Countdown to Ecstasy
|Countdown to Ecstasy|
|Studio album by Steely Dan|
|Recorded||Caribou Ranch, Nederland; The Village Recorder, Santa Monica|
|Steely Dan chronology|
Countdown to Ecstasy is the second studio album by American rock group Steely Dan, released in July 1973 by ABC Records. It was recorded at Caribou Ranch in Nederland and The Village Recorder in Santa Monica. After the departure of vocalist David Palmer, the group recorded the album with Donald Fagen singing lead on all the songs.
Although it was a critical success, the album failed to generate a hit single, and consequently charted at only number 35 on the Billboard 200. It was eventually certified gold by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), having shipped 500,000 copies in the United States. Well received upon its release, Countdown to Ecstasy received perfect scores from music critics in retrospective reviews.
After the departure of vocalist David Palmer, Steely Dan recorded Countdown to Ecstasy with Donald Fagen as the lead singer on all of the songs. The album was recorded at Caribou Ranch in Nederland and The Village Recorder in Santa Monica.
Music and lyrics
Like their 1972 debut album Can't Buy a Thrill, Countdown to Ecstasy has a rock music sound that exhibits a strong influence from jazz. It comprises uptempo, four-to-five-minute rock songs, which, apart from the bluesy vamps of "Bodhisattva" and "Show Biz Kids", are subtly textured and feature jazz-inspired interludes. Countdown to Ecstasy was the only album written by Steely Dan for a live band. "My Old School", a song about college placement and prostitution, features reverent horns and aggressive piano riffs and guitar solos. "The Boston Rag" develops from a jazzy song to unrefined playing by the band, including a distorted guitar solo by Jeff "Skunk" Baxter. Songs on the album incorporate pop jazz, easy listening, and avant-garde styles. Jim Hodder's drumming eschews rock music for pop and jazz grooves. Bop-style jazz soloing is set in the context of a pop song on "Bodhisattva".
Countdown to Ecstasy also has themes similar to Can't Buy a Thrill. It explores topics such as drug abuse, class envy. and West Coast excess. "King of the World" follows the sole survivor of a nuclear explosion, and "Show Biz Kids" evaluates the Los Angeles lifestyle. "Your Gold Teeth" follows a jaded female grifter who uses her attractiveness and cunning. Music journalist Rob Sheffield said that Donald Fagen and Walter Becker's lyrics on the album portray America as "one big Las Vegas, with gangsters and gurus hustling for souls to steal." He viewed it as the first in Steely Dan's trilogy of albums that, along with Pretzel Logic (1974) and Katy Lied (1975), showcased "a film noir tour of L.A.'s decadent losers, showbiz kids, and razor boys." Erik Adams of The A.V. Club wrote that the album has a "dossier of literate lowlifes, the type of character studies that say, 'Why yes, the name Steely Dan is an allusion to a dildo described in Naked Lunch.' These characters hang around the corners of the entire Steely Dan discography, but they come into their own on Countdown to Ecstasy".
The album was titled as a joke about attempts to rationalize a state of spirituality. The opening song "Bodhisattva" is about how buying and selling can lead to redemption. Its title refers to the Bodhisattva, those who have achieved spiritual perfection but who remain in the material world to help others. The song's protagonist asks them to take him by the hand and show him the "shine of your Japan / the sparkle of your china." Attracted by the lure of Eastern religion and material goods, he then pledges to sell his "house in town" in order to move and affiliate himself with the Eastern world. Fagen summarized the song's message as "Lure of East. Hubris of hippies. Quick fix". "Razor Boy" is a bitter, ironic pop song with lyrics that subtly criticize complacency and materialism. According to Ivan Kreilkamp of Spin, "Steely Dan speaks to us from that 'cold and windy day' when the trappings of hipness and sexiness fall away to reveal a lonely figure waiting for a fix. 'Will you still have a song to sing when the razor boy comes and takes your fancy things away?' Fagen asks a generation stupefied by nostalgia and self-involvement".
The original cover painting was by Fagen's girlfriend Dorothy White. At the insistence of ABC Records president Jay Lasker, however, several figures had to be added when he found the discrepancy between five band members and three figures on the cover unacceptable. The proofs for the album cover were later stolen during a dispute over the final layout.
Countdown to Ecstasy was released in July 1973 by ABC Records in the United States and Probe Records in the United Kingdom. It was less commercially successful than Can't Buy a Thrill. The album failed to generate a hit single, and consequently charted at only number 35 on the Billboard 200. It spent 34 weeks on the chart, and was eventually certified gold by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), having shipped 500,000 copies in the United States.
Countdown to Ecstasy was well received by contemporary music critics. David Logan of Rolling Stone felt that the album's musical formula does not get redundant and said that, despite ordinary musicianship and occasionally absurd lyrics, Steely Dan's "control" of their basic rock format is "refreshing" and "bodes well for the group's longterm success." Billboard complimented the "studio effect" of the dual guitar playing and found the "grandiloquent vocal blend" catchy. Stereo Review called it a "really excellent album" with "witty and tasteful" arrangements, "winning" performances, "high quality" songs, and a "potent and persuasive" mix of rock, jazz, and pop styles. Robert Christgau, writing in Creem, gave the album an "A–", and observed "studio-perfect licks that crackle and buzz when you listen hard" and "invariably malicious" vocals that back the group's obscure lyrics. He named Countdown to Ecstasy the ninth best album of 1973.
In a 1981 review, Christgau gave it an "A" and said that Steely Dan achieved a "deceptively agreeable studio slickness" because of Fagen's replacement of Palmer, who did not fit the group. In The Rolling Stone Album Guide (2004), Rob Sheffield gave the album five out of five stars and called it "a thoroughly amazing, hugely influential album" with "cold-blooded L.A. studio rock tricked out with jazz piano and tough guitar". Pat Blashill also gave the album five stars in his review for Rolling Stone. He said that the "joy in these excellent songs" and in the band's playing revealed Steely Dan to be "human, not just brainy", "like good stretches of the Stones' Exile on Main Street". In his five-star review of the album, Allmusic's Stephen Thomas Erlewine found Countdown to Ecstasy musically "riskier" than the band's debut album and wrote that the songs are "rich with either musical or lyrical detail that their album rock or art rock contemporaries couldn't hope to match." Chris Jones of BBC Music found Steely Dan's ideas to be "post-modern" and "erudite", and asserted that they were "setting a benchmark that few have ever matched." Music journalist Paul Lester viewed it as a progression from their debut album and wrote that "Becker and Fagen offered cruel critiques of the self-obsessed 'Me' decade", while their "blend of cool jazz and bebop, Brill Building song craft and rock was unparallelled at the time (only Britain's 10cc were creating such intelligent pop in the early Seventies)".
In his 1999 autobiography A Cure for Gravity, British musician Joe Jackson describes Countdown to Ecstasy as a music revelation for him, bridging the gap between rock and jazz and furthering his attempts at song-writing.
- Side one
- "Bodhisattva" – 5:19
- "Razor Boy" – 3:11
- "The Boston Rag" – 5:40
- "Your Gold Teeth" – 7:02
- Side two
- "Show Biz Kids" – 5:25
- "My Old School" – 5:47
- "Pearl of the Quarter" – 3:50
- "King of the World" – 5:04
(US Billboard 200)
|Year||Single||Label & number||Position
(US Hot 100)
|1973||"My Old School" (B-side: "Pearl Of The Quarter)||ABC 11396||63|
|1973||"Show Biz Kids" (B-side: "Razor Boy")||ABC 11382||61|
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- Becker, Walter; Fagen, Donald (1998). Countdown to Ecstasy (CD reissue booklet). MCA Records. MCAD-11887.
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- Countdown to Ecstasy – Steely Dan > Charts & Awards > Billboard Album at AllMusic. Retrieved October 27, 2004.
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- Countdown to Ecstasy at Discogs (list of releases)
- "Steely Dan: Reelin' in the Years" (Chapter on Countdown to Ecstasy) at Google Books
- "Top Ten Obscure Steely Dan Lyrics" by Stylus Magazine