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Can't Buy A Thrill
Steely Dan

ABC 758
Released: October 1972
Chart Peak: #17
Weeks Charted: 59
Certified Gold: 5/31/73
Mary is strapping on a rubber penis. "Steely Dan III from Yokohama," she says, caressing the shaft.
"What happened to Steely Dan I?"
"He was torn in two by a bull dyke. She could cave in a lead pipe."
"And Steely Dan II?"
"Chewed to bits by a famished canidru in the Upper Baboonsasshole. And don't say 'wheeeeeeee!' this time."
- William S. Burroughs, Naked Lunch

Walter BeckerDonald FagenSteely Dan is an L.A. rock band that is headed by a pair of transplanted Gotham mavericks named Donald Fagen and Walter C. Becker. The insipid liner notes in their new album tell us that the boys have paid their dues. One Dan was even a member of Ultimate Spinach. There is no mention, however, that composers Fagen and Becker learned their trade by playing the famed Catskills with the inimitable Jay and the Americans. As if that weren't enough, they penned "I Mean to Shine," recorded recently by Barbra Joan Streisand.

Somewhere in the course of two years, however, many of the idiosynchratic touches of Fagen and Becker were scrapped in favor of a more salable songbook, borrowing liberally from CSN&Y, Procol Harum, Spirit, the Band and sundry Motown hits.

Steely Dan - Can't Buy a Thrill
Original album advertising art.
Click image for larger view.
The set begins promisingly with "Do It Again," which uses Spirit's approach effectively. Employing a minor-key bridge, the tune is fully developed and the mix is dense enough to give it AM possibilities, if some of its six minutes were chopped. Fagen's rancorous voice effectively sells the engaging lyric, which deals with a man's propensity for repeating his folly. And give Denny Dias an "A" for chutzpah for that nice solo on electric sitar. "Dirty Work" works because it juxtaposes David Palmer's sweet tenor voice with misogynistic lyrics. Side two opens with the superb "Reeling In The Years," a rocking Moby Grape shuffle that spotlights guest Elliot Randall's biting lead guitar, more acrid 1965 Dylan-derived verse, Fagen's best vocal and Becker's tough, propulsive bass.

Can't Buy A Thrill (the title, of course, was lifted from a line in Dylan's "It Takes a Lot to Laugh") is distinguished by three top-level cuts and scattered moments of inspiration, but there are also those instances of Steely coming on like a limp dildo. Too bad -- great title.

- James Issacs, Rolling Stone, 11-23-72.

Bonus Reviews!

Good, commercial package highlighted by fine vocals from Donald Fagen and David Palmer. Much of the material, such as "Dirty Work," shows fine vocal harmonies and the cuts are familiar without loss of originality. "Midnight Cruiser," with its rock/acoustic mix shows good hit possibilities for a group that should be around for some time.

- Billboard, 1972.

How about that -- a good album with two hit singles attached. And as you might expect of New York natives who reside in the City of the Angels, both brim with ambivalence: "Do It Again," a catchy modified mambo with homogenized vocals that divert one's attention from its tragic tale of a loser so compulsive he can't get himself hanged, and "Reelin' in the Years," a hate song to a professed genius. Think of the Dan as the first post-boogie band: the beat swings more than it blasts or blisters, the chord changes defy our primitive subconscious expectiations, and the lyrics underline their own difficulty -- as well as the difficulty of the reality to which they refer -- with arbitrary personal allusions, most of which are ruses. A

- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.

The benefits of CD mastering on Can't Buy a Thrill are immediately apparent from the opening bar of the first song. The phasiness and distortion "halo" around percussion, in particular cymbals, which was distractingly audible on the LP is now gone. Cymbals in "Do It Again" now have an appropriate metallic ring rather than being lost in a hazy treble wash. The complex interwoven jazz-inspired melody and harmony are stripped clean and the full sophistication of early Dan can be fully appreciated.

There is no big dynamic excitement in this recording but the sound from CD is distinctly less veiled and more contrasty. Strummed guitar and overdubbed backing vocals behind short-time vocalist David Palmer in "Dirty Work" have a new independence. Indeed the tapes have come up better than could have been hoped for. Guest guitarist Elliot Randall's "he can't mean it/he'll never make it" guitar solo in "Kings" can delight anew.

MCA has rightly included Tristan Fabriani's infamous tongue-in-cheek sleeve notes from the original album.

- David Prakel, Rock 'n' Roll on Compact Disc, 1987.

The Steely Dan that appeared on this debut was basically a sophisticated perversion of the sound forged by fellow-ABC-labelmates Three Dog Night. Check out "Dirty Work," "Kings," and "Midnight Cruiser," and say that it isn't true. It's certainly one of the best debuts by any group to emerge from the '70s. Can't Buy a Thrill also produced two classic hits with the dirty Latin-influenced groove of "Do It Again" and the edgy shuffle "Reelin' in the Years." * * *

- Rick Clark, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.

For as sophisticated as Steely Dan became, it never really beat its debut effort, Can't Buy a Thrill. Becker and Fagen showed a clear gift for pop melodicism with instantly memorable tracks such as "Do It Again," "Dirty Work," "Midnight Cruiser" and "Brooklyn." Elliot Randall's guitar solos on "Reelin' in the Years" would be worth the price of admission alone. * * * * *

- Gary Graff, Musichound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, 1996.

Book-ended by the magical noises that light the start of "Do It Again" and sparkle over the fade of "Turn That Heartbeat Over Again," Steely Dan's Can't Buy A Thrill is one of the most confident debuts ever. It appeared ready, polished and almost perfect, as if performed by seasoned session men who'd worked the same songs for decades. Dan, who took their name from a sex toy, were a bunch of Californian twentysomethings fronted by bassist Walter Becker, and co-vocalist Donald Fagen, a keyboard player. They'd hooked up less than eleven months previously to play an amalgam of laid-back rock and smooth, blue-eyed funk. David Palmer's cryptic, intelligent verses were the cream on what his publicist called "urban sturm und drang." The infectiously rhythmic opener "Do It Again" soon became a radio classic (it would later echo in Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean"), as did the urgent "Reelin' In The Years," one of the Steelie's few stabs at straight-ahead L.A. rock. While "Brooklyn" epitomized wistfulness, the stridently discordant piano of "Fire In The Hole" was groundbreaking and "Turn That Heartbeat Over Again," with its catchy chorus, remains a classic. By the mid-70s there were many Dan-style bands playing the whiteman's blues, but few composed tracks of the quality of Can't Buy A Thrill, the slow-burning million-seller.

- Collins Gem Classic Albums, 1999.

Fans of Dan say the seeds of something spectacular were planted on their smart, snappy, stylish debut, which announced these dudes have some serious talent. Reeling in the riffs, awesome guitar work and Latino rhythms, they brought class to '70s rock, and no one else sounded remotely like them. Still, a few waverers feel later efforts like Pretzel Logic and Katy Lied are vastly superior. * * * * *

- Zagat Survey Music Guide - 1,000 Top Albums of All Time, 2003.

Working as hired songwriters by day, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker rehearsed this debut in executives' offices by night. "We play rock & roll, but we swing," said Becker. For proof, check the cool lounge-jazz rhythms of "Do It Again" and the hot guitar of "Reelin' in the Years."

Can't Buy a Thrill was chosen as the 238th greatest album of all time by the editors of Rolling Stone magazine in Dec. 2003.

- Rolling Stone, 12/11/03.

In 1972, nobody really knew quite what to make of Steely Dan and their debut album Can't Buy A Thrill, not even founding members Donald Fagen and Walter Becker. However, those that saw them as just another polished West Coast rock outfit were missing the point. Although the album was just the first step of a voyage of musical discovery, there was already plenty to distinguish Steely Dan from the pack.

While the vocal harmonies here are often suggestive of Crosby, Stills, Nash, And Young, the arrangements reach new levels of sophistication. Miles Davis had previously had a go at fusing rock and jazz, but when Fagen's vocals drop in after the exquisite Latin jazz intro to "Do It Again," you know these guys were really on to something. When Denny Dias' electric sitar solo comes in, you know they could really nail it.

Vocalist David Palmer, who did not feature on any later albums, has his finest moments on "Dirty Work" even if he lacks Fagen's snarl and bite. His inclusion was arguably an attempt to make their sound even more radio friendly than it already was. "Reeling In The Years" sounds like a classic hit single after just a few bars. Unforgettable buzzy guitar solos give way to indelible lush choruses propelled by Walter Becker's bass. It's foot-stomping fun but executed with a precision that was to become a Steely Dan trademark.

Billboard were masters of understatement when they said this album would have "good hit possibilities for a group that should be around for some time."

- Gerard Sampaio, 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, 2005.

Working as hired songwriters by day, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker rehearsed this debut in executives' offices by night. "We play rock & roll, but we swing," said Becker. Check out the lounge-jazz rhythms of "Do It Again" and the hot guitar of "Reelin' in the Years" for proof.

Can't Buy a Thrill was chosen as the 168th greatest album of all time in a Rolling Stone magazine poll of artists, producers, critics and music industry figures in Oct. 2020.

- Rolling Stone, 10/20.

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