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.

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  • 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! :)

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