FUV Essentials: Steely Dan (illustration by Andy Friedman)
In 1972, when Steely Dan released its debut, Can't Buy a Thrill, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen's dark and literate fusion of jazz, swing, blues, pop and rock 'n' roll sounded very different from anything else on the radio. The pair's sophisticated, harmonically complex songs, buttressed by a phalanx of brilliant studio musicians and vocalists, were concurrently timeless and very much of their time: mostly the Seventies. Before the the band's first extended hiatus in 1981, the seven albums Steely Dan recorded over the course of eight years, from their first release in the early '70s until 1980's Gaucho, laid the foundation of the band's fluid appeal, mystery, and ongoing influence. Not that they haven't had something to say about this century, releasing 2000's Two Against Nature — which won them four Grammys, including "Album of the Year" — and 2003's Everything Must Go.
Although Becker and Fagen were partly based in Los Angeles, anyone who recalls the kaleidoscopic New York of that decade — seedy, cosmopolitan, dangerous, artistically fecund, and wildly invigorating — can hear the city's chaotic cool and self-deprecating humor lurking in Steely Dan's music. Even Brooklyn was handed its own anthem. And in best cranky New York fashion, Steely Dan's adopted city of Los Angeles frequently got its comeuppance too, in caustic tracks like "Glamour Profession."
Despite the polished sleekness of the band's sound and its roost on classic rock and adult contemporary stations, there's nothing "easy listening" about Steely Dan. Lurking in those cryptic, abstruse lyrics is a circus of sordid and unsavory characters, like the Merry Pranksters' drug dealer Owsley Stanley ("Kid Charlemagne"), a creepy pedophile ("Everyone's Gone To The Movies"), and a con artist ("Your Gold Teeth"). There are songs that flirt with smoking heroin ("Time Out of Mind") and recall a real drug bust, led by G. Gordon Liddy (aka "Daddy G"), at their alma mater, Bard College ("My Old School"). And as every Steely Dan fan knows, even the band's Naked Lunch-influenced moniker is a risqué reference to a sex toy.
Steely Dan's music was extremely difficult to arrange, articulate and execute in the studio, hence the band's reputation for perfectionism. Becker and Fagen sought out some of the most skilled bandmates and session musicians in the industry: a very small sampling includes guitarists Jeff "Skunk" Baxter, Larry Carlton, Lee Ritenour, and Denny Dias; drummers Jeff Porcaro and Jeff Hodder; pianists Joe Sample and Paul Griffin; tenor saxophonist Wayne Shorter; and vocalists David Palmer, Michael McDonald and Sherlie Matthews. Gaucho, which was recorded over two years between 1978-80 during a time of turmoil for the band, involved over 40 musicians. Back in 2010, guitarist Jay Gray broke down the challenges of playing "Peg" on Aja and its subtle reflection of the blues (he recorded the track in just three punch-ins). Becker and Fagen have also discussed the intricate architecture involved in the making of Aja, and tracks like "Deacon Blues" (and as this fascinating Nerdwriter video explains, the allure of the "mu major chord.").
Although Steely Dan hasn't released a new collection of songs in 13 years, they remain a force on the road, resurrecting their masterful catalog for longtime fans and new acolytes. They play an incredible residency of 10 concerts, as part of 2016's "The Dan Who Knew Too Much" tour, at New York's Beacon Theatre beginning on October 12. They've also influenced a younger generation of artists, producers, and studio perfectionists — Becker and Fagen's many admirers include Ruban Nielson of Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Mayer Hawthorne, and Speedy Ortiz, who were just part of a Steely Dan tribute with So So Glos and Ava Luna in Brooklyn on October 8.
Steely Dan Mixtape