“The Long Play with Al Neff" is a continuing Sunday evening Feature on The GOAT. This year, Every Sunday Evening, Album Rock WXYG, The GOAT will feature a full album at 8:00 PM from the halcyon musical days of 1973.
1973 was Possibly the Greatest Year in Album Rock history. Another year of tough choices every week. So many great ones to choose from.
We hope you’ll tune in on the Evening of Sunday, September 24th for “Countdown to Ecstasy” , the second studio album by Steely Dan, released by ABC Records in July 1973. It was recorded at the Village Recorder in West Los Angeles, California, except for Rick Derringer's slide guitar part for "Show Biz Kids", which was recorded at Caribou Ranch in Nederland, Colorado. After the departure of vocalist David Palmer from Steely Dan, the group recorded the album with Donald Fagen singing lead on every track.
Like Steely Dan's 1972 debut album Can't Buy a Thrill, Countdown to Ecstasy has a rock sound that exhibits a strong influence from jazz. It comprises uptempo, four- to five-minute rock songs, which, apart from the bluesy vamps of "Bodhisattva" and "Show Biz Kids", are subtly textured and feature jazz-inspired interludes. Commenting on the album's style and production, music critic Tom Hull said it is "clean, almost slick", with "no dissonance, no clutter”.
Countdown to Ecstasy was the only Steely Dan album written and arranged for a live band.
Bop-style jazz soloing is set in the context of a pop song on "Bodhisattva"."The Boston Rag" develops from a jazzy song to unrefined playing by the band, including a distorted guitar solo by Jeff "Skunk" Baxter. "My Old School" features reverent saxophones and aggressive piano riffs and guitar solos.
Countdown to Ecstasy has similar lyrical themes to Can't Buy a Thrill. It explores topics such as drug abuse, class envy, and West Coast excess. "Your Gold Teeth" follows a jaded female grifter who uses her attractiveness and cunning to take advantage of others, "My Old School" was inspired by a drug bust involving Walter Becker and Donald Fagen while they were students at Bard College, "King of the World" explores a post-nuclear holocaust United States, and "Show Biz Kids" satirizes contemporary Los Angeles lifestyles. Critic Tom Hull described the lyrics as "witty and slyly devious", citing as an example the following lyrics from "Show Biz Kids": "They got the booze they need / All that money can buy / They got the shapely bods / They got the Steely Dan T-shirt / And for the coup de grâce / They're outrageous."
According to Rob Sheffield, Becker and Fagen's lyrics on the album portray America as "one big Las Vegas, with gangsters and gurus hustling for souls to steal." He views it as the first in a trilogy of Steely Dan albums that, along with Pretzel Logic (1974) and Katy Lied (1975), showcase "a film noir tour of L.A.'s decadent losers, showbiz kids, and razor boys." Erik Adams of The A.V. Club called the album a "dossier of literate lowlifes, the type of character studies that say, 'Why yes, the name Steely Dan is an allusion to a dildo described in Naked Lunch.' These characters hang around the corners of the entire Steely Dan discography, but they come into their own on Countdown to Ecstasy".
Some songs on the album explore more spiritual concerns. The opening song, "Bodhisattva", is a parody of the idea that the disposal of one's possessions is a prerequisite to spiritual enlightenment. Its title refers to Bodhisattva, or people who are of the belief that they have achieved spiritual perfection but remain in the material world to help others. Fagen summarized the song's message as: "Lure of East. Hubris of hippies. Quick fix". "Razor Boy", meanwhile, is a bitter, ironic pop song with lyrics that subtly criticize complacency and materialism. According to Ivan Kreilkamp of Spin, in the song "Steely Dan speaks to us from that 'cold and windy day' when the trappings of hipness and sexiness fall away to reveal a lonely figure waiting for a fix. 'Will you still have a song to sing when the razor boy comes and takes your fancy things away?' Fagen asks a generation stupefied by nostalgia and self-involvement".
The album's title was selected as a joke about attempts to rationalize a state of spirituality. The original cover painting was done by Fagen's girlfriend at the time, Dorothy White. At the insistence of ABC Records president Jay Lasker, however, several figures had to be added, reportedly because he found the discrepancy between five band members and three figures on the cover to be unacceptable. The proofs for the album cover were later stolen by Becker and Fagen during a dispute over the final layout.
Reviewing the album in August 1973 for Rolling Stone, David Logan said that, “the band exhibits a control of the basic rock format that is refreshing and that bodes well for the group's long-term success." Billboard complimented the "studio effect" of the dual guitar playing and found the "grandiloquent vocal blend" catchy. Stereo Review called it a "really excellent album" with "witty and tasteful" arrangements, "winning" performances, "high quality" songs, and a "potent and persuasive" mix of rock, jazz, and pop styles. In Creem, Robert Christgau made reference to "studio-perfect licks that crackle and buzz when you listen hard" and "invariably malicious" vocals that back the group's obscure lyrics, and he named Countdown to Ecstasy the ninth best album of 1973 in his year-end list for Newsday. Tom Hull, in a review published in Overdose in April 1975, said the album is "perhaps the most representative, certainly the best realized," of Steely Dan's albums, as far as their "clean, almost slick" style is concerned, and called the overall effect "strange, strangely comfortable, queasy almost", and the band "a dangerous group, one that should be watched."
Tune In and Turn On next Sunday, September 24th and every Sunday evening at 8:00 PM for The GOAT'S "The Long Play with Al Neff.”