Steely Dan is the collaboration between two songwriter/musicians from the New York City area. Donald Fagen and Walter Becker met while students at Bard College. After Fagen graduated in 1969, the pair moved to Brooklyn and offered their services to the Brill Building as songwriters. After limited success, producer Gary Katz of ABC Records hired them, and moved them to Los Angeles in 1972.
Steely Dan achieved lifelong popularity after their first album, Can’t Buy A Thrill and its two hit songs, “Do It Again” and “Reelin’ In The Years”. To promote their music, Steely Dan assembled a six piece band, and toured the country. However, Fagen and Becker disliked touring, especially Fagen, who suffered at times from stage fright. The band gradually disintegrated, as the duo focused their efforts on studio music. The freedom to hand pick studio musicians enabled Steely Dan to obsessively create the desired sounds. Fagen and Becker produced five more albums before going their separate ways in 1981.
Some Notable Contributors:
Jeff “Skunk” Baxter (b. 1948), guitar, steel guitar
Denny Dias (b. 1946), guitar, sitar
David Palmer, vocals
Larry Carlton (b. 1948), guitar
Bernard “Pretty” Purdie (b. 1939), drums
Victor Feldman (1934-1987), keyboards
Steve Gadd (b. 1945), drums
Rick Marotta, drums
Tom Scott (b. 1948), saxophone
Gary Katz (b. 1952), music producer
“The brainchild of Becker and Fagen, Steely Dan were one of the most highly regarded rock bands of the seventies. Their songs were an ambitious attempt to translate the languages of modern fiction and of jazz into the rock idiom. The result was a highly controlled music of immaculate surfaces which contrasted with the luxuriant emotionalism of the rock mainstream.”
— Phil Hardy & Dave Laing, “The Faber Companion To 20th-Century Popular Music”
Our Generation’s College Band
In the early seventies, my high school years, Steely Dan’s best songs were featured on AM and FM radio stations. My true initiation to their music came during college years. I purchased Aja and the double album Steely Dan’s Greatest Hits during my first couple years of college. They were very popular at my school, their opaque yet catchy lyrics resonating in our privileged and druggy subculture.
Contemporary analysts tend to choose Countdown To Ecstasy and Pretzel Logic as Steely Dan’s finest work. I like Aja best. Sentimentality bubbles up when evaluating the music of one’s past.
During my college years, I was delving deeply into jazz fusion, people like Grover Washington Jr. and Stanley Turrentine, and bands like the Crusaders. Steely Dan’s music is part of the jazz fusion movement. By reading record liner notes for Steely Dan and other fusion artists, I became familiar with the names of many great studio musicians, that I would learn more about in the future.
The Purdie Shuffle
Drummer Bernard Purdie has performed on thousands of popular tunes; he is renowned for his precise timekeeping. He also known for a specific shuffle beat named for him — variants of the Purdie Shuffle are featured on the Steely Dan songs “Home At Last” and “Babylon Sisters”.
Complex Chord Structures
I will look at chord structures for a few songs by each artist, both to further my musical education, and to get a feel for a band’s level of complexity and sophistication. Popular songs written before rock and roll, and songs written by piano players, tend to have more intricate, complex structures. Steely Dan’s chord structures are among the most complex I have reviewed. perhaps a reason why Steely Dan music demanded gifted studio musicians. Howard Wright’s excellent website is full of details about Steely Dan’s music:
In the following clip, Donald Fagen describes how “Chain Lightning” is a variant of the 12-bar blues format:
How musicians like Warren Bernhardt translate complex instructions into good music on the first try amazes me.
After the success of Aja, Becker and Fagen became obsessed with perfection for their next project.
Gaucho was released in November, 1980, during my difficult senior year in college. Gaucho is not in my record collection; I must have recorded it on cassette, since I clearly remember it as part of the soundtrack of that year. I can’t escape the irony of listening to songs like “Glamour Profession” and “Time Out Of Mind”, as I emptied out my father’s bank account with lies, while my horrified parents hoped I would just finish school and get home safely. Cocaine was everywhere in the late seventies.
“It’s a glamour profession,
The L.A. concession.
Local boys will spend a quarter,
Just to shine the silver bowl,
Living hard will take it’s toll.”
— Donald Fagen and Walter Becker
Fagen and Becker Reunite
Fagen and Becker resumed their partnership in 1993, creating new music and periodically touring. Like Elton John and Neil Diamond, they created a late career album of note, Two Against Nature from 2000.
Steely Dan’s recorded music is often highly manufactured, making songs hard to recreate in live performance. A big band with talented backup singers is required, even for the simpler songs. Thanks to Youtube, many of these late career performances can be heard, though I urge everyone to purchase the Two Against Nature DVD, if you can find it, not to mention the recommended Steely Dan songs on iTunes or compact disc.
Here Walter Becker plays lead guitar on “Cousin Dupree” from Two Against Nature:
Guitarist John Hetherington joins in and plays lead on “Black Friday”, also from the Two Against Nature DVD:
Finally, Hetherington adds his own touches to Larry Carlton’s great solo on “Kid Charlemagne”:
One Last Drag
We all have our own definition of what “rocks”, what motivates us to tap our feet and dance along. On their best songs, Steely Dan creates syncopated rhythms I can’t resist.
Steely Dan is famous for unusual lyrics. Fagen and Becker are unsentimental; there’s nothing in their oeuvre that resembles a love song. Songs like “Josie”, “Peg” and “Babylon Sisters” are tributes to women, but the attraction is primarily sexual. Many Steely Dan songs deal with drugs, and cast a jaded eye on social degeneration, especially during their years in southern California.
Both the words and the rhythm resonate with me. Perhaps it’s a matter of coincidence, and growing up in California, or familiarity, but the obscure references in their words make sense. I get them.
This is the night of the expanding man,
I take one last drag,
As I approach the stand.
I cried when I wrote this song,
Sue me if I play too long,
This brother is free,
I’ll be what I want to be…
I’ll learn to work the saxophone,
I play just what I feel,
Drink Scotch whiskey all night long,
And die behind the wheel.
They got a name for the winners in the world,
And I want a name when I lose,
They call Alabama the Crimson Tide,
Call me Deacon Blues.
— Donald Fagen and Walter Becker
Steely Dan Song Notes:
1. The opening riff of “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” is identical to the opening riff of Horace Silver’s “Song For My Father”.
2. The song structure of the song “Gaucho” (not included in the collection) is very similar to Keith Jarrett’s composition “Long As You Know You’re Living Yours”. Jarrett subsequently sued for writing credit and succeeded.
3. The final drum track for “Gaucho” is derived from forty-six separate takes of the song.
4. Guitarist Larry Carlton’s final solo on “Kid Charlemagne” is quite famous.
5. Another famous contribution is the interplay between drummer Steve Gadd and Weather Report saxophonist Wayne Shorter in the middle section of “Aja”.
Steely Dan Songs:
Do It Again, Steely Dan ✭✭✭✭
Kid Charlemagne, Steely Dan ✭✭✭✭
Reelin’ In The Years, Steely Dan ✭✭✭✭
Deacon Blues, Steely Dan ✭✭✭
Peg, Steely Dan ✭✭✭
Home At Last, Steely Dan ✭✭✭
Pretzel Logic, Steely Dan ✭✭✭
Aja, Steely Dan ✭✭✭
Cousin Dupree, Steely Dan ✭✭✭
Chain Lightning, Steely Dan ✭✭✭
Babylon Sisters, Steely Dan ✭✭
Josie, Steely Dan ✭✭
Your Gold Teeth, Steely Dan ✭✭
Time Out Of Mind, Steely Dan ✭✭
Third World Man, Steely Dan ✭✭
The Fez, Steely Dan ✭✭
Black Friday, Steely Dan ✭✭
Black Friday (Live), Steely Dan ✭✭
Don’t Take Me Alive, Steely Dan ✭✭
Any Major Dude Will Tell You, Steely Dan ✭✭
Doctor Wu, Steely Dan ✭✭
Hey Nineteen, Steely Dan ✭
Rikki Don’t Lose That Number, Steely Dan ✭
FM, Steely Dan ✭
My Old School, Steely Dan ✭
Bodhisattva, Steely Dan ✭
East St. Louis Toodle-Oo, Steely Dan ✭
Sign In Stranger, Steely Dan ✭
The Royal Scam, Steely Dan ✭
Jack Of Speed, Steely Dan ✭
I.G.Y. (International Geophysical Year), Donald Fagen ✭✭
Song For My Father, Horace Silver ✭✭✭
Long As You Know You’re Living Yours, Jan Garbarek, Jon Christensen and Palle Danielsson ✭
East St. Louis Toodle-Oo, Duke Ellington ✭✭