To live without my music would be impossible to do

by Rick Johansen

I wrote a blog called Honest Playlist the other day, in which I breezily referred to Steely Dan’s epic album Aja as having “changed the way I thought about music forever“, which remains true, but always with these things, there’s more to it than that. I added that the song that changed my life was A Hard Day’s Night in general and that insane opening chord and, given I was knee high to a grasshopper at the time, that still stands.  But music does strange things to you and this morning it did a strange thing again.

I played two of my all-time favourite albums back to back and quickly arrived at the conclusion that, actually, they changed my life too. First, I played Steely Dan’s debut album Can’t Buy A Thrill, released in 1972 when I was still a spotty pupil at Briz School in Bristol. Everyone else, including me to be fair, was playing T Rex and Slade, but out of leftfield came this astonishing music, the like of which I had never heard. I was smitten, deeply in love, and this was long before I discovered girls.

The album opener, Do It Again, took me to a different place. There was nothing like this. The sound was incredible, the lyrics well beyond a schoolboy’s levels of understanding and I found greatness. Ten songs, all bangers. Few artists had launched their careers with a flawless record, all killer, no filler, but Steely Dan had. The core of Steely Dan, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, set standards it would be impossible to sustain, except that somehow they pretty well did.

Side Two opens with a true classic, Reelin’ In The Years, and here the Dan did something that would become a trademark of their music. They didn’t use a band member for the epic leader guitar solos: they brought in a different musician, in this case, Elliott Randall. The result was spectacular, the end product as near to perfection as it’s possible to be. Playing the whole album again, well, it still blows my mind.

I swear I knew every word and could air guitar every solo, including the electric sitar on Do It Again. And still, 53 years after first hearing the album, the goose bumps return.

The second album I played also harks back to 1972, Barnstorm by Joe Walsh. In fact, the album should really be attributed to Barnstorm the band, which was formed by Walsh, along with master drummer Joe Vitale and bass player Kenny Passarrelli. It always felt like a themed album to me, it being so atmospheric, the scene being set first by the album cover, an old partially wrecked barn and then the incredible music. All Music describes it thus: “It’s Walsh’s love of lushly textured production and spacey, open-ended songs featuring both acoustic and electric guitars that is showcased here on this wildly adventurous and forgotten unqualified masterpiece.” Yep. That’s it. But not forgotten by me. But that’s the half of it.

At the end of track four, Vitale’s Giant Bohemoth, there is an excerpt of Morse Code. I didn’t spot it, of course, but in 1975 my best friend Nick and I went to Canada where we stayed with my dad and his partner in New Brunswick. Thumbing through his vinyl we found a vinyl copy of Barnstorm and put it on the turntable. And my dad, a former merchant seaman, spotted the Morse Code, which read REGISTER AND VOTE, a direction to vote for the democratic candidate George McGovern in the presidential election. That worked well, with Richard Nixon winning with a landslide. We all know what happened next to Nixon!

So, what does this all mean? Not a lot, really, Just another opportunity, an excuse really, to listen to great music, what I gained from it and where in the past it can take me to when listening.

Joe Vitale once said to me that “without the Beatles, none of us would be here“, here at the time being the Royal Albert Hall where he was drumming for Crosby, Stills and Nash. Whether you like the Beatles or not – and frankly I don’t see how you can’t because they were massively underrated – that’s as near a fact as you can get. But Steely Dan and Barnstorm had a profound effect on the way I saw and heard music and, as I rediscovered today, they still do.


You may also like