Recording of March 2023: Countdown to Ecstasy

Steely Dan: Countdown to Ecstasy
ABC/Geffen Records/UMG, Analogue Productions UHQR 0010-45 (2 LPs). 2022.
Gary Katz, Chad Kassem, prods.; Roger Nichols, Miss Natalie, Bernie Grundman, engs.
Performance *****
Sonics *****

They were elitist brainiacs. The lyrics were too obscure. Their rhythmic, irresistible pop confections resisted easy description. Yet their debut album, Can't Buy a Thrill, was a surprise hit. The band's response? Knowing that their sales success had bought them goodwill at ABC, their record label, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker went the integrity route. They forgot about hit singles, embraced risk, and fearlessly pushed the genre envelope in the direction of saxophone breaks, funk rhythms, and bluesy explorations.

The result was Countdown to Ecstasy.

Can't Buy a Thrill had yielded hit singles ("Do It Again," "Reeling in the Years"), as would Aja ("Deacon Blues," "Peg"), the band's best-selling album, four years later. Countdown to Ecstasy, though, was not a commercial success, at least not on its release. Of the two Countdowntracks released as singles, neither climbed higher than #61 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. But Countdown was immediately adored by critics, and it has become a key part of the legacy of a band that, over seven albums, fashioned a sonic universe like no other before or since. In artistic terms, I rate Countdown just below Katy Lied, the band's most fully realized album. And this reissue is the best Countdown ever.

The foundation of all Dan records is, of course, rock music, a point made clear by the guitar chords that open this album's first track, "Bodhisattva" (which translates as "one whose goal is to awaken"). But the jazz piano accents later on the same track hint at the experiments to come. "Razor Boy" jump-starts the Becker/Fagen tradition of lyrics that seem sour and cynical even though mostly they're just obscure: "I guess only women in cages/Can play down/The things they lose."

Countdown is the first album where Fagen has officially become the lead vocalist—surrounded by seven backing vocalists—after initially demurring because of stage fright. On the choruses of "Boston Rag," which is otherwise dominated by electric guitar solos, he and his seven supporters join in a glorious vocal sweep.

The personnel list is impressive. Supplementing bandmembers Denny Dias and Jeff "Skunk" Baxter (both on guitar) and drummer Jim Hodder are many guests including noted jazz bassist Ray Brown, Victor Feldman of The Crusaders on vibes, and Ernie Watts on saxophone; Watts's discography ranges from Adderley to Zappa. "Show Biz Kids"—one of the album's singles—features slide guitar by Rick Derringer, including a jagged solo. The other single, "My Old School," the album's hookiest cut, is ostensibly about a drug bust during college; it features sassy saxophone flourishes and spot-on guitar solos, complemented by lyrics chock full of proper nouns, another Dan trademark: "Oleanders," "William and Mary," and the immortal "Tried to warn ya about Chino and Daddy G." "My Old School" has become one of the band's most beloved tracks.

Originally produced by Gary Katz and recorded by Roger "The Legend" Nichols and his assistant Miss Natalie, Countdown always sounded good. This new 45rpm reissue—part of Analogue Productions's UHQR reissue series of Steely Dan's whole catalog, mastered by Bernie Grundman from original tapes, plated by Stan Bishop, and pressed at AP's own Quality Record Pressings—sounds better. The vinyl—200gm "Clarity Vinyl," a proprietary formulation by Classic Records that AP purchased along with that company's other assets—is wonderfully quiet.

What counts most when you're paying $150 for an album? Sound quality of course. Compared to original black-label ABC Records pressings and the high-resolution streams currently available, I heard a startling amount of new, low-in-the-mix detail. Well-known as studio rats who cared deeply about sound, Becker and Fagen never released a bad-sounding record, but the ravishing clarity and fullness of this premium pressing, in the highs, midrange, and lows, are unrivaled.

Packaged in a sturdy, slide-in box, the set also contains a heavyweight, high-gloss gatefold jacket—it's the first Countdown to come in a gatefold—and a booklet with a short, informative liner note by the reclusive, legendarily cranky Fagen. The four-page "Technical Specifications Manual" doesn't mention that the reissue is the result of an all-analog process, but it is. The quality and care taken with every aspect of this package is impressive.

Questions swirl about the value of the new generation of uber-expensive LP reissues, especially of reasonably popular and abundant fare. Are they worth the high asking price when OG pressings in adequate condition are relatively easy to find at prices that aren't completely crazy? The answer in the case of this AP reissue of a Steely Dan classic is an enthusiastic "absolutely!"—Robert Baird

georgehifi's picture

This ones too new to be on the DRDB yet, hopefully it's not compressed.

Good one to get the earlier releases of.
They must have been one of those groups back then that were against compression like Neil Young was.

Here are all their albums, the only ones to get "squashed" are the later stream/downloaded ones.

Pity, the stream/download companies are doing this a lot, or it's the versions they use.

Cheers George

jjljr's picture

I understand that UME/Geffen will be offering a 33rpm version of this album soon ... any idea of when it will be available?

PeterG's picture

The new Can't Buy a Thrill is available now in 33. I have both new versions. The 33 is a big improvement over CD, the 45 is even better--shockingly good. (My original vinyl is long gone, sob) I bought the 33 in a vain effort to persuade myself that I do not need all of the upcoming 45s--I failed. The 45s are way over priced...and worth every penny. I preordered the rest of set after my comparison

Glotz's picture

Your experiences with LPs and tape are indispensible. Thank you Peter!

PeterPani's picture

staying all the way in the analog domain? Why don't they put an AAA on the cover?

HighEndOne's picture

It is not Roger "The Legend" Nichols.
It is Roger "The Immortal" Nichols.
Please do your homework.
In fact, of all the concerts I have attended over the years, Roger has the distinction of being introduced as a part of the band, on the mixing board.
I have never seen that happen since.
Thank you.