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Remembering The Tumultuous Perfection Of Steely Dan’s Chapter-Closing Album “Gaucho”

Steely Dan is one of the most important bands to come out of the 70’s. Their unique approach to pop music–a slick combination of jazz, off-center chord progressions, meticulous arrangements, and introspective lyrics–has left an indelible stamp on the world of music. The band essentially created their own genre; they didn’t allow outside influences to change their artistic output, and they maintained a stylistic integrity throughout their career, even apologizing for their own recordings that they felt were sub-par. Starting with 1972’s landmark debut album Can’t Buy A Thrill, Steely Dan released one record per year for the next five years, showing a prodigious work ethic that led to a bevy of classic soft rock albums, four out of five of them going Platinum in the process (1973’s Countdown To Ecstasy only reached Gold status). After releasing perhaps their best record, 1977’s landmark album Aja, the band would retreat into the studio for a lengthy recording process for what would turn out to be the final record of the pinnacle of their career, the wonderfully poppy and secretly dark 1980 album, Gaucho.

Gaucho found the band returning from the success of Aja and life in Los Angeles, but a number of issues bubbled to the surface during their long time in the studio. First and foremost, guitarist and band co-founder Walter Becker‘s girlfriend passed away from a drug overdose while in his home, and her family went on to sue him for $17 Million for introducing her to the drugs that killed her. Becker was eventually found innocent, though he settled with the family for an unknown sum of money. Shortly after this, he was involved in a car accident, shattering his leg and forcing him to use crutches for a long time, while also leading to several infections that left him trapped in the hospital in poor health. He and fellow co-founder Donald Fagen would continue their songwriting process over the phone during this time, slowing things down considerably.

The band would take their famous perfectionism to new levels during the Gaucho recording sessions, as they’d grown accustomed to the dedicated mercenary approach of the session musicians they worked with in Los Angeles on Aja. They returned to their home of New York City and found the musicians they worked with to be less professional, which was a major headache for Becker and Fagen. The band would often force their hired guns to do forty or more takes of the same song in search of the perfect snippet to use in the final recording. The result was a building-blocks approach that caused an inordinate amount of time to go into the recording process. For example, the band hired Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits to play lead guitar on “Time Out Of Mind”, having enjoyed his work on “Sultans of Swing” tremendously. He was brought into the studio for hours and hours of recording, and his final contribution to the record clocks in at only a few seconds.

Gaucho session Drummer Jeff Porcaro (who would go on to find fame and success with his band Toto) told Modern Drummer magazine a bit about the difficult recording process:

“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.”

Porcaro was replaced by Bernard “Pretty” Purdie and his famed “Purdie Shuffle” on “Babylon Sister”, and eventually a state-of-the-art drum machine nicknamed “Wendel” that was created by a sound engineer to Becker and Fagen’s specifications (Wendel famously received a plaque when Gaucho was certified Platinum). Imagine this as a microcosm for their entire recording process, working through each part on each track individually, performing take-after-take until getting it just right.

On top of their slow approach, when the album was finally ready to go, record label politics got in the way, as the band’s home label of ABC Records was purchased by MCA Records, forcing a delay in any new release from Steely Dan. Furthermore, Fagen and Becker were sued by jazz guitarist Keith Jarrett for copyright infringement, claiming that the album’s title track was too similar to his song “Long As You Know You’re Living Yours”. Fagen would eventually admit to being heavily influenced by the song, and Jarrett was given a co-writing credit on “Gaucho”, a major defeat for a band that was considered to be wholly original and creative in their approach to songwriting.

With all that pre-release drama, it’s amazing that Gaucho even made it to the finish line. Yet, when it was finally released on November 21st, 1980, the album was regarded as a stunning release by many. Rolling Stone gave it 4.5 stars, the New York Times named it the album of the year (over The Talking Heads’ Remain In Light), and the album would reach #9 on the Billboard charts, buoyed by the success of its bouncy lead single “Hey Nineteen”. The album contained a who’s who of famous session musicians, with Steve GaddMichael & Randy Brecker, and frequent Steely Dan cohorts Larry Carlton and Michael McDonald all making significant contributions to the record.

The album contains several Steely Dan classics, all of which center on a similar theme of disillusion with fame and success that they picked up in Los Angeles. “Hey Nineteen” captures their nostalgic spirit with perfection, detailing an aging hipster’s questionable pursuit of a nineteen-year-old woman. The album’s opening track, “Babylon Sisters”, is supposedly about a man going through a midlife crisis, picking up two young prostitutes to help him feel better before feeling inadequate in their presence. “Glamour Profession” is the ultimate testament to the perils of the L.A. lifestyle. “Time Out Of Mind” is a blatant tribute to recreational drug use, disguised by a sunny arrangement, bright horns, and awesome harmonies.

On the surface, it was standard Steely Dan, mixing the simple with the complicated, all while maintaining the band’s classic sound. However, the darkness that was driving the band seeped through into the lyrics on Gaucho, and, following Becker’s public dispute with his girlfriend’s grieving family, the band’s troubles were now there for all of their fans to see. Gaucho would be the last Steely Dan’s record for twenty years. Perhaps not a surprise, this time was used by the band to kick their drug habits, normalize their lives, and get back to basics. Their comeback record, Two Against Nature, would lead to an Album of the Year Grammy (controversially beating out Radiohead‘s Kid A and Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP), as well as an induction into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall Of Fame, cementing the legacy that they left behind with Gaucho all those years ago.

Looking back, Gaucho reflected the band’s faltering ego. The theme of disillusionment rang true with both band members, as they had stopped touring in 1974 and were considered musical hermits by the time 1980 rolled around. Trapped inside their own success and snobby attitudes, the band crumbled, but not before delivering one more perfect album. They wouldn’t have had it any other way.