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.