Thursday, July 28, 2011

Reconsidering Steely Dan

Reconsidering Steely Dan: "

When I was a kid in the 70s, Steely Dan were all over the FM airwaves and I absolutely loathed them. Music for assholes as far as I was concerned.

Punk rock hit when I was 10-years-old. I can assure you that I had about as much time for Steely Dan growing up as I did for the Eagles or Lynyrd Skynyrd. Which is to say, none. I hated them. It was always THEIR albums that they used in high end stereo stores to demonstrate equipment. Although I did give them some cool points when I later realized that they’d gotten their name from William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch (“Steely Dan III from Yokohama,” a strap-on dildo referred to in the text), I associated them too much with the dreaded middle-of-the-road “AOR” radio format and with middle-aged guys who owned expensive sound systems.

Well, now that I AM a middle-aged guy with an expensive sound system… I must say, boy I was wrong about Steely Dan. Donald Fagen and Walter Becker are badass musical geniuses. I simply didn’t know what I was missing out on!

Why the change of heart? Gotta say, it is my audio equipment. I’m a audiophile. I don’t take it to the extremes that some people do, but I do have a good 7.1 surround system and it’s something I derive a lot of pleasure from. The idea of low quality MP3s horrifiy me. I have an iPod, but I haven’t charged it for years.

A few years ago, I became aware that there was an underground coterie of amateur and professional audio enthusiasts who were lovingly capturing and restoring quadraphonic mixes from the 70s. Hundreds of albums came out on quad LPs, 8-tracks and reel to reel tapes. These hi-fi maniacs, to whom I am in great debt, go on eBay and elsewhere and hunt these things down. They don’t bid against each other, it’s a cooperative, community thing. There are other guys who restore the old quad equipment. This online community turn out album after album of such high end four-channel audio that it can take your breath away (Note: It’s not 5.1, it’s quad, so on a modern surround system, the center speaker drops out. Low frequencies are still sent to the sub-woofer, though, so it’s more like 4.1, I suppose)

The process, as I understand it, is that they take the 4-channel material into ProTools or a similar audio program and then (usually) turn them in to DVD ISO files which are then normally uploaded to torrent trackers or other file sharing means like Rapidshare or Hotfile. The end user then burns these files as a DVD for use in a DVD player.

But back to Steely Dan. I’ll listen to anything once in multi-channel. Yes, even bands that I’ve always hated, like the Doobie Brothers or Guns-n-Roses, once. Everything merits at least one listen. Some don’t merit two, however.

When a few Steely Dan albums (Countdown to Ecstasy, Can’t Buy a Thrill and Pretzel Logic) in quad were offered to me by a friend, I accepted them, but I never burned them to DVDs, they just sat there on my hard drive. Then one day a few months ago, I was watching an episode of Rob Bryden’s Annually Retentive sitcom, which uses “Reelin’ In the Years” as its theme tune and I remembered I had them. And so I burned them, wanting to hear this song in multi-channel audio.

Not sure if it was the mood I was in, the weed I was smoking or maybe just the music itself, but I was soon having a full on out-of-body rock snob musical orgasm. What an idiot I’d been. snubbing Steely Dan for so many years. I was a damned fool!

Maybe it does take a good hi-fi to really appreciate Steely Dan. I’ve been listening to them now quite a bit since then and they’re like the diamond cutters of rock. They really don’t sound like anybody else. Their legendary attention to sonic detail and search for perfection in the studio puts them in a league entirely of their own creation. Their sound is so sleek and so clear, almost crystalline. There is a lot of space around the instrumentation (a hallmark of their sound greatly enhanced by a multi-channel mix) and you can turn their albums up as loud as fuck with very, very little distortion. (Yes, I’m a lousy neighbor…).

If like me, you were a butt-head who always hated Steely Dan, do give them a chance again, you’ll be glad that you did (but not over ear buds or computer speakers, it won’t be the same).

Below, two clips of Steely Dan in their musical prime on The Midnight Special in 1973:


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