There’s no accounting for taste and it’s pointless to argue about what we like. Doesn’t mean we can’t get a few things off our chests. Here’s a series that isn’t here to change minds but only to share what tips the scales for me personally in these ongoing musical disputes.
If you’re a Steely Dan fan, you’ve heard the complaints. Their music is sterile. The records are fussy and elitist. It’s elevator music. Bourgeois. The opposite of rock and roll. Or the most cutting criticism of all, “smooth jazz.”
I was a 70s kid. I’ve loved Steely Dan for almost as long I’ve loved the Beatles (a copy of 1974’s Pretzel Logic was in my first Columbia Records Club shipment when I was an AM-radio obsessed kid just barely into double digits — “Rikki Don’t Lose that Number” caught my ear, I guess). This was back when listening to AM radio was still a good source for music, before the higher fidelity FM option became the only choice for true music lovers.
Coming of age in a border town — Detroit in the early 70s, I was fortunate to be a CKLW listener (broadcast out of Windsor, Canada). The best AM station one could hope for in a great era for AM radio, CKLW was a vanguard radio station, the 7th most listened to in North America, with a rotation of 80 to 100 songs instead of the standard Top 40. I consider those formative years for me, the first half of the 70s, to be a golden age of pop and it just didn’t get any better for me than my first taste of “the Dan.” “Rikki” could be called smooth, I guess, but to my young ear, it was just catchy music.
Steely Dan, the brainchild of Walter Becker (guitar, bass) and Donald Fagen (keyboards, lead vocals) launched in 1972, releasing six albums in six consecutive years, each one more refined and ambitious than the previous, culminating with their earnest shot at record-making perfection, the breathtaking Aja album in 1977.
Like the Eagles, it’s this obsessive perfectionism that can make Steely Dan hard to take, and I get it, but I have always found a highly subversive element or two in their songs that work to undercut the gloss. But allow me to backtrack a little.
Outcasts Becker and Fagen met at Bard College in upstate New York in 1967 when Fagen heard Becker practicing his guitar and immediately asked him to join a band. It wasn’t until later that the two discovered a common love for, not only classic jazz and soul music, but cigarettes and weed too. Playing in local bands and writing songs together, the two formed a bond that would evolve into one of the great musical partnerships, up there with Rodgers and Hart, Lennon and McCartney, and Jagger-Richards.
Leaving college, the misanthropic, fantastically unkempt duo moved to Brooklyn and became songwriters for anyone that would have them, as well as part of the touring band for the cheesy Jay and the Americans, earning the nickname “the Manson and Starkweather of rock and roll” (the mass murderers de jour of 1969). When their friend Gary Katz became a staff producer at ABC Records, he brought Becker and Fagen in as staff songwriters but quickly realized that the material they were writing was too complex for other ABC artists and convinced them to form their own band.
We picture Steely Dan as Walter Becker and Donald Fagen marshaling the talents of studio musicians and engineers, and refining their work to famously meticulous extremes (they recorded each of Aja’s songs with seven different rhythm sections and culled the best results, ending up with a different band for each of the seven songs). Yes, they moved to working with studio musicians at a point in their career, but Steely Dan started out as a touring band with two impeccable lead guitarists, a drummer, Becker on bass, and Fagen on keyboards. So, while their focus did later shift to more jazz-oriented terrains, it’s important to note that Steely Dan began as a gutsy rock band with an emphasis on blistering guitar solos with that vital rock element — killer tone. Even after they stopped touring in 1974 and disbanded the original group in favor of L.A. session cats, those incredible guitar solos remained as the indispensable Steely Dan ingredient to their music.
If you love a memorable, exciting guitar solo, explore a few of these choice Steely Dan cuts:
“Reelin’ In the Years” (solo by Elliott Randall — Jimmy Page once called this his favorite guitar solo ever)
“My Old School” and “Rikki Don’t Lose that Number (solos by Jeff, “Skunk” Baxter)
“Kid Charlemagne” and “Don’t Take Me Alive” (solos by Larry Carlton)
“Peg” (solo by Jay Graydon)
“Home at Last” and “Josie” (solos by Walter Becker)
While you’re at it, listen to these Denny Dias solos. Dias, along with Baxter, is a founding member of the band and a trained jazz guitarist, but placed in a rock context, his solos are just as fiery and thrilling as his rock counterparts. “Do It Again” (Dias on electric sitar), “Bodhisattva,” “King of the World,” as well as “Aja,” where he returns in a cameo spot in between those transcendent Wayne Shorter sax solos.
But, as appealing as these brilliant solos are, it’s not much of an antidote to anyone who objects to the slickness they hear in the music of Steely Dan. I mentioned a subversive element before. It’s in the lyrics.
First of all, it’s a matter of controversy how much lyrics really matter in pop music, if at all. As a songwriter myself, I land firmly in the camp that views lyrics as vital to a song, even if they are devoid of meaning or just there to give the singer something to sing. What’s important is that the words that are chosen will undoubtedly color the song a certain way. I would even assert that a song’s longevity or ability to achieve classic status hinges in large part on its lyrics. I’ve been a rock fan for a long time now and I find that of the songs I still want to hear, almost all of them have what I consider to be lyrics that are built to last.
Lyrics are Steely Dan’s secret weapon. Masters of language and wit, Becker and Fagen are especially adept at balancing the sweet with the sour. Let me explain.
Bard was formative for the duo and scenes from the college appear later in their lyrics, famously in their beloved “My Old School” from their second album and “Barrytown” from their third. But with all things Dan, the nostalgia is always undercut with unexpected twists, lurid tales, humor, and irony.
The main device of a Steely Dan lyric is a reliance on conversations between two informed parties with us listening in, not exactly understanding all or even any of the jokes, but laughing anyway at the deft rhythms of the language, the resonant juxtapositions, and the unexpected imagery as lurid details are revealed. “My Old School” is a perfect example. Apparently, after seeing him off to college, the nameless girl he’s talking to quickly got herself detained in the county jail with the prostitutes, presumably bailed out by her father. What gets set up as a sweetly nostalgic remembrance quickly gets subverted toward the weird. In typical Dan fashion, we don’t quite know what they are talking about, but they certainly do and it’s never as sweet as the music portrays.
Listening to Steely Dan is primarily a rich musical experience. Becker and Fagen wrote their songs that way but they had the good sense to always undercut the sophistication in the music and their audiophile recordings with a little downtown grit in the lyrics. Like the subversive beat poets they admired, (“Steely Dan” after all is named after the steam-powered dildo in Burroughs’ Naked Lunch), confounding expectations and upsetting the apple cart is just their natural way of getting through a song. Despite all of their jazz tendencies and pretty chords, Becker and Fagen are still just a couple of punks and it shows in their lyrics.
The characters that populate their songs are a rogue’s gallery of various desperadoes, nightcrawlers, and outright criminals — the drug dealer hero of “Kid Charlemagne,” the dead-ender barricaded in with his case of dynamite in “Don’t Take Me Alive,” and the delusional paranoid who eyes the gravediggers in “Bad Sneakers.” And the scenes they set tend to the apocalyptic in “Black Friday” or post-apocalyptic in “King of the World,” but also the trouble-in-paradise suburban scenes as in “Deacon Blues.” Like their beat poet heroes, Becker and Fagen smartly explore the underbelly of every setting and are careful to mine a little humanity wherever they go.
The last defense I present for these musical obsessives is just how damn good they are at asymmetrical construction. Most anal retentives make every determination based on neatness and squared-off symmetry but not so with Becker and Fagen who are modernists, not classicists. Like Alexander Calder whose colorful mobiles are a study in off-kilter balance, Steely Dan songs have a vitality and an internal logic and forms that extend beyond the typical groupings of 4 and 8 bars and whose phrase constructions do not always mirror each other. Songs like “Babylon Sisters,” or better yet, “Gaucho” from the same album allow their serpentine melodies to define the path each song takes, not some preconceived notion of how songs should be written.
Like Burt Bacharach of the previous decade, Becker and Fagen keep their sense of form fluid and abstract, which sounds just as bourgeois and elitist when you say it, but this skillful use of asymmetry, like their lyrics, subtly work to subvert and balance the lustrous perfection they try to achieve in the sound and performance of their records. Listen to how the unpredictability of the song form confounds expectations and keeps the precision of their record-making from getting boring or predictable:
Yes, Steely Dan’s music is extremely well made but it is not formulaic. Yes, for a couple of miscreants, Becker and Fagen do love their pretty shimmering chords, but they balance their sense of beauty with truly twisted lyrics and an abstract sense of phrasing. And despite the glossy surface they achieve with their craft, Steely Dan’s ambitions are artistic and human — an exploration into their catalog may yield unexpected results with an ear bent toward appreciating these subversive elements and digging those blistering solos.
Becker and Fagen’s tendencies eventually got the better of them. After making an album per year for their first six records, each one more refined than the previous, culminating with their masterpiece, Aja in 1977, it took them three grueling years to produce the Gaucho album. After that, they called it quits for Steely Dan, the two principles going their separate ways (the Eagles’ album-making obsession followed an identical arc, it’s interesting to note).
Steely Dan did later reconvene in the 90s as a touring band and even created two new studio albums in the early 2000s, but this part of their career was primarily devoted to live performance of their demanding earlier works, letting their fans revel in their past glories. True perfectionists, Becker and Fagen had no interest in touring after 1974 until advancing technology made reproducing their complex arrangements and productions possible on stage with modern stage monitoring, amplification, and sound reinforcement, not to mention the ability to assemble and rehearse a crack band and attract a devoted audience to support the whole endeavor. Absence made the hearts of Dan fans grow rabid — the tours were big successes with audiences swooning and the younger musicians getting to perform those demanding songs most of them so admired. I got to see two of these tours (with full horn sections and three background singers) and, although Walter Becker left us recently, it was clear that he was deeply enjoying the indulgence of strapping on a guitar, soloing all night, and hearing the music he and Donald Fagen had brought into the world played so expertly with the arrangements meticulously reproduced, and with a beautiful stage sound to experience. Famously camera-shy, they were never in it for the attention, so a Steely Dan concert was a rare opportunity not to be missed for fans and musicians alike.
Those seven early Steely Dan albums created over the span of nine years all contain gems worth mining. I hope I’ve sparked some curiosity and brought some context to help appreciate them. I know their perfectionism is off-putting for some, but look for those disruptive elements that bring out what I consider to be true about Steely Dan, that under all of the gloss that they are still essentially rock and roll. You can find it if you look.
When CKLW was America and Canada’s Greatest Rock and Roll Station: