Steely Dan is an American jazz rock band based around musicians and songwriters Walter Becker and Donald Fagen.
The group’s history is divided into three stages. The first stage of the group was as a conventional rock band that toured and recorded from 1972 to 1974; the second stage (1975–80) was as a purely studio-based act, still using the name Steely Dan, but now based solely around the songwriting team of Becker and Fagen, and using hired session players on their recordings; the third stage was Becker and Fagen’s surprise return to recording and performing during the 1990s, with the band reconstituted as a large jazz-rock ensemble that both tours regularly and has released several acclaimed live and studio albums.
The band’s heyday was in the 1970s, when they released a half dozen consummate albums, which skillfully blended jazz, rock and roll, funk, rhythm and blues, pop and everything in between. Their music, which may at first appear “smooth” and “easy listening”, is characterized by complex jazz-influenced structures and harmonies, witty and literate lyrics and unparalleled musicianship. Steely Dan's albums are found by fans to be satisfying on many levels.
Their enigmatic, sardonically humorous and topical lyrics add enormously to the appeal of the songs. Although Becker and Fagen might have at first owed a certain lyrical debt to Bob Dylan, they rapidly developed their own distinctive style and have since become one of the most accomplished and respected songwriting teams of their age. Perhaps influenced by their early hardships as songwriters for hire, the duo has never given songs to other performers.
Musically, their sound is full of energy, though not an energy of aggression or speed. This comes partly from the tightness of the musicians and partly from Becker and Fagen’s deep grounding in and love for jazz and rhythm and blues. Their major musical focus has always been to create a precise mood or “feel” that underscores the lyrics.
Long known as perfectionists, they often recorded take after take before selecting the player or performance that made the final cut on their albums. The guitar solo on “Peg”, for example, was attempted by four fine guitarists before Jay Graydon’s chorus became the “keeper”.
Becker and Fagen also favor a distinctly soul-influenced style of backing vocal, which after the first few albums were almost always performed by a female chorus (although Michael McDonald features prominently on the 1977 song “Peg”). On several albums they used the famous session trio of Venetta Fields, Shirley Matthews and Clydie King, who have appeared on many other famous recordings including albums by The Rolling Stones and Boz Scaggs.
The attraction of Steely Dan's music also comes partly from the structure of each song, which will often contain counter-melodies and solid but supple rhythms. It also comes from the sound of each instrument, which is recorded with utmost fidelity and attention to sonic detail, in a style that appeals to the ear and is mixed such a way that all instruments are heard and none are given undue priority. For example, in the song, “Parker’s Band”, two drum kits are used (a technique which was standard in the Big Band era). This gives the song an unexpected drive, without overpowering the sound; it is not even immediately apparent. Their albums are also notable for the characteristically “warm” and “dry” production sound, and the sparing use of echo and reverberation - effects which were often heavily over-used on other rock recordings of this period.
Lyrically, their songs cover a wide range of topics, but in their basic approach Becker and Fagen’s writing can be compared with the observational, novelistic style of Lou Reed, and with songwriters such as Randy Newman, who specializes in creating fictional personae that narrate the song. The duo has said that in retrospect, most of their albums have a “fee”' of either New York or Los Angeles, the two main bases where Becker and Fagen lived and operated. Characters appear in their songs that evoke these cities. Themes of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll appear, but never in a straightforward manner, neither encouraging nor discouraging, and many (if not all) of their songs are tinged with an ironic edge.
Some lyrics are notable for their unusual scansion patterns; a prime example of this is their 1972 hit, “Reelin’ in the Years”, which crams an unusually large number of words into each line, giving it a highly syncopated quality, similar to rap:
Your everlasting summer, you can see it fading fast, So you grab a piece of something that you think is gonna last. Well, you wouldn’t even know a diamond if you held it in your hand. The things you think are precious I can’t understand.
Another good example of their ‘70s writing style is “Kid Charlemagne” from The Royal Scam. Although the lyrics are, at first glance, typically oblique and allusive, Becker and Fagen have hinted that it was partly inspired by the exploits of the infamous 1960s San Francisco-based LSD chemist Owsley -- although it conflates the core story with numerous other images of the Sixties. This is evident in the following lines:
On the hill the stuff was laced with kerosene, But yours was kitchen clean.
Everyone stopped to stare at your technicolor motor home.
The first two lines draw on the fact that Owsley’s acid was famed for its purity, although the last line is clearly a reference to the famous psychedelic bus named Furthur, which was used by the Merry Pranksters.
Other intriguing themes are also present, such as prejudice, growing old, failure, poverty and middle-class ennui, but typically seen from an ironic and detachedly intelligent perspective. Many of their songs concern love, but none can be classed as straightforward love songs, since there is inevitably an ironic or disturbing twist in the lyrics which sets them apart from the typical love song fare.
A good example of this aspect of their writing can be found in the song “Janie Runaway” (from Two Against Nature). At first glance it reads like an optimistic love song, with the narrator singing the praises of his new love, but a closer examination reveals a relationship between a teenage (and probably underage) runaway and a jaded, wealthy, New York roue who, by song’s end, part threatens, part bribes the girl into joining him for an out-of-state “threesome” weekend with another young woman.
“Gaslighting Abbie” (2000), also from the Two Against Nature album, likewise presents itself at first as a love song, but further examination of the lyrics reveal that the narrator is conspiring with his lover on a sadistic plan to drive his wife insane. As the title suggests, the song was inspired by the famous 1944 George Cukor thriller, Gaslight, starring Ingrid Bergman, in which the husband of Bergman’s character (played by Charles Boyer) attempts to drive her mad.
Steely Dan's lyrics are unusually challenging and interesting, and can attract and hold one’s attention alongside the music, inviting repeated listenings to their songs. Many songs contain subtle coded references, word-games, unusual (and sometimes original) slang expressions and intriguing lyrical choices and constructions, all of which enable the songs to be analyzed in considerable depth. Jazz is a recurring theme, with references abounding in their songs, and there are numerous other film, television and literary references and allusions, such as “Home at Last” (from Aja), which was inspired by The Odyssey.
“Namechecking” is another classic Dan lyrical device, and references to real places and people abound in their songs. The Two Against Nature album (2000) contains numerous references to New York, including the district of Gramercy Park and the well-known upmarket food business, Dean Deluca.
The song, “Black Friday” (1975) contains one of their most fascinating “namechecks”, a surprising reference to the town of Muswellbrook in northern New South Wales, Australia:
When Black Friday comes, I'll fly down to Muswellbrook.
This reference has startled and amused many Australian fans, but is believed that Becker and Fagen in fact selected the name from an atlas, primarily because it worked effectively with the next rhyme:
I'm gonna strike all the big red words, From my little black book.
and also because it allowed them to create the amusing couplets in the next stanza:
I'm gonna do just what I please. Gonna wear no socks and shoes, With nothin’ to do, But feed all the kangaroos.
It is typical of their wry sense of humor that the reference to kangaroos makes no particular sense unless one knows that Muswellbrook is located in Australia.
Becker and Fagen met at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York in 1967 and began playing in local groups; one of these, the Bad Rock Group, included future comedy star Chevy Chase on drums.
After Fagen graduated in 1969, the two moved to Brooklyn and in 1970 they joined the pop group Jay and the Americans, where they worked under pseudonyms (Fagen’s was Gustav Mahler, Becker’s was Tristan Fabriani). They remained with the Americans until mid-1971 when they quit to work on the soundtrack of the low-budget film, You Gotta Walk It Like You Talk It, which was produced by Kenny Vance of the Americans. Around this time they tried to start a group with guitarist Denny Dias, but this was unsuccessful, so Becker and Fagen moved to Manhattan, hoping to establish themselves as professional songwriters.
Although they had a few notable successes—Barbra Streisand recorded their song, I Mean To Shine—they made little significant headway until they met Gary Katz, who had just become a staff producer for ABC Records in Los Angeles. He hired Becker and Fagen as staff songwriters and they flew to Los Angeles. Katz would produce all their 1970s albums and from the first album on they commenced a long and successful collaboration with engineer Roger Nichols, who has since worked on every Steely Dan album, and the duo’s solo projects.
After realizing their songs were too complex for other ABC artists, at Katz’s suggestion they formed their own band with guitarists Denny Dias and Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, drummer Jim Hodder and singer-keyboard player David Palmer, and Katz signed the band to ABC as recording artists. The addition of a second lead vocalist (Palmer) was mainly made at the insistence of the label’s executives, who felt that Fagen’s idiosyncratic voice lacked commercial appeal, but it soon became obvious that it was in fact ideally suited to their material, and Palmer left the group after the first LP.
Produced by Katz and recorded by Roger (The Immortal) Nichols at The Village Recorder, they released their debut album, Can't Buy a Thrill, in 1972 and made an immediate impression with the hit singles, “Dirty Work” (later covered by Max Merritt) and “Reelin’ in the Years”, which soon became a staple of FM radio and features one of rock’s all-time great guitar solos (performed by Elliott Randall).
Their second album, Countdown to Ecstasy, was released in 1973 but the singles lifted from it (including “Bodhisattva”) failed to repeat the chart success of their predecessors. After the LP was released, they replaced Hodder with drummer Jeff Porcaro (later a member of Toto) and added singer and keyboard player Michael McDonald.
They returned to prominence with their classic third LP Pretzel Logic in early 1974, a diverse but superbly realized set that produced another huge hit single, “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number”, a US Top Ten hit which became another enduring FM rock radio staple. It is also notable as the only Steely Dan album to contain a song by another composer—their delightful cover of Duke Ellington’s “East St Louis Toodle-Doo”.
After touring to support the album, Becker and Fagen decided to withdraw from the road to concentrate on writing and recording. The other band members, feeling that they had in effect been reduced to the role of session players, gradually left the group. Baxter and McDonald went on to great success as members of The Doobie Brothers. Their 1975 LP, Katy Lied saw the duo using a diverse group of session players, including guitarist Elliott Randall, saxophonist Phil Woods, bassist Wilton Felder, percussionist-vibraphonist Victor Feldman, keyboardist (and later producer) Michael Omartian and guitarist Larry Carlton, with only Dias remaining from the original group. The new album was a hit, as was the 1976 follow-up, The Royal Scam.
Although some doubted that they could last as a studio-only group, Becker and Fagen proved their critics wrong in spectacular fashion with the 1977 release of their sixth LP, the dazzling, jazz-oriented Aja, which saw them using the services of top-notch jazz and jazz-rock and soul musicians including Larry Carlton, Wayne Shorter, Steve Gadd, the Crusaders, Chuck Rainey and legendary session drummer Bernard “Pretty” Purdie.
Regarded as one of the best (and best-recorded) albums of the period, it won a slew of awards, had shot into the Top Five in the U.S. charts within three weeks of release, and was one of the first American LPs to be certified “platinum” for sales of over one million albums. It cemented the duo’s reputation as songwriters, as well as their legendary reputation for studio perfectionism. The story of the making of the album has been documented in an episode of the popular TV and DVD series, Classic Albums.
After Aja was released, ABC was bought by MCA, and for most of the next three years they were caught in contractual problems that prevented them from recording a follow-up album, although they scored another hit single with the title theme from the movie FM.
By the time of the release of Gaucho in 1980, they realized that the partnership was running out of steam and that they had reached their peak with Aja. Becker was also having personal difficulties including the loss of a girlfriend to a drug overdose. Nevertheless, the album was another major success, and they scored another hit with the single, “Hey Nineteen”.
Becker and Fagen announced the temporary suspension of their partnership in June 1981. Becker subsequently moved to the Hawaiian island of Maui to escape the L.A. scene, beat his addictions and raise a family. The two tried writing together again in the mid-1980s but were unhappy with the results.
In 1982 Fagen released his groundbreaking solo album, The Nightfly, which was favorably compared to his Steely Dan work but failed to match the wide audience appeal of the two previous Dan albums. Interestingly, it included the only other song in the entire Steely Dan oeuvre that was not written by Becker and/or Fagen—a cover of Leiber and Stoller’s “Ruby Baby”.
After the release of his album, Fagen began to suffer from writer’s block, so he withdrew from writing and recording for several years. He occasionally did production work for other artists, as did Becker; one notable credit was British group, China Crisis, who were strongly influenced by Steely Dan.
Many fans believe that Fagen and Becker took the first steps toward reconciliation in 1986. That was the year that their best-known producer, Gary Katz, oversaw an album by a new A&M artist, former model Rosie Vela. Zazu was strongly influenced by both Joni Mitchell and Steely Dan. Both Becker and Fagen are featured on that album, and it is believed to be the first time they performed together since the breakup.
Two key events led to Becker and Fagen getting back together as Steely Dan. The first was on October 25, 1991, when Becker attended a concert by Fagen, who was at the time performing as part of the New York Rock and Soul Revue, which Fagen co-founded with his partner, producer and singer Libby Titus (who was for many years the partner of Levon Helm of The Band).
The second event was Becker’s production of Fagen’s second solo album Kamakiriad in 1993—a brilliant and hugely underrated work that ranks with any of Steely Dan's best recordings; Fagen later nominated it as the most satisfying recording experience of his career. (It also features Titus and Helm’s daughter Amy on backing vocals). Returning the favour, Fagen then produced Becker’s first solo album 11 Tracks of Whack (1994).
These events finally led to a reformation, and to the surprise and delight of fans, they mounted a U.S. tour to support Fagen’s album (which sold poorly, even though the concerts were extremely successful). With Becker now mainly playing lead and rhythm guitar, they put together a strong new backing band that included an additional keyboard player and guitarist, female backing singers and a horn section. They toured to great acclaim in 1995-96, performing mainly songs from the later Steely Dan albums plus a selection of re-arranged Dan classics, and they released a live CD of the tour, Alive in America in 1997.
Finally in 2000 they released their first studio album in twenty years, Two Against Nature. It was not only a brilliant return to form but proved to be one of the surprise successes of the year, and in February 2001, it earned them four coveted Grammy Awards. In March 2001, the original members reunited on stage for the first time in decades when Steely Dan was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
In 2003 Steely Dan released another album, Everything Must Go, and toured America thereafter.