The band performing in the video above is Steely Dan. Yet it doesn’t sound quite like Steely Dan, an impression partially explained by it being a live show rather than the kind of perfectionist studio recordings for whose meticulous construction (and repeated reconstruction) the group’s very name has long been a byword. But its founding masterminds Walter Becker and Donald Fagen hadn’t yet settled into that complexly pristine aesthetic at the time of this appearance, which aired fifty years ago next week on The Midnight Special. Back then, having put out only their first couple of albums, they could still present their project as a relatively conventional early-seventies rock band.
It helped that they had a relatively conventional frontman in singer David Palmer, who handles lead vocals on their Midnight Special performance of “Do It Again,” Steely Dan’s first hit. That he didn’t do so on the studio recording underscores that the band is genuinely playing live, not miming to a backing track, as was standard practice on other music shows.
It also constitutes another reason this version sounds “off” to a serious Danfan, but it would take a truly blinkered purism (a condition widespread among the ranks of Danfans, admittedly) not to appreciate this performance, especially when it gets around to the solo by the band’s original guitarist Denny Dias — another of which comes along in “Reelin’ in the Years,” played in the video just above.
Not that one guitarist could suffice for Steely Dan, even in this early lineup: they also had Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, now regarded as one of the finest studio players in the subgenre of “yacht rock.” Baxter appears prominently in their live rendition of “Show Biz Kids,” albeit as just one element of the full stage necessary to reproduce that song live. Unlike “Do It Again” and “Reelin’ in the Years,” two singles from Steely Dan’s album Can’t Buy a Thrill, “Show Biz Kids” comes from their then-newly released follow-up Countdown to Ecstasy, which offered a richer realization of both Steely Dan’s distinctive sound and even more distinctive worldview. To the refinement of that sound and worldview Becker and Fagen would devote themselves less than a year after their Midnight Special broadcast, when they quit live performance entirely for the comforts and rigors of their natural habitat: the recording studio.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.