Deconstructing Steely Dan: The Band That Was More Than Just a Band

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.

Related Content:

How Steely Dan Went Through Seven Guitarists and Dozens of Hours of Tape to Get the Perfect Guitar Solo on “Peg”

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

Steely Dan Creates the Deadhead/Danfan Conversion Chart: A Witty Guide Explaining How You Can Go From Loving the Dead to Idolizing Steely Dan

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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Comments (13)
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  • Jay says:

    This is just the beginning of their incredible saga. Btw, my memory of the Jay Black comment was even more pointed. They toured w him in their early days. Black call them the Manson & Starkweather “of rock.” He just called Manson & Starkweather back then. They were…strange.


    Omg i just LOVE STEELY DAN’S music!!! There songs bring back so many great memories!!! And their Aja album was one of my favorites!!! AGAIN I LOVE THEIR MUSIC!!!!!❤🙌🏽👍🏽

  • John says:

    I actually wrote an ebook about SD. More correctly, you the fans did. There is a lot here

  • Juanito says:

    He was referring to the movie I believe.

  • Dawn McGee Hayes says:

    There is no other band like SD. Deacon Blues totally blows me away. I can’t hear it enough. The bands music is just part of who I am.

  • David Ong says:

    While most of this meditation is a passable take on the Dan, it’s warmed-over regurgitation for hard-core fans. Wholly objectionable, though, is that tired “yacht-iest of yacht rock” nonsense. Screw that noise.

  • Dmc says:

    What does the fact that they’re white guys have to do with this ? They’re a fabulous group with top notch songs and many decades of success. Thats reason enough to love them.

  • Matt Foreman says:

    Don’t miss the “easy listening” comment – that just shows the author wasn’t paying attention. For anyone with the slightest musical background, this music is not easy – and I don’t mean performing it. Just listening closely and appreciating and following the chart is more than worth the effort.

  • M Butler says:

    The original Steely Dan was described as steam powered? Cite, please.

  • Irving Slifkin says:

    David Palmer’s voic eis perfect for “Dirty work” because it’s not one of their cynical songs. It’s a great song about a broken relationship.

  • life is unreal says:

    this is the greatest musical duo of all time no doubt, their nuance and diverse abilities allows them to do anything. Listen to your gold teeth, and then your gold teeth II, and thank me later

  • HD says:

    Yes, and there is a movie based on it called, coincidentally, American Psycho.

  • P-Funk says:

    “Perhaps the most sampled band of all time”? Not even close. The Dan were sampled for some high-profile hip hop, sure. But to suggest they’re more sampled than James Brown? “Funky Drummer” alone has been sampled more than The Dan’s entire catalog, many times over.

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