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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