Every Steely Dan fan remembers the first time they listened to their music — not just heard it, but listened to it, actively taking notice of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen's complexly anachronistic lyrics (long scrutinized by the band's exegetes), jazz-and-rock-spanning compositional technique, ultra-discerning selection of session musicians, and immaculate studio craft which, by the standards of the 1970s, raised popular music's bar through the ceiling.
Often, that first real listening session happens in the neighborhood of a high-end stereo dealer. For me, the album was Two Against Nature, their turn-of-the-21st century comeback, but for many more, the album was Aja, which came out in 1977 and soon claimed the status of Steely Dan's masterpiece. At the end of side one comes "Deacon Blues," one of their best-loved songs as well as a production that puts audiophile listening equipment to the test. You can see a breakdown of what went into it in Nerdwriter's new video "How Steely Dan Composes a Song" above.
"There's a reason why audiophiles use Steely Dan records to test the sound quality of new speakers," says host Evan Puschak. "The band is among the most sonically sophisticated pop acts of the 20th and 21st centuries," in both the technical and artistic senses. He goes on to identify some of the signature elements in the mix, including something called the "mu major cord"; the recording methods that allow "every instrument its own life" (especially those played by masters like guitarist Larry Carlton and drummer Bernard Purdie); the striking effect of "middle register horns sliding against each other"; and even saxophone soloist Pete Christlieb, whom Becker and Fagen discovered by chance on a Tonight Show broadcast.
Puschak doesn't ignore the lyrics, without a thorough analysis of which no discussion of Steely Dan's work would be complete. He mentions the band's typically wry, sardonic tone, their detached perspective and notes of uncertainty, but in the case of this particular song, it all comes with a "hidden earnestness" that makes it one of the most poignant in their entire catalog. "'Deacon Blues' is about as close to autobiography as our tunes get," admits Fagen in the television documentary clip just above, which puts him and Becker back into the studio to look back at the song track by isolated track.
"We're both kids who grew up in the suburbs. We both felt fairly alienated. Like a lot of kids in the fifties, we were looking for some kind of alternative culture — some kind of escape, really — from where we found ourselves." Becker describes the song's eponymous protagonist, who dreams of learning to "work the saxophone" in order to play just how he feels, "drink Scotch whiskey all night long, and die behind the wheel," as not a musician but someone who "just sort of imagines that would be one of the mythic forms of loserdom to which he might aspire. Who's to say that he's not right?"
You can learn even more about the making (and the magic) of "Deacon Blues" in Marc Myers' interview with Becker and Fagen in the Wall Street Journal last year. "It’s the only time I remember mixing a record all day and, when the mix was done, feeling like I wanted to hear it over and over again," says Becker. "It was the comprehensive sound of the thing." Fagen acknowledges "one thing we did right" in the making of the song: "We never tried to accommodate the mass market. We worked for ourselves and still do."
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.