Classic Albums: Steely Dan – Countdown to Ecstasy (1973)

countdown to ecstasy

The Grateful Dead aren’t the only old band that made great albums. Thanks to streaming, every essential album that ever graced the Billboard Top 200 is now available for listen. My goal with this new column is to take a look at older albums, from the most well-known to the near perfect deep cuts. This new column won’t be too regular, but I’ll drop them whenever I don’t feel like listening to any of the multitude of mediocre new releases that come to Apple Music every friday. Today let’s discuss the ultimate Dad band and one of their finest releases, Steely Dan’s 1973 album Countdown to Ecstasy.

Donald Fagen & Walter Becker of Steely Dan.

Who’s Steely Dan? You may be asking. Steely Dan is a band comprised of pianist/singer Donald Fagen and Guitarist/Bassist Walter Becker. The partners were two New York wannabe Beatniks who became adults during the Hippie Era. The two would find success in Los Angeles as songwriters before building a band for their debut album Can’t Buy a Thrill in 1972. The band received great commercial and critical success due to hit singles and a unique blend of ‘70s soft rock and jazz. After letting go of the lead singer, Fagen would take lead on the duo’s sophomore album, Countdown to Ecstasy. Much like their first album, Countdown to Ecstasy would continue to focus on the blending of the laid back West Coast rock of the early ‘70s with ‘50s style bebop jazz.

The eight tracks of Countdown to Ecstasy are hyper focused, averaging out at four to five minutes a song. Fagen and Becker prove their abilities in the production seat on each track, building deeply rich instrumentals that are played to perfection. The group imbue blues and heavier guitars on “Bodhisattva” and “Show Biz Kids.” Fagen and Becker give a touch of easy-listening jazz on “Razor Boy”, utilizing xylophone and slide guitar to create ambiance. The duo also bring some aggression on “Boston Rag”, where Fagen’s starts with jazzy, piano driven verses, before Jeff “Skunk” Baxter’s distorted guitar would bring an air of Arena Rock to the chorus and bridge.

Percussive movements and wild keyboard runs lead the track “Your Gold Teeth,” until it devolves into a Santana-like jam with the guitar and keyboard jabbing back and forth at each other. The track is jazzy enough to hide in the background of a hip party in the Hollywood Hills, but rocking and complex enough for one to take notice to the jam that concludes the track. Steely Dan’s finest moment comes in the song “My Old School.” The piano driven track is a perfect combination of anthemic rock and jazz. The horn section punctuates each line with great power. Fagen’s vocals get beefed up by the female backup singers throughout the chorus. The song culminates in two different solos by Baxter. The first is tactile and breezy, the other is distorted and melodic. It’s the kind of song Chicago wish they could’ve written. 

Moving away from the poppy and easier to digest lyricism of Can’t Buy a Thrill, Fagen and Becker shifted towards what would become their trademark. Countdown to Ecstasy is riddled with their New York hipster view of the Los Angeles elite. The ability for the duo to combine catchy jazz rock with irreverent and scathing lyricism about the upper class would become one of their signatures, setting them apart from other Jazz Rock or Fusion bands of the era. Fagen and Becker point out the sleaziness of Los Angelinos on “Show Biz Kids”, which details the lack of care and compassion the children of the rich movie moguls had for the lower class. They also acknowledge the obsession with Eastern religions on “Bodhisattva,” that was becoming more and more common amongst unhappy Westerners with too much money. This idea is then tied to mortality in the tracks “Razor Boy” and “Your Gold Teeth.” On the first they speak of possessions not mattering when death comes, then following up on that idea in “Your Gold Teeth”, where they beg for the subject in the song to give up their superficial self. Both of these pieces deal with heavy ideas, but are expertly blended into a songs that can be sung along too.

Fagen and Becker also give glimpses of their youth on the tracks “The Boston Rag” and “My Old School.” On “The Boston Rag,” they recount their time in the Bohemian scene at Bard College. Fagen’s lyrics yearn for the time when things were easy and fun, before the leader of the scene tried to commit suicide. The two also sing about their involvement and arrest in a drug bust at Bard, where they were caught with marijuana. Fagen sings about a young woman ratting them out, having never pegged her as one that would betray them. These tunes give a sense of Fagen and Becker’s evolution into jaded, wise guys, before it would become their calling card.

Steely Dan in 1973. (Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, Denny Dias, Jim Hodder, Walter Becker, Donald Fagen)

To this day Countdown to Ecstasy is still considered one of, if not thee, finest Steely Dan album. From its incredibly lush and crisp production to its dense lyricism, the record is a perfect slice of a young Steely Dan developing into the jazz rock legends they would become in their subsequent albums. A year after the album’s release, Fagen and Becker stopped touring and broke it off with the rest of the Steely Dan band. The group would then focus on songwriting and releasing albums backed up by a revolving door of studio musicians, before finally breaking up in 1980.

Grateful Dead – Dick’s Picks Volume 3

dicks picks vol 3

If 1972 was the first apex year for the Grateful Dead, then their second apex year came in 1977. Many of the May shows of that year are considered some of, it not the best shows the band ever played. This Dick’s Picks volume grabs a majority of the May 22nd show at the Sportatorium in Pembroke Pines, Florida. Though nine songs were ultimately omitted for the release of Dick’s Picks Volume 3, this show contains a selection that is a near perfect track list.

Grateful Dead in 1977.

Disc One contains six selections from the first set played that night in Pembroke Pines. The band starts off with a goofy 30 second rendition of the Neapolitan song, “Funiculi, Funicula.” It’s a quick and lighthearted guitar driven number that only served for the group to ensure instruments were in tune. The set doesn’t really kick off until they break into Bob Weir’s, “The Music Never Stopped.” The fun track is a great opener, allowing Garcia to warm up his fingers. The mixing is solid as well, with Donna Jean Godchaux’s backup vocals never overpowering the rest of the group. What follows next is an incredible rendition of Jerry Garcia’s, “Sugaree.” Garcia wastes no time getting the band into the jam, stretching the song out for 16 minutes. The vocal harmonies between the trio of Jerry, Bob, and Donna Jean are crisp, nearly as good as the harmonies in ‘72. Garcia’s guitar is airy and light, hitting every note with precision before building up to the distorted crescendo.

The band gets right into a “Lazy Lightnin’>Supplication”.  The two tracks penned by Bob Weir and John Perry Barlow first appeared on Kingfish’s self titled debut album. Though the tracks were from Weir’s side project, the Dead would adopt them and run with them much like other songs from Weir and Garcia’s side projects. “Lazy Lightnin” serves as a vessel for the dizzying jam of “Supplication.” Though short, Garcia proves himself to be in rare form and ready to bring it throughout the rest of the show. Finishing out the first set, the Dead bust into a cover of “Dancin’ in the Streets.” They stretch the old tune out to nearly 15 minutes, bringing a uniquely ‘70s feel to the track. The theme that the group find in the last five minutes of the jam is real funky, invoking the kind of jamming expected out of a more modern era jam band like Phish. The song descends to a near whisper before the Dead exits the stage.

The first disc ends with the first three songs from the second set. Tape Archivist Dick Latvala may have selected this because the next 27 minutes of the disc are perfection. The band shreds the beginning of their second set, running through “Help on the Way>Slipknot!>Franklin’s Tower.” These three tracks are the embodiment of the Dead in May of 1977. Garcia’s jamming is somehow both tight and loose, Keith Godchaux’s piano is still dynamic, the vocals are clean, and both drummers are in sync. The group gets aggressive on “Slipknot!” and transitions into tasty, 15 minute “Franklin’s Tower.” The dynamic between Phil Lesh’s driving bass and Garcia’s powerful soloing move the jam forward in a light way, never getting to spacey.

Disc Two continues to bring the fire from the second set. The band get into “Samson and Delilah” and “Sunrise” off their upcoming album, Terrapin Station. The first is powerful and continues the energy from the last song, but the second is a bit of a snooze. Not everyone may love solo Donna songs, though she does sound great on this track, it’s too much of a tonal shift for the set. What follows is the beginning of the end. Bob returns with the power for “Estimated Prophet.” The guitars bring a heavier reggae sound to the song than appears on the studio version. This reggae vibe then turns spacey when Garcia solos over the nine minute track. This spacey sound dissipates when transitioning to “Eyes of the World.” At this point Garcia brings some of his most inspired playing to the track, giving it a casual jazziness.

“Wharf Rat” brings on the final moments of the second set. The group slows things down and Jerry delivers tired vocals that work well to emphasize the powerful lyrics of the track. The group builds and builds the song up and Garcia subtly moves it into “Terrapin Station.” They forego playing the entirety of the medley, omitting “Lady with a Fan”, and get into the heavier verses and chorus. The group is in complete harmony during the coda, delivering each rise and fall with everything they’ve got. The band finish out the set with an incredible, 14 minute “[Walk Me Out In The] Morning Dew.” Garcia brings passionate vocals and guitar playing to the track, reminiscent of the great Europe ‘72 renditions. Though Disc Two doesn’t contain the shows encore, it leaves listeners’ brains on the floor after “Morning Dew.”

Though just a slice of the full May 22nd, 1977 show, Dick’s Picks Vol. 3, is a filling piece of Grateful Dead pie. Everyone may talk about some of the early May ‘77 shows as the peak of the Grateful Dead, but for right now, this show is the best of the Dead in this era. From “Sugaree” to “Help>Slip>Frank” to “Eyes>Wharf>Terrapin”, this is an essential listen for any fan of late-’70s Dead.

The complete set list for the 5/22/77 show at Pembroke Pines, Florida was:

Set 1: “Funiculì, Funiculà”, “The Music Never Stopped”, “Sugaree”, “El Paso”, “Peggy-O”, “New Minglewood Blues”, “Friend of the Devil”, “Lazy Lightning” > “Supplication”, “Ramble On Rose”, “Dancing in the Street”

Set 2: “Help on the Way” > “Slipknot!” > “Franklin’s Tower”, “Samson and Delilah”, “Brown Eyed Women”, “Good Lovin'”, “Sunrise”, “Estimated Prophet” > “Eyes of the World” > “Wharf Rat” > “Terrapin Station” > “Morning Dew”

Encore: “Sugar Magnolia” > “Sunshine Daydream”

Bold appears on Dick’s Picks Volume 3

Europe ‘72 Vol 18: 5/18/72 (Kongressaal, Munich, West Germany)


Pulled out the box of flashcards (now dubbed Box of Rain) this week is Europe ’72 Vol 18: 5/18/72. This selection from the Europe ’72: Complete Recordings Box Set is from a show in Munich, West Germany only five days after the Lille Fairgrounds show we looked at last time. The Grateful Dead lineup remains the same as our previous entry and the majority of the setlist is similar to the Lille Fairground show. An interesting note on this set is that throughout the show the band comments on the numerous technical difficulties that occur, however listening back now there sound like there are none to be found.

Grateful Dead in Europe, 1972.

The first set is a nice long collection of the Dead in the zone. The “Truckin’” that starts her off is fantastic. They get right into the energetic song as if they had already been playing for a half hour before. Quickly running through the first few songs, “Sugaree” through “Black Throated Wind” is tight. Nobody misses a single beat throughout. The standout moments are definitely in the harmonies and getting to hear bassist Phil Lesh clear in the high parts. Also the similar guitar licks of “Tennessee Jed” and “Chinatown Shuffle” work perfectly back to back.

Following is a rendition of “China Cat Sunflower > I Know You Rider” that is textbook. Phil lays down phenomenal bass lines throughout and Garcia is in peak form. When they get to the vocals of “I Know You Rider,” the harmonies are much more in line than the show five days prior. Though this version didn’t make the final cut for the original Europe ‘72 album, it definitely should’ve been a contender. The only knock against it is the final harmonies on the outro aren’t at one hundred percent.

After the cool down of country tunes “El Paso,” “Hurts Me Too,” and “You Win Again,” the band kick things up a notch to finish out the set. A raucous iteration of “Playin’ in the Band” begins the end of the first set. The real climax comes to light with “Good Lovin’,” a Young Rascals cover. We’ve only previously covered the version of “Good Lovin'” that appears on 1980’s Go To Heaven, with this earlier version featuring vast differences. Pigpen is on lead vocals with the rest of the group bringing loud backup vocals. Pigpen’s bluesy vocal freestyling brings so much life to the track. It’s also a much more energetic jam than what it became later in their career, thanks in part to Bill Kreutzmann’s aggressive drumming and Keith Godchaux’s jazzy piano drifting throughout the track. Keeping with tradition, the group end the first set on “Casey Jones.” The seven minute track is near perfect with a harmonious ending.

The Grateful Dead were Psychedelic Cowboys at this point, and set one definitely focused more on the Cowboy, with their second set moving more into the Psychedelic. They bring out the rarity, “Sitting On Top Of The World”, applying years of expertise to the track featured on their debut album. There’s a more distinctive country twang than on the album version, but it’s a welcomed sound that fits more in line with the band in this era. The Dead keep the Country going on “Me & My Uncle” and “Ramble on Rose”, before once again pulling off their debut album. The group has a little trouble breaking into “Beat It On Down The Line,” but once the first verse gets going they find the rhythm.

I’ve been eager to review our first “Dark Star” and today’s the day. As far as a first “Dark Star” for this column, this one is a goodie. The band absolutely demolishes a 28 minute rendition of this legendary jam, taking it to a dark and spacey place. The key to this “Dark Star” is the combination of Jerry Garcia, Phil, and Bob Weir. Jerry drives variations on the main theme of the track for a while and nine minutes in, the psychedelia breaks through. Jerry doesn’t come in for the first verse until 14 minutes in and what follows is another 12 minutes of devolution. The band plays with disharmony and Phil plays deeper and deeper bass notes. Garcia and Weir play a delicate back and forth stabbing higher and higher reverberated notes. The 12 minute coda couldn’t be more “out there,” pushing their sound into an organized chaos. When everything comes to, Jerry brings light out of the darkness.

Immediately out of “Dark Star,” the band moves into “Morning Dew.” The song whose lyrics describe a man coming out to view his world after a nuclear holocaust, works so perfectly coming out of the madness of the previous jam. After a brief “Drums,” the band rip into the assumed set ender, “Sugar Magnolia.” Instead of ending on the high energy, Jerry moves into the Merle Haggard tune, “Sing Me Back Home,” and the band follows suite. The 11 minute track is soft and reflective, with vibrant vocal harmonies. After the slow country number, the band encore to “One More Saturday Night.” It’s a short one, but the band puts their last bit of energy into the song and leave the stage electrified.

Much like the previous Europe ‘72 show we covered, this one is another fantastic representation of this era of the band. It’s got plenty of Cowboy tunes as expected, but the band reaches for more of their early roots. The standout tracks on this one are definitely “Good Lovin’,” “Dark Star,” “Morning Dew,” and “Sing Me Back Home”. This show is a perfect companion to the 5/13/72 Lille Fairground show, with both set lists showing off the band at their height in ‘72.

Who’s Recording the Theme Song for Bond 25?

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With the date of the next installment of the James Bond franchise already set for a November 2019 release, speculation of all things related to the upcoming film has now begun. Daniel Craig is officially reprising his role as the titular character and the new film dubbed Bond 25 is bound to be a big one. For such an important milestone as the 25th film in the Bond franchise, an impactful and potentially popular song should be in the works. Though there is no proven evidence of any artist being signed on to helm the Bond 25 theme song yet, here are some thoughts to whom they might choose (in no particular order).


Radiohead was already given an opportunity to make the Bond theme for the last entry in the franchise, Spectre. Though their track wasn’t ultimately selected for being too dark, the work is an incredibly haunting song that is cued into their current sound. Since the release of the scrapped track, we have received the critically-acclaimed album A Moon Shaped Pool in 2016 that proves they still belong in the modern music zeitgeist. Also Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood is a proven composer, having scored There Will Be Blood, The Master, and Inherent Vice. Last year he even earned an Oscar nomination for his work in Phantom Thread. Some of the finest moments in the first season of HBO’s Westworld were punctuated by Radiohead’s music and the show continues to use their tracks in the second season. Right now Radiohead is in an even better place, both creatively and in popularity, to lay down the music for Bond 25.

Arctic Monkeys

For the last two entries in the series, the Bond people (I have no clue who they are) have looked to artists in the UK to make the song. Which brings us to Alex Turner and Arctic Monkeys. The latest album from the group shows their ability to make eerie, beautiful piano driven rock tracks that would piece together perfectly with the Bond title credits. Look at tracks “American Sports” or “Golden Trunks” and tell me you can’t see Daniel Craig slow motion falling through a dark psychedelic dreamscape. If you tell me you can’t I will personally cut either song to the title sequence of Spectre just for you. I shouldn’t fail to mention that Turner also wrote six original tracks for the 2011 film Submarine, proving his ability to write songs that work well cinematically.


“Skyfall” was incredible. Adele is incredible. Adele’s last album was incredible. Though the franchise hasn’t had a repeat artist for the Bond theme since Shirley Bassey, it goes without saying that Adele is the biggest and probably most like-able artist in the world. Whatever she puts her voice on turns to gold. If they can convince her with a big bag of cash, I’m sure she would bring the exact kind of presence needed for Bond’s milestone to be thrust in the limelight. It’s hard to argue with the 315 million views that “Skyfall” has on Youtube.

Car Seat Headrest

Yeah. This one is a little bizarre. I’m sure 99% of you are saying, who the hell is Car Seat Headrest? The band is the indie rock project of Will Toledo, whose last two albums Teens of Denial and Twin Fantasy have pushed his band into the edges of the mainstream. Daniel Craig is apparently a huge fan of the group and even took his fellow cast members of the film Logan Lucky to see them live. Craig is known to have influenced both Adele and Radiohead to make themes for previous Bond’s, so he might be interested seeing what Car Seat Headrest could offer. The last real rock themes were Chris Cornell’s for Casino Royale and Jack White’s for Quantum of Solace, but a return to a harder sound could be key in setting up the mood for Bond 25. A song like “Sober to Death” could reach a sound suitable for the film if it just had an orchestra in the back. Maybe it’s time for an indie rocker to take the helm.

Ed Sheeran

Apparently the guy already has a theme penned incase he is picked. Obviously he’s no amateur and one of the biggest artists in the UK. I don’t have many thoughts on this one but he did do a fantastic song for The Hobbit.


I mean c’mon. It’s Beyonce. It’s crazy that the only artist whose status rivals Adele’s, hasn’t recorded a Bond theme. Right now Beyonce is undoubtedly larger than ever. After her incredible performance at the Grammy’s in 2017 and this year’s Coachella, it would be fitting to pick her now. With a versatile voice that can fit over any style of music, it would be beneficial for the franchise to get her to boost the popularity of the next film.

Dua Lipa

Okay so this one is weird. For some reason, British bookies have her at 4-to-5 odds to do the theme. After some thought, the odds make sense. She’s a huge star right now with her two EDM-laced hits, “New Rules” and “One Kiss.” She’s also British, which gives her a little boost in appealing to the UK audience. Looking at her album, which is mainly synth-pop, she comes across as a strong singer with a unique voice. Her cover of “I Would Rather Go Blind” shows off her ability to slow things down and work emotion. Though she might not be exactly what people expect, a well written song with her on it could skyrocket into the Top Ten on both US and UK charts.

Paloma Faith

I admittedly know nothing about this artist. But she has been asked in interviews multiple times about recording a Bond theme. So I had to learn about her following the speculation. Paloma Faith has never made waves in the US, but in the UK, her latest album took the number one spot from Taylor Swift’s Reputation. After a bit of research, she has a voice that is reminiscent of the former Bond themes sang by women in the ’60s and ’70s. Her cover of INXS’ “Never Tear Us Apart” literally sounds like an audition for the job.

Obviously there are many artists both inside and outside the mainstream that would be suited to recording the Bond theme. Like whatever happened to Ellie Goulding? She would’ve been a great pick in the early 2010’s. No matter who makes the theme for Bond 25, hopefully it’s on par with the last few films’ and celebrates the franchise in this historic milestone.




Grateful Dead – Europe ‘72 Vol 16: 5/13/72


After listening and getting in-depth with every Grateful Dead studio album, it’s finally time to listen to some live albums (picked randomly from a box of index cards). Kicking off the first live album on The Other Ones is the Europe ‘72 Vol 16: 5/13/72. This is one of the 22 shows from the legendary Europe ’72 tour that was released in a 2011 box set. Vol 16 is made up of the full set from the show at Lille Fairgrounds in Lille, France on May 13th, 1972. This particular show took place during the day and was free for the public, as the Dead had to make up for not having their equipment make it to the venue in time on the previously scheduled date. This time around, the band brought their A-game.

LilleFRA 2
Jerry, Bob, Bill, and Phil at Lille Fairgrounds.

Lineup for the Lille Fairgrounds show is typical for this Europe ‘72 tour, but definitely an interesting one in the group’s history. Pigpen’s health was failing, so Keith Godchaux takes the piano, leaving Pigpen with energy for singing and playing harp and organ. Also, Donna pops in to sing backup on a few songs. Mickey Hart had left the band at this point as well, leaving drumming duties solely to Bill Kreutzmann.

The album gets started on the first set with “Tuning Rap,” not a song but just some stage banter. Eventually it turns into Phil and Bobby making fart noises over random instrument sound tests. It’s funny on the first go around but becomes a must skip upon a second listen. The rest of the first set consists of 15 songs that were fairly standard for that tour. Despite a couple of microphone feedback issues, the band comes in hot with a great rendition of “Bertha.” Keith brings the fire on the keys and Jerry delivers with a solid solo. Though never recorded on a studio album, “Bertha,” remains one of the great legendary Garcia-Hunter compositions. Later in the set, Pigpen comes in with decent vocal performance on “Chinatown Shuffle.”

Pigpen and Jerry.

The band doesn’t really get meshing until seven songs in, when they get to “China Cat Sunflower>I Know You Rider”. Though the vocal performance on “I Know You Rider” isn’t as in harmony as some of the other shows during that tour, they still bring the energy. The band keeps the pace up, rocking through “Me and My Uncle” and a few more songs. The final four songs before set break, really bring it though. Donna comes out for a rocking “Playing in the Band” that jams for 12 minutes. They get back to their Americana roots on an emotional “Sugaree” and Jerry plays fast and fun on a short “Mexicali Blues.” The group wraps up the first set on the always classic “Casey Jones.” Jerry’s voice seems to be a little tired and in need of rest, but the rest of the group keep the song alive with Bob’s backup vocals and Phil’s deep bass lines.

After a set break, the band come out full of energy on an 11 minute “Truckin’.” They bring raucous playing to the song, each member doing their best in the jam. The break also seemed to work for the vocal performances of Jerry, Bob, and Phil, as their voices meld into a powerful force. Transitioning out, Bill drum solos for a few minutes. Before the group kicks into “The Other One.” Coming in at nearly half an hour, this jam is the finest moment of the show. The first ten minutes are pure Jerry Garcia. He improvises and rips forward and backward in waves, with the rest of the group following suit. It begins to break down into a jazzier, free movement with Keith, Phil, and Bill all holding it down until Bob comes in with the song’s first verse. Once more, Keith’s addition to the group proves invaluable as he drives the melody. The jam ventures of into space, with Phil providing foreboding bass notes under Jerry’s manic runs. Eventually they return back to Earth on the melody of “The Other One” and Bob wraps up the song on the second verse.

After the ripping and roaring from the electricity of “The Other One,” the Dead slow things down a bit with “He’s Gone” and “Hurts Me Too.” They begin to wrap up the second set with a great “Sugar Magnolia.” This one lacks Donna, which leaves the vocal backup duties to Jerry and Phil. Finally the band get into a short “Not Fade Away” before “Going Down the Road Feeling Bad”. This rendition of “GDTRFB” is a phenomenal eight minute rocker, bringing Donna back into the fold. In classic Dead fashion, they return to “Not Fade Away.” This “NFA>GDTRFB>NFA” is fantastic with Bob and Pigpen jabbing back and forth and bringing their remaining vocal power. The group comes back for an encore with “One More Saturday Night,” exiting Lille with a little Chuck Berry flair.

This 5/13/72 Lille Fairground show is a great example of the Grateful Dead in that era. It’s not too long at almost three hours and the band knows when to take the long jams and when to move the pace along quickly. This setlist ends up being a great crop of old and new. There is moments of psychedelia, blues, Americana, and jazz. It’s a great intersection of who the band was in the ‘60s, slamming into who they’ll become in the ‘70s. This record would make a fine introduction album for people who have never heard little or near nothing of the Grateful Dead’s live discography. What a great start to a new journey.