Steely Dan

Walter Becker (bass, guitar) and Donald Fagen (keyboards, vocals) are smarter than your average songwriters, dipping into a deeper well than usual while still respecting the idea of listener-friendliness. With guitarists Denny Dias and Jeff Baxter and drummer Jim Hodder, Becker and Fagen operated Steely Dan as a quasi-band in the early years, partly because they had to tour behind the albums. Eventually, that facade fell away and Donald and Walter became studio hermits, spending lots of money and hiring top-name players to make albums as perfectly as they could. The main paradox of Steely Dan is that they draw so heavily from jazz in their music (at least from the middle period on), but they don’t follow the jazz ideal of first takes and wing-it performance. In other words, they borrow some of the content but not the procedure.

Lyrically, Becker and Fagen are witty, gritty, playful, obscure, and quite creative. Under the cover of a catchy chorus and/or polite groove, they sometimes slide into subversive subject matter, if only for comedic or ironic purpose. I don’t think they’re out to glorify their imaginary characters – some of whom are rather degenerate – but they use obscure scenarios to set up a droll punchline or two. They also know how to wed music and lyrics in ironic counterpoint. Take “The Royal Scam”, a story of immigrants trying to get a foothold in a new country. The verse music conjures an appropriate feeling of uncertainty, while the chorus brings in heavenly female backing singers to hint at possible success (“See the glory of...”) only to have Fagen yank the rug out (“...the royal scam”). Or hear the tune of false reassurance that lines the chorus of “Doctor Wu”, which turns to a darker plea (“Are you with me Doctor?”) at the end. The other thing about Dan lyrics is that they’re usually oblique enough to inspire multiple meanings.

The Steely Dan back catalog was remastered in the late 1990s, and the reissues contain amusing liner note reflections from Donald and Walter. These guys are almost as fun to read as they are to listen to.

Can’t Buy a Thrill

“In the land of milk and honey…”

The first Steely Dan LP is a double agent camouflaged in the customs of the day, speaking an educated pop-rock language colored by lotsa guitar, lounge-like congas, soulful backing vox, and various denim-clad memes. The group’s studio awareness at this time isn’t quite at the perfectionist level, so the album relies on the straightforward premises of the songs.

Efforts like “Dirty Work”, “Brooklyn”, and “Only a Fool Would Say That” center on mood and lyrical grit rather than outstanding melodies. (Not that Steely Dan was known for particularly melodic tunes. Most of their works seem to grow from the middle out rather than the top down.) “Fire in the Hole” carries a certain weight, too. Donald Fagen does most of the vocals, deferring elsewhere to a fellow named David Palmer. Fagen regarded himself as primarily a keyboardist and composer instead of frontman, although his voice has much more character than the temporary employee’s. Walter Becker handles bass alongside drummer Jim Hodder. The tenured guitarists are Denny Dias (the jazzy one) and Jeff Baxter (the skunky rock one), plus guest Elliot Randall, who drops a much celebrated solo into “Reelin’ in the Years”, a longtime radio staple. I’ve never cared for either the song or the guitar; the verses are nice, but the chorus hits me as rather pedestrian.

“Do It Again” is the clear highlight, a Latin-ish number whose pervasive minor tone underlines the determinism of its three lyrical vignettes. The cool attitude of the track along with its studious organ and sitar solos makes it a perennial best-of selection. However, the album overall is neither consistent nor definitive. It’s got certain advantages over other mainstream rock of the time, but in comparison to later SD albums, Can’t Buy a Thrill portrays the group in rough draft, their full intrigue yet to be realized.

Countdown to Ecstasy

“There ain’t nothing in Chicago for a monkey woman to do”

It’s amazing what a little touring will do, along with more adventurous writing. Countdown contends with Aja for the best SD album, and it’s the strongest of the early period, when the Dias-Baxter guitars and the Hodder drums were still teamed with Becker and Fagen in what could be called a working band. (Plus a few guests, of course.) The funk is funkier, the twang twangier, the seeds seedier, etcetera, in these tales of regret, school days, show biz, love, and doomsday survival.

“Bodhisattva”: This rocking overture was obviously geared for the stage and should be heard in that spirit. It’s basically an instrumental that happens to have a vocal part. David Palmer, by the way, is no longer around; Fagen assumes full-time singing duties on this record. Featured solos allow one to differentiate the guitarists: Denny Dias is the chromatic bopper, and Jeff Baxter is the visceral rocker. Don’t miss the live version (available on compilations) in which the band’s truck driver brings “Mr. Whatever” onstage in a long, inebriated introduction.

“Razor Boy”: An underrated gem in the Dan folio, “Razor Boy” crafts odd-shaped verses, vibes, string bass, and pedal steel into a wistful and wise song.

“Boston Rag”: Slow verses and a broad chorus conjure an ominous reminiscence involving one Lonnie’s narcotic misadventure. Meticulous detail builds the piece to dramatic height, including a little nod to Bach.

“Your Gold Teeth”: See how they roll. This jazzed-up jam is spiced by dissonance of the beret and goatee variety. Sly verses and a divergent bridge complete the picture. Steely Dan actually sounds like a real band here, and a good one at that.

“Show Biz Kids”: ...making movies of themselves / You know they don’t give a f*ck about anybody else. I love that line. This is a jam-packed track, featuring a funky rhythm loop under repetitive backing vocals, gnawing slide guitar, and one of many lyrics that displays Becker/Fagen’s disaffection with Los Angeles. They sent it out as a single, and while it’s a little too irritating for that job, it works in the album context.

“My Old School”: The girl was too cruel and the narrator doesn’t want to go back to campus in this rock/R&B hybrid, topped with saxophone riffs and barroom piano. Jeff Baxter’s chicken-scratch guitar is given much prominence, although his carefree style would soon be subsumed by the sophistication of Larry Carlton, et al. Did you ever see that episode of What’s Happening where the Doobie Brothers came to visit? Skunk Baxter was with the Doobies at that time, and he acted like a stereotypical rockin’ white boy as Dee looked on in wonder and Rerun learned a lesson about bootlegging. Stringy hair, boots on amps, boogie chillun, color blindness, a criminal element – the cultural bridges in that two-part episode stood proud. Anyway, I think “My Old School” is a little stiff and hammy, but maybe that’s why other people like it.

“Pearl of the Quarter”: A gentle, country-ish aside to a lady of Louisiana. Nice slide guitar from Baxter.

“King of the World”: Like “Razor Boy”, this track blends disparate elements, and much of the surface activity sounds dated, like the wah guitar, Echoplex, and game-show synthesizer. Despite all that, “King of the World” happens to tell a compelling tale of a sole survivor in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. In the absence of marigolds, and with the sun going brown, our hero can only hope to live through the week, sightseeing city ruins and trying to raise company on the radio. The music underscores the scenes with resigned verses, a wacked-out bridge, and jazzy interludes, the second of which features a wonderful Dias solo though the fadeout.

All of this together equals a good-time rock album – with the band’s hair down, so to speak – and a thought-provoking one.

Pretzel Logic

“Where’s that fatback chord I found”

Pretzel Logic’s rock-country-soul patchwork is like a stronger attempt at what Steely Dan were going for on their first album. It’s less consistent than Ecstasy though, given the relatively bland radio hit “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” and the neutered rock of “Night by Night”, not to mention a couple of throwaway oddities (“Through With Buzz”, “Charlie Freak”). On the positive side, the title track creates an insinuating blues mood, while the lovely hooks of “Any Major Dude” sink easily. The romping ode to bebop “Parker’s Band” references Fifty-Second Street and throws in a Bird-like quote at the end. Enjoyable side items include the chummy pop of “Barrytown” and the mutant R&B of “Monkey in Your Soul”, both of which feature “insulting” lyrics, and the latter has fuzz-bass and cool horn riffs to boot. The dusty, acoustic “With a Gun” is SD’s best country excursion, done partly tongue in cheek.

The player roster starts to shift a little bit, not that it makes a dramatic difference to the music. Walter Becker starts to play six-string in addition to his bass duties, and even though Jim Hodder is still officially a band member, Jim Gordon does most of the drumming on the album.

Pretzel Logic stitches together the last threads of the early Dan style, nevermind the weaker detours. The writing and arrangements continue to mature in the better material. Notice the jazz cap-tips: there’s the vamp from Horace Silver’s “Song for My Father” underpinning “Rikki”, the “dizzy weekend” ethos of “Parker’s Band”, another bebop reference in “Monkey”, and I almost forgot to mention the spot-on cover of Duke’s “East St. Louis Toodle-oo”.

Katy Lied

“I know you’re used to sixteen or more / Sorry we only have eight”

This is the most “adult” sounding Dan album to date, a difficult description to explain as they already sounded wise from the start. Maybe it’s the fact that SD is no longer a real group on Katy, having jettisoned Baxter and Hodder and focusing fully on the Becker-Fagen creative partnership, as translated by studio aces. Denny Dias is still around to lend a good solo or two, as are hired guitarists Larry Carlton, Dean Parks, and Rick Derringer, along with pianist Michael Omartian and drummer Jeff Porcaro, among others. Becker continues to balance bass and guitar duties, as he will from here on out.

I’m not poetic enough to capture the album all at once, so here’s a blow by blow:

“Black Friday”: A kiss-off from a protagonist who escapes financial doom and makes for Australia, set to a shuffling groove that by the third verse acquires a good edge. Electric piano powers the track and Becker provides raunchy guitar leads.

“Bad Sneakers”: The song (concerning a wish to be back in New York, perhaps from an incarcerated character) is so-so in my mind, although the arrangement is well thought-out.

“Rose Darling”: There’s more than just sneaky lovers to this weirdly endearing story, not that I have a clue as to what it might be. Unless it’s really about...well, I won’t say. Nevertheless, the verses set up a fugue-like chorus, extra vocals courtesy of Michael McDonald.

“Daddy Don’t Live in That New York City No More”: The bluesy vamp of this skankazoid tune is not unlike what any decent bar band could dial up, although it takes some subtle turns. Without a significant lyric, it falls into the “good filler” role.

“Doctor Wu”: A story of addiction, desperation, and maybe betrayal takes place over elegant and rousing music, including a Phil Woods alto solo. By this point, Steely Dan is very good at creating self-contained musical narratives while leaving some mystery for the listener to ponder, and on that point, “Doctor Wu” has inspired more interpretations than almost any other SD lyric.

“Everyone’s Gone to the Movies”: I can only smile at the combination of happy tropical music and sleazy subject matter. Amidst the plaid furniture of a ‘70s home, you can feel the shag carpet and hear the whirring projector. I’ve always liked this one, if only for the marimba and enticing beat.

“Your Gold Teeth II”: Apart from the title phrase, there isn’t any similarity to Ecstasy’s funkier Part I. This is a refined waltz piece with a touching vocal and jazzy Dias solo.

“Chain Lightning”: I wouldn’t consider this altered blues a major SD entry by any means, but it’s one of the more ironic examples of an outrageous lyric set to unthreatening music.

“Any World That I’m Welcome To”: This one’s valuable for a lack of irony, a poignant musing on personal displacement. (The running theme of the album in various guises.)

“Throw Back the Little Ones”: An aura of small-time menace runs through this portrait of a con artist. The music is quite complex but every section is so well assembled that it doesn’t feel crowded; nice touches include the limping beat, the pause between verses, the enshrined guitar solo, and the beautiful piano coda. One of SD’s most original pieces.

All of the above is as much of a grab bag as Thrill or Pretzel Logic, but it’s richer than either of those titles. When I first got into Steely Dan back in the early 1990s, Katy Lied was my least favorite record because it seemed so, well, adult and wimpy, but I grew into it. Few of the tracks reach out to the listener; it’s the sort of record one must sink into. The recording aims for crystal clarity, although there were apparently problems with the original mastering (or noise reduction) equipment, leaving the album with a slightly thin sound and a crash cymbal that sounds like a sneeze.

The Royal Scam

“The mechanized hum of another world”

With the leadoff “Kid Charlemagne”, the Dan becomes stronger and funkier than ever before. Circa 1976, it’s not surprising to hear slabs of funk, disco, and stylized rock under Becker and Fagen’s latest batch of songs. However, it’s not like they borrow these settings on contemporary whim (as David Bowie tended to do); they enjoy the sexy rhythms for their own sake, along with finding them suitable for ever-jazzier chord structures. For examples, check out the quartal vamp and luxurious bridge of “Green Earrings”, or the sick harmonic cadence under the “holy man” refrain in “The Fez” – who else in rock wrote charts like these? Steely Dan was not a jazz group in practice, but they sure had the language down.

Royal Scam is pumped along by bassist Chuck Rainey and drummer Bernard Purdie and also features hip keyboards from Don Grolnick and Paul Griffin, plus a couple of conspicuous guitar spots from Larry Carlton and several other top shelf contributions. (Denny Dias plugs in, too.) Far from being faceless studio hacks, the sessioneers all play with a personal feel that benefits each song. Is “Green Earrings” or the title track better on paper than what Becker and Fagen had written before? I don’t know, but they come across with at least as much confidence thanks to the playing and Fagen’s all-attitude vocals. “Kid Charlemagne”, a funky story of a washed-up drug chemist, deserves best-track honor, while the outlaw scenario in “Don’t Take Me Alive” has the homegrown rock feel of older SD songs. The sci-fi criminal fantasy “Sign in Stranger” moves to a skanky beat and soulful piano, and “The Fez”, love it or hate it, dives deep into the disco pocket, replete with synth strings and countless chord changes. The dark immigrant tale “Royal Scam” milks a hesitant vamp under scattered horn dialogue, releasing suspense in a majestic title refrain. “Caves of Altamira” is a decent song enlivened by horn ensemble. Again, I don’t know if these are all classic texts, but the performances win out.

That being said, there are a couple of missteps, the only reason I wouldn’t call this LP their best. For one, “Everything You Did” doesn’t go anywhere. As for “Haitian Divorce”, I appreciate the reggae groove, but talk-box guitar is absolutely unacceptable on my watch, sorry. Too bad they chose this most ridiculous of the decade’s gimmicks; had the song’s running commentary come from, say, a trumpet, I’d like it much more. Bottom line, though, is that Royal Scam is a very cool record.


“Angular banjos sound good to me”

In which Steely Dan reaches the apex of smooth sophistication. For fans of their early work, the tempered tableaus of Aja must have sounded like suspended animation; I think it’s where Fagen and Becker were headed all along, writing great songs and realizing them with an array of first-call musicians. The jazz influence looms larger than ever in complex chord voicings, solos, and horn charts by Tom Scott. Aja is the Dan’s Kind of Blue in that everything is so perfectly rendered that one might forget how special it is.

I should say that I’m not as entranced by the introspective mini-epic “Deacon Blues” as everyone else seems to be, but I’m amazed by how well crafted it is, what with the umpteen modulations and finely calibrated arrangement. The quickest ear grabber is “Peg”, a melodic jaunt driven by a ridiculously catchy groove. I honestly don’t know what stirs people to dance to modern drum-machine beats. Back in the ‘70s, real bassists and drummers had the advantage of human variation. Credit Chuck Rainey and Rick Marotta for putting such limber motion into “Peg”, an all around fine piece of work. The other favorite “Josie” has a relaxed funk backdrop and enlightened chord movement. Notice how some of the changes in the spooky intro are recycled in the chorus.

“Black Cow” dips into contemporary jazz coolness for a breakup storyline. “Home at Last” tells a Homeric tale over a strong shuffle beat (Purdie again), and the naughty “I Got the News” blends disco and lots of agile Victor Feldman piano. (Feldman appears on a few other SD albums, playing piano and/or percussion.) These three tracks aren’t necessarily standouts, yet they’re all paradigms of control that fill out the album quite well.

If you’re looking for a one-shot summation of Steely Dan’s brilliance, go to the title track “Aja”. This seven-minute journey works though mysterious verses and then develops a shining instrumental section. Devoid of wink-wink humor, the song has a “serious” tone, but not a stern one. (Can’t offer a lyrical interpretation, though.) I’m most impressed with the harmonic modulations and how the emotions shift accordingly, as when Fagen sings the “Aja” refrain. Also, the chord voicings themselves connote conflict or tension (the minor-seventh flat-fives) and spacious ambiguity (the recurring suspended chord). The music has as many twists and turns as progressive rock, although Steely Dan’s efforts are smoother. The middle section features outstanding solos from Wayne Shorter (tenor sax) and Denny Dias in last Dan guitar appearance. Through the fadeout, Steve Gadd’s drum solo releases all of the song’s suggested feelings. A masterpiece.

Aja is a watertight record and like nothing else in the rock or jazz realms. The only downside is that you have to be in the mood to hear it, but the same can be said about Kind of Blue.


“Drive west on Sunset to the sea / Turn that jungle music down”

Aja was long in the making, Gaucho even longer. The devil’s advocate might observe that the Dan’s last album (until their turn of the century reunion) is calculated to a fault, since studio indulgence will drain the life from music if gone unchecked, and I used to feel that way about most of Gaucho. Despite a couple of choice tunes, it was even slicker than Aja (a near impossible feat!) and somewhat bland, too. In time, I recognized that the songwriting was as rich and quirky as ever. Only the scenery is ultra whitewashed, and that includes the hidden drum sequencer that guides a couple of tracks.

“Babylon Sisters” sets a scene of pure luxury to start, with a slow shuffle beat, swirling electric piano hitting dense chords, horn augmentation (including bass clarinets), and a laid back vocal. This tune might bore somebody on the rock side of the fence, while jazzers will find the harmonies intriguing. The radio hit “Hey Nineteen” follows, decorated by Hugh McCracken guitar and a Fagen synth solo. If the drum track sounds robotic, that’s because it is. “Glamour Profession” looks at an omnipresent drug dealer, set to an insistent disco beat and swimming in a pool of heady voicings. Great piano in this one, nice bass from Anthony Jackson, and Steve Khan’s outro guitar solo is a crowning touch.

The title track attempts humorous grandeur but is a minor calamity in my opinion. The lyric ranks among the funniest that Becker and Fagen ever penned, but the vocal sits atop the music in a stilted way. It would have been a grand instrumental had they let two or three of their world-class hirelings blow over it. The opening vamp, by the way, rips off Keith Jarrett’s “Long as You Know You’re Living Yours”, and he eventually got compensated for it.

“Time Out of Mind” flows better, given the tight vocal lines, infectious keyboards, and illuminating bridge. To keep the guitar palette fresh, Mark Knopfler was hired for this track, though he sounds a little superfluous, if not lost. In “My Rival”, a sneaky groove, humid organ textures, and cool horn riffs underline a faux-sinister lyric. The pensive “Third World Man” might have been a downer except for a bright fanfare that appears here and there, along with a sharp Larry Carlton solo.

Becker and Fagen parted ways after this meticulous endeavor, leaving behind not so much a grand finale as another intelligent, dark-humored installment, to be continued or not. I’ll stamp the first three tracks as certified classics and savor the flavors of the other four.

Two Against Nature

“A weekend of bliss / Then the rainy season”

I heard 2vN the day it was released, and the way it reclaimed the old Dan sound was startling. This comeback effort picks up exactly where Gaucho left off – slick rhythm tracks, electric piano, diddly-do guitar, horns, and smarty lyrics. The similarity indicates that either a) Steely Dan were ahead of their time in the ‘70s, b) that Two Against Nature is shamelessly retro, or c) that the Becker/Fagen aesthetic is so unique as to be timeless. I say the answer is (c), with the caveat that this album has more poise than substance.

The three best tracks appear at the beginning, middle, and end of the program. “Gaslighting Abbie” hits quintessential Dan stride in a jazz-pop wonderland where various details bubble to the surface: spiky chords, serpentine horn lines, and so forth. The lyric is impenetrable unless one knows the old film of a similar name. A few tracks later, the twisted love song “Almost Gothic” ventures into pleasantly eerie territory, if that makes any sense. At the end of the album comes “West of Hollywood”, a fragmented story told over a chilly, chugging backdrop which at the end finds modern tenor saxman Chris Potter rhapsodizing at length on one of the Dan’s most diabolical chord progressions – giant steps indeed.

Amongst the other cuts, the voodoo title track and the contemporary jazz of “Negative Girl” (with vibes and icy guitars) both stand out. On the forgettable side are “What a Shame About Me” (well constructed but just not very compelling) and the disposable horn-riffer “Jack of Speed”. There are a couple of cutesy tracks in “Janie Runaway” and “Cousin Dupree”, although the incestuous humor of the latter is only funny once. Speaking of which, Becker and Fagen self-consciously try to live up to their reputation of taboo and outright obscurity in the lyrics. They succeed for the most part, although the random references can seem forced.

Per usual, Becker and Fagen hire a parade of sessioneers to complement their own instrumental contributions. (Neither of them play on “Negative Girl”, not the first time that’s happened.) The drumming on the album, I must say, is pretty monotonous. I suppose that risk is run in trying to obtain the tightest backbeat possible. On older albums like Royal Scam, the drums (and bass) tended to breathe more. Fagen’s voice is thinner these days, and on the high notes he almost recedes into the background. That takes away a tiny amount of heft that the songs might have had if they were recorded twenty years earlier, but please note that I’m splitting hairs here.

Anyway, I mentioned poise and that’s what the album has in spades. Substance: maybe less than the old days, but still there. Style: I would have preferred more dynamics within the tracks, but 90% of the playing is as classy as can be. Verdict: Two Against Nature sounds really good if you haven’t heard it in a while, but repeated listens reveal holes and weaknesses. If I were rating it, I’d grant three and a half stars, just because I like these guys.

Everything Must Go

“Another Tanqueray / I’ll wait til twenty past”

Well, well, it wasn’t just a smash and grab, they actually kept going. And why not – Becker and Fagen were far from creatively exhausted, although this album has some lame entries. Take “The Last Mall”, a neo-blues about spree shopping in the face of armageddon. It’s cute and shiny, but shallow. Same goes for the pert beat and sunny harmonies of “Blues Beach”, so sickly sweet. (But damn, it’s a guilty pleasure.) The real horror is Walter Becker’s karaoke-ugly “singing” on “Slang of Ages”, which wastes a good chorus. But that’s it for the negative commentary.

The rest of the album is pretty good, and a warmer listen than Nature. It presents a volte-face for Becker and Fagen in that essentially the same personnel appears on every track, a practice they abandoned back during the Nixon administration. Perhaps the ensuing years of wrangling top players left the duo with a DIY sensibility, and there’s no denying the rightness of Becker’s basslines or Fagen’s keyboards. A song like “Pixeleen” exemplifies the Dan at their best; this funny ode to a digital heroine is rendered with all the sophistication of an oldie like “Glamour Profession” and has an extra hook in Carolyn Leonhart’s support vocal. (What an attractive voice she has.) Also worthy is the divorce lament “Things I Miss the Most” with its chorus punchlines (“the Audi TT, the comfy Eames chair”) and smooth background. “Green Book” investigates noir-fusion (“I love the music / Anachronistic but nice” sings Donald), and the lazy R&B vibe of the title tune complements a tale of corporate dissolution, both poignant and naughty.

I’m partial to “Lunch with Gina”, a stalker/stalkee narrative told over an edgy funk atmosphere capped by a great Fagen synth solo – why hire somebody else when you can play like that? And then there’s the global cat ‘n mouse story “Godwhacker”, the backing track of which is similar to Genesis’ “Just a Job To Do”, another hitman portrait. Some say that the Everything Must Go lyrics have a post-9/11 undertone: “Last Mall” fears the end of the world, “Godwhacker” chases down an evil figurehead, and the title track might be about America itself. I can’t comment for sure, and Becker and Fagen insisted the songs were written before that fateful event. I think it indicates how much their lyrics leave open to interpretation. For me, “Everything Must Go” could well be about Steely Dan closing their own doors.

Anyway, EMG is half brilliant, half acceptable, and at the very least, it provides some witty music you won’t find anywhere else.

Top 10

My personal favorite SD tracks (from the classic albums):

“King of the World”
“Throw Back the Little Ones”
“Green Earrings”
“Kid Charlemagne”
“Glamour Profession”
“Do It Again”
“Your Gold Teeth”
“Razor Boy” or “Monkey in Your Soul” (tied!)

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