Can’t Buy a Thrill (1972)

Cover of Steely Dan album, Can't Buy a Thrill. Indescribably ugly.A couple of my colleagues in Frank’s Apa (the music APA that refused to die) are working their way through the spans of their lives, picking an album to write about from each year since their birth. I thought I’d join them, but rather than make it an exercise in autobiography, relating the music to the events of my own life, I’m picking albums and and artists that I’ve never properly listened to: the overlooked, the casually dismissed, the records I’ve been meaning to get around to. Pulling together a list of candidates for the first few years of my life has been ridiculously easy, the seventies a seemingly inexhaustible seam

To start with, 1972: the year of decimalisation, Watergate, and the first Steely Dan album, Can’t Buy a Thrill. Beloved of favoured critics (Ian Penman, Barney Hoskyns), covered by the Minutemen, name pulled from a Burroughs novel…I should have given Steely Dan their due long ago. But the basic proposition of smart, cynical lyrics as the necessary splash of citrus in a slick jazz-rock cocktail didn’t gibe with me. It’s taken years of habituation to the smoother, jazzier sides of John Martyn and Joni Mitchell to suppress my gut aversion to music that sounds that clean.

As album opener, “Do It Again” threatens to eclipse the rest of the record, a perfect stand-alone single to rank with “Good Vibrations”. It’s a song buried deep in the sediment laid down in my memory by ambient exposure to radio during my childhood—only relatively recently did I learn that it was by Steely Dan, or even what it was named. The laidback snap and groove of the Latin rhythm, the lambent pools of electric piano, the title hook in the chorus, the sitar solo…six minutes is not nearly long enough to exhaust the pleasures of this song.

The rest of the album I’m more ambivalent about: for all the craft of the songwriting and the tasteful detail in the arrangements, the overall sound is drenched in the kind of ’70s FM radio syrup that still sets my teeth on edge. The Thin Lizzy–ish gallop of “Reelin’ in the Years” is terrific but I crave even a touch more grain or dirt in the guitars, and the likes of “Fire in the Hole” veer queasily close to Billy Joel.

As so often when you come late to a classic album, part of the interest is in the fresh context it provides for music that followed. I hear echoes in Jim O’Rourke’s Simple Songs, for instance, and in the later albums by Super Furry Animals (obvious, really…wasn’t “The Man Don’t Give a Fuck” originally built around a Steely Dan sample?) Less obviously, Steely Dan remind me of Blue Öyster Cult with their air of being a touch too clever for the game they were playing, and in the cryptic oddity of their lyrics. I don’t hear so much the vaunted cynicism, except at its bluntest in “Only a Fool Would Say That”, but I like the way the lyrics hint at never-to-be-explained back stories. It took me a while to fully appreciate the brilliance of Secret Treaties—perhaps the same will prove true of Can’t Buy a Thrill.

Thoughts, hopes, exhortations?