In the past few months, Steely Dan fans have had several new releases to dig into, although Steely Dan as an entity had little to do with these performances seeing the light of day. While Donald Fagen is rumored to be working on a new album, we haven’t seen any new material since 2012’s magnificent Sunken Condos. We did however get two new live recordings in 2021, one featuring Fagen’s debut album The Nightfly, and the other a compilation of Steely Dan live tracks recorded at various locales.
The real discoveries have come from two particular YouTube channels, Burt Sugarman’s Midnight Special and Cimcie Shares All, the channel of Cimcie Nichols, daughter of engineer Roger Nichols. Nichols not only worked on every Dan album from 1973 until 2002 but was also the inventor of Wendel, a sophisticated drum machine/computer that made its debut on Steely Dan’s 1980 album Gaucho. The Roger Nichols estate has even produced a Wendel sample pack containing over 500 samples for use in modern samplers and Digital Audio Workstations.
Seven years before Steely Dan was using drum replacement computers to perfect their craft, they were a band promoting their sophomore album, Countdown to Ecstasy. In August of 1973, Steely Dan taped an episode of Midnight Special that never found its way on any of the countless compilation DVDs released over the years. The thing that makes these performances so special is that they were performed live rather than mimed, as the American Bandstand performances were. A version of “My Old School” from Dick Clark’s program has circulated for years and while it’s interesting to see the band on stage, it’s still a lip-sync.
August 31st, 1973 was not the first time Steely Dan appeared on Midnight Special. They were also on the January 9th episode playing “Do It Again” and “Reelin’ in the Years” with soon-to-be ex-co-vocalist David Palmer.
These songs have been available for years and are the only videos featuring Palmer. Eight months later the band had parted ways with the singer and added three backing vocalists, Jenny “Bucky” Soule, Gloria “Porky” Granola, and Royce Jones.
They performed two songs from Countdown to Ecstasy, “My Old School” and “Show Biz Kids,” and one from their debut album, “Reelin’ in the Years.” These are the only performances that are available showing Steely Dan in this short-lived configuration and fans have wondered why it wasn’t available for so long. After this short tour, the band replaced the female backing vocalists (they kept Royce Jones) with Michael McDonald on Wurlitzer electric piano and vocals and Jeff Porcaro as a second drummer. The closest Steely Dan fans had gotten to seeing these performances since they first aired was a short clip teased during their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001.
Cimcie Nichols, on the other hand, has given us a glimpse behind the scenes of Steely Dan rehearsals for the Y2K tour: clips of studio rehearsals for the Two Against Nature album, Walter Becker playing drums, and even a video of Donald Fagen entering a mysterious church in Woodstock, NY — filmed by her father. These shared memories have given fans a view most had not been privy to.
Interestingly, the most anticipated release was of a song that has been making the rounds with collectors, and on YouTube, for years: “The Second Arrangement.” The song was slated for release on Steely Dan’s 1980 album Gaucho but was erased mistakenly by an engineer before it was finished. Although they attempted to record a new version, the second try was abandoned rather quickly. Cimcie’s version is a rough mix from a cassette that Roger had made the night before the song was erased, and although it is a bit cleaner sounding, it’s quite similar to the versions that have been available for years.
What’s infinitely more interesting is the number of remixes that flooded YouTube immediately afterward.
Amateur and professional engineers and musicians “demixed” the song using software that allows instruments to be separated into stems and then effects and noise reduction can be used on different parts. Some even added new instruments to the mix. One mix even took the horn arrangement that I wrote for my own album of unreleased Steely Dan songs, The Steely Dan Sessions: Interpretations of Unrealized Classics, and added it to a mix of the Steely Dan version.
Unfortunately, the majority of these tracks have been taken down by UMG due to copyright infringement, but the one new song that was taken down, that in my opinion is the holy grail of lost Steely Dan music, is the never aired Schlitz beer commercial that the band cut in ‘72. Allegedly the song was rejected due to the Spanish overdub by Jeff “Skunk” Baxter that included a word that means “grab,” but can also be translated as another four-letter word.
Cimcie has since pivoted to live interviews with true insiders, such as guitarist Denny Dias and producer Gary Katz. Let’s hope we can continue to get such aural and visual gifts, even if they are available for a limited time before the powers that be strike them from YouTube.
Photo: Kotivalo, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons