FM (No Static at All)
|"FM (No Static at All)"|
|Single by Steely Dan|
|from the album FM|
|B-side||"FM (No Static at All) - Reprise"|
|Recorded||1977, Capitol Studios, Hollywood|
|Songwriter(s)||Walter Becker, Donald Fagen|
|Steely Dan singles chronology|
"FM (No Static at All)" is a song by American jazz-rock band Steely Dan. It is the title theme to the 1978 film FM. It made the US Top Forty that year when released as a single, a success relative to the film it was from, which failed at the box office and has remained obscure since then. Musically, it is a complex jazz-rock composition driven by its bass, guitar and piano parts, typical of the band's sound from this period; its lyrics look askance at the album-oriented rock format of many FM radio stations at that time, in contrast to the film's celebration of it.
It was the first single Steely Dan released on MCA Records (which had released the soundtrack), predating MCA's acquisition of ABC Records, the band's previous label, by one year. At the time of its release, the band's album Aja was enjoying great critical and commercial success, leading some listeners to assume that "FM" was also on that album. It was not, although it has since been included on some of the band's compilation albums.
However, it had been recorded during the same sessions as Aja and employed some of the same studio musicians and recording personnel, in addition to band members and songwriters Walter Becker and Donald Fagen. Among them were saxophonist Pete Christlieb and drummer Jeff Porcaro; several members of the Eagles sang backing vocals.
Several aspects of the song make it notable among the band's work. It was the first time Becker and Fagen had written music for a film since 1971's You've Got to Walk It Like You Talk It or You'll Lose That Beat, a year before Steely Dan released its debut album. It also features a string section arranged and conducted by Johnny Mandel, only the second time the band had used strings in a song. Lastly, it is the only time that Becker (bass and guitar) and Fagen (piano) have handled most of a song's instrumental work themselves. Engineer Roger Nichols won that year's Grammy Award for Best Engineered Recording, Non-Classical for his work on "FM", the only time that award was ever given for a single song.
Background and recording
Donald Fagen told American Songwriter in 2013, 35 years later, that the process of writing and recording the song was rather straightforward. He and Becker were in California finishing up Aja when the call came. "There was a film called FM and we were asked to do the title song," he recalled. "And I said, 'Does it have to have any specific words?' And they said, 'No, it just has to be about FM radio.'" It took a day or two to write.
The duo had not written music for a film since You've Got to Walk It Like You Talk It or You'll Lose That Beat, a 1971 film that featured another of the coming decade's stars, Richard Pryor, in a small role. But they knew what was expected of them. "We wrote a song that would sound good with a big production, and an overdub of strings that would sound good coming out of movie-theater speakers," Fagen says in Reelin' in the Years, Brian Sweet's 2007 history of the band. It would be the band's first use of strings in a song since the short "Through with Buzz", on 1974's Pretzel Logic, and only the second time in their career overall.
When they went to the studio, they were able to record it as quickly as they had written it. It was built up from a click track. Fagen played piano, and Becker handled all the bass and guitar work, including the solo on the song's outro. This was the only time on a Steely Dan song where the two of them performed most of the instrumental work.
They were accompanied by musicians who had played with the band on their Aja sessions. Studio veteran Jeff Porcaro, who had then also recently helped form Toto, plays the drums. Jazz musician Pete Christlieb plays the tenor saxophone solo, and Timothy B. Schmit, who had recently left Poco, was joined by his new bandmates in the Eagles, Glenn Frey and Don Henley, in singing backing vocals. "Johnny Mandel came in and did the string chart," Fagen recalled to American Songwriter. "It was fun to meet [him]." Roger Nichols, who had been the engineer for the Aja sessions, did the same for "FM".
According to Canadian studio musician Don Breithaupt, who included a chapter on the song in his book on Aja for Bloomsbury Publishing's 33⅓ series due to its contemporaneous recording, "FM" combines lyrics that subvert the film the song served as a theme for with sophisticated and complex music.
In the movie FM, disc jockeys (DJs) at a popular FM radio station take it over to prevent the station's management from capitulating to the demands of advertisers. They ultimately succeed, supposedly reaffirming the values of the idiosyncratic, DJ-driven freeform and progressive FM rock stations that had emerged in the medium's early years during the late 1960s. But by the time of the film, "FM rock radio had evolved ... into one of music's chief promotional tools, and as such, was ripe for ridicule." He notes the irony that the battle at the center of the film's plot had, "by 1978 ... already been fought and lost in every major market in North America" where the more commercially oriented album-oriented rock (AOR) had become the dominant FM format.
Since the film and its double-album soundtrack otherwise took themselves so seriously, "it fell to Steely Dan to interject a little wit into the proceedings," Breithaupt suggests. The song's first verse celebrates partying barefoot with cheap "grapefruit wine", but the narrator (Fagen) is dismayed by the music selection playing on the accompanying FM radio—"nothing but blues and Elvis/And somebody else's favorite songs," instead of the "hungry reggae" and "funked-up Muzak" he would like to hear. Other listeners, he realizes, are indifferent to the specifics of the radio playlist: "The girls don't seem to care ... as long as the mood is right ... as long as they play till dawn". The chorus's overlapping harmonies of "no static at all" suggest a station identification. But it seems "less like a technical boast than an admission that nothing on the airwaves was likely to surprise anyone," Breithaupt writes. "In its haste to wipe out background noise, FM had forgotten all about foreground noise."
"If 'FM' (the lyric) is an argument for adventurousness," Breithaupt writes, "then 'FM' (the music) is an instance of its own doctrine, with twists and turns aplenty." It begins with an overture, as Fagen repeats two pairs of thirds on a piano, a figure that, S. Victor Aaron writes, "prowls like a panther" while Becker adds bass flourishes and guitar licks, accented by cymbal crashes from Porcaro. "[It] goes to some lengths to establish the key of A major," Breithaupt notes. But on the repeat of a plucked guitar phrase, the overture resolves with the guitar and piano joining for a tonic chord, after which the verse begins with three slightly arpeggiated piano chords—in the key of E minor.
The verse is built around what Breithupt describes as a "swampy, hypnotic groove," in which Becker plays overdubbed bass and guitar parts in parallel fifths, suggesting the work of Henry Mancini, alternating with Fagen's piano chords, backed by a steady hi-hat and snare drum beat. This basic two-bar Dorian figure, sounding like some of Steely Dan's other uptempo songs, like "Josie" (a hit for the band around the same time, from Aja) slowed down to two-thirds speed, continues for the first seven bars of the verse.
"On the phrase 'girls don't seem to care,' the harmonic movement begins in earnest," Breithaupt observes, as the string section also enters and Becker adds some guitar fills. The descending melody is carried by similar chord changes, from Cmaj7 to F♯7 and B7, ending on an Emaj9. That last chord moves the key to E major as well for just a measure, when an A13 changes it to B major, which is again changed by an Am9-Em9 cadence back to E minor, but not without an A/C♯ suggesting the Dorian mode again. Breithaupt continues:
A standard minor blues turnaround brings us back to the top of the phrase, and we find ourselves, eight lines into the song, having heard four key changes, some cuíca and marimba by Victor Feldman, and a string section arranged and conducted by none other than Hollywood veteran Johnny Mandel. (If that sounds like a recipe for late seventies corporate rock, your Styx albums were different from mine)
The verse then repeats, with more Becker guitar fills, but this time, when it reaches the Emaj9, it stays in that key. "The 'first ending' never recurs," says Breithaupt. Instead, the strings rise as the song goes into its brief chorus. Three overlapping backing vocals sing "no static at all" twice, and then after a quarter-note rest, Fagen joins them for the song's title and one more "no static at all." A guitar lick afterwards repeats its melody.
This leads into a resumption of the verse groove for four bars, then a descending line brings the song to Pete Christlieb's tenor sax solo. The groove changes slightly here, as Becker's bass and guitar part becomes a little less sparse, Fagen adds piano fills, and Porcaro opens up with the cymbals. Harmonically it is similar to the verse but with some new variations. "An Em9 and A13 suggest E Dorian is still in effect," Breithaupt writes, "but, in addition to functioning as I and IV in that mode, they become, by implication, II and V when the progression shifts into D major for a four-bar chromatic descent related to the intros of [Aja singles] 'Peg' and 'Deacon Blues'". In the longer version of Christlieb's solo on the instrumental B-side "FM (reprise)", Breithaupt continues, Christlieb's solo continues for another 50 bars, allowing him at one point to "state a fully formed F blues lick over the E minor vamp, selling it through sheer melodic logic and rhythmic momentum."
After the solo, the second verse and chorus repeat. Becker begins playing what Aaron describes as his "uncluttered, blues-kissed and memorable guitar solo" —"the track's most AOR-sounding element", according to Breithaupt—over the song's nearly two-minute outro. Underneath him the verse groove continues, with Jeff Porcaro's drumming becoming more aggressive and Feldman adding more percussion fills. The song ends with a slow fade.
Four versions of the song by Steely Dan exist. The full length version, which appeared on the FM soundtrack album and the 12-inch single, had a running time of 4:50. This edit features Becker's guitar solo outro.
The song's 7-inch single featured a radio edit of the song, shortening the solo and running 3:49. The single's b-side was "FM (reprise)", an instrumental reprise of "FM" with an extended version of Christlieb's sax solo, and no guitar solo. It has a running time of 2:53.
Steely Dan left the song off its first compilation, the two-disc Greatest Hits released at the end of 1978 (Fagen later joked that since MCA had sent them all the songs on the FM soundtrack, they might as well have put "More than a Feeling" on it instead). "FM"'s first appearance on one of the group's album's is the original 1982 release of the compilation album Gold, which uses the 4:50 full length version. The later compilation albums A Decade of Steely Dan and The Definitive Collection use this version as well. A fourth version of "FM" was created by removing the guitar solo from the end of the original track, and using the "FM (reprise)" saxophone version as a new ending, yielding a running time of 5:06. This hybrid version appears on the 1991 compilation Gold (Expanded Edition), as well as the Citizen Steely Dan box set.
An additional version, unauthorized by the band or its record label, was created by AM radio stations that played the single as part of their Top 40 format. AM music radio had steadily been losing listeners to FM stations, due to the latter's ability to broadcast in stereo and with minimal interference ("no static at all"). The year of "FM"'s release, 1978, was the first year that FM stations topped their AM counterparts in total listeners. Many of the latter did not want to promote their competition, but still had to play the song, so they spliced in the harmonically compatible "A" from the chorus of the song "Aja" (never released as a single) to make the chorus say "AM" instead.
The song reached #22 on the US Billboard Hot 100 chart. In the UK, it reached #49. In Canada and New Zealand it reached #19. Fagen felt the song could have been a bigger hit if the movie had been more successful. "The song was a hit, but I think we should have seen the movie before we committed ourselves," he said in 2007. "As you know, it wasn't a very successful movie." At the time claimed neither he nor Becker had seen it, but seven years later, at a 2014 concert in Erie, Pennsylvania, called it "a rotten movie."
Fagen nevertheless remains satisfied with the song. "I feel like we didn't compromise on the song at all to make it program music," he said in Reelin' in the Years. "I enjoyed doing it, and I thought it was a very successful piece of movie music." "The ultimate irony," concludes Breithaupt, "was that FM radio, champion of the long-playing record, had as its anthem a one-off single."
It remains a favorite of the band's fans, regularly performed at concerts when Steely Dan resumed touring in the 1990s. Aaron calls it "a shining gem of a tune ... It's polished, it's got hooks, it's got cool lyrics, it's got great guitar, and it's got smooth saxophone." Critic and John Lennon biographer Tim Riley recommends "FM" as one of ten Steely Dan songs with which to introduce "non-believers" to the band.
At the 21st Annual Grammy Awards in 1979 Roger Nichols won the Best Engineered Recording, Non-Classical award for "FM" and "FM (reprise)", complementing his receipt of the same award a year earlier for Aja. This is the only occasion on which this particular Grammy has been awarded for a single song.
- Donald Fagen: vocals, piano
- Walter Becker: electric guitar, bass
- Cosmo Creek: pedal steel guitar
- Jeff Porcaro: drums, percussion
- Victor Feldman: percussion
- Pete Christlieb: tenor saxophone
- Glenn Frey, Don Henley, Tim Schmit: backing vocals
- Johnny Mandel: string arrangements
- The Mountain Goats on their 1995 album Sweden.
- 3rd Bass sampled the song on "No Static At All" from their 1991 album Derelicts of Dialect.
- Nathan Haines and 2D 
- Woody Herman on his 1978 album Plays Chick, Donald, Walter, and Woodrow.
- "The Spirit of Radio", Rush single from the same era that similarly laments the commercialization of radio while seeming to celebrate the medium
- Steely Dan discography
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- Joel Whitburn's Top Pop Singles 1955-1990 - ISBN 0-89820-089-X
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- Whitburn, Joel (1999). Pop Annual. Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin: Record Research Inc. ISBN 0-89820-142-X.
- "Sweden". AllMusic. 2014. Retrieved December 18, 2014.
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