You know the story: a band goes in the studio to records tracks for an album and finds they recorded more than what they needed for that record, so they leave one or two tracks off of it. You’ve also seen this play out: a major act comes out with a blockbuster album, so record label seeks to cash in by rushing out a “greatest hits” compilation while they wait for band’s delayed follow-up. And if they find any worthwhile, unreleased tracks still laying around, they’ll put that out, too.
I mention these two common occurences, because they are both at the center of the story for this fine, overlooked odds ‘n’ ends track by Steely Dan, “Here At The Western World.”
This tune was part of the sessions that produced 1976′s The Royal Scam, but for some reason, it got left on the cutting room floor. It stayed on the floor for Steely Dan’s next album, their signature record Aja (1977). When it became evident to their record company ABC Records that there would be no “1978″ Steely Dan record, ABC promptly created their own by putting out Greatest Hits, a compilation that oddly includes “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo” and not “Deacon Blues,” or the current Dan hit at that time, “FM.” But they did find a home for “Here At The Western World.”
The theme of this song is a favorite of Walter Becker and Donald Fagan’s: a darkly sarcastic look at drug-addled depravity they saw in contemporary America, a theme they would visit time and again (“Jack Of Speed”). This time, the object of illicit desire is most likely cocaine (“we’ve got your skinny girl”), as well as prostitution. Once again, Becker and Fagan do a masterful job painting vivid imagery in hip lingo without explicitly explaining what is being sung about, but you certainly get the general idea.
Sonically, I kind of get why this didn’t make it on The Royal Scam; it’s not because the track is a clunker because it actually would have rated as one of the better tracks on that album. No, it just wouldn’t have fit so well on a record that was dominated by either reggae vibes or Larry Carlton’s hard rocking guitar. “Here At The Western World,” with it’s sultry backup female vocals and urbane, note-perfect production in retrospect sure seems like a harbinger of what was coming the following year. It’s so tantalizingly close to that jazz-pop nirvana Aja, it could have been tacked on to that album and probably no one would notice that it came from an earlier session. Fagan supplies the lead vocals, as usual, but the rest of the chores were left to crack session musicians like Dean Parks, Chuck Rainey and Bernard Purdie.
ABC Records, who very shortly afterwards became gobbled up by MCA Records, may have been looking for a way to make a quick buck, but by rescuing “Here At The Western World” from obscurity, they did Steely Dan fans a favor. It may not have been truly a “greatest hit,” but most other bands would kill to have outtakes like that one.
NOTE: This is a reprint of my original musings on “Here At The Western World” that first appeared in this space May 1, 2010.