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Steely Dan: What the Hell Is It…or He…or They?

Steely Dan: What the Hell Is It…or He…or They?

Steely Dan is enjoying a revival of sorts among young music-lovers who, like me, are fascinated by the band’s modus operandi. Complex chord changes. Top sessions players on speed dial. A clean sound, just short of sterile. Cynical lyrics that belie the upbeat…uh, beat beneath them.  

From 1971 to 1981, across seven albums (excluding two recorded in the early 2000s), Steely Dan operated dead-on, cold as the characters that they drew up.  Donald Fagen and Walter Becker–the keyboardist/singer and guitarist/bassist, respectively–lie somewhere in between solo act and band. They are not one man, as the name suggests, nor are they a typical rock group. They were a brand, not a band–or perhaps they were a business, hiring and firing session players at their leisure. It sure seemed at times that their lifeless operation, skipping touring altogether for a number of years, employing and discarding top-tier musicians, suggested that. But Steely Dan had a life to them, and offered joy and pleasure if you just took time to dig a little under their long-uncool surface. 

Steely Dan named themselves after an object in that staple of Beat Literature, Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs.  The “Steely Dan” in question was a steam-powered, mechanical dildo.  Right away, the name suited the music to a T. Something so obscene, naughty, anti-societal, was buried under the innocuous, a careful blend of clean sound that owed as much to the Stones as it did to Duke Ellington. What seemed sleep-inducing was anything but if you gave a damn.  

Donald Fagen’s autobiography, Eminent Hipsters, foreshadowed the band establishing a niche in cool: “I started reading about pop art and Timothy Leary’s experiments at Harvard. I went to a lot of Brit movies of the kitchen-sink school. The language of hip was changing,” Fagen writes.  If this “hip” was indeed a language, you can be sure that the Dan were native speakers: Their “outside hip” was emphasized by academic Paul Clemens, along with their “representational ambiguity,” in the journal Leisure Studies. The eclectic influences that formed the basis of Steely Dan, pulled from countless dusty corners of pop counterculture, set the tone for what Clemens saw in the musical middle finger that they were about to flip.  

Today, as they were decades prior, Steely Dan is remarkably ubiquitous. Their (arguably) biggest hit, “Reelin’ In the Years,” does not sum up their sound in an adequate fashion, however, being more guitar than keyboard-driven. “Peg,” I feel, is a much better example of what makes them tick. Everything is in 4/4, in a danceable b.p.m. Nothing is too busy-sounding, but analyzing the chords reveals more complex finger shapes than a musical know-nothing might expect. Yet the song does not sound forced. The mix is glassy, hiding little. The bass snakes in and out during that cinematic intro. The guitars and keyboards complement each other. Everything is fine…except for the lyrics. No swearing or anything explicit, but there’s an implicit sort of dirt to be found in a man sizing up the titular woman he adores.  

When Moby inducted Steely Dan into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he recounted being amazed that they “had succeeded in getting the lyric ‘fucked-up muzak’ onto the air,” when in actuality, the song in question–“FM”–spoke of “funked-up muzak.” This move, correctly categorized as “subversive and weird” by cited author Brian Sweet in his book Steely Dan: Reelin’ in the Years, seems to say it all. The sly nature of Steely Dan made the listener feel smart once something finally clicked to him or her through the music that they presented.  Much as the Beat novelists that paved the way for them, Steely Dan offered a message that was at once bleak and oblique.  

But it’s the damn cleanliness that has to be appreciated more than the lyrical scum. “Peg” is a great example of the “cheerful” side of the cheerful nihilism that the duo presented. So is “Babylon Sisters” from 1980’s Gaucho, which took over 50 attempts to get its fadeout sounding just so.  Every time that slow beat crafted by Purdie Shuffle legend Bernard Purdie comes in, I’m knocked back by how the whole joint moves. Slow, calculated, tiring, but hiding something.  It’s just too nice, too refreshing a greeting.  Nothing can be that nice and deserving of zero suspicion.  

Walter Becker poked fun at the Dan’s tendency to work too long on such things in a period interview in issue no. 255 of Rolling Stone by asserting that “we overdubbed a lot of the overdubs over” in reference to the making of 1977’s Aja (Crowe, para. 14). That knee-slapping humor…it was all over their music if you heard hard enough. Again, that slick, too-good-to-be-true instrumentation was a fantastic camouflage. Fagen, like Becker, was not immune to leading an interview awry with a savvy answer. “So what drives Steely Dan in their attention to sonic excellence?” asked one interviewer in a piece for Sound on Sound in 2003. “Either a cab or a hired sedan,” Fagen replied. This comedy–subtle, dry, sarcastic–is as essential to the Steely Dan work ethic as Session Guitar Player no. 23 that obscured that shit with flashy, complex playing.

But those lyrics…such prose deserves anything but ignorance in favor of that smooth sound.  Put a novel in a trash compactor, and the result may well be the typical Steely Dan lyric sheet.  Take “Deacon Blues,” for example, with little bits of NYT-Bestseller prose such as “I cried when I wrote this song/sue me if I play too long,” and, of course, “drink scotch whiskey all night long/and die behind the wheel.” Steely Dan were fond of stuffing their songs with sleazy, past-sell-by-date lotharios trying to reclaim some glory from a time gone by. Their choice language worked to render these characters in a sophisticated light, without a sense of strain.  

Going back to “Blues,” again, the chorus goes “They call Alabama the Crimson Tide/Call me Deacon Blues.” Mmm. Some of their narratives even contained fantasies, made-up ideas not found outside of the band’s universe. What’s the “Custerdome,” for instance, mentioned in the song “Gaucho?” Fuck if I know–or, indeed, if anyone does.  Fagen was unafraid to elevate the mere song to levels of cinematic or novel-esque grandiosity without over-stuffing or making a hash of things. Even a less-sophisticated earlier Dan song, “Brooklyn (Owes the Charmer Under Me),” is noted by Walter Everett in the Music Theory Spectrum Journal as “[giving] musical expression” to “the abstruse and ironic qualities of the poem.” What subtle complexity the lyrics deliver is reflected in the instrumental powerhouse Fagen and Becker maintained.  

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Consider millennial heroes John Mulaney and Pete Davidson. These two are household names.  They both attended a Steely Dan show some years back, as Mulaney detailed on The Tonight Show.  It speaks volumes that a pair so embraced by generations Y and Z went to a Dan show, even if Davidson admittedly didn’t know who they were beforehand.  If that doesn’t do it for you, check Kanye West’s “Champion,” one of many instances of hip-hop artists sampling the pair.  

Steely Dan are no longer the uncool gents paraded around by men with ponytails (that, or very little hair at all). They have become cool, the way looking like a loser can be these days.  In fact, I was introduced to Steely Dan properly by one guy in my grade, and another one grade below, in a Music Tech class we had in my junior year of high school. I was always vaguely aware of them, but brushed them off as just too lame. How wrong I was. Awaiting me was a world as complex as the ones woven by great novels and films of the 20th century.

What I loved about Steely Dan when I finally dove into their catalog was that they offered a nice antidote to music that I liked that was complex in a different manner. They didn’t have odd time signatures or polyrhythmic tomfoolery, but they made the most complex recipes of notes–such foreign chords–sound natural, alive, and beautiful.  Hell, the µ major (or mu major) chord is dubbed the “Steely Dan Chord”–much like the “Hendrix Chord” used in “Purple Haze.” Becker and Fagen themselves described the µ major as a tool that lends an “airy, modern, almost jazzy quality that the sensitive listener can detect in just about every Steely Dan recording” in the intro to their Steely Dan Song Book compendium.  

Despite such calculated crystal-clarity on the Dan’s part, I never understood critics who called their music “too perfect” or worthy of a musical Uncanny Valley: the point at which an object lacking life becomes lifelike enough to cause human unsettlement. To me, Bjork’s Medulla, also a fantastic body of music, is the cold and clinical execution that best summed up this line of thinking. The Dan are instrumentally dry at times, but so be it. It works in their sarcastic favor. Steely Dan have deserved their succession from bore to purveyors of a bygone hip that has gone back to cool again.  

I think it says a lot that Fagen’s autobiography was named Eminent Hipsters. Their music may sound dated, but Steely Dan were ahead of their time. Even the mainstream teenager who only knows a handful of classic rock hits can probably dig, at the very least, the beaten-to-death “Reelin’ In the Years.” A dive into their catalog, however, remains a treasure hunt that, when undertaken by the once-casual fan such as me, can offer the bounty of great cinema and great literature alike. It’s a shame that most who listen to the Dan in passing won’t take the proverbial plunge–but, as long as there is a market for the slick, sly, and sophisticated, there will be a little musical monopoly that Steely Dan have all to themselves.

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