Bad Sneakers

If you’re a regular, you’ll know I’m a big fan of Steely Dan, a band that always performed fantastically in the studio but was pretty bad live. Here, though, is one of their best recordings, “Bad Sneakers” from the 1975 album Katy Lied (“Dr. Wu,” the song from which the album’s title was taken, is also fantastic).

I’ve long pondered what “Bad Sneakers” is about, and finally gave up, but I bet some reader will know. Regardless, it contains a wonderful guitar/piano solo by Walter Becker and Michael Omartian, which begins at 1:54 in the video below. In fact, it’s one of the best guitar solos in rock history.

When listening to the solo, I noticed that the guitar and piano were not playing synchronously, and that was part of the solo’s charm. I asked reader Taskin, a musician, if this was indeed the case (I have a tin ear), and she agreed, sending this response:

Bad Sneakers is a GREAT TUNE, love it. If I’m hearing what you are, I’d say, the guitar is a bit behind the piano and drums. Steely Dan was so particular about their recording that I can’t imagine it’s any sort of mistake, and I suspect the guitar is intentionally playing behind the beat. Back beating gives a more laid back sometimes even lazy feel and in this case really makes the guitar line independent from the rest. It sort of floats above the rest of the sound. As I’m writing this, I’m thinking about what I do on the harpsichord too. Because a harpsichord doesn’t have volume control like a piano does, i.e., the ability to play some notes louder than others, we do other things to make melodic lines stand out. One of the main ways of doing it is to misalign the important line from the rest, that way it can be heard. Very cool that you picked up on that, you’d have to listen very carefully to realize what was going on.

I do know from listening to a lot of jazz that both instrumentalists and singers often perform behind the beat. This was, for example, a characteristic of Billie Holiday’s vocals.

47 Comments

  1. Posted February 7, 2016 at 9:03 am | Permalink

    I’ve always thought that the simple “Any Major Dude” was great.

  2. Matt G
    Posted February 7, 2016 at 9:14 am | Permalink

    There is an electric sitar in there, though the Wikipedia page doesn’t mention it.

  3. Randy Schenck
    Posted February 7, 2016 at 9:15 am | Permalink

    Another pretty fair singer who’s style was kind of behind the music or a bit of hesitation was Patsy Cline. I Fall To Pieces comes to mind.

  4. Ken Phelps
    Posted February 7, 2016 at 9:37 am | Permalink

    If we’re going to waste…er, fully utilize…Sunday morning listening to music, let’s not neglect Little Feat – Fat Man in the Bathtub (preferably live) or Jennifer Warnes (getting all Leonard Cohen again) – Way Down Deep.

  5. Kurt Lewis Helf
    Posted February 7, 2016 at 9:58 am | Permalink

    I’ve read (and agree) that music critics and polls consider Larry Carlton’s guitar solo from “Kid Caharlamagne” to be one of the greatest in rock history. Check out YT for some amazing imitations by fans.

    • Kurt Lewis Helf
      Posted February 7, 2016 at 10:01 am | Permalink

      Dammit! “Kid Charlemagne”

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted February 7, 2016 at 11:13 am | Permalink

      Yeah, it’s great.

      I’ve always been partial to Skunk Baxter’s playing on “Countdown to Ecstasy,” especially on “My Old School.”

  6. Ken Kukec
    Posted February 7, 2016 at 10:01 am | Permalink

    I believe singing behind the beat was an innovation Louis Armstrong passed along to other jazz (and pop) singers. Pops was such a brilliant horn player, his skills as a vocalist frequently get overlooked.

    The guitar solo on “Bad Sneakers” was performed by Walter Becker himself (whereas The Dan gave most of the studio solos to more technically proficient session guys).

    • Ken Phelps
      Posted February 7, 2016 at 10:09 am | Permalink

      Apropos studio guys, I highly recommend the documentaries “The Wrecking Crew”, “Muscle Shoals”, and “Twenty Feet From Stardom” on Netflix.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted February 7, 2016 at 10:58 am | Permalink

        Yeah. “Standing in the Shadows of Motown,” about The Funk Brothers session players in Detroit, is another one.

        AFAIK, Booker T & the MGs, the house band at Stax/Volt in Memphis, hasn’t gotten a documentary yet, but they left a helluva musical catalogue behind.

    • Diane G.
      Posted February 7, 2016 at 5:38 pm | Permalink

      And don’t forget ol’ Blue Eyes.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted February 7, 2016 at 6:18 pm | Permalink

        Pops taught it to Der Bingle, and Crosby handed it off to Frank.

        It was an innovation of amplified singing through a microphone (as opposed to the old Rudy Vallée megaphone method).

        • Diane G.
          Posted February 7, 2016 at 10:24 pm | Permalink

          Cool to know, thanks!

  7. Posted February 7, 2016 at 10:14 am | Permalink

    Late 70s, we were lucky as hell to have Cat Anderson drop by and spend a few days getting our high school stage band into shape. He taught everybody – but especially the horn section – how to create “musical tension”, by having the rhythm section stay right on top of the beat while the reeds & horns lay it back, back, back. Sometimes ridiculously back. In the Cat clip I just referenced above, it’s really apparent. He’s all over the place, sometimes on, sometimes off– and that is indeed where the whole feel comes from.

    • Diane G.
      Posted February 7, 2016 at 10:28 pm | Permalink

      That guy spent some time with your HS band?! Wow.

      • Posted February 8, 2016 at 9:55 am | Permalink

        Talk about memorable experiences. Lionel Hampton’s big band was in Anchorage at the time. Cat, of course, got to demonstrate his Guinness World Record-setting “triple G” quite a few times. We had a really crappy band teacher, though. I don’t know how he got Cat in there, but just two days with him woodshedding the horns got those kids playing 10x better. And despite what the other poster here said (perhaps regarding piano, which really should be up on top with the rest of the percussion/rhythm section), it was done by getting the horns to “lay back”. It was obvious that this was what was making it sound so good. The triplet feel is jazz 101. Getting that third triplet to be as late as it can possibly be without falling over is what gives it class.

        • Dan Cray
          Posted February 8, 2016 at 10:08 am | Permalink

          Yes I agree, it’s way deeper than just a “triplet feel.” That’s what I’m trying to say. When it’s done right, you know.

          • Posted February 8, 2016 at 10:18 am | Permalink

            Ah, I got cha. The other thing he got the kids to do, as I remember, was to “shake it”. (laying back, followed by some serious vibrato shaking their horns) It was pretty funny after that, the conniption fits the horns were giving the drummer. (luckily, my bro was on bass, and all this pulling around and tension was a walk in the park for him) Both my bro & I (piano) had our work cut out for us just trying to get the drums to actually lead the thing. And we’re talking straight-up HS arrangements of “Perdido” and such. I was so glad to get out of there by 10th grade for the college band w/ Wendy Williamson (my piano teacher then) conducting. Looking back on it now, I was really a lucky kid.

            • Dan Cray
              Posted February 8, 2016 at 10:38 am | Permalink

              Very cool. It’s so hard to put “feel” into words and really hard to teach it.

              • Posted February 8, 2016 at 11:18 am | Permalink

                Yep. Darned tootin’. The toughest thing for a jazz teacher these days (probably back then, too) is to get the kids to actually listen to jazz enough to know. As I remember, most were listening to Kiss, etc. Most took “stage band” for an easy elective. (then put their horns away in their lockers for the next morning instead of practicing… then listened to The Cars and whatever as their steady diet).

        • Diane G.
          Posted February 8, 2016 at 10:35 pm | Permalink

          What a thrill!

          (What did you play in band?)

          • Matt G
            Posted February 9, 2016 at 7:02 am | Permalink

            Well you have to find SOME way to get a thrill because you can’t buy one.

          • Posted February 9, 2016 at 10:39 am | Permalink

            I played piano & drums/percussion. Having started piano at 5 y.o., I was more proficient in theory and technically than the other kids, though. So, while I was technically “percussion” (snares, etc.) in the various bands leading up to “stage band” (in the old days it was called “jazz band”), there were more than enough drummers available. My services as a pianist were needed much more. (I could be relied on to help the teacher when we needed to rehearse separately, for instance).

            • Diane G.
              Posted February 9, 2016 at 11:35 pm | Permalink

              Piano’s my favorite instrument. 🙂 I don’t think a house is complete without one.

              BTW, it was still called Jazz Band when my son was in high school in the early naughties.

              • Posted February 10, 2016 at 8:11 am | Permalink

                Must be a place/time dependent thing. “Stage Band” became a euphemism for Jazz Band by the 70s… about the time “Jazz” became a dirty word in a large portion of the (non big-city) consciousness in the USA. You’d like my 1907 Mason & Hamlin baby grand, BTW. It was refinished/refurbished around 2003, when I got it. I decided the investment was better than throwing money at the banks, and I was proved right 4 years later.

              • Diane G.
                Posted February 10, 2016 at 6:52 pm | Permalink

                Sounds like a very lovely instrument.

                (BTW, if you’re prescient about the stock market, can we get together some time?)

  8. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted February 7, 2016 at 10:34 am | Permalink

    The lag between the guitar and piano notes reminds me of a similar trick that pianists do with the piano. They ‘bend’ certain notes by hitting two keys a little bit non-simultaneously.

  9. BobTerrace
    Posted February 7, 2016 at 11:02 am | Permalink

    I am in a yearly play at the community here. When I try to retard the singing from the beat, the musical director and the pianist always yell at me. Ben E. King can do it , but I’m not allowed.

    What is funny is that many of the singers have no clue about the beat or the pitch. The other day, I heard someone say “I enjoyed all the keys you sang that song in”

  10. Ken Kukec
    Posted February 7, 2016 at 11:05 am | Permalink

    Is it a coincidence that you posted about a tune off of “Katy Lied” — the album with a picture of a katydid on the cover — right after putting up Mark’s insect photographs?

  11. Posted February 7, 2016 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

    In the jazz realm, it’s not so much “laying back” as it is correctly translating the 12/8 of African rhythm into the Western European 4/4. Or notating things as triplets rather than 8th notes. I’ve spent time studying in NY with Mike Longo, who was Dizzy Gillespie’s pianist for many years. He talks about this often–“There’s no such thing as laying back!”

    • Posted February 7, 2016 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

      I’m unsure of your use of the term “laying back”, tranfering 12/8 into 4/4 is descriptive of the practice of swing, which pertains to subdivision within the beat, not descriptive of the placement of the beat itself, which is the mechanism under consideration.

      Playing before or after the beat (anticipation and retardation) are practices that certainly exist, and laying back is a the common term for playing behind the beat.

      • Posted February 7, 2016 at 10:08 pm | Permalink

        Now this is how to lay back.

      • Dan Cray
        Posted February 8, 2016 at 10:03 am | Permalink

        Yes, but it’s the subdivision within the beat that ultimately leads to the “placement” of the beat and gives the feeling of “laying back.”

  12. Ken Kukec
    Posted February 7, 2016 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

    I’m one of those Steely Dan fans who’s spent some time trying to decipher Becker & Fagen’s more esoteric lyrics, and I have no idea what “Bad Sneakers” is about. (Hell, I kinda wish I still didn’t know what “Everyone’s Gone to the Movies” is about 🙂 )

  13. Posted February 7, 2016 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

    Check out The Second Arrangement, a song that was accidentally erased by a studio engineer and never made it onto a record. I love it as much as an officially released Steely Dan song.

  14. Xavier
    Posted February 7, 2016 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

    And Steely Dan has in fact been an exceptional live act since reforming in 1993. To quote William Gibson:

    A Steely Dan concert is akin to witnessing the passage of a single multiplex vehicle the size of a motorcade or convoy, its various segments comprising limousines, ice-cream wagons, hearses, lunch-carts, ambulances, black marias, and motorcycle outriders, all of it Rolls-grade and lacquered like a tropical beetle. The horns glint, as it rolls majestically past, splendid, a thing of legend, and utterly peculiar unto itself.

  15. Posted February 7, 2016 at 9:50 pm | Permalink

    Another musician here.

    What I hear is that the piano and guitar are simply playing different material. Block chords in the piano, single melodic line in the guitar. So of course it won’t sound like they’re playing the same thing at the same time.

    I think what everyone is trying to describe here is that the piano’s chords are syncopated, that is, they are struck in anticipation of the immediately ensuing strong beat. So when a guitar pitch lands squarely on a beat, it comes after the piano has struck the chord. The guitar is also doing clever things with rhythm like 3-against-2 and 3-against-4 triplets. All of this could be notated precisely. It doesn’t seem to me that we’re hearing a performance liberty like “laying back”.

    • Posted February 8, 2016 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

      I agree with your description. There may be occasional attack behind the beat here by the guitar, but the term laying back generally describes consistant execution behind the beat, which generates an ongoing rhythmic “feel”.

  16. Marou
    Posted February 8, 2016 at 3:58 am | Permalink

    Not sure why SD are said to be poor live – I saw them in Bristol c. 1974 original lineup with Michael McDonald replacing David Palmer, utterly sensational.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted February 8, 2016 at 6:15 am | Permalink

      I don’t think it was ever so much about The Dan being a terrible live act, as about the frustration Becker & Fagen felt at being unable to recreate their studio sound on the road in the 1970s. They were sufficiently satisfied by technological innovations in the ensuing years to head back out on the road in the early 1990s.

      I like this live 2008 “Think Fast in Cincinnati” performance that’s available on youtube (although the vocals still aren’t nearly as strong or polished as on the studio versions of the same songs).

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted February 8, 2016 at 6:34 am | Permalink

        *Except for the vocal performances of the back-up singers; they are fantastic.*

  17. jay
    Posted February 8, 2016 at 8:39 am | Permalink

    BB King would bend certain notes subtly off tune to make them stand out and shape the melodic line.

    A great artist can break the rules creatively. And the audience may never realize it.

    • Posted February 8, 2016 at 9:13 am | Permalink

      Bending a pitch to achieve a blue note is not breaking a rule. There are no rules in music. There are heuristics and best practices.

      • Posted February 8, 2016 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

        There are no rules in music.

        There are certainly rules and guidelines for performance and compositional practise that define certain styles and eras.

        But in general, the theory paraphrases the practise.

        • Posted February 8, 2016 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

          There are only rules of you use a fairly relaxed definition of “rule”. You can find parallel fifths in Bach, but there is always a reason he let them stand.

          I prefer to think of composition as an obstacle course. People who insist there are hard and fast rules are insisting there is only one path through the obstacle course. Great composers find other, more interesting paths through the obstacle course than the path of least resistance. But they are still avoiding the obstacles. For instance, when Bach writes a parallel fifth it seems he’s striking the obstacle that says parallel perfect intervals should be avoided (for good reasons, of course). But he doesn’t really hit that obstacle because all of the instances of parallel fifths in Bach’s oeuvre (that I’m aware of) are the result of writing out mordents. So the parallel motion is not real motion between architectural pitches. It’s simply a result of ornamentation, which doesn’t count.

  18. George
    Posted February 11, 2016 at 4:01 am | Permalink

    I have been listening a lot recently to Steely Dan’s first gig in London in 1974. Far from being ‘pretty bad live’ the performance is simply breathtaking. The band really cooks, clearly having a ball with some of the best material of the era. And little wonder: jeff Porcaro, Jim Hodder, Skunk, Mike McDonald, Denny Dias, Royce Jones along with Becker and Fagen were a formidable bunch. What a shame they decided to retire from gigging for so long.

    One of the most startling guitar solos I have heard recently can be found on a track called ‘Drive Home’, from the Steven Wilson album The Raven Who Refused To Sing. The guitar (played by Guthrie Govan), swoops and sings in a truly moving way. Technically audacious, yes, but with no flash or bluster. Remarkable.


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