Pitchfork takes a critical look at Steely Dan—from their early classic rock staples to their latter-day studio sleaze—with a new review of ‘Katy Lied.’
The notes on the back cover of Katy Lied begin: “This is a high fidelity recording. Steely Dan uses a specially constructed 24-channel tape recorder, a ‘State-of-the-Art’ 36-input computerized mixdown console, and some very expensive German microphones.” The note continues with a laundry list of gear and settings, which are probably real but delivered with a smirk, and then concludes with, “For best results observe the R.I.A.A. curve.”
I shudder to think how many people have listened to Katy Lied without observing the R.I.A.A. curve. But this is the kind of thing dudes in the 1970s did—list the gear used to create an album and then give suggestions to the listener about the equipment and settings they might use to realize it.
The recording summary reminds me of those on another LP by an audio obsessive that came out in 1975—Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music, which he may have written while on speed and which definitely makes very little sense. But when audiophile musicians put their music out into the world, they hate losing control of it. What if someone listens to their perfectly sculpted sonic creation on a crappy all-in-one portable turntable with a battered needle? And let’s not even get into what it sounds like on earbuds.
The irony of the note on the back of Katy Lied, and possibly the inspiration for its inclusion, is that the album’s sound was, according to the band, deeply flawed. While Walter Becker and Donald Fagen were recording it with producer Gary Katz and engineer Roger Nichols, they employed a then-new technology called dbx, which expanded the dynamic range beyond the conventional limit of analog tape. The system worked by compressing the incoming signal and then expanding it on playback, with some filtering in there to reduce noise. It was more complicated than Dolby, boosting and then lowering a wider array of frequencies, and also, potentially, more effective.
But something went very wrong. “It was better sounding than anything you’ve ever heard to this date,” Katz told Cameron Crowe a couple of years later in Rolling Stone. “Even Aja. Unbelievable. We went to mix it, and the tape sounded funny. We found out the dbx noise reduction system we were using was not functioning properly.” Panic set in and some steps had to be done over with the release date approaching rapidly but they salvaged the record, at least as far as the label and the audience were concerned. But Becker and Fagen could never listen to Katy Lied again. The well had been poisoned, and they heard flaws in what to almost everyone else sounded pristine.
That’s too bad for them because Katy Lied is a very good album. It captures Steely Dan in the thick of it all, still hungry and energized by their early burst of creativity but not taking anything for granted. Before Katy Lied, Steely Dan were a rock band, but this is the record where they became something else.
In 1974, following the shows to support their third album Pretzel Logic, Fagen and Becker decided that they didn’t enjoy touring, didn’t make much money from it, and would prefer to focus on making records. It was like the Beatles after Revolver, except that Steely Dan weren’t especially huge and their lives weren’t especially crazy. More than anything, the shift was an outgrowth of their studio obsession. With no upcoming gigs, they no longer needed a steady band, and Steely Dan became officially what it already kinda was—Becker and Fagen and whatever musicians they deemed good enough to complete their vision.
Katy Lied lives at the midpoint of Steely Dan’s first act. Behind them were three records that were incrementally more sophisticated and less rock-centered. After this one were three increasingly finicky and obsessive albums that would find them reaching for a kind of perfection, albums that found them chronicling the decadence around them from the inside. Where they once wrote about the delightfully sleazy underbelly of life in America from a remove, they started to write more about what they saw around them. Katy Lied is the fulcrum in this progression—it’s messier, less sure of itself, besotted neither with youthful confidence nor veteran polish.
After the departure of Jeff “Skunk” Baxter following the dissolution of their touring unit, guitars moved a half-step into the background. These are songs for piano, jazzier and lighter, and the keyboards are higher in the mix. Listening to it brings to mind nearly-empty cocktail bars after the people with something to live for have all gone home and cabaret shows in seedy theaters. Fagen sings with gusto but if it’s possible for sweat to make a sound, then you could say he sounds a little sweaty. Almost all the drums were played precocious by a 20-year-old genius named Jeff Porcaro, who would become one of the world’s most in-demand session players, and there are many distinctive background vocals from Michael McDonald, who would become one of yacht rock’s most in-demand session singers.
The songs Becker and Fagen came up with are the usual mix of the funny, cynical, and cryptic, but here and there are moments of what seems to be actual sweetness. The brilliance of their songwriting is that they always aimed for complexity and never allowed themselves to be pinned down. Everything was up for negotiation, even when the lyrics were studded with clear meaning. “Black Friday” is a brilliant depiction of chaos, describing what it would be like to make your way out of town and cash your checks when the apocalypse hits. Fagen makes evil sound appealing, suggesting that it might be the only sane response to living in an insane world, but listen with the other ear and you hear the satire and even a kind of yearning from someone who might actually wish for a better world. Meanwhile, Becker plays the best guitar solo on the album, capturing the ragged edge of the moment.
Steely Dan made songs about the destructive force of male vanity that came from two people you knew were speaking from personal experience. They never hold themselves above their characters, but they don’t let them off the hook, either. On “Bad Sneakers,” we see a man bopping around the street near Radio City Music Hall like he owns the place. We feel what he feels but also see how ridiculous he looks, while McDonald’s background vocals suggest grace in his awkwardness, celebrating the energy that powers him even though his actions are laughable. “Rose Darling” is the third track in a row to mention money specifically, but on a more casual listen it sounds something like a pure love song. And then two cuts later, the A-side closes with “Dr. Wu.”
Lodged in the middle of the album that came in the middle of the decade and in the middle of Steely Dan’s decade-long, seven-album run is one of their very best songs, a weary and funny and specific and mysterious ode to longing and loss. “Dr. Wu” gave the album its title (“Katie lies/You can see it in her eyes”) and crystalizes its essential mood. One moment it’s about drugs, the next it’s about a love triangle, and then you’re not sure what’s next or even what’s real, and weaving through it all is the saxophone solo from Phil Woods, connecting dots between musical worlds both corny and elegant, from Billy Joel to Billy Strayhorn.
The characters flailing clumsily throughout Katy Lied are paralyzed by desires they aren’t introspective enough to understand, so all they can do is keep stumbling forward. “I got this thing inside me,” Fagen sings in a bridge on the late album highlight “Any World (That I’m Welcome To)”, “I only know I must obey/This feeling I can’t explain away.” Sometimes obeying those desires lead people to something ugly and inexcusable, as on “Everyone’s Gone to the Movies,” a song about a guy who is almost certainly grooming kids for abuse. It’s a Todd Solondz film rendered in sound, and Fagen only shows us the lead-up, forcing us to assemble the pieces in our heads as he hides the crime behind the album’s cheeriest arrangement.
This collision between word and sound—in which the precise moral takeaway and is obscured even as the music makes it go down easy—made the band hard to trust. “The words, while frequently not easy to get the definite drift of, are almost always intriguing and often witty,” John Mendelsohn wrote in a review of Katy Lied in Rolling Stone. But a few paragraphs later he concluded: “Steely Dan’s music continues to strike me essentially as exemplarily well-crafted and uncommonly intelligent schlock.”
It sounds harsh but Mendelsohn captured how a lot of people think about Steely Dan, then and now. This band was always about asking questions instead of giving answers, and Katy Lied came out in a particular moment of uncertainty and confusion. The fact that Becker and Fagen themselves couldn’t bear to hear their own creation only deepens the mystery. They wanted desperately to render their tragically amusing scenes just so, and the sonic purity they’d been chasing would soon be theirs. But here they give failure a kind of twisted majesty.