Steely Dan

Strongest album: Pretzel Logic
Must to avoid: Guacho

As we all know by now, the 1970s witnessed the most shameless pursuit of personal pleasure on a mass scale in history. Decadence once reserved for the syphilitic aristocracy was now easily available for the average citizen of a Western democracy. The tolerance of drug use and freer sexuality that took root in the '60s blossomed forth in the '70s - minus the '60s idealism. This was the "Me Decade", even more so than the Reagan era - "Fuck politics, let's disco!" to mangle Stiff Records' logo. Of course the '80s would see AIDS and crack (and conservative governments in the U.S. and U.K.) put a reverse on this spiral of excess. But while '70s were hot, people were too self-absorbed and busy boogieing the night away to really care about the morning after.

This was the environment that Steely Dan found themselves in. They were the quintessential chroniclers of that wild decade, with their songs populated by junkies, perverts, solopsists, killers, and just plain pricks. The tension between the restrained, clinical musical backing and the sensual chaos of their subject matter makes for a compelling listen. What's perhaps ultimately the most perverse thing about Steely Dan is that they actually achieved great popularity. Obviously a great many in their audience remained clueless as to what they were actually singing along with on the radio. Their music, too, would seemingly preclude mass success - Steely Dan were frankly uninterested in reworking the tired blues changes that half a million rock bands had done before. Instead they took jazz as their inspiration and musical foundation, particularly '50s be-bop. Essentially the duo of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, Steely Dan was never really a real, self-contained rock band - it mainly consisted of hired studio musicians backing up Fagen and Becker's compositions. Some find their sophistication antithetical to the spirit of rock'n'roll, but that's a pretty narrow-minded view. Becker and Fagen were too smart to come across as pretentious fools like the '70s English art-rockers - they were both more cynical and more humane, and they actually knew their stuff. And oh yeah - William Burroughs dug'em.

There's an excellent website for fans of the Dour Duo.
Can't Buy A Thrill (1972) ****

This is Steely Dan at their most accessible, and neophytes should problably begin here. However, that's exactly the problem - compared to their later work, it sounds compromised, without enough of the invention that would come to characterize them. It sounds too ready for radio, and the sweet soft-rock trilling of Donald Palmer sounds out of place. Fortunately, he only sings on a few songs (think of him as the Nico to Fagen's Lou Reed on the first Velvets album). Fagen sings lead on both of the hits - "Do It Again", which I've always heard as a swipe at a compulsive gambler after mishearing "back, Jack" as "blackjack"; and "Reeling In The Years", which puts a egoist in his/her place ("You've been telling me you were a genius since you were seventeen/And all the time I've known you I still don't know what you mean"). "Kings" seems to use Richard the Lionhearted/King John as a metaphor for Nixon, I think - with Dan, you can never be sure. And that's part of their appeal - it's a relief to hear a band that respects your intelligence enough to not be obvious; you can spend hours trying to figure out what most of their lyrics mean. This, however, is Dan at their most straightforward, which isn't entirely a bad thing, especially since the tunes are excellent. Compromised though it is by future standards, the music is already very distinctive, with jazzy time/chord changes and light Latin rythms that they probably heard in the Puerto Rican neighborhoods of New York.

Countdown To Ecstacy (1973) ****1/2

Ditching Donald Palmer, whose soft-rock stylings were better suited for the likes of Chicago, and handing all the lead vocal duties to Fagen, is the most obvious improvement on this album. Steely Dan grow into their unique style, stretching out the song lengths and letting the instrumental passages run on. Even though the pop songwriting is still sharp, that makes this less appealing to Top 40 radio - this album sold only a fraction of what the debut did. Whatever, the Dan are rarely self-indulgent: the rising-scale synthesizer melody/hook on "King Of The World" wouldn't have worked in a three-minute pop format. Steely Dan do have a couple of conventionally straightforward numbers, "Pearl Of The Quarter", a wistful ode to a New Orleans prostitute, and "My Old School", about G. Gordon Liddy's drug bust of the college Becker and Fagen attended. Sometimes the music is self-indulgent, though not often, and the songs all go on too long - despite all that, the only thing I'd leave off is the amelodic "Bodhisattva", which mocks the '60s/'70s phenomenon of trendy religious cults. Donald Fagen once said in an interview that he liked his band's music because "it scares me more than anybody else's". True, true - the scariest Dan of all is "The Boston Rag", the lyrics of which I've never figured out but the apocalyptic delivery of which always sends a shock down my spine. Best couplet: "Show business kids making movies of themselves/You know they don't give a fuck about anybody else".

Pretzel Logic (1974) ****1/2

After the commercial bomb of Countdown, Steely Dan tighten their song structures, excising any unnecessary instrumental passages in order to keep'em short. A few tunes ("Through With Buzz", "Charlie Freak") seem underdeveloped and a bit fragmentary as a result, though overall this concision works in the Dan's favor: it's both as radio-catchy as Thrill and as twisted-catchy as Countdown at its best. "Rikki Don't Lose That Number" smoothly incorporates a jazz piano figure into a perfect pleading pop tune, its air of uncertainty making it one of the great miserable love songs. Becker and Fagen's passion for jazz comes to the fore, in an ode to Charlie Parker ("Parker's Band") and a cover of Duke Ellington's "St. Louis Toodle-Oo". If you didn't know, the title track's about Hitler - the swastika=pretzel logic, get it? That phrase sums up the Dan's convoluted approach to pop perfectly, also. Other subject matter includes cowardly murderers, crotchety conservatives, drug overdoses, backstabbing friends, and a surprising moment of compassion, "Any Major Dude". The quintessential Steely Dan album, and probably their best.

Katy Lied (1975) ****

Slightly weaker than the previous two albums, mainly due to the string of neo-funk throwaways on side two, the great stuff peaks really high. "Doctor Wu" may be my favorite Steely Dan song, an ex-Vietnam vet's rumination on heroin and betrayal, with the lines "All night long/We would sing that stupid song/And every word we sang I knew was true" stating eloquently and succintly the power of pop. Few songs in any genre of music have bottomed out as nihilistically as "Any World That I'm Welcome To". "Black Friday" rewrites "Pretzel Logic" for the stock market crash, with less interesting results. "Everyone's Gone To The Movies" tells the story of a pervert who shows pornographic movies to pre-pubescents. The narrator of "Rose Darling" admits that his words of love are empty, but let's go to bed anyway. Like I said, the most perverse thing about all this is how catchy it is.

Reader Comments
Eric Goss,

Most critics, including Christgau and Rolling Stone, rank Katy Lied lower than Pretzel Logic, and I just don't get it. I view Becker and Fagen as brilliant arrangers whose success depends on using this talent to overcome their so-so composing skills. It's telling that their songs are seldom covered by other artists. Katy Lied is better arranged, IMHO. It concentrates on being a pop album, rather than making all those strained references to jazz as Pretzel does. They seem to know exactly how to use guest artists in order to make a piece take off - a Phil Woods sax solo on Doctor Wu, Micheal McDonald on Any World.

The Royal Scam (1976) ***1/2

The diminished melodicism and jagged playing make this the least accessible Steely Dan album. It's ocassionally written off as a particular low point, but in truth it's not that radically different than Katy Lied musically. Becker and Fagen have gradually grown more cynical and sarcastic with every album, and here's where their negativism explodes. Their nastiness isn't counterbalanced by the moments of warmth they displayed on previous albums - the tone is relentlessly cold, dirty, and brutal. The title track traces the rise and fall of a pair of Puerto Rican drug smugglers who immigrate to New York, with its thudding bass line the pulse of a thousand future hip-hop groups. A bookkeeper's son on the run holes himself up with dynamite in "Don't Take Me Alive"; a couple make a run for a quickie "Haitian Divorce" in a light reggae number; and the con-artist "holy man" is Jewish this time around ("The Fez"). The nastiest song, however, is "Tell Me Everything", in which a cuckold harasses and threatens his adulterous lover with a murderous intensity, and at the end forces her to do with him all the "dirty" things she's done with the other man. Only the childhood fantasies of "The Caves Of Altimira" offers any way out. Certainly not the place to begin, but intriguing in its obsessive cynicism.

Aja (1977) ***1/2

A turning point, Steely Dan plunge full-fledged into jazz-fusion and make their music (and lyrics) much softer. Some take this as a high point, but to me it sounds rather diffuse and meandering. The songs really do go on too long, and I long for the solidity and (relative) straightforwardness of their earlier songs. That said, this is great mood music, and if I had more of a use for lounge jazz I'd rate this much higher. And thankfully, Becker and Fagen have shed the cynicism of the last album for a much warmer approach - the lyrics are humane, compassionate, nice. "Deacon Blues", the saga of a saxophonist who drinks scotch whiskey all night long, crawling like a viper through the suburban streets, is one of their absolute best, especially the refrain "They got a name for the winners in the world/I want a name when I lose". You could read an ominous hint of gang rape in "Josie" (someone did) but it's too buried to mean anything. "Peg" offers encouragement to a depressed runway model/celebrity with an unusual time signature. And this time around, the husband forgives his cheating wife in "Black Cow". Eventually I even learned to enjoy the nine-minute title track. This is elevator music, I suppose, but it's practically the pinnacle of elevator music - there's actual substance behind the loungey atmospherics.

Guacho (1980) **1/2

One critic dubbed this Countdown To Lethargy when it came out, and time hasn't been much kinder to it. It's easy to see why Becker and Fagen parted ways shortly afterwards; frankly, they had run out of ideas and inspiration. The album bears the same sound as Aja, minus long solos and instrumental passages (a plus) but also minus the melodicism and interesting texture. After "Babylon Sisters" and "Hey Nineteen" you can shut this record off, and even those two singles are kind of bland. After several listens you discover a few hooks reveal themselves, and the melodies start to feel relaxing. It's not a bad album, really; it actually sounds pleasant in the background. But I like my music in the foreground, and when I start to pay attention I start to nod off. And with only seven songs, some of them - no, make that all of them - go on too long. At least the lyrics are still sharp (at far as I can tell from the amount of attention I can muster) even if the music isn't.


Solo Albums

Donald Fagen: The Nightfly (1982) ****

This is easily the best of the post-Dan releases from Becker or Fagen, and contains Fagen's best work since Katy Lied, if not Pretzel Logic. The album is nothing more or less than an attempt to capture the life of an average, honor student, upper-middle class teen from the Northeastern suburbs during the Kennedy administration. Fagen succeeds at this task admirably. The obscure referents and tangled wordplay of Steely Dan had grown tired by this time, so Fagen opts for a refreshingly direct and clear approach to his lyrics - you can easily understand what he's singing about on even a cursory listen. The music itself has become increasingly jazzy and be-boppy, less tied to the tradition of rock and more like the type of thing you'd be likely to hear when you stepped in to catch the Rat Pack, especially on the "Walk Through The Raindrops", which you'd swear was some Ol' Blue Eyes standard - but is an original. Fagen slyly looks back at Nuclear Age optimism in "I.G.Y. (International Geophysical Year)", while stocking the fallout shelter with beer and Brubeck in "New Frontier". He dreams of studying design overseas and Maxine, covers Lieber/Stoller's "Ruby Baby", and tunes in to the late night DJ on WJAZ. Warmth definitely edges out cynicism in Fagen's recollections, but he never succumbs to sappy nostalgia. Break out the bongos and slap on your beret, hip cats, this baby's gone, real gone!

Donald Fagen: Kamakiriad (1993) **1/2

After a looonng layoff, Fagen tries to make a comeback, and fails. Walter Becker produced the album and co-wrote one of the better songs, "Snowbound", along with adding some instrumental assistance. The concept this time round is a guy living in the near future who drives his Japanese steam-driven and vegetable-garden containing Kamakiriad model car across the Northeast. A bit like Warren Zevon's Transverse City in the futuristic concept album genre, the songs themselves fail to hold much interest, and over the course of an entire album, tedium sets in. Fagen has a real hard time finding hooks to hang his diffuse choruses and rambling verses, coming up with some lightweight demi-jazz in the vein of his first solo album for backing to make this halfway worthwhile, but it's not enough. The single was "Tommorrow's Girls", which got a little airplay on the strength of his old rep, but predictably flopped. At first I was going to write this album off as a stone bore, but after several listenings I like it a bit better; in fact it improves every time I play it - but not enough for me to play it twenty more times to see if it's on the level of, say, Aja. Not really worth the decade-long wait.

Walter Becker: Eight Tracks Of Whack (1994) ***

Becker finally released his first solo album nearly a decade and a half after Steely Dan's demise, a period during which he apparently became addicted to heroin and struggled to kick the habit. It's the subject of the best tune and only real classic here, "Junkie Girl", which gets by on the strength of sharply detailed verses and a searingly melodic chorus that will never get played on the radio because it goes, "No fooling, it's a fucked up world". Right off the bat you understand why Becker wasn't the vocalist in the Dan, but he's as strong a writer as Fagen and gamely adapts his gruff croak the best he can. Fagen guests on this album also, which leads one to wonder why those two just didn't make a new Steely Dan record instead of two concurrent solo albums. Becker's music is more direct and less jazzy than Fagen's; it's more of a straightforward singer-songwriter effort, less texturally interesting but more engagingly songful. The problem is that only "Junkie Girl" rises above the presentation; due to his vocal limitations and subdued musical backing, most of these songs sound like demos, and a few ("Surf And/Or Die") simply don't go anywhere. That said, Becker does display a knack for catchily melodic choruses ("Girlfriend"), and the lyrics, as usual, are excellent - except for the somewhat misogynist "Cringemaker". It seems that Becker was the darker side of the Dan - he's much more cynical and biting than Fagen, offering plenty of putdowns ("Book Of Liars") for those so inclined. All in all, their solo careers prove that Becker and Fagen, while both still creative and capable of accomplished music, would be much better off working together to cancel each other's weaknesses. The must have realized the same thing, too: Steely Dan reformed in the mid-90s to play a series of tour dates, though whether a new studio album will appear under the Steely Dan moniker is anyone's guess.

Fagen also took part in an early '90s album by the New York Rock and Soul Revue, which includes several big names like Phoebe Snow and Boz Scaggs; apparently it consists of renditions of old soul chestnuts mixed with the stars' readings of their own original material. I don't own it, but I'm sure to pick it up if I see it cheap. Overall, Steely Dan's output is astonishly consistent - with one exception, none of the albums I've heard are not worth hearing, and a couple are classic.

Reader Comments


you are an idiot

Anne Thomas,

Fagen and Becker are currently working on a new Steely Dan album, tentatively titled "Two Against Nature." According to the official Steely Dan website, it's now in the mixing phase, and according to the Reprise Records site, the tentative release date is November 2, 1999.

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Drink your big black cow and get out of here.