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Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Pop Archaeology: Steely Dan's Lost Gaucho Album (Bootleg, 1979)

To say I'm a big Steely Dan fan would be a major understatement. Of all rock bands dating to the classic era, ie 1967-1977, the only one that holds perennial attraction for me is Steely Dan. Literate and streetwise in equal amounts, their work withstands the test of time. The lyrics are essentially timeless, composed of ambiguous vignettes about often sleazy characters who inhabit a noir netherworld of drugs and perversion, hipsters and assassins. Their songs are littered with slang, buzz-words, catch phrases and bits of overheard dialog, and stand out for their oblique poetry, which seems to have seasoned with age.

The music itself draws on blues, bebop, and most significantly and uniquely - for a rock act - jazz. There's something about this jazz influence that gives their music that deeper quality that can sustain years of repeated listening.

In 1975 Walter Becker and Donald Fagan, the songwriters and founders of the group, decided to abandon the disagreeable work of performing to become a purely studio act. "We came to the conclusion that certain individuals were not suited by temperament or constitution to the rigors of long road trips in the company of prep school hooligans," as they put it in their liner notes.

Their approach to recording was at odds with rock's mainstream, which had come to expect 'bands' to play instruments on their own records. Becker and Fagan saw themselves more as songwriters and composers than as players or performers, and preferred to record with the best session musicians available, mirroring the approach of Brian Wilson. The result of the commitment to studio recording
was a series of nearly perfect classic albums that truly deserve the appellation 'masterpieces'; Katy Lied (1975), The Royal Scam (1976), and Aja (1977). Aja was a tremendously ambitious work, very successful, with three hit singles and sales hitting 5 million copies. Rolling Stone had Aja at #145 on their 2003 "The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time" list.

Following up this mega-hit would be a difficult act, and the production of the next album, Gaucho, was plagued by difficulties. The pair decided to record in NYC, but wanted to use LA musicians, so a small fortune was spent flying cream-of-the-crop session men back and forth from NYC. Their obsessive perfectionism in the studio was already legendary, but they apparently exceeded even their own previous indulgences.

Jeff Porcaro, drummer, describes the grueling sessions, "From noon till six we'd play the tune over and over and over again, nailing each part. We'd go to dinner and come back and start recording. They made everybody play like their life depended on it. But they weren't gonna keep anything anyone else played that night, no matter how tight it was. All they were going for was the drum track." The drum track for the title song was assembled from 46 different takes.

The pair used at least 42 different studio musicians, 11 engineers, and over a year in the studio making an album that contains only seven songs. Becker's drug use began causing strain with Fagan. Becker was hit by a car crossing the street in NYC, and his girlfriend died of a drug overdose in his apartment during the recording of the album.

Then there was the misunderstanding with MCA about who owned the album they were making. The group thought they had fulfilled their obligation to MCA and were recording for Warner, only to find that the mafia connected company (MCA) claimed ownership. A protracted court battle ensued - the record was eventually released by MCA - who were so aggravated with the expenses that they tacked an extra dollar onto the price of the LP.

The record succeeded in spite of all this, spawning two hit singles and garnering positive reviews in Rolling Stone (4.5/5 stars) and The New York Times (best album 2010, over Talking Heads Remain in Light, Joy Division's Unknown Pleasures and The Clash's Sandinista). It could hardly be better than it is. The perfectionism paid off with a recording that set new standards for full frequency range audio; the album is equal too or greater than Aja, adding disco and reggae to the band's already diverse list of influences. But apparently the strain had taken its' toll; more than ten years would pass before the duo worked together again.

Which brings us to the subject of this post; The Lost Gaucho. Apparently the duo had prepared a set of eleven songs for the album, and recorded demos of these, before deciding to scrap the tracks and begin anew. These are not the multi-tracked, fully developed tracks of their albums, but true working demos, recorded basically 'live' in the studio. Only four of these ten songs would appear on the finished album. These unused demos are what constitute the 'lost Gaucho album'. A week of listening to this material left no doubt in my mind that these songs were not out-takes, ie songs that weren't good enough, but rather were among the best songs the pair would ever write.

One ostensible reason for revamping the album late in 1979 was the accidental erasure of the master track for "The Second Arrangement", the centerpiece of the album at that point, by an assistant engineer. Or was this just a gambit in the on-going legal dispute with MCA, as some have suggested - a made-up story? At any rate, a substantial set of songs by the '70s most enduringly appealing rock band has leaked from a source close enough to the originals to yield acceptable-audio copies of the material. This download - which is not mine - is of a two disc set, the second of which is from an earlier bootleg and is just shit; audio too poor to listen too. Disc one, however, is a perfectly acceptable copy of the songs, so I recommend downloading the package for disc one and just dumping disc two in the recycle bin.

Even if you're not a Steely Dan fan, which is likely given that this blog is about chillwave and dream pop and not lost masterpieces of classic rock, this set is a good place to start. Anyone interested in 'yacht rock', or jazz pop such as Sade, The Style Council, Everything But The Girl or Matt Bianco will find Steely Dan richly rewarding. I would wager that anyone who gives a more-than-cursory listen to this stuff will be listening to these song many years after chillwave is in the dust.

It's funny how the tides of culture flow...  when Gaucho came out, I was in high school and obsessed with The Clash, Talking Heads and Joy Division. Now these many years later I am obsessed with Steely Dan and the aforementioned punk / new wave artists are strictly a trip down memory lane.

Download The Lost Gaucho 


  1. Im exactly the same. Was a kid punk rocker in the 70's. Didnt discover Steely Dan until my late 30's - now completely obsessed by the Dan. Just fantastic music. Glad I missed these guys until I grew ears enough to hear what they were doing.