Steely Dan’s 37-minute album Gaucho took two years to record and was the most expensive record ever made when it came out on November 21, 1980.
The band’s seventh studio album, which followed the triumph of 1977’s Aja, was fraught with major tragedies during production. During the Gaucho sessions, guitarist Walter Becker was hit by a car late one night while walking home to his New York apartment. It took him six months to recover. Then Becker’s girlfriend, Karen Roberta Stanley, died of a drug overdose at his home while the record was being made.
The recording process
The recording process itself was problematic. Becker and Steely Dan’s co-founder Donald Fagen were pleased with the song “The Second Arrangement,” but the finished track was inadvertently erased by an assistant engineer, wiping out weeks of work. Becker and Fagen decided that subsequent versions were inferior and abandoned the song. It is no surprise that Becker later said that making Gaucho “wasn’t fun at all, really.”
Nevertheless, the hard work paid off and the album’s seven tracks – “Babylon Sisters,” “Hey Nineteen,” “Glamour Profession,” “Gaucho,” “Time Out Of Mind,” “My Rival” and “Third World Man” – proved hugely popular with fans.
A quest for perfection
Gaucho is a testament to fine multitrack record-making, and the attention to detail was remarkable, even in the mixing stage. It took Becker, Fagen, engineer Roger Nichols and producer Gary Katz more than 55 attempts just to agree on a satisfactory mix of the 50-second fade-out to “Babylon Sisters.”
During the making of the album, Nichols managed to accommodate Fagen’s wishes for perfection in drum performance and the engineer custom-built a percussion sequencer he named Wendel. This new high-tech drum machine, which cost £150,000 to make, was integral to the sound of Gaucho.
Steely Dan’s founding pair used more than 40 guest musicians on the album, including Dire Straits’ guitarist Mark Knopfler, who played on “Time Out Of Mind,” which was a No. 1 hit as a single in Canada. Other top musicians on the album include the jazz star Michael Brecker, who played tenor saxophone on three tracks, saxophonist David Sanborn, pianist Joe Sample and guitarist Larry Carlton. Fagen was the lead vocalist as well as singing backing vocals and playing the synthesizer, electric piano and organ, while Becker played bass and guitars.
The best album of 1980
The album also features some rueful lyrics about life in America in the late 70s. The song “Hey Nineteen” is about an aging hipster who has trouble communicating with the teenager he tries to pick up – a teenager who irks him when she fails to recognize Aretha Franklin playing on the stereo. It is a companion to the jaded Los Angeles socializer in “Babylon Sisters.”
Jazz pianist Keith Jarrett was unhappy with the album’s title song and threatened to sue for copyright infringement, claiming that it imitated his 1974 composition “Long As You Know You’re Living Yours.” Fagen said that he had been influenced by Jarrett’s work, an agreement was reached and the pianist, who started his career with Blue Note Records star Art Blakey, was given a credit as the co-author of the track.
Despite all the difficulties, Gaucho was a huge commercial success, reaching No. 9 on the US album charts and No. 27 on the UK charts. The New York Times declared it to be the best album of 1980.