From the sedulous to the surreal in cultural context

Steely Dan Postmodern: A Meditation on Sonic and Visual Artifice

“You go back Jack do it again

Wheel turnin’ ‘round and ‘round

You go back Jack do it again…”

 

Thus incants the first song on Steely Dan’s inaugural album, 1972’s Can’t Buy a Thrill. “Do It Again” is a song about gambling and revenge and weary despair, but taken on its own this refrain may capture the essence of the group’s recording methods. As is well known, Steely Dan was the brainchild of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, studio wizards who employed a revolving door of musicians for their records. Players credited on the debut release included Jeff “Skunk” Baxter and Elliott Randall on guitar, Jim Hodder on drums, David Palmer on vocals, and at least seven others. The story of Becker and Fagen’s studio perfectionism is legendary: some of their albums, such as Pretzel Logic and Gaucho, employed dozens of musicians and years of tracking and overdubbing.

 

Becker and Fagen

Becker and Fagen

 

Steely Dan represented changes permeating the early-1970s recording industry. Although the group’s jazz-inflected sound cut across the heavy grain of blues rock and psychedelia, the studio trickery was part and parcel of the era’s popular music. By the end of the decade, successful bands like the Cars and Boston became notorious for assembling their records in home studios, seemingly emerging from bunker-like basements merely for pro-forma tours. For some bands, at least, live performances were less ends unto themselves and more pageants to promote the carefully crafted records that were busily racking up platinum sales.

In the land of 1970s recording-industry milk and honey, dollars flowed from record sales. Sonic precision in the studio was often more important than charisma or chemistry on stage. Certainly, many of the era’s “arena rock” bands made their bread and butter from live tours, but Steely Dan rarely toured—instead, the group’s reputation was built on a string of studio albums. Becker and Fagen even retired from the road after 1974. It is not too much of an exaggeration to say that without studio artifice, there could not have been a Steely Dan.

 

A "Can't Buy a Thrill" Session

A “Can’t Buy a Thrill” Session

 

The cover of that first release, Can’t Buy a Thrill, is a visual metonym for the music contained therein. The record sleeve’s front, designed by Robert Lockart, is a pastiche of roughly a dozen images spliced together into a sexually surreal graphic loosely representing the thrill-buying alluded to in the album title. Although Becker and Fagen have since dismissed the cover as one of the decade’s most hideous, it is oddly appropriate. Whereas the album’s sonic product is the result of musicians cutting and splicing in the recording studio, the cover image is the product of a designer cutting and splicing in a graphic studio.

 

cant_buy_thrill

 

Capping the front cover image is the band’s name in script. A careful inspection of this seemingly straightforward logo reveals another clue to the artifice that made Steely Dan’s musical commodity a reality. The band’s name is written in script, seemingly drawn by a careful penman—yet not one working in the usual fashion. The lower-case “a” in “Dan” could not have been written by a pen utilizing forward motion. The same goes for the loops in the “eely” portion of “Steely”: A person would have to write cursive script backward in order to present the band name the way it appears on the album cover. The absurdity, though, does not stop there: The cross of the “t” in “Steely” is unnaturally inserted into the middle of the loop. The capital “S” and “D” could neither be written forward or backward by a calligrapher’s pen in real time. The bottom swirl of the “S” is pulled back under the main part of the letter; the terminal upward slash of the letter “D” is firmly tucked under its opening swoosh. The logo is craftsmanship, not penmanship. It is a careful absurdity, a surrealism crafted by an artist with the imagination, time, and ability to rework the image until it was just right.

 

steely_closeup

 

Like a band that created its magic in the studio—a magic that could rarely, if ever, be recreated on stage in real time—the artist was using the tools of his trade to openly mask the artifice of his creation. The designer seemed to be saying something about the modern (or postmodern) world that created art such as Steely Dan’s music. To make the representations that thrill, one has to embrace the artificial. The rehearsal must become the performance. You have to go back and do it again.

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Categorised in: ART&CULTURE, Miscellaneous, THE SENSES

2 Responses »

  1. Great insights into my favorite ’70s band. About the “calligraphy” of the logo, you’ve overlooked the artifice of its appearing to be three-dimensional. The shaded edges, loops, and tucked-in terminals all evoke that.

    Also, to me the letters, especially t-e-e-l recall a telephone cord, an object people used to gaze at and fiddle with while on a long phone conversation with, say, a lover, dimly aware that this looping cord was your nearest physical connection to that voice in the earpiece. That’s a sensory experience that is being lost in the weeds of time. In that pastiche image that fills most of the cover, the snaking, multi-colored cord also evokes a telephone cord, to me at least. Always has.

    Still, I have to agree with Fagen and Becker: However interesting in its details, that cover is hideous in its overall effect. And the title “Can’t Buy A Thrill” is set in the Mistral script font that would become such a plague in the ’80s. I suppose it looked fresh in 1972, though.

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