ON TRACK: THE SOLO BEATLES 1969-1980
ON TRACK: STEELY DAN
The next batch of releases in the On Track (‘Every album, every song’) series looks at the solo output of John, Paul, George & Ringo in the decade after the break up of The Fab Four and then the Becker/Fagen fronted Steely Dan.
Andrew Wild has already taken the plunge in looking at The Beatles for On Track. He’s now taken the slightly less daunting challenge of the first decade of post-Beatles activity that ranged (musically at least) from the sublime to the ridiculous.
However, after tackling every song The Beatles recorded between 1957 and 1970 for On Track, he’s ready to take on the first burst of solo activity that includes ‘the classics, the lost gems, the turkeys, the collaborations, the back-biting, the hits and the misses.’
Wild himself admits that these days, it may only be the hardcore and committed fan who listens to the likes of Wild Life, Sometime In New York City, Thirty-three And A Third or Ringo’s Rotogravure (others may not even have heard of the latter).
On the other hand, there are some bonafide gems. Taking things in chronological, year-by-year order seems not only a logical step, but also goes to emphasise how they Fab Four retained their omnipresence from the Sixties. There was simply no shortage of releases of varying quality in the barely disguised competition to be top Beatle.
Emerging as the dark horse, George’s All Things Must Pass briefly elevated him to the status of Chief ex-Beatle as the competition ebbed and flowed. The culmination came in 1973 where (Who’s the greatest?) with the singles successes and Band On The Run – “ a Paul McCartney album that can sit alongside his work from the 1960s….self-confident, effortlessly melodic, dynamic and commercial” is a pretty good testimony.
The mid-Seventies return to Earth as mere mortals of Lennon, Harrison and Starr is acknowledged, while I’d hoped Wild might have rated Venus And Mars (a personal fave along with the period Wings Over America live album) a little higher or perhaps anything that followed Band On The Run was likely to disappoint.
What’s most effective is how the chronology tracks what is essentially a decline in the late Seventies. Lennon having to revert to the standard set of covers in Rock And Roll (Stand By Me aside) and Harrison seeming to have thrown all his chips into All Things Must Pass. Ringo, ever an acquired taste, acknowledged as being only as good as his collaborators.
What do we get as the nightcap? A list of thirty solo songs you should listen to again. No real surprises in there, although waiting in the wings is the story to be told from 1980 onwards.
Jez Rowden starts his Steely Dan analysis with the ‘are they or aren’t they’ issue of whether the songwriting vehicle for Donald Fagen and Walter Becker is a band or just their front. Heard that before? (Jethro Tull anyone?)
As well as scrutinizing the Dan output, many of the unreleased songs are covered and early demo material, the official live releases and solo albums. All unashamedly through the enthusiastic eyes of a fan – perhaps the best way which is the beauty of On Track.
A quick guide for the uninitiated to their background reveals several names dropped that show the pedigree of the duo even before they moved into the Dan era.
For most, Steely Dan seems to be all about ‘The Groove’. Given the first track on the first album is Do It Again (a little folky ditty with a suitably snaking Latin bent) it sets the tone for the rest of the Dan catalogue. Easily a personal favourite track, although with it’s ‘traditional’ subtitle, I never thought of it as a folk song.
There’s also the impact of producer Gary Katz and engineer Roger Nicholls, who to be fair, were as much a part of the team (although not quite fitting the ‘all animals are equals’ notion) as Becker and Fagen. The former reports on the quality of their early seventies live show while the duo self-critically pored over their performance. It’s that commitment to classy quality that’s at the core of anything Dan related, be it Do It Again, the hits or the lesser cuts of the Dan catalogue into which Jez delves.
He imparts the sort of in-depth knowledge and enthusiasm that you have to admire when you ‘know of’ an artist but are faced with someone who ‘really knows’ their band inside out – someone who has seriously studied those album sleeves.
There are the odd moments of critical comment; the note on 2003’s Everything Must Go, the accepted ‘worst Steely Dan album’ even in Fagan’s books, where he recognises the brand starting to evolve into a legacy act.
As usual, there’s a little personal touch – in this case, a short list of Dan Deep Cuts (I bet Jez laboured over this or the alternative ‘Deep Dan Cuts’) for those who’ve heard the hits but need some guidance on where to go next.
Coming full circle, there’s mention of the visit to see the Steely Dan Band in Manchester in 2018 (a one-shot deal) where the set is entirely Seventies material (hardly the Summer of Living Dangerously and the legacy act label coming into play?) – when the chips are down, where else is there to go?
Read about other On Track releases here
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