dont_take_me_alive_soloThe three standout elements of this track – from Steely Dan’s fifth album The Royal Scam – are the fluid guitar (played by Larry Carlton), the infectious groove, and the dark lyrics, somewhat at odds with the upbeat mood of the music. Things start off with a dissonant arpeggio and a burst of feedback, propeliing the song like a rocket into the 18 bars of bent-note guitar solo before the vocals start. Donald Fagen and Walter Becker both have literary interests as well as a love for jazz, and it’s common for them to work out a plot for their songs  – and then to apply the editing pen to cut out unnecessary words and introduce a little obscurity into the proceedings.

“Don’t Take Me Alive”, which reflects the violence in Los Angeles during this period, tells of a criminal holed up in a building surrounded by police – he may have killed his father. Economy of words is evident right from the start. Two distinct points of view – that of the “agents of the law” and the “luckless pedestrians” – are telescoped together over the next few lines. “I know you’re out there/With rage in your eyes and your megaphones/Saying all is forgiven/Mad dog surrender.” The police are cajoling through their megaphone, feigning sympathy, while the pedestrians rage and curse at the inconvenience. The song ends with images of escape from the current mayhem through death. “I hear my inside/The mechanized hum of another world/Where no sun is shining/No red light flashing”. As one commentator has put it: “suicide by cop”.

One intriguing fact about this song is that Becker and Fagen don’t play any of the instruments themselves – aside from Fagen’s vocal, it’s all session musicians. But it’s the very opposite case of a fake band who don’t play on their own records. Although highly accomplished instrumentalists themselves, they always went to great lengths to secure the best musicians – like Carlton – for each track. A transcription of the guitar solo is available at mindformusic.com

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