Steely Dan Sunday: Katy Lied turns 40 this month

It’s not as widely celebrated as, say, Aja or Pretzel Logic but a look back forty years from its original release, it’s clear that Steely Dan’s fourth album contains just as much brilliance of the band’s progenitors, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen.

Katy Lied was first issued in March 1975, a year after that much-lauded Pretzel Logic, and its initial reception perhaps suffered a bit from not being a copy of its popular predecessor, which yielded a #4 hit with “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number.” While the album itself peaked at #13, no single charted higher than #37, for “Black Friday.” With the benefit of hindsight, it becomes clear that Becker and Fagen never intended to make a Pretzel Logic follow-up; this one — all of Steely Dan’s albums, really — are standalone entities and were always intended that way.

Katy Lied was destined to be different, anyway. Guitarist Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter and drummer Jim Hodder departed from Steely Dan when it became clear that Becker and Fagen weren’t interested in touring anymore. Hodder was replaced by 20-year-old Jeff Porcaro, who was playing alongside Hodder during the Pretzel Logic tour, and some little-known backup vocalist from the same tour by the name of Michael McDonald came on board for his first recording credit. Baxter was effectively replaced by a slew of hired guns, and his departure also provided an opening for Becker to expand his role as a lead guitarist wherever his style fit the song. That other guitarist Denny Dias stayed on, though now he was effectively just one of those hired guns.

For all intents and purposes, these changes meant that Steely Dan had completed its transition from a conventional band to a songwriting partnership using a rotating collective of the best studio musicians by L.A. and New York had to offer. It’s a strategy that’s served them well ever since.

Three of Steely Dan’s all-time best tunes — “Bad Sneakers,” “Doctor Wu” and “Gold Teeth II” — reside here, while deeper cuts like “Rose Darling” and “Chain Lightning” grace the album alongside concert favorite “Black Friday.” For some reason, the “Sneakers” single failed to achieve liftoff on the charts even though it contains a very tasty solo from Becker, who first emerged as a guitar soloist to be reckoned with starting with this record. When I sit down to think of what else is standout about Katy Lied, there are too many to keep this article even halfway tidy, so here’s just a partial list of what makes this album so damned great:

* Dias’ guitar solo on “Your Gold Teeth II,” with such fluid bop lines that made Fagen nearly fall out of his chair when he heard for the first time in the studio.
* The mischievous intent behind “Everyone’s Gone To The Movies,” the same kind of sly perversion from Becker and Fagen that runs through even more recent songs such as “Cousin Dupree.”
* Jeff Porcaro, who drummed on every song save for the Great Hal Blaine’s fill-in appearance on “Any World (That I’m Welcome To)”. All of Porcaro’s fills are timely, varying, and succinct. An early display of his signature rock shuffling abilities comes forth on “Black Friday,” and later, an authoritative blues shuffle on “Chain Lightning.” And then there’s “Your Gold Teeth II,” where he ends up sounding like Elvin Jones playing behind John Coltrane. That innate ability to swing so strongly just doesn’t happen with rock drummers but even this early on, Porcaro wasn’t merely a rock drummer.
* The emergence of Donald Fagen as a nuanced vocalist whose eccentric inflections tip off the sinister meaning behind seemingly innocent phrases like “You must know it’s right/The spore is on the wind tonight/You won’t feel it till it grows.” He wanted McDonald to replace him as lead vocalist but thankfully got voted down. Sure, McDonald is a much better singer overall and his background vocals gave songs like “Black Friday,” “Bad Sneakers” and “Any World” some fantastic lift, but he couldn’t have matched Fagen’s feel for these songs’ complex lyrics and moods.
* Everything about “Doctor Wu,” from Phil Woods’ sumptuous alto sax solo, to Michael Omartian’s elegant piano to the sophisticated song structure that easily moves from understated verses to a swelling chorus.

I could go on and also mention the stellar guitar contributions of Dean Parks, Larry Carlton, Elliot Randall and Rick Derringer.

You can’t have a discussion about Steely Dan’s Katy Lied without also touching on the infamous dbx debacle, obliquely referred to in Becker and Fagen’s 1999 liner notes, but explained with some gory details by Dias. The mysterious dulling of the sound during the mixing process so frustrated everyone — even reducing the ‘immortal’ engineer Roger Nichols to a mere, dumbfounded mortal — that the task of remixing and mastering fell to Dias by default, because no one else wanted to do it. To the great credit of Dias and Becker (who stepped in late into the process), the album was salvaged sufficiently enough for release. The 1999 CD remaster is a further improvement in audio fidelity, even if marginally so.

That shortcoming, real or perceived, doesn’t rise to the level of being a distraction. Maybe it would be had the music itself had been mediocre, but there are way too many accomplished traits found in every song that skillfully reconciled rock, jazz and blues into a radio friendly format. It’s high time that Steely Dan’s Katy Lied gets the same kind of exaltations usually reserved for Pretzel Logic and Aja.

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
  • Josh

    Here, here! The title track under the guise of Dr. Wu may one of the most beautifully haunting pieces to come from the era. A fantastic but underrated classic.

  • Charlie Ricci

    I couldn’t agree with you more. After Aja this is easily their best album and I don’t think it’s ever been under-rated. I know other music lovers who feel the same way I do. One of the reasons is that despite the virtuosity and eclecticism it’s one of their more accessible LPs.

  • Margalynne

    Dr. Wu doesn’t contain the phrase “Katy lied,” it’s “Katy lies,” because that’s Katy’s nature.
    IMHO Dr. Wu is the best SD song ever. And MM’s “backing” vocals on “Any World” are pre-atonement for all of his subsequent sins. Happy Four-Oh Katy Lied.

  • Vail Beach

    Maybe I’m deaf but this album has always sounded great to me. I particularly enjoy the robust, almost liquid sound they get from Michael Omartian’s acoustic piano work.

  • paulgilliam

    In the mid 70’s punk was emerging and Katy Lied was the antithesis of it so critics were afraid to like it or say they liked it until later.
    Wonder what the beach boys would’ve done with chain lightning.