Thursday, July 31, 2014

What's the Most Underrated Album in Rock 'n' Roll History?

What's the most underrated album of the rock era? Photo credit:

No doubt, you are familiar with Rolling Stone’s series of Greatest Albums of the 70s, 80s, 90s, all time, etc. However, have you ever stopped to think about what are the most underrated rock ’n’ roll albums of all time? What would be on your list? Would you pick Pink Floyd’s Meddle, the album immediately preceding its commercial and artistic breakthrough on The Dark Side of the Moon? Or would it be something signifying the closing of an era such as Led Zeppelin’s In Through the Outdoor, which turned out to be its studio swan song after the untimely demise of drummer John Bonham?

While those may both be worthy finalists for the most underrated rock ’n’ roll album of all time, they would both be a bit too obvious. To get to the kernel of the idea, you have to think a bit more broadly about rock ’n’ roll. Think about geniuses bringing together influences from Tin Pan Alley, the greats of jazz and even the Beat poets. The most underrated rock album would be from a ridiculously successful band that shot out of the gate on their debut, striking gold—literally and figuratively.

Steely Dan's Countdown to Ecstasy is the
most underrated rock album of all
time. Photo credit: Derek Handova
The outfit of which I write is one Steely Dan, which debuted in 1972 with their best selling LP Can’t Buy a Thrill that was propelled by future FM radio staple “Reelin’ in the Years.” Of course, Can’t Buy a Thrill cannot be the most underrated album in rock ’n’ roll history given the foregoing. However, its followup disc, Countdown to Ecstasy, would be the song platter that is most underappreciated in the rock era.

As in many sophomore scenarios, Countdown to Ecstasy had the heavy burden of great expectations to fulfill coming on the heels of Steely’s first effort. Add to that the fact that Steely Dan constantly toured during its recording, which led to the retrospective belief by band founders Walter Becker and Donald Fagen that their studio sessions were rushed and the material suffered in the process. While that sentiment is absurd it is true the compositions on Countdown to Ecstasy tended to be longer than average, with many of them clocking in at more than five minutes apiece, making time-sensitive radio programmers unfriendly toward them. Regardless of the length of these recordings, Becker and Fagen are merely suffering the 20-20 hindsight of pop perfectionists never satisfied and not familiar with Voltaire’s phrase “do not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

Walter Becker and Donald Fagen
were the brain trust behind Steely Dan.
Photo credit: Marco Raaphorst / Foter /
Creative Commons Attribution
2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)
By way of comparison, Countdown to Ecstasy also endured the Middle Child Syndrome coming out as it did between Can’t Buy a Thrill and Steely’s next album Pretzel Logic, which charted at No. 8 in 1974 backed by No. 4 hit “Rikki Don’t Lose that Number.” Countdown to Ecstasy, despite having densely cryptic lyrics and intricate jazz chord progressions, and its musical masterpieces were outside of the rigid three-minute pop music ideal of the time. But by bringing the touring band into the studio, Steely Dan caught all the energy and tight precision of a group doing one-night stands across the country. All the vibe of the live group is appropriately captured on Countdown to Ecstasy.

With that in mind, it’s no wonder that songs like “Bodhisattva,” “Boston Rag,” “Your Gold Teeth” and “King of the World” off this 1973 album would assume a large portion of Steely Dan’s live set over the next couple of years before the brain trust behind Steely—Becker and Fagen—grew weary of the road and broke up the original lineup in favor of working with professional sidemen in the studio before they went on a nearly 15 year hiatus in 1981. The catalog of music on Countdown was so important to Steely as a live act that it has been described as having been the Steely Dan album most recorded for performance. For example, “Bodhisattva” was the only official live track available of Steely—and then only as a B-side—until Becker and Fagen produced the full-length live album Alive in America in 1995.

Steely Dan was not above targeting 
themselves for derision, singing
about the "Show Biz Kids" with
the Steely Dan T-shirts who don't
give a f*** about anybody else.
In addition to the four core Countdown to Ecstasy tracks that Steely Dan featured on tour in the early years, the songs “Show Biz Kids” and “My Old School” began to solidify Becker and Fagen’s reputation for inventive wordplay in their lyrics as well as cynically wry observations of the rich and privileged in Hollywood and East Coast private colleges. And they were not loathe to taking a poke at themselves as both progenitors and beneficiaries of the indulgent lifestyles of the well off, singing about the “Show Biz Kids” with the “Steely Dan T-shirts” who you know “don't give a f*** about anybody else.”

These same kids from 1973 with the Steely Dan T-shirts are now the Baby Boomers who routinely pay close to a hundred dollars—if not hundreds of dollars—for face-value tickets to see the Becker-Fagen duo in concert in intimate venues across the country. Even though they had not toured for nearly two decades, Steely Dan returned to the arena circuit without missing a beat, their devoted fan base only having been stoked by the scarcity of a supply of Steely. In the ensuing years, these people—shall we call them Steelheads?—only grew in force and enthusiasm while their heroes worked on side projects and rested and rejuvenated themselves.
The kids from 1973 now regularly pay 
top dollar to see Steely Dan in concert.
Photo credit: Howdy, I'm H. Michael 

Fully recharged, Becker and Fagen now find the road most inviting as a method to stave off creeping decrepitude, as a paraphrase of their contemporary attitude toward touring. If you have never had the pleasure of listening to Steely Dan—in particular Countdown to Ecstasy—you should do yourself a favor and catch them on tour or get the album.

-Derek Handova
Appreciative Listener