At the time, Steely Dan’s ‘Can’t Buy a Thrill’ hardly appeared as a serious contender for the most-likely-to-succeed debut of the Class of ’72. The competition, after all, included the Eagles’ first flight and the LP launches of Paul Simon, Lou Reed, Roxy Music, Blue Oyster Cult, Peter Frampton, Styx, and Stephen Stills’ Manassas (oops).
And in this corner: a band that wasn’t really a band but a front for two precocious songwriters whose cumulative credits included backing Jay & the Americans and placing one song (“I Mean to Shine”) on a Barbra Streisand album. The pair had named themselves after a sex toy featured in William Burroughs’ novel Naked Lunch, and had no intention of touring to promote their record, whose tawdry/trendy design they subsequently scored as “the most hideous album cover of the Seventies.”
And yet, ‘Can’t Buy a Thrill’ established Steely Dan as one of rock’s most daringly original acts, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen as two of its most imaginative composers, and Fagen as an affecting if idiosyncratic vocal stylist. It not only introduced the team’s tantalizingly obtuse vision of the world—one that sustained itself through a decade of platinum albums and a dozen hit singles—but it still sounds fresh at 40. Its title cribbed from a line in Dylan’s “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry,” ‘Can’t Buy a Thrill’ is Steely Dan’s pop-iest-sounding set, rich with much of the melody, harmony and hook-y solos that were subsequently jettisoned in the duo’s march to modernism.
One reviewer tagged Fagen and Becker “snotty post-grads” – not that there’s anything wrong with that. The album’s second hit, the driving shuffle “Reelin’ in the Years,” references “the weekend at the college,” and the pointed set-to with the dreamy utopian of “Only a Fool Would Say That” resembles the transcript of a late-night dorm-room sit-down. But nothing’s as simple as that; if junior-year social intrigue was the songs’ source material, here the experience is modified and re-imagined (like Wordsworth’s defining poetry as “emotion recollected in tranquility”) and spun out as something else much more intriguing.
Steely Dan’s universe begins here, its inhabitants the progenitors of all who’ll populate ‘Countdown to Ecstasy’, ‘Katy Lied’, ‘Royal Scam’, ‘Gaucho’ and ‘Aja’. The weary, confused subject of the LP’s other hit, the ominous cha-cha “Do It Again”—who vehemently swears he’s “not a gambling man” but soon finds himself “back in Vegas with a handle in your hand”—is not only a cousin of the desperate anti-hero of ‘CBAT’s “Fire in the Hole” and the shamed enabler of “Dirty Work.” He’s also a distant relative of such later figures as the ‘Royal Scam’s furtive “Kid Charlemagne” and ‘Pretzel Logic’s OD “Charlie Freak.” If Seinfeld broke ground by getting viewers to enjoy characters whose personalities we’d run from in real life, Dan-world got us involved with a parade of folks defined by their exit-less loserdom and badly dealt hands (cards pop up here throughout “Do It Again,” “Change of the Guard” and “Brooklyn Owes the Charmer in Me”).
As a reluctant front-man, Fagen outsources several of the vocals on ‘Can’t Buy a Thrill’: to Jim Hodder (“Midnight Cruiser”) and David Palmer, who co-sings with Fagen on “Only a Fool Would Say That” and goes it alone on “Dirty Work,” “Brooklyn” and “Change of the Guard” (where he manages a near-perfect Fagen impersonation).
And the music? Flawless, and both expansive and compact in a way that reflects and refutes its era. The album abounds with solos (Denny Diaz’s electric-sitar on “Do It Again,” Skunk Baxter’s untouchable guitar on “Reelin’” and pedal-steel on “Brooklyn,” Elliot Randall’s guitar on “Kings,” Fagen’s snake-hipped “plastic organ solo” on “Do It Again”), but they’re never ecstatic, feels-so-good-I-can’t-stop stuff that, like “Layla,” defined early-’70s playing. Instead, they’re there to serve the songs, which is what you’d expect from the record’s principal architects, who’d formerly pounded Brill Building pavement but shook no action.
We should be grateful that Fagen-Becker didn’t become Goffin-King (not that there’s anything wrong with that). We all got so much more from their failure to do so, starting with ‘Can’t Buy a Thrill. ‘