Periodically, I plan to use this space to pay homage to artists who I believe are worthy of focused attention — artists with an extraordinary, consistently excellent body of work. Some are commercial superstars; others have slipped under the radar of many readers. Most will be somewhere in between those extremes.
In this essay, I look at the curious assemblage known as Steely Dan.
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A lot of popular music — perhaps too much of it — is predictable. For more than half a century, radio play has typically gone to the songs and artists that cater to the masses. Safe, accessible, painless to interpret and assimilate. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with that. But like many music aficionados, I tend to prefer art that somehow pushes the boundaries, explores the unusual, juxtaposes disparate elements, and yet wraps it in an aurally pleasing manner that’s memorable and gratifying.
In a nutshell, that describes the repertoire of Steely Dan, one of the strangest, most musically intelligent, lyrically cryptic “bands” to emerge from the fertile late ’60s/early ’70s period.
I put the word “band” in quotation marks because, for the most, part, Steely Dan wasn’t a band at all. It was two men — Donald Fagen and Walter Becker — who wrote the music and lyrics, arranged the material, hired multiple session musicians to realize their visions and, in general, refused to play the rock music celebrity game even as they successfully navigated its waters.
Between their mind-blowing first LP in 1972 until their final album in 1980, (although they re-emerged two decades later), Fagen and Becker cranked out seven LPs of uncommonly fascinating and engaging music that defined the Seventies every bit as much as The Eagles, or Springsteen, or The Bee Gees, or The Clash, or Fleetwood Mac. I would submit that, among those bands competing for fans’ entertainment dollars during that time, Steely Dan gave listeners more bang for their buck than any of them.
Perhaps what made Steely Dan’s music so much more intriguing than most was the fact that Fagen and Becker were both deeply rooted in a love for the jazz of Davis, Monk, Parker and Brubeck, and crucially, they knew how to couch those enigmatic chord progressions in catchy, pop-oriented structures that proved irresistible to most mainstream audiences.
Not everybody dug their stuff. Critics who preferred the chaos of punk, the bombast of arena rock or the mindless exuberance of disco vilified them for what they saw as overly slick production values and lame cocktail-lounge arrangements on their later releases. But if sales numbers have any significance, the fact that their discography includes eight platinum-selling albums and nine Top 20 singles, and they still play to huge crowds on tour today, means their legacy endures very handsomely.
Raised in the 1950s-era New Jersey suburbs, Fagen and Becker met as students at Bard College outside New York City, where they developed a taste for offbeat literature and an amalgam of jazz-blues-pop-funk musical leanings. They aspired to be songwriters, first and foremost, and headed to the Brill Building milieu during its dying days to peddle their wares to music publishers there. But their songs, particularly their lyrics, were too foreign, too weird, too cryptic, for pop singers to wrap their heads around.
Eventually they concluded they needed to abandon the old-fashioned East Coast for the vibrant new recording studios of Los Angeles, and form their own band to record the songs themselves. They found a sympathetic producer, signed with a maverick label and recruited two crack session guitarists, Denny Dias and Jeff “Skunk” Baxter,” and a drummer. With Fagen on keyboards and Becker on bass, they took 10 songs from the library of material they’d come up with and crafted a phenomenal debut, “Can’t Buy a Thrill,” which included the samba-influenced “Do It Again,” the classic rock staple, “Reelin’ in the Years,” and incredibly catchy tunes like “Kings,” “Change of the Guard” and “Only a Fool Would Say That,” all featuring Fagen’s unmistakable sneering vocal style. The fact that the band was notoriously named for a Japanese sex toy didn’t seem to matter. They were off and running.
And yet, almost right away, something was different. Fagen and Becker hated touring, and they fought relentlessly with the record label to avoid going on the road. Much like The Beatles in their later years, Fagen and Becker preferred the insular environment of the studio, where they could hone, polish, and finesse their unique music using a broad array of talented instrumentalists and singers to make the tracks truly shine. So the “band,” such as it was, broke up after a couple of brief, unsatisfying tours, and the songwriting wizards concentrated on their recordings instead.
And what spectacular recordings they were. 1973’s “Countdown to Ecstasy” was perhaps their jazziest, with complex arrangements and lengthier solos, and another batch of great compositions — the bluesy “Bodhisattva,” the wistful “Pearl of the Quarter,” the infectious “My Old School,” the apocalyptic “King of the World.” Many regard it as the finest Steely Dan album despite its lack of a hit single or much commercial success.
“Pretzel Logic” (1974), “Katy Lied” (1975) and “The Royal Scam” (1976) continued the duo’s impressive musical abilities, offering concise nuggets of intelligent pop rock that delved further into unique chord patterns and rhythms that are hard to resist even forty years later: “Night by Night,” “Parker’s Band,” “Black Friday,” “Rose Darling,” “Don’t Take Me Alive,” “Haitian Divorce.” The list of session musicians grew, and their performances added substantial depth and nuance. Jazz guitarist Larry Carlton offered vital, tasteful solos that rivaled anything from the rock guitar gods of the era; future Doobie Brother crooner Michael McDonald pitched in with some delicious harmonies to augment Fagen’s ever-stronger lead vocals.
Their lyrics were among the most literate, cryptic words in all of rock music. Fagen and Becker used wonderfully descriptive phrases to paint their aural pictures, but their ultimate meaning remained open to all kinds of interpretations. The songwriters took mischievous pleasure in the lyrics’ inside jokes and cynical black comedy, and have remained notoriously silent about them over the years. Recently, Fagen has offered a few tantalizing hints of explanation. For instance, he says, “Ain’t never gonna do it without the fez on” refers to refraining from sex without a condom. “Tonight when I chase the dragon” is slang for snorting Chinese heroin. “Turn up the Eagles, the neighbors are listening” is a way to hide the sounds of domestic abuse.
Steely Dan songs take place in real locales — Scarsdale, Sunset Boulevard, Rudy’s, Barrytown, Camarillo, Annandale, Santa Ana, Vegas, Altimira, Mr. Chow’s, Rio Grande, New Orleans. They are inhabited by a cast of increasingly bizarre characters — drug addicts (Charlie Freak), pathetic losers, sketchy physicians (Doctor Wu), sweet-hearted hookers, vengeful gamblers, desperate dealers (Kid Charlemagne), suicidal bankers, murderers on the run, angry wife-beaters, creepy pedophiles (Cousin Dupree). And yet they’re somehow made palatable by being showcased against effervescent, upbeat melodies and danceable tempos.
The Dan’s popularity peaked in 1977 with “Aja” and its triumvirate of radio-friendly tracks, “Peg,” “Deacon Blues” and “Josie.” By now, the sonic perfection was simply astonishing, and the number of musicians had grown to more than 20 — six different guitarists, six drummers, six keyboard players, five singers, two saxophonists — on only seven songs. For a while there, it was one of those albums you heard everywhere you went, and often became the “go to” music played through concert sound systems during the break between warm-up act and headliner.
As with so many bands, personal and professional issues eventually stymied Fagen and Becker over the next three years as they worked on “Aja”‘s successor, “Gaucho,” which turned out to be their last album for two decades. It, too, shone with unparalleled production values, utilized more than two dozen musicians, and included two hit singles, “Hey Nineteen” and “Time Out of Mind.” But the duo was burned out and soon parted ways. Becker moved to Hawaii with his family and concentrated on producing other artists, while Fagen poured his heart and soul into an excellent solo record, 1982’s “The Night Fly,” which sounded to most people like another Steely Dan product, although the lyrics told a more personal story revolving around key events in Fagen’s childhood. (The hit single “I.G.Y.” referred to the International Geophysical Year of 1957, when scientific breakthroughs seemed to be happening on a weekly basis.)
Fagen and Becker then both dropped out of sight for more than ten years, preferring to shun the limelight even more than they had as hit songwriters. Because of the duo’s apparent estrangement at the time and overall reluctance to ever perform concerts, most people were stunned in the late ’90s when Fagen and Becker announced not only a lengthy tour but plans for a new Steely Dan album as well. Fans were delighted to finally hear the old songs in a live setting, and critics gushed at how great they sounded after such a long layoff, with the best seasoned musicians and singers along for the show, as you might expect.
The subsequent LP, the aptly titled “Two Against Nature,” was admittedly not up to par with the ’70s albums, but still included a few superb tracks like “Jack of Speed,” “Almost Gothic” and the single, “Cousin Dupree.” Defying all odds, it grabbed not only a nomination but a win in the Album of the Year category at the 2001 Grammys, and Steely Dan was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame that same year in their fifth year of eligibility. Another Steely Dan album “Everything Must Go,” followed in 2003, which, like its predecessor, was missing the memorable melodies that once made their albums so vital. Still, there were a few vintage-sounding tracks like “The Last Mall,” “Godwhacker” and “Green Book.”
These two releases really don’t measure up to the excellence of their earlier work, and there’s been nothing new in the past 12 years. But no matter. Their impressive recorded history will always be there for our lasting enjoyment, and the duo are back on tour once again, and I’m eagerly awaiting their scheduled appearance at the Hollywood Bowl this summer.
Casual Steely Dan fans who know only the ’70s radio hits, and the generation or two of newer music lovers who might be unfamiliar with them, would be wise to do themselves the favor of digging deep into the rich repertoire of the Dan catalog. I can safely say you will not be disappointed.