“Just when I say:
‘Boy we can’t miss,
you are golden’ …
Then you do this.”
Steely Dan rolled into 1979 with a big head of steam, having established themselves as consistent hitmakers as well as pulling in the critical kudos. That earned them enough swag already to clinch them immortality in the Rock ‘n’Roll Hall Of Fame, in which they were inducted in 2001. After taking much of 1978 off and moving back to home sweet home New York, Becker and Fagen looked forward to creating another Aja, free from their ABC Records contract and on to a much more lucrative one with Warners.
That Aja followup Gaucho was a commercial success following its November 1980 release, going platinum and reaching the Top Ten in the U.S. Hot 100 album chart. “Hey Nineteen” became a top ten single, too, and “Time Out Of Mind” was another hit song for them. The achievements were capped by yet another Grammy for “Best Non-Classical Engineered Recording.” But everything else about Gaucho was disastrous for the pair.
The first sign of trouble occurred in March, 1979 when MCA gobbled up ailing ABC Records and promptly shut down the label. They looked at Steely Dan’s old ABC contract and determined they were owed one more album, and had the resources to wage that battle with the band and with Warner Brothers. A fight ensued, but MCA prevailed.
It was also during this time when Walter Becker went through a real rough patch in his personal life. The nasty narcotics habit he picked up on the West Coast was affecting his work, and in January 1980, his girlfriend was found dead in their apartment from a drug overdose, prompting a lawsuit slapped on Becker from her family. Just a few months after the overdose, Becker suffered serious injuries when a cab struck him as he was crossing a street in NYC. It took six months to recover, which happened during the time the album entered into the crucial mixing phase. The sonic similarity between Gaucho and Fagen’s Nightfly from two years later suggests to me, at least, that Gaucho lacked much of Becker’s usual artistic input.
Speaking of lawsuits, the duo got sued by because the melody on one of their songs followed too closely to a song by a notable jazz musician. More on this when we reach that song in this series.
Moreover, the obsession over studio perfection reached its apex during the recording of this album. With so many of of rock’s finest drumming moments scattered among their first six albums, they sought even greater heights on Gaucho, heavily using click tracks and running through countless hours of takes with full bands just to get the drum track nailed down (sometimes, the best parts of the various drum takes were spliced together). They brought in up to a half dozen different rhythm sections to record a song, disposing of endless hours of takes by entire ensembles in search of the best take. All-world guitarists like Mark Knopfler and Rick Derringer were barely noticed on the finished album after nearly all of their contributions were edited out. Little wonder that Gaucho is a very sterile recording; its greatest strength is also its biggest weakness.
So, yes, it was extremely hard to get a track that passed muster with the Becker and Fagen, along with producer Gary Katz and engineer Roger Nichols. One track that did — and one that Katz and Nichols were particularly excited about — was a song called “The Second Arrangement.” But this track didn’t see release on Gaucho, or anywhere else. Why? Good question, and there’s a simple explanation for that: in late December, 1979, a junior engineer accidentally erased about 75% of the track. There were attempts to re-record it but none of those takes were satisfactory to Becker and Fagen, so they abandoned the song altogether.
Some demos of it survive, and, I’ve read, so did the 25% of the finished track that didn’t get erased. The version rendered in the YouTube below provides a pretty clear picture of what the final product must have sounded like. “The Second Arrangement” was apparently a polished, groove-oriented dancefloor number that would have fit in perfectly with Gaucho‘s vibe. It comes off as an improved “The Glamour Profession,” the track that would have likely been left off had “Arrangement” had not been unintentionally executed, since the two are most similar in style. (Edit: “Third World Man,” a leftover from the Aja sessions, became the stand-in track).
There are stories of all sorts of great Steely Dan tracks that got left off of their albums, but “The Second Arrangement” is very likely the only one of these that was deemed good enough for release by Steely Dan themselves. If not for a young man’s goof, Gaucho might have had a third hit.
Live version from September, 2011:
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