Aja (1977) is frequently cited as Steely Dan’s signature work, but I consider Katy Lied to be their high-water mark. Following their previous album, 1974’s Pretzel Logic, Steely Dan ceased to really exist as a band, shunning life on the road by making the recording studio their office. This meant that Steely Dan was reduced to its two core members, the songwriting duo Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, who rotated in a who’s who of session musicians to play guitar, percussion, sax, horns and whatever else they needed. Fagen and Becker’s stellar pop songwriting met the best musicianship in the business, and the results were impressive, to say the least. If you’re an audiophile, then you have surely heard of Steely Dan’s production prowess, which is nothing short of legendary, and for good reason. When it comes to dynamics, you’ll frequently hear audiophiles cite Steely Dan, Pink Floyd and Dire Straits as bands that offer albums of superior sound quality.
Aja marries Steely Dan’s most complex and brainy compositions — such as the eight-minute title track — with incredibly dextrous performances and pristine production, but I have always preferred the more traditional songwriting approach of Katy Lied. In fact, I would argue that Katy Lied features Steely Dan’s strongest set of songs of their entire career, though none of them have become lasting hits like “Rikki Don’t Lose Number” or “Do It Again.” Only “Black Friday” charted on the Billboard Hot 100 (peaking at #37), and “Bad Sneakers” was the only other single, which is a shame, since this album is chock full of potential hits. Certainly “Any World (That I’m Welcome To)” could have been a huge hit. And though “Daddy Don’t Live in That New York City No More,” “Everyone’s Gone to the Movies” and “Throw Back the Little Ones” weren’t included on the double-disc Steely Dan greatest hits album my dad has (it’s something of a “greatest hits plus some album tracks” package), I feel like those could have been big hits, too.
But the industry was different in 1975. Fewer singles were released from each album back then since bands made albums much more quickly. Steely Dan, who spent longer in the studio than anybody crafting their albums, managed to produce an album a year from 1972 to 1977. Ditto the Eagles from 1972 to 1976. Hell, the Beatles made two albums a year for while. Everything just moved faster back then, which is ironic, since there was no internet or social media and in many ways things didn’t move nearly as fast. But as far as the music industry is concerned, you just didn’t have people taking four or five years off between albums like you do now. The ’80s was when everything changed. The sheer magnitude of Thriller‘s success was unprecedented, but so was the fact that seven singles were released from it. (Michael Jackson also didn’t release his follow-up, Bad, for almost five years.)
Born in the U.S.A. and Purple Rain came along in 1984 and followed the same release model, as each wound up offering seven and five singles, respectively, and all of them — save Purple Rain‘s “Take Me with U” — reached the top ten on the Hot 100. (Similarly, all seven of Thriller‘s singles reached the top ten, as well.) The “global village” aspect of music had started to become part of the equation — labels got absorbed into huge media conglomerates, and suddenly there was no localization to music anymore. If you look at the certification history of bestselling pre-Thriller albums like Back in Black, Led Zeppelin IV and Physical Graffiti, you’ll see that a lot of their sales came after the arrival of the CD era in the 1990s. Back in Black, for instance, had sold 9 million copies in 1990 — ten years after its release — and it now sits at 22 million copies sold. That’s just staggering.
It’s interesting how things have changed. In the ’50s and early ’60s, singles were paramount, but by the mid-’60s, albums started becoming the artists’ primary form of expression, and by the ’70s, singles were culled almost entirely from albums. They didn’t release that many singles though, since there was always another album coming down the pipeline, but by the ’80s and ’90s, the wait was longer between albums, since production grew more complicated and tours became longer and more lucrative. The solution was simple: release more singles to give the illusion that the artist was offering something new. Nowadays that just doesn’t work; you can always go to YouTube and hear any song — single or album track — whenever you want. When you used to hear your favorite song on the radio it really was like gaining access to the forbidden fruit. It just doesn’t feel like that anymore, and we now find the music industry at a crossroads.
Albums are expensive to make and aren’t selling (unless you’re Adele and make an album like 21), not to mention the wait between albums feels absolutely interminable in the age of instant gratification, but singles are as popular as ever, from what I can tell. And the radio is still the single most useful promotional tool — you just can’t beat the exposure. But it costs gobs of money to promote, and for guys like Steely Dan who expanded the boundaries of rock & roll and who pushed the limits of how great music could literally sound, it’s sort of fitting they released their final studio album — at least, for twenty years — in 1980. I’m not sure they would have fit into the music industry of the ’80s, when production went to hell. But they had arguably the greatest run of any band in the ’70s, and Katy Lied is them at the top of their game.