Dirty Work (Steely Dan song)
|Song by Steely Dan|
|from the album Can't Buy a Thrill|
|Studio||The Village Recorder, Los Angeles|
|Songwriter(s)||Donald Fagen and Walter Becker|
The song's lyrics describe an affair between a man and a married woman, sung by the man. Steely Dan FAQ author Anthony Robustelli describes "Dirty Work" as a "song of self-loathing", while The Guardian describes the narrative as soap operatic. The singer recognizes that the woman is using him, but is too infatuated to end the affair. The second verse features the lyrics: "Like a castle in its corner in a medieval game", referencing the chess-piece the rook, chess being a hobby of Becker's.
Style and arrangement
The song's music has been described as more commercial-sounding than most of the band's other material. The Guardian says that it sounds like "a radio-friendly stroll of a song," at least at first. AllMusic critic Stewart Mason attributes this, in part, to the "upward-modulating" refrain and "soulful" clavinet, as well as the tenor saxophone part played by guest musician Jerome Richardson. Steely Dan biographer Brian Sweet describes Richardson's sax solo as being "perfectly understated."
"Dirty Work" is one of the songs on Can't Buy a Thrill on which David Palmer provided the lead vocal. Brian Sweet hypothesizes that Fagen did not want to sing the song himself because he and Becker did not even want to include it on the album. But the executives at ABC Records wanted some more conventional tunes on the album and so they insisted that "Dirty Work" be included. The ABC executives had also thought the song would be ideal for Three Dog Night or The Grass Roots to record. After Palmer left the group, Steely Dan stopped playing the song live in concert. It was revived in 2006, however, with the band's female backing vocalists singing it from the perspective of a woman having an affair with a married (or attached) man.
AllMusic critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine describes "Dirty Work" as a "terrific pop song that subvert[s] traditional conventions" and is one of the best songs on Can't Buy a Thrill, while MusicHound author Gary Graff refers to it as being "instantly memorable." Rolling Stone critic James Isaacs attributes the song's success to the fact that it "juxtaposes David Palmer's sweet tenor voice with misogynistic lyrics." Robustelli similarly agrees that part of the song's effect is the contrast between Palmer's smooth voice and the harsh lyrics. "Dirty Work" was included on several Steely Dan compilation albums, including Citizen Steely Dan in 1993, Showbiz Kids: The Steely Dan Story, 1972–1980 in 2000 and Steely Dan: The Definitive Collection in 2006. Seguin Gazette-Enterprise writer J.J. Syrja expressed surprise that it was excluded from their 1978 compilation package Greatest Hits.
The song was used in the first episode of season 3 of The Sopranos, "Mr. Ruggerio's Neighborhood," as Tony Soprano sings it while driving his SUV. The song was also used in the 2013 film American Hustle, although Fagen and Becker did not give permission for it to be included on the soundtrack album.
(from album cover credits)
- Donald Fagen – Wurlitzer electric piano, plastic (YC-30) organ, and backup vocals
- Denny Dias – acoustic guitar
- Jeff Baxter – electric guitar
- Walter Becker – bass guitar, backup vocals
- Jim Hodder – drums, backup vocals
- David Palmer – lead vocals
- Jerome Richardson – tenor saxophone
- Snooky Young – flugelhorn
Ian Matthews recorded "Dirty Work" for his 1974 album Some Days You Eat the Bear and Some Days the Bear Eats You in a conscious effort to score a hit single but while the track has been well reviewed - Allmusic critic Brett Haretnbach cites "Dirty Work" as one of Matthews' covers of "now-classic tunes" "which suit his warm, emotive tenor nicely": The Wheeling Herald (Wheeling, Illinois) writer Tom Van Malder rates "Dirty Work" one of the album's "standout[ cut]s" - it did not accrue significant notice as a June 1974 UK/US single release.
The Vancouver-based studio group Songbird - comprising Mike Flicker, Howard Leese and Rob Deans - had a Mushroom Records single release of "Dirty Work" which was a minor hit in Canada, peaking at #75 on the national hit parade in the autumn of 1974.
the Flirtations had a 1974 single release of "Dirty Work", produced by Kenny Laguna: the group's first release in two years it marked the recording debut of Loretta Noble as a group member with founding members Sheila and Earnestine Pearce.
The Pointer Sisters recorded "Dirty Work" for their 1978 album Energy with Anita Pointer as lead vocalist. J. J. Syrja of the Seguin-Gazette Enterprise noted "Dirty Work" as one of "three little-known pop songs" - the others being "Hypnotized" and "Come and Get Your Love" - whose inclusion on Energy was an "intelligent" choice given the "lovable gritty bounce" which typified the album. James Riordan of the Southtown Star considered that the Pointers' cover matched the original's "intensity" while being "more emotional and believable".
Lauren Wood recorded "Dirty Work" for her 1979 self-titled album: arranged by Bill Payne of Little Feat, Wood's version features as a background vocalist Michael McDonald, a veteran of Steely Dan's 1974 touring band who - despite fronting the Doobie Brothers from 1976 - was a regular sideman on Steely Dan's albums from 1975 to 1976.
- Mason, Stewart. "Dirty Work". Allmusic. Retrieved 2017-05-14.
- Robustelli, Anthony (2017). Steely Dan FAQ: All That's Left to Know About This Elusive Band. Backbeat Books. pp. 65–66. ISBN 978-1495025129.
- "Old music: Steely Dan – Dirty Work". The Guardian. Retrieved 2017-05-14.
- Sweet, Brian (2016). Steely Dan: Reelin' in the Years. Omnibus. ISBN 978-1468313147.
- Erlewine, Stephen Thomas. "Can't Buy a Thrill". Allmusic. Retrieved 2017-05-14.
- Graff, Gary (1999). Graff, Gary; Durchholz, Daniel (eds.). MusicHound Rock: The Essential Album Guide. Schirmer Trade Books. p. 1084. ISBN 0825672562.
- Isaacs, James (November 23, 1972). "Can't Buy a Thrill". Rolling Stone. Retrieved 2017-05-14.
- Syrja, J.J. (February 22, 1979). "Manzanera, Pointer Sisters aim for pleasure". Seguin Gazette-Enterprise. p. 46. Retrieved 2017-05-14 – via newspapers.com.
- Long, Christian (April 14, 2016). "'Sopranos' Music Moments That Helped Define Tony Soprano". Uproxx. Retrieved 2017-05-15.
- Hartenbach, Brett. "Some Days You Eat the Bear and Some Days the Bear Eats You". Allmusic. Retrieved 2017-05-14.
- Van Malder, Tom (June 14, 1874). "New Webb Album a Winner". The Wheeling Herald. p. 15. Retrieved 2017-05-14 – via newspapers.com.
- Philadelphia Inquirer 5 May 1974 "He Wants to Stop His String of Flops" by Jack Lloyd p.L-4
- Billboard vol 86 #49 (7 December 1974) p.63
- RPM Vol 22 #9 (19 October 1974) p.8
- Record Mirror 27 August 1974 "Living in the Shadow of the Supremes" by Alan Stinton p.18
- Record World Vol 33 #1532 (6 November 1976) p.28
- Hanson, Amy. "Energy". Allmusic. Retrieved 2017-05-14.
- Southtown Star 21 January 1979 "Rock/Pop" by James Riordan p.4 (Inside Magazine)
- Detroit Free Press 6 July 2017 "McDonald Talks Tour, New Album & Unlikely Pairings" by Alan Sculley p.6D