How do you explain Steely Dan to someone who’s never heard of them? Two pretentious, perfectionistic, and very talented white guys who love Bebop and R&B meet in passing at Bard College in 1967. They start a series of bands, one of them featuring Chevy Chase on drums. They rub everyone the wrong way and write songs too complicated for pop and TV but too good to go away, so they become a celebrated studio unit, named after a fictional steam-powered dildo in a William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch.
They obsess over studio production, putting together a revolving cast of high-end session musicians and pushing them through take after take. They carefully edit songs together from hours and hours of tape. And somehow, they end up creating some of the funkiest music of the 70s—the smoothest of smooth jazz, the yacht-iest of yacht rock… then, a generation later, they become perhaps the most sampled band of all time, their grooves a sine qua non of hip hop’s evolution….
Hardly sounds plausible. But there it is: Donald Fagen and Walter Becker—two super-fans of the genres they creatively appropriated—made some incredible, snarling, cynical, viciously groovy easy listening music, and it has more than held up over the decades since they released their debut album Can’t Buy a Thrill in 1972. Despite decades of critical praise and hit after hit, they also remain a profoundly misunderstood band.
That is, if we can even call them a band. The Polyphonic video above convincingly argues otherwise. Becker and Fagen maintained total control at all times over the project, and mostly resisted touring to focus on building albums out of thousands of perfect takes. They were curating “an aesthetic… one that relied on intense perfectionism” and satirical, oblique lyricism. Something of a conceptual art project that never once broke character.
The elements were there from the beginning—in “Do it Again,” for example, from their first album—and they grew more sophisticated and calculated throughout the decade. The band’s obsession with quality culminated in their masterpiece Aja and their swan song (before re-uniting 20 years later), the slick and bitter Gaucho. Their hyper-critical detachment can be off-putting to people who prefer to see musicians telegraph passionate authenticity, but for Steely Dan fans, the aloofness is part of the appeal.
Major guitar-rock hit “Reelin’ in the Years,” a song Fagen called “dumb, but effective,” satirizes 60s nostalgia long before that became a major cultural phenomenon. The song mocks the very people who most respond to it, like Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” tips the sacred cows of many of its biggest fans. Even Steely Dan’s detractors can’t help but admire their ability to choose the perfect players for every song and to coax, or browbeat, out of them the best possible performances.
Their perfectionism and studio polish, qualities you’ll learn much more about in the video, masked a dark, subversive core. “For Fagen and Becker,” writes Chris Morris at Variety, “the beautifully tooled music they made with their studio cohorts served as the ultimate alienation effect. The true import of their work, which addressed forbidden impulses that moved to the edge of crime and frequently beyond, was always garbed in satiny elegance; its sardonic and horrific essence was marketed as the purest ear candy.”
Or, maybe, put differently, if you get the dark humor of Patrick Bateman earnestly extolling the virtues of Huey Lewis and the News, Whitney Houston, and Phil Collins before a captive audience of his murder victims in Mary Harron’s American Psycho, there’s a good chance you get Steely Dan. As Jay Black, lead singer of Jay and the Americans, once said, Becker and Fagen were “the Manson and Starkweather of rock ‘n’ roll,” referring, of course, to Charles Manson and spree killer Charles Starkweather. With that in mind, you might never hear “Rikki Don’t Lose that Number” the same way again.
Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness