Steely Dan’s Gaucho: An album doomed from the start?

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“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 moving back to their beloved New York City and knocking out a killer soundtrack cut just as their pinnacle album Aja started sliding down the charts, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen took much of 1978 off. They looked forward to creating another Aja, finally free from their original record deal with ABC Records, and on to a much more lucrative one with Warners.

So yes, as they approached creating that Aja follow up Gaucho — released on this day in 1980 — they must have felt like Jesus, as they were a champion in everyone’s eyes. Instead, it seemed at times that their whole world fell apart and faded away.

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 when 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 some of Becker’s usual dose of artistic input.

Speaking of lawsuits, the duo got sideways with the jazz pianist Keith Jarrett — never one who shies away from confronting all slights real and perceived — for borrowing just a little too much of his 1974 song “Long As You Know You’re Living Yours” for Gaucho‘s title track. Jarrett sued and Becker and Fagen reportedly paid him a cool million to keep his name out of the songwriter credits.

Moreover, the obsession over studio perfection reached its apex during the recording of this album. With so many 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 pursuit of the sacred 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 arguably 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.

Ultimately, Gaucho overcame all of these challenges: it went platinum and reached 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. “Third World Man” served as a stand-in for “The Second Arrangement,” and it ended up being one of their best-ever deep cuts. These achievements were capped by yet another Grammy for “Best Non-Classical Engineered Recording.” Not insignificant accomplishments in a time where punk, new wave and disco rose up and took over as a backlash against rock of the artier kind was in full swing. So in the end, Steely Dan shook off all that bad mojo and life was good again.

Except, of course, for this 19+ year drought of no new studio releases that followed.

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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