-people, cats, non-Christians… At that time I wanted the world to be exactly what was in my head at that moment, and (I thought) I wanted it to stay that way forever.
My adulthood, however, has been shot through with change. I moved about 6 times in my early 20s, finally arriving in San Francisco, and moved three times in 8 years while I was there. Then I moved to New England and moved 5 times in 5 years before landing in my current home. I have worked at about 11 different companies since college, not counting the half-dozen or so little jobs I had before I joined the pharmaceutical industry. I’ve done stand-up comedy, acted in plays and performed improv for years – the one place where my love of never really knowing what the hell is coming next found a perfect setting. My adult life has been more about resisting stasis than resisting change. And one of the first big changes involved Dr. Dave.
Dr. Dave has been mentioned frequently in this space. He’s my longest-serving best friend – we met just about two-and-a-half years after Mrs. Meyers’s history class, as freshmen in the Toxicology program at Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Science. We bonded quickly over music, particularly The Beatles and Yes, plus the Phillies, Columbo, Caddyshack and the ridiculousness of a career in toxicology. And a million other things. But within two years he had jettisoned toxicology for pharmacy7, and I jettisoned the small private school in the city for a larger, public university in the country.
Given the nature of our personalities, our interests, and our friendship, it only makes sense that on the last day before I left the school forever, Dr. Dave drove me around the city of Philadelphia, the windows of his LeCar8 down, blaring the Steely Dan classic from Countdown to Ecstasy, “My Old School.” The lyrics expressed all the regret I had about choosing that school in the first place, and the refrain, “I’m never going back to my old school,” was the exclamation point on my entire time there.
I’m sure we were both a little sad that we’d be seeing less of each other, but moving apart wasn’t all bad. It allowed us to keep in touch (pre-internet) in goofy ways, like writing letters to each other on notepad paper shaped like pills, capsules, suppositories, hearts, livers, and other vaguely medical shapes, all courtesy of the pharmaceutical industry, which showered undergrad science majors with weird gifts. (For years I had a small, clear-plastic-encased musculo-skeletal foot with the words “Roche – Naproxen®️” emblazoned across it.) We kept in touch, and visited each other, and played music together, and as our lives changed, and we changed, we stayed connected.
Our musical tastes have certainly grown in different ways, but because we’re friends, Dr. Dave graciously compliments my blog posts on albums he thinks I’ve rated too high, or too low, and I do my best to listen to Classical music now and then. But no matter how much our lives changed, the connection has remained because deep down we are still the type of guys who love Columbo and Caddyshack and would drive around the city singing a fuck-off song to a place we’re happy to leave behind. And what a song it is.
As I’ve mentioned before, I got into Steely Dan because my eldest sister had a milk crate of 70s albums, and their record Aja was one of them. That was an entree into the world of Steely Dan. By my senior year of high school, I had Countdown to Ecstasy on vinyl, and a few others as well. The world of Steely Dan started out in 1972 as a rockin’, dirty, guitar-driven place that, as the 70s progressed, was further gentrified with each album until the decade ended with a sound that, frankly, was so sparkling clean that it was unrecognizable as rock9. Countdown to Ecstasy is the band’s second album, when they were still mostly a guitar-based rock band with jazzy overtones, instead of vice versa. And “My Old School,” with its phenomenal guitar work by Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, is a straight-up guitar jam, despite the prominent horn section (which was absent from this American Bandstand appearance …)
It opens with a few piano chords, a horn fanfare, and a cool drum intro, then singer/keyboardist/band co-leader Donald Fagan starts singing about a college drug bust. Steely Dan’s lyrics are black licorice – you love them or hate them, with no room for middle ground. I love them. They’re clever, but not in an Elvis Costello-esque wordplay style. Costello is like a witty TV show; Steely Dan is like a layered crime novel10, where nothing is what it first seems, and characters are waiting to double-cross our typically less-than-upstanding protagonist. References to Gino and Daddy G, the Wolverine to Annandale, oleanders in bloom … they all create a world for the listener to step into while guitarist Baxter plays guitar lines and solos that, frankly, still astound me. I was going to list all the cool guitar parts I like – but it basically amounts to the entire song! Co-leader Walter Becker is a great bassist, drummer Jim Hodder is fast and creative, and I still think of this song as one of my favorites.
Another of my favorites (and the album only has 8 songs, so they’re all favorites, really) is the album opener, “Bodhisattva,” which is like a jazz piece – a repeating chord progression over which the band takes solos and Fagan sings a few lines about a Buddhist spiritual guide.
When my son was in middle school he had a basketball coach who told the boys, “I want you to have fun playing hoops. You could have fun out there by throwing basketballs at each other and goofing around, but I want you to have fun by playing the game the right way. When you do something the right way, you experience fun a whole different way.” On “Bodhisattva,” Steely Dan sounds like a bunch of musicians having fun The Right Way. Guitarist and founder Denny Dias11 plays a solo, at 1:35, that is wide ranging and fun and an incredible 54 bars long! A full minute. After some more vocals and a back and forth between keyboards and guitars, Skunk gets his due, as well. He plays the outro solo beginning at 4:09. Two lead guitarists – as fans of Lynyrd Skynyrd, Judas Priest, or Thin Lizzy can tell you – is twice the fun.
But for an act that values “chops,” and makes songs like “Bodhisattva” sound easy, they have a way with a melody as well. “Razor Boy” has a catchy melody, and Fagan’s nasal voice delivers it perfectly. The vibraphone and pedal steel guitar give the song a caribbean-yet-country feel. The lyrics are typical Steely-Dan-opaque, sort of accusatory, somewhat menacing.
A particular style of Steely Dan lyric is the story song – full of characters and events, but obliquely described, much like “My Old School.” Another one is “The Boston Rag,” in which something happens to a dude named Lonnie.
Just what “The Boston Rag” is, one never finds out. But we do find confirmation that “Skunk” Baxter and Denny Dias are guitar maniacs Check out, for example, the solo beginning at 3:18, (Dias) and continuing at 3:48 (Baxter). Also, Jim Hodder’s drums in this song are very cool, very understated but key to moving the song along.
Speaking of songs in which the lyrics are indirect and ambiguous … what the hell is “Your Gold Teeth” about?
The music has a groovy, calypso feel, almost 60s jazz. It’s a real showcase for Fagan’s keyboard playing – the solo at 2:44 is really top notch. And it leads into an angular, tough guitar solo by Dias. The song’s melody is singalong catchy, but what am I singing when I sing about tobacco they grow in Peking? The year of the locust? And who is Cathy Berberian,12 and what are these roulades she sings? And how can I sing along to that last verse, where Fagan shows off his vocal skills?
Steely Dan would cease to exist as a touring entity and become a “studio only” band just a couple years after Countdown to Ecstasy. But although the band was filled to the brim with musical talent, on this album they were already bringing in hired guns when needed. Rick Derringer plays slide guitar on the funky Hollywood dis tune, 13 “Show Biz Kids.” He basically plays a solo through the whole song, answering Fagan’s lyrics with tasty fills. Then about 3:00 he takes over for the remainder of the song.
Although Steely Dan has an air – perhaps more than an air, a dark, dense cloud – of detached cynicism about them, they could pull the heartstrings with their songs and stories. Case in point is the lovely “Pearl of the Quarter.” Baxter pulls some beautiful pedal steel guitar, adding a sadness to this country-esque tune. It’s a rather tired story of a regretful man who fell for a “lady of the evening.” But the descending chords of the chorus, and the guitar overcome the story to create a true feeling of regret. Drummer Hodder’s crisp rolls and syncopation sound great.
The song, for me, is really the Denny Dias show, as his guitar demands your attention from the opening four seconds, when a faint, wah-wah riff enters below the shuffling high-hat. He plays a delayed, waterfall sound behind the vocals, then nicely mimics the ham radio of the lyrics (0:38). There are great harmonies in the chorus, and with every verse, Dias builds on what he did before – but you have to listen closely. Once again, this song sounds like a group of musicians having fun. There’s a very 70s, hooting organ at 2:00, and bassist Becker plays a cool line behind it. Throughout it all, Dias lurks in the background. Then, at 4:17 he goes nuts with a jazzy solo that sounds like it went for three minutes, but the song fades out.
Steely Dan was a band that changed over the years, from a touring rock band to a studio collection of jazz/rock musicians. Sure, I like the early rockin’ stuff, like Countdown to Ecstasy. But I like the later stuff, too. Look, things change, people change. Dr. Dave and I have changed. But there’s another old saying, too: The more things change, the more they stay the same.
“The Boston Rag”
“Your Gold Teeth”
“Show Biz Kids”
“My Old School”
“Pearl of the Quarter”
“King of the World”