Steely Dan have no shortage of songs to their name. Across their nine studio albums, they've released more than 80 songs, 10 of which were Top 40 hits, including such FM radio staples as "Reelin' in the Years," "Rikki Don't Lose That Number" and "Hey Nineteen." But there's at least one song that the Rock and Roll Hall of Famers would probably prefer you never hear, and it just happens to be named after Dallas.
"Dallas" was the A-side of a non-album single that Steely Dan released prior to their debut album, 1972's Can't Buy a Thrill. Backed with "Sail the Waterway," it was the first recording the band ever released — a fact made all the more unusual by the fact that principal members Donald Fagen and Walter Becker have largely disowned it in the four and a half decades since its release.
"'Dallas/Sail the Waterway' has been disowned by Steely Dan but hasn't precisely been buried," says Stephen Thomas Erlewine, the senior editor for pop at Rovi who's written extensively about Steely Dan's music. "It's their prerogative, of course: Any group as fanatical about quality control as them certainly can excise a single."
The song's fate as a single isn't even clear: Promotional copies were pressed and distributed at the time, but it's unknown whether "Dallas" ever received public release or if it simply sold too poorly to chart.
"Hard to tell if it was actually released," acknowledges Erlewine. "Most copies on [authoritative vinyl cataloging website] Discogs seem to have promo labels, but one of them doesn't. But even if it made it to market, it was in small quantities and soon pulled."
Since then, the song has only been available in bootleg form, save for a Japanese compilation called Steely Dan that was released in 1978. Fagen and Becker left it off their otherwise comprehensive four-disc box set, 1993's Citizen Steely Dan, and never made it available in any form on cassette or CD. In an online fan forum in the mid-'90s, Becker even said the song was "stinko."
"Dallas" and "Sail the Waterway" are the only two songs to see official release that have received such shabby treatment. "Steely Dan haven't quite done this with other tunes," Erlewine says. "A clutch of early demos are often recycled as quasi-legal releases bearing the titles Android's Warehouse or Catalyst, but [the band] have no control over these."
Recorded around the same time as Can't Buy a Thrill, the song features the same lineup of musicians, with drummer Jim Hodder (who also sang on Thrill's "Midnight Cruiser") taking vocals instead of Fagen.
"The single is very much a transitional record," says Erlewine. At the time, Fagen and Becker were transitioning from being staff songwriters at ABC Records to helming their own band. "['Dallas' and 'Sail the Waterway'] hew closer to the demos from a year or two earlier: They're songs written with commercial success in mind. As such, they both feel pleasingly generic."
Which may be part of why the Dan have distanced themselves from "Dallas" over the years. Between Hodder's singing and Jeff "Skunk" Baxter's pedal steel solo, it sounds more like a Three Dog Night song than the heady jazz-rock fusion that made the band famous.
"Both [songs were] designed to slide onto AM pop radio in 1972 and, by those standards, they're quite good," argues Erlewine. "They could've been hits with proper promotion — but if they were, they would've boxed Becker and Fagen into a corner, because there isn't a lot of eccentricity here." "Dallas" would later be covered by Poco, who included it on their 1975 album Head Over Heels — although for their part, they never released it as single.
After all these years of neglect, Erlewine sees room for some reassessment of the two songs.
"They're nice singles, ones that appeal more to soft rock and yacht rock fans than jazz and AOR listeners," he says. "And I think that they should be added back into the canon because by hearing this, it's possible to appreciate the inventiveness of Can't Buy a Thrill all the more."
Dallasites probably shouldn't take the spurned song too personally, though. Save for a vague reference to a "Grand Hotel" in the opening line, there's nothing in the song to place it anywhere specific, much less in Dallas — which just happens to rhyme with the word "palace" in the chorus.
"I'm pretty sure 'Dallas' is there just for the rhyme," Erlewine says, with a laugh.
STEELY DAN perform with Steve Winwood at 7 p.m. Wednesday, June 22, at American Airlines Center.
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