Steely Dan has such a smooth sound, it’s easy to imagine them appearing fully-formed from the musical ether. Needless to say, that wasn’t the case. Singer/keyboardist Donald Fagen had met guitarist/bassist Walter Becker in 1967 while they were attending Bard College in the Catskills. They both loved R&B, pop, and jazz, and they both wanted to succeed as songwriters.
Obviously, they needed to be in NYC. By 1968 they’d started pitching songs at the famous Brill Building, where the likes of Burt Bacharach and Carole King tried to interest producers in their wares. Fagen and Becker did get some decent nibbles — they were commissioned to write a movie score, plus Barbra Streisand recorded one of their songs – but this approach was clearly not going to lead to the big time.
So, they struck out on their own, founding Steely Dan in 1972. That same year they signed with ABC Records to produce their first album, Can’t Buy a Thrill. The singles, “Do It Again” and “Reeling in the Years,” are still two of their most recognized songs. Quite a start!
Unique to this album is the presence of David Palmer, who was hired as lead vocalist for a couple of songs. Fagen and Becker originally set up a full band, but it turned out that only the two of them remained constant members of Steely Dan, relying on a big roster of session musicians for everything else. On subsequent albums, Fagen sang all the leads.
“Dirty Work” is one of the Palmer tracks, a laid-back blues rock number which delays the onset of jazz harmonies and textures (including that Hammond organ!) until the second half of the song. It’s strange to hear Palmer’s quivering tenor instead of Fagen’s voice.
The toe-tapping melody is in sharp contrast with the grim contents of the lyrics, and that dichotomy became a common technique in Steely Dan songs. For example, there’s “King of the World, from Countdown to Ecstasy (1973), which deals with surviving a nuclear holocaust in a disturbingly upbeat tone.
This quirky funk track sizzles with Jim Hodder’s tight drumming. Hodder, along with guitarists Denny Dias and Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, were part of Steely Dan at this point, a rung above the other eight session instrumentalists and six backing vocalists. Fagen lays down a leaping synthesizer solo (starting at 1:54) that puts into music the image of a survivor wandering the scorched, empty land.
It’s not just because of their music and lyrics, or their famously detailed studio work, that Steely Dan is an industry original. Frankly, they handled every aspect of the business oddly. In 1974 they retired from live playing, only three albums into their career. One hopes that pianist Glenn Gould, who had made the same decision in the classical sector back in 1964, applauded their commitment to studio craftsmanship over on-stage showmanship. Pop music consumers certainly seemed to. While Countdown the Ecstasy had produced no hit singles, “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” from Pretzel Logic (1974) was a smash.
For a band whose sound is based in brass licks and synths, it’s rare to find a song led by strummed acoustic guitar. But that’s what you have in “With a Gun,” which teases the country and western genre. The harmonies are wittily cock-eyed, giving a middle finger to the three-chord standard, and making you wait half a verse before landing on the tonic.
Dark humor is a consistent element of style of Fagen/Becker songs, a fact widely on display in the 1975 album Katy Lied. Just consider the song titles: “Bad Sneakers,” “Your Gold Teeth II,” and “Daddy Don’t Live in That New York City No More.”
And then there’s “Doctor Wu,” as tongue-in-cheek as it is jazzy. The lyrics deal with a jilted man telling his shrink about his lost girlfriend, all the while wondering whether the good doctor is also the woman’s new lover. This song also provides endless examples of the so-called “mu-chord” (warning: music theory ahead), a dissonant jazz chord similar to a sus2 (a triad with added second or ninth) but missing the third of the chord. Because of its prevalence on Steely Dan songs, it’s typically associated with them.
The Royal Scam (1976) and Aja (1977) continued the band’s success, with the latter becoming their highest-selling album as well as a critical triumph. Besides singles like “Josie” and “Deacon Blues,” the record includes an interesting character study in “Black Cow.” The title comes from the root beer floats a woman likes. Musically, the song is notable for its use of contrast, both in pitch (high against low) and timbre (twanging against pinging, for example).
In the last of the first round of Steely Dan albums, Gaucho (1980) employed over 40 session musicians. They style has changed, too, to simpler harmonies and a more atmospheric sound. Keith Jarrett’s name appears among the writers for the title track, but only because he sued for plagiarism when he heard it. He claimed they’d lifted a riff from his 1974 album Belonging, and a judge agreed with him.
Tom Scott’s sax provides a distinctive intro to each verse. The way Fagen plays his keyboard in the same rhythm as his singing is one of the unusual features of the song, as is the Mexican-inspired meandering structure of the chorus.
By this point there were legal battles over ownership of some tracks. Becker was having drug problems and got hit by a car. Things fell apart: Steely Dan broke up in 1981. Happily, that was not a permanent decision. They reunited in 1993 and began a heavy touring schedule to gain back lost ground.
After 20 years of studio silence, they released their eighth studio album in 2000. Not only did Two Against Nature chart well, but it won four Grammy awards, including Album of the Year and Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group (for “Cousin Dupree”).
The title track features that signature attention to detail: Daniel Sadownick’s bongos share percussive duties with David Tofani’s sax.
The last album (so far – you never know with Steely Dan) is 2003’s Everything Must Go. There’s some dark stuff on here. “Godwhacker” was inspired by the death of Fagen’s mother from Alzheimer’s. Harking back to the more general apocalyptic humor you can trace all the way through their career, “The Last Mall” announces a shopping center’s final sale, and they do mean final.
Fifteen years and counting without an album, but the band continues. Even after Becker’s 2017 death, Fagen still tours as Steely Dan: These days, that’s him, a bevy of crack session musicians, and the ghost of his musical other half.