Steely Dan was the brainchild of fellow Bard College friends Walter Becker and Donald Fagen. Their pairing and eventual output would become an anomaly in popular music culture.The Steely Dan Albums they recorded were loved by millions of music fans, both male and female. They were also known as a musicians band as their compositions and performances on the Steely Dan albums were held in the highest regard by musicians. Sadly, in the year 2016, they are often dismissed as irrelevant to today’s internet youth or just too slick for the alternative crowd. To their credit though, Becker and Fagen have done the impossible. Steely Dan has simply ignored everybody in the music industry. Becker and Fagen have followed their own muse. The brilliant writers have refused to cash in on trends. Walter Becker and Donald Fagen have made a decent living and still maintained a level of viability by virtue of catchy hooks and infectious, danceable grooves.
The music on Steely Dan albums sort of seeps into your subconscious and clings tight to your inner ear whether you want to remember it or not. Their non romantic, cryptic, name dropping and superbly ironic lyrics induce memories that you did not know you even had. Lead vocalist Donald Fagen’s detached, nasally voice is not pretty, but it is as distinct as M&M’s on white pizza. Fagen’s voice is applied more as an instrument than a focal point on the Steely Dan Albums. Donald Fagen’s vocal performance’s were always uncluttered, fairly upfront and recorded without any special vocal effects.
There were little touches of subtle ear candy you caught when you least expected it. And then there are the chords; the fluid that lubricates the inner workings of their songs. Those luscious unpredictable chords derived somewhere between Debussy and Thelonious Monk. They are able to get away with such harmonic twists because the foundation of what they compose is based in the blues. People seem to be naturally drawn to the blues. The predictability of which is in our DNA. Subconsciously or not Becker and Fagen seemed to have realized this at a young age and applied it to their varied musical interests. With the blues they could have their cake and eat it to.
Of course, Steely Dan is sometimes superficially recognized as a smooth jazz outfit.However, that couldn’t be farther from the truth. There is a dark, subversive nature to their art that goes right over most people’s heads. And the clock work precision to their pristine productions that on the surface may feel sterile, eventually emotes a sense of warmth and sly humor after a few listens. Their music can sit in the background at a party or provide an intense personal listening experience. It’s flexible, reliable music. And as far as overall songwriting quality; if you love Steely Dan, you pretty much love every song they’ve recorded. Their standards are ridiculously high and even the songs they never released are of top notch caliber.
It could be easily argued that after the Beatles split, Steely Dan carried the musical torch in regards to taking pop and rock songwriting to the next level. While listening to Steely Dan albums, one can hear the influences of a wide range of musical geniuses such as Laura Nyro, Bob Dylan, Carol King, Frank Zappa, Duke Ellington, Burt Bacharach, Henry Mancini, Miles Davies, Charles Mingus, John Coltrane, and Sonny Rollins. Nonetheless, Becker and Fagen were able to distill all of those musical catalysts into a stew that was uniquely their own. And miraculously they were able to formulate a recipe that was musically accessible to both the mainstream and the counterculture.
From their very first record Can’t Buy A Thrill released in 1972 the Steely Dan sound was established. Classics like “Reeling In The Years,” “Do It Again,” and “Dirty Work,” still play on the radio today as well as being sampled by rap artists and incorporated into major motion picture soundtracks i.e. “You, Me And Irene”, “American Hustle” etc… Other later classics like “Riki Don’t Lose That Number,” “My Old School,” “Peg,” “FM,” and “Hey Nineteen,” were iconic nineteen seventies rock and roll classics.
The first four albums contained concise pop/ rock songs no longer than three and a quarter minutes. The musicianship always flawless and the songs (as each album progresses) veer forward to more expanded landscapes to support some of the finest guitar solos in rock. This is evident in 1976’s Royal Scam. Listen to the amazing guitar solo by Larry Carlton on “Kid Charlemange”, “Don’t Take Me Alive” or the emotive crybaby wah-wah on “Haitian Divorce.” All of them played with finely honed technique and panache.
By 1977 it is no surprise that Becker and Fagen reached their zenith with the album Aja. The epitome of rock/jazz and pop with Hi-Fi audio fidelity to boot. The album (only 8 songs) features many tasty solos by such revered musicians as the late pianist Victor Feldman, saxophone great Wayne Shorter, the ubiquitous session drummer Steve Gadd and let’s not forget the tasty guitar solo of Walter Becker on “Josie.” It’s sister album, 1980’s Gaucho refined their musical vision even more infusing elements of disco no less into their already perfected, quirky confections.
With the exception of a few solo albums i.e. Fagen’s 1982 masterpiece, The Nightfly his 1993’s Kamakiriad (produced by Becker) and Walter Becker’s brilliantly cranky 1994 release 11 Tracks Of Whack, the world would not hear any new Steely Dan music until 1999. It is here where Becker and Fagen pick up where they left off with Gaucho. As if no time passed they gave us the Grammy award winning record of the year, Two Against Nature. A harmonically sophisticated blend of funk, rock and jazz with lyrics of incest, sleaze bags and ironic Twenty-first century realizations. They would follow this work with 2003’s Everything Must Go. An equally satisfying and somewhat resigned work that of course sticks in your brain after repeated listenings. Though Becker and Fagen have released a number of tasty solo works since Everything Must Go, it seems fitting that Steely Dan should end it’s catalog on such a high and final note. A fitting conclusion to a most unique musical career.
There is no mistaking the ironic and subtle musical genius of Steely Dan. It’s a flavor all of its own. Any major dude will tell you that.
Is Steely Dan still around? Well, yes actually. You can still catch them live. Becker and Fagen have been touring the world for the last decade. Editor’s Note: (This article was written before the passing of Walter Becker in 2017) If they are in your area check them out. You will be treated to many of their biggest hits and solid deep cuts performed by jazz players with chops. They’re always having a blast soloing over the gorgeous chord changes. Of course there is Fagen doing his best Ray Charles jutting from side to side at his Rhodes or honking his melodica from behind sunglasses. Fagen’s partner Walter Becker continues to play tight guitar solos while bating the audience with cynical observations and on the road stories. Yeah, they’re geeky old anti-rock stars but their music is timeless and fortunately preserved in a pristine catalog few recording artists can equal.
Every Steely Dan record holds a wealth of memorable songs wrapped in a singular sound that became more refined as time went on. For the curious, here is my personal album order to ease you into the wonderfully ironic world of the “Dan.” But be careful. This is the stuff of ear worms. You might find yourself on line at the motor vehicles, your mind in a loop singing “Flame is the game – a game we call gas lighting Abbie” “A luscious invention for three, one summer by the sea”….
Pretzel Logic (1974)
The Royal Scam (1976)
Katy Lied (1975)
Countdown To Ecstasy (1973)
Everything Must Go (2003)
Two Against Nature (1999)
Can’t Buy A Thrill (1972)
Though I would not normally suggested a greatest hits collection, this one is also a quick, good starting place with a couple of extra gems thrown in that were not included on any official album : Steely Dan Gold (Extended edition)
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Written by John Tabacco
(Editor’s Note: John Tabacco who is the author of the Steely Dan article, is a composer, producer, and musician with an enormous catalog of quirky musical gems that fans of bands like Steely Dan, Frank Zappa, and the Beatles would fall in love with. I was very fortunate to get John to write some articles for the site. John is a very busy man in the music industry and has worked with some of the most important artists and producers in rock and roll history. Check out John’s music, it is deep, thoughtful, and thoroughly enjoyable.)
Editor and Chief