Reelin’ From The Years

Walter Becker died yesterday, at age 67.  Becker, along with Donald Fagen, was one of the co-founders of Steely Dan, the ever-changing band that was a dominant musical force in the ’70s and unquestionably one of the greatest American rock bands of all time.

The clip above from the old rock TV show The Midnight Special — where the band is jarringly introduced by a mustachioed Bill Cosby — captures the group performing live in 1973, which is about the same time I first heard their music.  The song they performed live on that show, Reelin’ In The Years, is a guitar-driven classic that was one of the first Steely Dan songs that caused me to buy their albums.  It was perfect for those high school days, allowing the boys with the bad ’70s haircuts and monster bellbottoms and tight polyester shirts to play some air guitar when the song came on the radio in the car before belting out lyrics that didn’t really make a lot of sense but were great to sing, anyway.

Becker and Fagen were genuises at coming up with the riffs and the obscure, tantalizing lyrics that wormed their way into your head.  Like Neil Young in that same time period, they kept reinventing themselves.  When you bought a Steely Dan album, whether it was Katy Lied or Can’t Buy A Thrill or Aja, or any of the other great albums they put out in the ’70s, you never were quite sure what you were going to get — but you knew it would be interesting.  And you could spend hours debating what the hell the lyrics to songs like Black Cow or Bodhisattva or Deacon Blues were all about, too.  Every year, on the day after Thanksgiving, I think of Steely Dan’s Black Friday, and as it plays back in miy mind it stills sounds as great as it did when I first heard it, back in college.

Farewell, Walter Becker, and thank you for adding a little bit of richness and mystery to our lives.  (And 67 seems like a pretty young age to go, by the way.)

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Tanking Ranking

When my friend Snow posted a Facebook entry about cleveland.com’s ranking of the 50 best albums of the ’70s, I initially resisted.

Typically, I find “top [number of your choice]” lists to be infuriating, and when a writer purports to do something like determine the “best” music of an entire decade I just can’t get beyond the sheer presumptuousness of the whole concept.  And, of course, these days such stories are obvious clickbait, right up there with stories about “weird tricks” to give you more energy or updates on how each member of the cast of Taxi looks these days.

712blvubef2l-_sy355_But, of course, I yielded, after Snow teased me with the information that the list put Dark Side of the Moon at number 10.  Eh?  If that Pink Floyd opus is only number 10, what in the world was ranked ahead of it?  So I opened the list and was immediately inflamed and enraged by pretty much everything on it.  Who was on the list, and how often.  Who wasn’t on the list.  And, of course, where albums were ranked, too.

The Stones’ Exile on Main Street as the number one album of the ’70s is a joke.  Two Black Sabbath albums in the top 50?  Goodbye Yellow Brick Road on the list, when it should be Honky Chateau?  (If you’re going to put Goodbye Yellow Brick Road on the list, why not put on The Carpenters, or KC and the Sunshine Band while you’re at it?)  How can you include Hotel California rather than On The Border?  How can you include Sticky Fingers?  And where’s Herbie Hancock’s Head Hunters, or Neil Young’s Tonight’s the Night (or Harvest, or Rust Never Sleeps), or the debut album of The Cars, or Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here, or Band On The Run — among others?  And does every top-50 list have to include nods to iconic figures like the Clash, or Miles Davis, or Bob Dylan, or the Velvet Underground, or the Sex Pistols, that all rankers seem to include as a matter of course to establish their rock critic bona fides?  And for that matter, when you’re presuming to do a ranking list, are we talking about artistic influence, or are we trying to acknowledge the great music that people actually listened to and that powered the decade?

The ’70s was the time period I was in high school and college, so it’s the decade where I spent the most time listening to music, thinking about music, and reading about music.  I’d go up to my room during high school and listen to albums like Deep Purple’s Machine Head (appropriately on the list, I might add), and music was always playing in my apartment when I was going to Ohio State.  By reason of those life experiences, I care about this stuff — and this list really sticks in my craw.

Next time, I’m going to stick with my inclination to not read these lists in the first place.