Vinyl Fetish: Steely Dan.

Editors’ note: every so often, I will continue to justify my musical fixations by writing about them here. I understand this installment, like the last one, is kind of old-school — eventually, I’ll get to newer stuff.

In the song “Deacon Blues,” off 1977’s Aja, Donald Fagen sings about an average fellow looking to be a star on the jazz bandstand, romanticizing the life of a hip musician to great extent, wanting to learn to “work” the saxophone, playing just what he feels, drinking all night and dying behind the wheel, anything to escape the mundane life. This is possibly as autobiographical as Steely Dan would get, as Fagen and Walter Becker were both jazz and blues fetishists, college-educated, looking to make it as songwriters in a Brill Building era that was on its way out in the wake of the Beatles and Bob Dylan, never mind that their own songs were way too idiosyncratic for anyone else to sing. It’s that identification that probably gives Becker and Fagen their large cult of fans to this day: what amazes me is that I met a lot of 18 and 19-year old Dan fans in college (in 2000), and these were the same people listening to and playing the latest strain of indie rock, power pop, or what have you.

Credit either early brainwashing by their parents, the irony hangover from the mid-to-late 90s, an appreciation of literary background (the band’s name came from William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch; a “steely dan” was a sex toy), or among the musos, bewilderment and awe on how someone could go multi-platinum writing jazz changes and structure into pop music. I’ll take all of them. Fagen and Becker wrote amazing songs that held up even when Fagen wasn’t singing them (they hired singer David Palmer at first, and when the songs Fagen sang turned out to be the hits, he left — but “Dirty Work” is the great Palmer-sung Dan song.) My mother was my introduction, but I didn’t appreciate the band and certainly didn’t buy the records until I got to college and started studying jazz, determining that Steely Dan was really the pop ideal of “fusion”, rather than the bloated genre of instrumental fusion that continues to polarize to this day. And for a guitar-head, recruiting guitarists from Jeff Baxter and Denny Dias (when it was still a band rather than a studio entity) to studio guys like Larry Carlton and Elliott Randall made for great stuff.

Plus, that appreciation of jazz extended to something I get kind of obsessive about: when reading the liner notes of jazz records, there’s always a very extended writing about the playing and performance behind it, usually written by a top-notch critic — most rock albums only give you writer credits and lyrics. I kind of miss that approach, as if current music doesn’t have its context, or the musicians aren’t good enough to merit the superlatives. Steely Dan usually took the piss out of this approach by emulating it with a twist of humor, but still, it’s nice to see.

Here’s some video to polish it off:


12 Responses

  1. Nice change of pace!!

  2. My boy and I have recorded a couple of albums and we’ve used Steely Dan samples on both. We used “Do It Again” on a song called “Gators And A Grip.” I’m sure Becker and Fagen never thought they could be so gangsa:)

  3. RStiles – thanks.

    Diallo – The last big commercial hip-hop Dan sample I remember was Lord Tariq and Peter Gunz’ “Deja Vu” in 1996 or so — they sampled “Black Cow” from Aja and sped it up. I still wonder when a hip-hop producer is going to sample “Josie” — that would make an awesome track.

  4. I didn’t realize that was Steely Dan. Cats really are sleeping on these guys. Josie, you say? That may make an appearance on the next album. You’ll get full credit for suggesting it:)

  5. Oh man. You are taking me back. I got into Steely Dan when I was in college also (though it was a lot earlier than 2000, but not quite their 70s heyday, either).

    By the way, that is a good post on Steely Dan. Perhaps now I can find some inspiration on how to incorporate my musical indulgences in my blog!

  6. I was always into Steely Dan, since my Dad listened to the classic rock stations all the time, and it’s a requirement in the state of Alabama to know the lyrics to “Deacon Blues.”

    Funnily enough, I know people that went to William & Mary, and was told that the guys were visiting or something and got caught getting stoned. Prolly a bunch of hooey, though, since the Annandale referenced in the song prolly applies more to the town in New York than Northern Virginia.

    Their “Everything Must Go” album, which I reviewed for The Gamecock, wasn’t bad either.

  7. Hack – yes, the Annandale referenced in “My Old School” is Annandale-on-Hudson in NY, since both Becker and Fagen went to Bard College.

  8. I’m old. I saw Steely Dan on their first tour in Minneapolis at the Guthrie Theater back in 1972/73. I Didn’t know who they were only their first hit “Do It Again”. Concerts were cheap then $5.50 for the best seat. Decided to go at the last minute. You could actually walk up and buy tickets on the day of the show. They started out with “Do It Again” and I thought that takes some stones. The show was uphill from there. Made me a fan and realized that some of these rock guys understood more than just the blues (even though as Miles said, its all blues).

  9. I was in grade school in 1973 when Eumir Deodato had a hit here in the Philippines with “Do It Again”. It was only later when I heard Steely Dan’s original. I have been a fan well through college in the late 70’s and up to now (note my e-mail address).

    Thanks for this interesting post.

  10. Sexy dommes like this one makes my day like nothing else please post some more i ll be thankful

  11. I adore gathering useful info, this post has got me even more info!

  12. I do not write a ton of responses, but i did a few searching and wound up here Vinyl Fetish: Steely Dan. Signal to Noise. And I actually do have 2 questions for you if you do not mind. Could it be just me or does it appear like some of these comments appear like coming from brain dead folks? :-P And, if you are posting at other online sites, I’d like to follow anything fresh you have to post. Would you list of every one of all your public sites like your Facebook page, twitter feed, or linkedin profile?

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