Steely Dan Sunday, “FM (No Static At All)” (1978)

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Back in 1971 when they were struggling to make it as songwriters for hire and before they formed Steely Dan, Becker and Fagen landed some work scoring a soundtrack for a movie that starred Richard Pryor. The low budget flick You’ve Got to Walk It Like You Talk It or You’ll Lose That Beat went nowhere and so did the soundtrack. Seven years later, Becker and Fagen were again tabbed to provide music for a movie, but this time, the circumstances were much, much different.

In 1978, Becker and Fagen were kind of a big deal. The boys were enjoying their greatest success ever as three songs from Aja became hits, and Aja itself reaching #3 on the album charts. That’s when they got the call again to contribute music for a movie. FM, as this movie was titled, had also flopped, but the song Steely Dan contributed, did not, peaking just outside the Top 20 in the U.S.

Thusly, “FM” continued the roll instigated by Aja and justifiably so. With only one song to fuss over for practically all of 1978, they produced a shining gem of a tune, one that remains one of my and many SD fans’ favorites to this day. It’s polished, it’s got hooks, it’s got cool lyrics, it’s got great guitar, and it’s got smooth saxophone. And like most great SD songs, there’s a thing or two a little different about it than all the other SD songs.

In this case, it’s the addition of strings. True, they did that once before (“Through With Buzz”), but a deep cut lasting only a minute and a half hardly counts. It’s a point of mild curiosity but not much else: the orchestration neither brings down nor enhances the song. As long as we’re into minutia, here’s another fun fact: the base instrumentation for the track is performed mostly by Becker (bass, guitars) and Fagen (piano), the only time they handled the majority of the performing chores themselves. Jeff Porcaro, last seen on Katy Lied, returns to the trap kit stool. Pete Christlieb works the saxophone and plays just what he feels. Oh yeah, there’s something else peculiar about this song: there are two alternate endings to it. The original version has Becker soloing all the way to fade-out, while a later version that appeared on the Citizen Steely Dan compilation replaces his lead guitar with more Christlieb sax, below.

We all know how this song goes — the videos are cheerfully provided in case you need a refresher — but there are a few things I really like about this song. The two-note intro prowls like a panther as Becker does his noodling, but here the guitar sparkles with a Nashville twang. Actually, his axe playing is good all over the song, because it’s uncluttered, blues-kissed and memorable. Becker had by this time assumed the role as the designated lead guitar soloist, replacing some better regarded hired hands but in the right situation he can be quite effective, as on this song. Christlieb’s solo in the middle of the track sounds much like the Christlieb who starred on “Deacon Blues” just months earlier.

The lyrics give us more to ponder from our well-read duo: another obscure libation (grapefruit wine), a hip phrase you won’t even find in The Urban Dictionary, much less the Steely Dan Dictionary (“worry the bottle, mamma”), and Fagen coming oh-so-close to converting “funked up” to, well, you can figure that out.

“FM” capped off a banner year for Steely Dan and more success was ahead. But soon after 1978, a succession of mishaps would eventually culminate in the band’s unraveling. Yes sir, drama is on tap for next week’s episode.

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 jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, 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 https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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  • C trotter

    Awesome Sunday morning article. I had never even heard the version with the guitar outro before. Now I’m gonna look for the original vinyl soundtrack.

  • Scott Stuit

    Before the Citizen version, WLAV in Grand Rapids, MI had edited a copy so that FM and FM Reprise (B-side) were one. It was a special treat when they played that version.

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