Having had to wrestle with difficult choices in my working life – what to recommend for Manchester’s post 16 system, how to organise the development of educational policy in the UK, what changes might release the potential of IT for adult learning – I now get asked a really difficult question by an American friend. What are Steely Dan’s best three albums ?
This is not the sort of dilemma that should be sprung on a man without notice. I might need post traumatic counselling. I mean, obviously you include Can’t Buy a Thrill and Countdown to Ecstasy but then … what … ? I suggested Aja, because it is a more developed jazz-rock piece, but The Royal Scam is pretty wonderful (Haitian Divorce and all that). Pretzel Logic ? Katy Lied ? Both better than almost anything else recorded as rock music in that period, but suffering by comparison. A lovely comment from the anonymous American – that the Dan make better use of the spaces between the notes than anyone else. Yep, and the notes are pretty good. I’m went to Newcastle to see a Dan tribute band (Nearly Dan) a few years ago. They were excellent – and the gig was acres and oceans better than some self-expressive indie band doing their own stuff. No-one complains that the LPO playing Mozart is derivative, do they ?
OK, some footnotes. Firstly, the view that the seventies was full of empty melodic kitsch that had to be livened up by the punk explosion. Well, I guess I’m showing my age, but I prefer the insights of Jackson Browne to John Lydon any day: just compare the lyrics, almost embarrassing. Minority view, I know: popular culture is constantly in one of the stages of revolt into style (George Melly’s insight), but that doesn’t mean that the revolting bits are always superior to the styled stuff. I just worry that the ideas that are delivered unchallenged in journalists’ copy/BBC2 documentaries by people who grew up in the 70s becomes the received historic view. Mercifully, the great Danny Baker is on my side on this (not that he knows).