Steely Dan

MCA, 1980

REVIEW BY: Gus Rocha


On June 26, 2005, a low-budget short film by the name of Yacht Rock screened at the monthly L.A. short-film festival Channel 101. Written, produced, and directed by a trio of young and aspiring movie writers, the film took a fictionalized look at the distinctive and colorful music scene around Southern California at the end of the 1970s. Hosted and narrated by fictional AllMusic critic “Hollywood” Steve Huey, the film which went on to enjoy a year-long run as a relatively successful twelve-part mini-series, explored the rise of the particularly Californian genre then known as ‘soft rock.’ Following a cadre of late ‘70s musical heavyweights that included Michael McDonald, Kenny Loggins, Hall & Oates, and Christopher Cross, Yacht Rock provided a comedic history of ‘adult-oriented rock’s” triumphant years at the top of the charts. In the process, it also inadvertently christened a sound that more than forty years later remains both elusive and debated as it continues to defy its critics’ changing and polemic definitions. 

All semantic disagreements aside, however, fifteen years after the film’s premiere, one thing seems clear: For people of a certain age, particularly those among the millennial generation, the sub-genre known as ‘yacht rock’ is more of a kitschy, time-specific cultural and commercial phenomenon than an authentic and artistically aspirational musical movement. By virtue of this limiting understanding of the aesthetics surrounding the genre, many of the albums included in its canon are usually looked upon as no more than two-dimensional commercial products brimming with the pompous affectation of artistic accomplishment. And though this faulty heuristic can occasionally shine a light on scattered kernels of truth, more often than not, it can be both reductive and misleading. No album serves as a better example of this gross and frequent miscategorization than Steely Dan’s 1980 “yacht-rock masterpiece” Gaucho. 

A concise record consisting of seven songs that barely stretch across the half-hour mark (it clocks in at 37 minutes), Gaucho represents a stylistic pivot for the band following the enormous success of their previous work Aja, three years earlier. Turning away from the complex harmonies and elaborate chord progressions that had characterized the band’s sound throughout the ‘70s, the album finds the duo of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker opting for a more minimalist approach grounded by the use of air-tight rhythms and grooves. From the moment that drummer Bernard Purdie casually breaks into his trademark shuffle at the start of album opener “Babylon Sisters,” Steely Dan sets off to meticulously create a groove-induced trance that’s commendably maintained throughout the record. The result is a layered musical experience brightened by the band’s superb use of jazz harmonies and eloquent but economical musical frills. my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Through a sophisticated songwriting approach, Steely Dan introduces us to the usual cast of seedy characters and perennial losers that inhabit the group’s musical universe as they navigate a world defined as much by personal disillusionment as by the prescriptive sense of hedonism that characterized both the music scene and culture at large at the end of the 1970s. With admirable poise and unmatched attention to detail, the duo weaves together sordid tales that recount the horrific and all-consuming grip of heroin addiction; a middle-aged sleazebag’s disappointment with a lover too young to remember the songs and artists of his youth; and the integral place that drugs, excess, and criminality came to occupy in the popular imagination after Nixon’s War On Drugs. 

The album’s effect approximates and reflects a sense of cinematographic auteurism as Becker and Fagen confront us with the inescapable reality of a world that exists as a perverse shadowy version of its former self. No song better elucidates this spirit of stultifying gloom than the fusion-forward “Glamour Profession.” Jogging along marathon-like through seven minutes of tasteful and elaborate jazz-infused chord changes, the band taps into their keen understanding of social geography to paint a vivid picture of debauchery and decadence as the natural consequences of an irremediable tear in the social fabric.

Placing their lawless anti-hero deep in the heart of the drug-fueled world that was Hollywood at the dawn of the 1980s, Becker and Fagen use visual and cultural elements long identified with the glitzy easy-living synonymous with the Southern California locale. Anyone who’s ever read a story or watched a film set in Los Angeles is familiar with that burning twinge of romantic and befuddling nostalgia typically associated with the surreal haze of the sunsets’ reds, pinks, and oranges as they plunge into the metallic-blue ocean and burrow through the edge of the world. It’s a specific feeling that’s a mix of danger and excitement and desolation and the abandonment of hope, and that could only emerge when living at the edge of a continent in a country that’s reached its geographic and metaphysical limit. This dramatic capitulation of intense emotions is adroitly condensed into the song’s harmonies, melodies, lyrics, and mood. And I’ll argue that this process is masterfully repeated throughout the album. 

For this reason, I refuse to share in my fellow millennials’ willingness to chalk up the album and its corresponding genre as a glib pastiche of smooth and overwrought sounds. There is a scope to the group’s artistic vision that enabled them to outpace their contemporaries, and in the process, raise the bar in terms of artistic and musical standards. Far from being the acolytes to an impersonal industry solely committed to increased record sales and its bottom line, Becker and Fagen spent nearly two years meticulously crafting the record. They likewise spent all of their advance money hiring forty-two elite studio musicians as they put together what would be their one last and exceptional musical statement before the twenty-year recording hiatus that followed. (The duo would also face a series of legal challenges at the time of the album’s release. They were embroiled in a three-way legal battle with MCA and Warner Brothers regarding the rights to release the album and were subsequently sued by jazz musician Keith Jarrett for allegedly plagiarizing the melody in the intro to the album’s title track).

Notwithstanding the often short-sided and superficial analysis that followed, Gaucho is one of the last records of its kind: a musically sophisticated piece that reflects its authors’ obsession with quality and perfectionism and whose sound captures the freewheeling and increasingly individualistic ethos of a cultural period as it drew to a close. And forty years after its release, it stands as an example of a band perfectly willing and able to reconcile artistic integrity with cultural and commercial success. 

Rating: A-

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