Steely Dan Sunday: “Dirty Work” from Can’t Buy a Thrill (1972)

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Since Walter Becker and Donald Fagen first wrote songs with the idea that someone else would sing them, and only started a band when they found limited success peddling their songs, some of the earlier Steely Dan tunes sound a little like they were meant for a different act. “Dirty Work” is like that.

Then again, I think what really makes this song sound so un-Steely Dan-like might be because of who is singing it. David Palmer was allegedly foisted on the band by ABC Records execs who were afraid that Fagen’s voice lacked commercial appeal. Moreover, Donald Fagen early on suffered bouts of stage fright, so Palmer was the main lead singer on the road. But Palmer’s voice was too willowy and lacked the oomph to give Walter Becker and Fagen’s song the impact it needed.

Like most record exec ideas in the artistic realm, it was a dive-bomb failure, but before David Palmer’s inevitable departure, he supplied the lead vocals on thankfully only two tracks from Can’t Buy A Thrill, including this one.

In covering every song Steely Dan has officially released, it’s an inescapable predicament that I’m going to have to talk about a few I can’t conjure up a whole lot of enthusiasm for, and this is one of them.

Yes, it does have a few things going for it: this was the first appearance of a horn section in a Steely Dan song, and right from the start, they use this tool tactfully, scripting smart, lean arrangements that bolster songs, not overpower them. There’s also an early appearance of the sax solo, something that would eventually become almost as popular with the group as guitar solos. Jerome Richardson did the honors this time; the household names like Wayne Shorter and Tom Scott would have to come later.

Furthermore, Donald Fagen’s soulful organ work keeps the song from dragging the bottom, if just barely. David Palmer, though, puts in not a bad but mediocre performance, singing an only-OK Steely Dan composition.

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on,, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at
S. Victor Aaron
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  • rene gauthreaux

    Have you caught how they do this song live now? Donald still does not sing it but he does get the backup vocal ladies to take a turn at a verse each. It really sounds great.

    • S. Victor Aaron

      I caught a Youtube of thatand I do agree it sounds better like that. Somewhat better, at least.