If Two Against Nature came out as a L.P. the song “Jack of Speed” would have made a perfect side two opener. It’s funky, it rocks, it’s sophisticated. “Jack of Speed” is one of the strongest cuts on Two Against Nature and ranks in my top 5 Steely Dan songs of all time, yet it’s disappointing!
The song along with the still unreleased ‘Cash Only Island” was debuted during the 1996 “Art Crimes” Steely Dan tour. It had a lot going for it. The 1996 version has a funky horn chart played by Cornelius Bumpus, Michael Leonhart and Ari Ambrose, a funky yet economical drum part by Ricky Lawson and a strong lead guitar part by Walter Becker who also traded solos with guitarist Wayne Krantz. Of course the 1996 version also had Walter Becker singing a lead vocal for the first time in over 22 years! For all the comments about Becker’s vocals, his range and timbre fit this song.
When Two Against Nature was released, the song had gone through a lyrical makeover like many reworked Steely Dan songs when compared to their demo versions. The new lyrics, while great, are not better than the original. The horn chart, arranged by Donald Fagen, is missing a lot of the swing of the original, the drums by Michael White are much more subdued and unneeded percussion is added (what percussion instrument did bassist Will Lee play?).
Becker handled rather complex bass part himself and seemingly played at least four rhythm/lead guitar parts as well as the middle and end solos. The bigger crime was that Becker’s vocals were replaced with Fagen’s. After the release of the album, the duo gave interviews were they mentioned that they felt Fagen’s voice fit the song better. You be the judge.
“Jack of Speed” hasn’t been a regular part of their set list since 2000, though it was whipped out for the classic album shows in New York in 2011. At the “rarities” show on that tour, Walter Becker sang what they said was the original version of the song, complete with a shuffle 4/4 time signature and the lyrics Becker sang in 1996. Hopefully one day Steely Dan will do a proper boxed set and we can further explore the “Jack of Speed” lineage.