How Steely Dan Wrote “Deacon Blues,” the Song Audiophiles Use to Test High-End Stereos

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.”

Related Content:

Producer Tony Visconti Breaks Down the Making of David Bowie’s Classic “Heroes,” Track by Track

The Distortion of Sound: A Short Film on How We’ve Created “a McDonald’s Generation of Music Consumers”

Neil Young on the Travesty of MP3s

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.

by | Permalink | Comments (10) |

Support Open Culture

We’re hoping to rely on our loyal readers rather than erratic ads. To support Open Culture’s educational mission, please consider making a donation. We accept PayPal, Venmo (@openculture), Patreon and Crypto! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (10)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • TimJ says:

    Back in the early 80s my girlfriend gave me a very expensive audiophile LP of Aja. While we used to marvel at the sound of the original, the audiophile version (can’t remember the brand but it cost around $30, a lot at the time!) the difference in sound was incredible.

  • Ken Pidcock says:

    In the time, I wasn’t a fan of Steely Dan’s music. I suspect its very gorgeousness made it seem inauthentic. It ain’t Lou Reed, right? I didn’t appreciate it before middle age, when most people come to appreciate jazz. Never got there. I guess Steely Dan was as far as I got, but I’m grateful for that.

  • Paul Tatara says:

    I hated Steely Dan when I was in high school back in the 80s because it was on the radio CONSTANTLY. I mean, any time you turned the thing on and scanned the dial, you’d be hearing Steely Dan within 10 minutes. And I was – and still am – a Dylan-Beatles-Springsteen man. Fagen and Becker couldn’t be further removed from those guys and their Chuck Berry chords. But I became a major bebop-head when I hit middle age, and tried Steely Dan again at that point. Although I don’t go for everything they ever recorded, I’ve grown to love a great deal of their music, especially those sardonic lyrics. I think you have to be a bit older and more jaded to really dig where they’re coming from. As a side note, I worked at a record store in NYC in the early-90s, and once had a nice conversation with Donald Fagen about the Cal Tjader album, “Hot Sauce.” He was completely cool, and not at all the wise-ass everyone would likely expect.

  • Jeff Sykes says:

    Beautiful. Wonderful commentary.

  • Tom Prowda says:

    That label would have been Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs. MFSL almost always were an improvement over the standard pressing of any LP. The vast majority of their issues were spectacular improvement, even among LP’s that were already considered quite excellent sounding. Very much worth the extra money. Some of the other LP’s that were spectacular improvements even next to the fine sounding originals:

    Grateful Dead -American Beauty
    Rickie Lee Jones- First album
    The Beatles – Sgt Pepper/Abbey Road/The White Album\
    Pink Floyd – Dark Side Of The Moon
    Donald Fagen – First solo LP
    Steely Dan – Katy Lied
    Alan Parsons – I Robot

    If you see any Mo-Fi’s of an album you like, get it then & there. They’re all limited editions; the albums listed above are just a few from their huge catalog. Check it out; the 45 rpm editions afe very much worth the extra $.

  • Philip Horn-Botha says:

    Great analysis !!!
    A much sadder day today !

  • Maria Patrice says:

    I am so grateful for the unconventional genius of Walter Becker and Donald Fagan.

    I am deeply saddened by the death of Walter Becker and I am grateful for this wonderful article featuring this process of creation and perfection by Steely Dan in their own words in rarely seen interviews.

    As a high school student, I loved all kinds of music, but especially jazz and classical vocal music. I was always drawn to singer/ composers like Laura Nyro, Joanie Mitchell and sophisticated lyrics and harmony.

    I didn’t really appreciate the Beatles until I was well into my thirties,when I took time to really listen,away from the screaming and fanstacism of their US debut.However, Donald Fagan and Walter Becker I loved from the first notes and they changed the equation for me as far as bands went; they were musicians whose melodies and lyrics I played over and over,like I did with Marvin Gaye and Donny Hathaway and later ,the music and vocal harmonies of the Pat Metheny Group.

    I loved the soulful yearning, the jazz,the melody, harmony, dissonance, emotion, irony,humor and sensuality of Steely Dan, which has never diminished over the years I have been on this earth and since I heard my first Walter Becker/ Donald Fagan song, Hey Nineteen. I thought that any musician who gave a shout-out to Aretha Franklin in a record was forever worth my time, attention and respect.

    Walter Becker,take your rest. Thank you for your gifts and the legacy you have left us.

    Maria Patrice BT

  • Gregg Wallace says:

    Rickie Lee Jones 1st Album …. (later were produced by Walter Becker but not the first…)

    It is interesting to see who produced and worked on her first album as its telling…. she seems to have been a fly on the wall in Steely Dan Sessions….

    From her first album liner notes:

    producer: Lenny Waronker; Russ Titelman.

    Rickie Lee Jones performed vocals and background vocals, guitars, keyboards, and percussion. She also arranged the horn sections.

    Michael “Bobby” Boddicker – Synthesizer
    Red Callender – Bass
    Nick DeCaro – Accordion/Orchestral Arrangements
    Buzzy Feiten – Guitars
    Victor Feldman – Drums/Keyboards/Percussion
    Chuck Findley – Horns
    Steve Gadd – Drums
    Ralph Grierson – Keyboards
    Randy Kerber – Keyboards
    Neil Larsen – Keyboards
    Arno Lucas – Background Vocals
    Johnny Mandel – Orchestral Arrangements
    Michael McDonald – Background Vocals
    Randy Newman – Synthesizer
    Andy Newmark – Drums
    Jeffrey Porcaro – Drums
    Mac Rebennack – Keyboards
    Tom Scott – Horns
    Leslie Smith – Background Vocals
    Mark Stevens – Drums/Percussion
    Fred Tackett – Guitars/Mandolin
    Joe Turano – Background Vocals
    Ernie Watts – Horns
    Willie Weeks – Fender Bass
    Matthew Wiener – Background Vocals

  • Craig C. says:

    Me too! Three of my favorite music groups/singers are: Steely Dan; Marvin Gay; and the Pat Metheny Group. I also have to add Pink Floyd , because I grew up with their music and feel that they were likewise ahead of their time. I never seem to tire of these performers, and their music actually seems to sound better with time.(obviously an appreciation thing on my part)

  • Van Dyk says:

    If you sti happen to have the copy, please feel free to share the catalogue number! :)

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.