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Steely Dan: Can't Buy A Thrill - Album Of The Week Club review

Steely Dan's Can't Buy A Thrill was the debut album from two of music's great smart-asses, or as one reviewer puts it, "Yacht rock captained by two cranky eggheads"

Can't Buy A Thrill cover art
(Image: © ABC Records)
Santana: Abraxis

Can't Buy A Thrill cover art

(Image credit: ABC Records)

Do It Again
Dirty Work
Kings
Midnite Cruiser
Only a Fool Would Say That
Reelin' In the Years
Fire in the Hole
Brooklyn (Owes the Charmer Under Me)
Change of the Guard
Turn That Heartbeat Over Again

Of all the smartasses that ever made a career out of rock’n’roll, such as Frank Zappa, Todd Rundgren and 10cc, none played it smarter than Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, the co-leaders of Steely Dan

To sell 40 million albums, as Steely Dan have, is no mean feat. But they did it with the most sophisticated and highbrow music ever recorded by a major rock group. From the get-go, the Dan were the coolest band in America. 

This much is evident in their debut album’s two hit singles: the first, Do It Again, with a Latin rhythm and a melodic glow at odds with its lyrics about a loser beaten down by life; the second, Reelin’ In The Years, a breezy rock’n’roll number with killer lead guitar from Elliott Randall and a solo that is reputed to be one of Jimmy Page’s favourites.

The album itself is a gloriously slick, superbly crafted and stylishly played collection of songs that raised the barrier for American pop-rock. Absent from this album was the jazzy vibe that came to define the band in later years, and there were great songs throughout.

Standout tracks among a number of real gems included the deftly funky Midnight Cruiser, the country-flavoured Brooklyn, and soul ballad Dirty Work – the latter beautifully sung by the soon-to-be-axed David Palmer.

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Every week, Album of the Week Club listens to and discusses the album in question, votes on how good it is, and publishes our findings, with the aim of giving people reliable reviews and the wider rock community the chance to contribute. 

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Other albums released in November 1972

  • One Man Dog - James Taylor
  • Slayed? - Slade
  • Europe '72 - Grateful Dead
  • Journey Through the Past – Neil Young
  • Transformer - Lou Reed
  • Baby James Harvest - Barclay James Harvest
  • Homecoming - America
  • Seventh Sojourn - The Moody Blues
  • Doremi Fasol Latido - Hawkwind
  • A Good Feelin' to Know - Poco
  • Boomer's Story - Ry Cooder
  • Don McLean - Don McLean
  • Ege Bamyasi - Can
  • Ennismore - Colin Blunstone
  • For the Roses - Joni Mitchell
  • Joe Cocker - Joe Cocker
  • The Magician's Birthday  - Uriah Heep
  • Old Dan's Records - Gordon Lightfoot
  • Passage - Bloodrock
  • They Only Come Out at Night - Edgar Winter Group
  • Why Dontcha - West, Bruce and Laing
  • The World Is a Ghetto - War

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What they said...

"On paper, Thrill sounds as thorny as Italian prog, the product of a bunch of noodlers fiercely guarding their niche. But the record’s core hums with Fagen and Becker’s meticulous admiration for everything that makes pop tick. Bitter-mouthed contrarians in interviews, they wrote songs every bit as charming and delectable to the ear as the peers they claimed to despise." (Pitchfork (opens in new tab))

"Side two opens with the superb Reelin’ in the Years, a rocking Moby Grape shuffle that spotlights guest Elliot Randall’s biting lead guitar, more acrid 1965 Dylan-derived verse, Fagen’s best vocal and Becker’s tough, propulsive bass. Can’t Buy a Thrill (the title, of course, was lifted from a line in Dylan’s It Takes a Lot to Laugh) is distinguished by three top-level cuts and scattered moments of inspiration, but there are those instances of Steely coming on like a limp dildo. Too bad – great title." (Rolling Stone (opens in new tab))

"Comparisons between Steely Dan and their supposed “soft rock” cohort – you know, Bread, America, Three Dog Night, and the like – are invidious, if only for the obvious reason that Donald Fagen brought an incurable case of sarcasm to the table. On Turn That Heartbeat Over Again Fagen sings, “Love your mama, love your brother/Love them till they run for cover.” And voila – the snidest jab at the concept of peace and love ever!" (Graded On A Curve (opens in new tab))

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What you said...

Mike Canoe: Yacht rock captained by two cranky eggheads. The elements that would define Steely Dan's sound are present on Can't Buy Me A Thrill, especially the breezy, jazzy pop married to cynical literate lyrics. The ingredients just need a little refining.

Donald Fagen may be more of an interesting singer than a very good one, but his voice was meant to sing these songs. The main minus for me is when someone else takes over singing lead. At the same time, I think David Palmer's yearning voice sells Dirty Work better than Fagen would.

The problem is I don't really like Dirty Work, which sounds more like the Eagles than Steely Dan. Palmer's backing vocals are more essential on songs like Reelin' In The Years, Only A Fool Would Say That, and "Change Of The Guard," where he adds some lift to Fagen's limited range.

For me, Can't Buy Me A Thrill has two perfect songs and eight that range from pretty good to unmemorable. The perfect ones, unsurprisingly, are the two singles Do It Again and Reelin' In The Years.

The latter is the more quintessential Steely Dan sound with its buoyant melody and kiss off in the wordy lyrics. But Do It Again is equally terrific - a sobering (pun semi-intended) meditation of making the same mistakes over and over again set to sinister music.

After that excellent pair, Kings and Only A Fool Would Say That stand out the most for me with the tunes not sung by Fagen bringing up the rear.

Arguably, at least among their first seven albums before their two decade pause, Steely Dan never really made a bad album. And so it goes with a Can't Buy A Thrill. For me, it falls in the middle of their discography with both better and less better still to come.

Bill Griffin: A fine album, especially for a debut. Not surprising with Jeff Baxter on it; I simply can't think of an album with him that isn't a top-notch recording. High marks for this one from me

Adam Ranger: Reelin' In The Years and Do It Again would be reason enough for me to rate this album. Yes It know most people would know those songs even if they knew nothing more about Steely Dan, but that is why they are classics.

Other tracks on the album that I really like are Change Of The Guard and Kings. The rest of the album is OK, but I appreciate the musical skill. Music of its time, perhaps, but like some Supertramp, it still sounds good today.

A solid debut album for sure.

Greg Schwepe: So, how’s this for timeliness? Just this past Saturday I saw Steely Dan at an outdoor “shed” outside Detroit. And of course, I had been listening to their entire catalogue front to back the past two weeks. While in the car cranking the Citizen Steely Dan 1972-1980 box set on the way home (two Steely Dan t-shirts sitting on the passenger seat next to me!), I got to wondering “Hmmm… has the Classic Rock group ever reviewed a Steely Dan album?” as I was listening to Do It Again. And lo and behold, look what got selected for this week’s review!

When album buyers dropped the needle on their debut, they heard a wide array of styles. Rock, pop, swing, jazz. I’ve always joked that Steely Dan is “Jazz For People Who Say They Don’t Like Jazz.” They sneak it in and you like it!

Here you have Donald Fagen and Walter Becker and a host of talented musicians. And the “talented musician” theme would continue throughout their career with a great cast on all albums after this. Fagen sings lead on all but three tracks. And you have the start of what I’ve seen deemed “oblique” lyrics that you kind of have to figure out. But that’s part of the fun. “What exactly are they singing about?”

This album is another example where I went backwards and discovered it after I really got into music. I really got into Steely Dan in college where you had the early version of “file sharing.” Which was where a dorm friend had a bunch of Steely Dan albums and you had a bunch of blank Maxell cassettes. A little “sharing” and you were now fully up on Steely Dan’s catalogue, this album included.

Had this been the first Steely Dan album I had heard, it has enough draw on me that I would’ve been anxiously awaiting the follow up. It’s stood the test of time with many tracks played on radio to this day. Just a great album. Kind of hard to review in that I like all the tracks, and can’t really pick on anything. Impressive debut but not really the one I'd point someone to if they wanted the ultimate Steely Dan album. That nod would go to Aja or Gaucho.

To end on a little concert review. This album was represented with two tracks when I saw them this past Saturday. Reelin” In The Years (iconic guitar riffs out the ying yang!) was the encore and has probably been their closer for years. The true added bonus was Dirty Work sung by one of their three ultra-talented backup singers. Chorus had Donald joining in as well. Incredible and unexpected.

David Roche: The singles are generally the highlights of their albums, but this one has great deep cuts: Kings, Brooklyn, Midnight Cruiser, Fire in the Hole... I fell in love with it as a kid during one of those overnight full album marathons a local station used to do. Taped it on my little cassette recorder and played it to death.

Evan Sanders: What a great album, and I'm amazed that it's their debut, as Steely Dan's signature sound is already in place starting with the album opener Do It Again. That opener and other hit songs Dirty Work and Reelin' In The Years are classic rock mainstays. The rest of the album is a strong set of deep cuts. 8/10 and I could be persuaded to go one higher.

Adrian Bolster: One of the finest debut albums ever and my favourite from Steely Dan! Reelin' In The Years on its own would have made it a decent album. Absolute quality!

Nick Treleaven: Do it Again is their best song, I never tire of it

John Davidson: Intelligent, tightly played soft rock.

There's not a bad song on the album and with Reelin In The Years and Do It Again there are two bonafide classics.

It fits in that same genre as the best of Elton John's 70s output occupied (Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and Captain Fantastic) or ELO without the orchestration and avoids the occasional sickliness of Supertramp and the like. It's not an album that I ever sought to own but it's definitely worth a listen.

Philip Qvist: As the old saying goes, never judge a book by its cover - and it is definitely the case here; an album cover that might have worked in the 70s, but one that is definitely not for me.

Fortunately that's the only bad thing that I can say about Can't Buy A Thrill; a great debut album, when Steely Dan was still a group - and not a group of session men acting as a vehicle for the visions of Walter Becker and Donald Fagan that they later became.

I always see Aja and Pretzel Logic as the go-to Steely Dan albums, but this one isn't too far behind. Do It Again, Dirty Work, Kings, Reelin' In The Years and Change Of The Guard are my stand out tracks.

The vocals of the soon-to-be-ditched David Palmer on Dirty Work is a highlight; along with guest guitarist Elliott Randall on Reelin' In The Years and Kings.

A tight band, with very good guitar work from Skunk Baxter and Denny Dias, and great production from Gary Katz. An excellent debut album. 9/10 for me.

Richard Cardenas: Steely Dan are one of those very rare bands that, as I get older, I listen to less and less. Will give this a spin with a cup of coffee and see how it goes.

Uugghh. Could not get through it. Really weird because I used to love them as a kid.

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Final Score: 8.32 (88 votes cast, total score 733)

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Classic Rock Magazine
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