Hammer of the Gods

With a handful of artists, "classic rock" is not a pejorative

Led Zeppelin's just-released How the West Was Woncontains "lost" live recordings of songs you've known by heart since before you had a heartbeat: "The Immigrant Song," "Stairway to Heaven," "Black Dog," "Rock and Roll" and on and on. Surely, you think, even these "new" recordings can spark no added interest or proffer no bonus pleasures; surely they've been played to death on classic-rock radio, where everything once great goes to die in constant rotation. But don't be fooled: This is music that does not come with an expiration date, that doesn't need some extant memory of a first lay to keep it on the respirator. These songs sound as viable today as they did a thousand yesterdays ago; they're louder than you remember, faster than you recall, more powerful than whatever excitement your yellowing nostalgia can muster. The CD--and its attendant DVD (that's its simple title), which provides our very first opportunities to watch Jimmy Page play guitar and will thus spawn a generation of slavish imitators fresh out of junior high--is a thrilling trip forward, not a single step backward.

Next week, Steely Dan releases Everything Must Go, its first disc since Walter Becker and Donald Fagen's 2000 Grammy-winning comeback Two Against Nature. It sounds like all Steely Dan, which is to say a fusion of Becker and Fagen's lifelong love for Charlie Parker, Horace Silver, '60s movie music, urban blues, slick funk and pop radio. Though it swaps out familiar themes of old men trolling for young sex for more somber concepts of loss and tragedy--some of it was recorded in New York in the shadow of the smoldering World Trade Center in fall 2001--the music remains a familiar, comforting constant. Which isn't to say it sounds old. Just the opposite: Old Steely Dan, be it Countdown to Ecstasyor Katy Lied, still sounds brand-new. The music hasn't aged, grown one gray hair or sported one errant wrinkle. "This music," novelist William Gibson once wrote of Steely Dan, "manages (as it always has) to transcend the duller registers of the cultural calendar."

"I hope it doesn't all sound like old Steely Dan," says Donald Fagen, whose nasal voice has become as familiar over the decades as any singer's. "Sometimes before we record, we think we're going to do something really different--we're going to change the instrumentation and work with the synth stuff. But when we get into writing, the song takes over and the instrumentation doesn't seem to matter as much, so we just kind of default to, like, what we're good at, you know? Shock art never appealed to me. Maybe I'm too rigid. But there's just something about guys playing in a soulful way that it always has a dimension that makes it timeless. You could do the cleverest trip-hop record with clever uses of samples and combining this and that, but at the end, it always sort of becomes like a heap of trash in a certain way."

Don't stop thinking about yesterday: Lindsey Buckingham and Fleetwood Mac, at the height of their creative and commercial success
Herbert Worthington
Don't stop thinking about yesterday: Lindsey Buckingham and Fleetwood Mac, at the height of their creative and commercial success
Two against history: Donald Fagen and Walter Becker of Steely Dan
Frank Ockenfels
Two against history: Donald Fagen and Walter Becker of Steely Dan

Timeless--Fagen pegs it. Steely Dan is timeless, just as Fleetwood Mac, at its best, remains timeless, free of history's callous advances. Steely Dan and Fleetwood Mac, among the leading AOR squares of the '70s, endure because their foundations lasted: They were constructed atop hearty influences that were absorbed but never quite imitated. They were insular bands, never slaves to fad; they made music that sounded like nothing else, that couldn't be duplicated, that existed inside a bubble you could penetrate but never burst. They made music that can exist without nostalgia, songs that don't need a good memory--your first backseat screw, your first joint--to keep them alive. Nostalgia keeps the new Lynyrd Skynyrd album on the pop charts and Styx and REO Speedwagon on the loose-change tour circuit, but it doesn't keep Fleetwood Mac or Steely Dan fresh. The bands managed that by themselves.

Fleetwood Mac's brand-new Say You Willmay not prove as immortal as Rumoursor even Tusk; it's an incomplete picture, really, a Buckingham solo album plus the band minus Christine McVie. But its best moments, chief among them the wondrous title track, evoke a classic sound--that, yes, timeless pleasure of hearing a great singer and a great guitar player and a great bassist and a great drummer playing great songs with great production. (And sparkling production is perhaps the most significant requirement for a "timeless" song; history doesn't forgive a muddy sound.)

"I remember getting a lot of questions before the Rumours album, after the Fleetwood Mac album came out, people saying, 'Well, did you guys sit down and just decide that you were going to make commercial music?'" Buckingham recalls. "I said, 'Well, no, this is just what we are. This is our sensibilities, this comes from what we all listen to, it would never occur to us to do anything else.' That's what it is.

"One of the things we deal with now, as a band who's been around as long as we have and also a band who's trying to present an album that's new and challenging, is getting people on that page when what they want to hear is the thing that was playing when they were fucking in the back of a car in 1977. It's a whole other dynamic. The way I listen to much of the music that influenced me, it's the same thing; it sort of kicks in endorphins and things that make you wax nostalgic or at least reflective."

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