Steely Dan achieved early success with their 1972 debut record Can’t Buy a Thrill and in 1974 they released their biggest single, “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” off their third album Pretzel Logic. Squeezed in between was Countdown to Ecstasy, their sophomore effort and arguably most overlooked classic. On Can’t Buy a Thrill, Steely Dan took a relatively straightforward album rock-oriented songwriting approach, but Countdown to Ecstasy saw them expand upon the jazzy flavor of their debut to create a sprawling masterpiece of superior craftsmanship and intelligence. Countdown to Ecstasy began Steely Dan’s run of elevated jazz-rock that lasted through the rest of the ’70s, where their exceptional musical talent matched their ambition for impeccable production.
Although Can’t Buy a Thrill is a terrific album, Donald Fagen didn’t sing on every song and this lack of consistency does not work to its advantage. “Dirty Work” and “Brooklyn (Owes the Charmer Under Me)” were sung by David Palmer and “Midnite Cruiser” was sung by Jim Hodder. Furthermore, while Fagen did sing lead on the rest of the album, he co-sang (either Palmer or Walter Becker) three more songs, “Only a Fool Would Say That,” “Change of the Guard,” and “Turn That Heartbeat Over Again.” Not that Palmer and Hodder are bad singers, but it revealed a lack of identity, especially given that Fagen took the vocal reins for the remainder of Steely Dan’s career. I suppose I would be remiss if I did not point out that after touring behind Pretzel Logic they ceased to be an actual band, shedding everyone except Fagen, Becker and producer Gary Katz.
I include Katz because he played a crucial role in what became the Steely Dan studio project. Their carefully layered songs didn’t always work live, and they found that audiences weren’t particularly receptive to them to begin with. Becker and Fagen remained in the studio with Katz for the rest of the decade as a result, spending all of their time and energy sculpting some of the most delicately textured, cerebral music in the history of rock. But their dedication to masterful, painstaking engineering begins with Countdown to Ecstasy. Of course, it would all be for naught if the music were no good, but luckily Countdown to Ecstasy‘s songs are first-rate. My favorite track has always been the mesmerizing “Show Biz Kids,” a blistering slide-guitar stomp played by Rick Derringer with awesome attitude. I do believe it is my favorite slide song, surpassing Led Zep’s “In My Time of Dying” and the White Stripes’ “Red Rain.”
Also of note is “Bodhisattva,” a track I remember playing a few years back on Rock Band 2. I had heard the song before (many times, in fact), but playing through it in the game made me realize that the song is just an absolute tour de force. It demonstrated that even though Steely Dan would bring in the country’s most awesome session musicians post-Pretzel Logic, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter could more than hold his own. (As if his legendary solo on “Reelin’ in the Years” didn’t provide enough proof.) Another great track is the closer, “King of the World.” I love the way the guitar skitters around under the surface. There’s not really a whole lot more I can say about Countdown to Ecstasy. It improves upon Steely Dan’s great debut — which nearly made my list — and captures the band comfortably settling into its sound.