Steely Dan were the quiet achievers of the 1970s, recording an excellent series of meticulously written and arranged albums, with jazzy chord changes and dark, sarcastic lyrics. The group was formed around Donald Fagen on lead vocals and guitar and Walter Becker on bass and guitar. The pair met when they were students at Bard College, New York, in 1967. They formed a songwriting team and comedian Chevy Chase was a drummer in one of their early bands.
Fagen and Becker were signed as staff writers for ABC Records, but other artists found their songs too complex to cover, so producer Gary Katz suggested that they form their own band. The pair recruited guitarists Denny Dias and Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, drummer Jim Hodder, and vocalist David Palmer, and named the newly formed band after a dildo in William S Burroughs’ novel Naked Lunch. After the unsuccessful single ‘Dallas’/‘Sail the Waterway’, which Fagen and Becker have since disowned, they found success with debut album Can’t Buy A Thrill. Palmer left the band during recording sessions for follow up Countdown to Ecstasy, leaving Fagen as the sole lead vocalist; Fagen’s sardonic delivery is much more appropriate for the group’s dark undercurrents.
Ever perfectionists, Fagen and Becker bought in more and more outside musicians to augment their sound, adding future Toto drummer Jeff Porcaro, keyboardist and backing vocalist Michael McDonald, and Royce Jones. The group stopped touring after 1974’s Pretzel Logic, and the band essentially became a studio operation based around Fagen and Becker, augmented by session musicians, although former members like Dias and McDonald were still involved. Baxter and McDonald went on to join The Doobie Brothers.
The group’s albums became increasingly perfect and increasingly insular, and 1977’s Aja arguably stands as the pinnacle of their quest for a pristine sound. After a previously uneventful career, 1980’s Gaucho was beset by a host of difficulties – Becker’s girlfriend died of a drug overdose in his apartment, an assistant engineer accidentally deleted most of a completed track, Becker broke a leg in a traffic accident, and the group were sued over the similarity of the title track to a Keith Jarrett piece.
Steely Dan disbanded in 1981, but Fagen and Becker began working together again in 1993. They resumed touring and produced two more albums – Two Against Nature is famous for beating Eminem for the 2001’s Album of the Year Grammy, and it feels more like a consolation award than anything, a compensation for not receiving any Grammys except for engineering in their 1970s prime. Fagen continues to tour as Steely Dan, despite Becker’s death in 2017.
I’ve covered Steely Dan’s first seven albums, through to 1980’s Gaucho, as well as Fagen’s excellent debut album The Nightfly. I’m sure there’s excellent music on their later solo and reunion albums, but their most acclaimed work is from their first ten years.
Steely Dan Album Reviews
Favourite Album: Aja
Overlooked Gem: The Royal Scam
Can’t Buy A Thrill
Although Becker and Fagen had previous experience in the studio – the duo had recorded the unsuccessful soundtrack to You’ve Got to Walk It Like You Talk It or You’ll Lose That Beat and Steely Dan had already released an unsuccessful single – Can’t Buy A Thrill is a remarkably assured debut. While their work would become more insular, more jazzy, and less mainstream, they already have a lot of their trademarks in place – pristine production and musicianship, with dark lyrics. The most noticeable difference from the group’s later work is the presence of guest vocalists – while Fagen takes a lot of the leads, drummer Jim Hodder (‘Midnite Cruiser’) and vocalist David Palmer (‘Dirty Work’, ‘Brooklyn (Owns The Charmer Under Me)’) both take lead vocals. While they’re both capable singles, with sweet voices, their presence is jarring – Fagen’s nasal, distinctive voice is best-suited to the band’s dark-streaked material.
The two most interesting songs are arguably the two best known. The cryptic opener ‘Do It Again’ features a slinky groove from Fagen’s electric piano and an electric sitar solo from Dias in the extended instrumental section. ‘Reelin’ In The Years’ begins a tradition of terrific Steely Dan guitar solos, courtesy of session guitarist Elliott Randall. Elsewhere, the material’s less distinctive, but still excellent – ‘Kings’ and ‘Change of the Guards’ are both choice deep cuts, and ‘Dirty Work’ and’Brooklyn’ are nice tunes, despite Palmer’s distracting, smooth vocals.
Can’t Buy A Thrill is an excellent debut from Steely Dan, but they’d only get more interesting.
Countdown to Ecstasy
Steely Dan’s second album is their last as essentially a self-contained band – the five official band members play most of the instruments, and are only augmented by the occasional guest. But Countdown to Ecstasy already sounds a lot more like a Steely Dan album – Fagen takes all the lead vocals, and the smooth west coast vibe from songs like ‘Midnite Cruiser’ on Can’t Buy A Thrill is gone, replaced by darker material. Music critic Paul Lester wrote that “Becker and Fagen offered cruel critiques of the self-obsessed ‘Me’ decade”, and this is borne out in songs like ‘Razor Boy’, where Fagen asks “Will you still have a song to sing when the razor boy comes and takes your fancy things away?” Even the album’s tenderest song, ‘Pearl of the Quarter’, is essentially a love song to a prostitute.
Countdown to Ecstasy didn’t produce any hit singles, but it’s more consistent and coherent than their debut, and it stands as one of Steely Dan’s stronger albums. Opener ‘Bodhisattva’ is a fun, bluesy vamp, featuring soloing from Baxter and Dias, while ‘Show Biz Kids’, later sampled by Super Furry Animals, features Rick Derringer on guitar. ‘My Old School’ tells the story of a drug-bust at Bard College, which Fagen and Becker both attended.
Countdown to Ecstasy is a major step forward for Steely Dan, with more identity and more bite.
Pretzel Logic finds Steely Dan moving away from being a self-contained band. Jim Hodder is relegated to backing vocals, and the drum duties are performed by Jim Gordon and Jeff Porcaro. Fagen and Becker also use studio musicians to augment their own core roles; David Paich and Michael Omartian contribute keyboard parts, and Wilton Felder and Chuck Rainey contribute bass. Becker stated that “Once I met Chuck Rainey I felt there really was no need for me to be bringing my bass guitar to the studio anymore”, and Pretzel Logic is the first album where Becker plays guitar. The group’s jazz influence is more apparent than ever before, as they cover Duke Ellington and name one of their originals ‘Parker’s Band’. Pretzel Logic was also more commercially visible than Countdown to Ecstasy, featuring the hit opener ‘Rikki, Don’t Lose That Number’.
‘Rikki, Don’t Lose That Number’ has never been one of my favourite Steely Dan songs – I’ve always found the chorus hook irritating, although Baxter’s guitar solo is one of his most memorable contributions to the group. But there are plenty of lesser known treasures that blur the lines between jazz and pop – ‘Night By Night’ and the surprisingly tender ‘Any Major Dude Will Tell You’ are two of my favourite Steely Dan pieces. There’s also the bluesy title track, with one of Fagen’s strongest vocals, and the pretty ‘Barrytown’. Pretzel Logic is probably my favourite moment in Steely Dan’s evolution from a rock band to smooth jazzy studio mavens, but it’s marred by a couple of weak points – the fragmentary ‘Through With Buzz’ and the country throwaway ‘With A Gun’.
Pretzel Logic has its flaws, but it was Steely Dan’s strongest album to date, diving deeper into jazz and into studio perfectionism.
Becker and Fagen ditched any pretence of being a band on Katy Lied, augmenting themselves with a host of studio players. 20 year old Jeff Porcaro drums, while Michael McDonald’s distinctive voice is used for the first time on backing vocals on songs like ‘Any World (That I’m Welcome To)’. The album was troubled by sound issues – Becker and Fagen have said that they refused to listen to it in full because of issues with the noise reduction system, although a last minute effort from Dias and Becker largely negated the dullness in sound. Despite the higher level of musicianship, Katy Lied is my least favourite set of songs on a 1970s Steely Dan album.
There are some excellent pieces though – ‘Doctor Wu’ was later covered by The Minutemen, Phil Woods guests on saxophone, and it’s a great showpiece of the band’s cryptic professionalism. ‘Black Friday’ is the opener and first single, and it’s effective, with Becker supplying the searing lead guitar work. The slinky groove of ‘Chain Lightning’ is appealing and McDonald’s backing vocals ignite ‘Any World (That I’m Welcome To)’. But there are too many mid tempo bores like ‘Everyone’s Gone to the Movies’ and ‘Bad Sneakers’ (which probably suffers in retrospect from that other awful song referencing piña coladas in its chorus).
Katy Lied is a very good record, but it fails to stand out in Steely Dan’s exemplary 1970s catalogue.
The Royal Scam
The Royal Scam is arguably the closest Steely Dan came to repeating themselves in thee 1970s – it’s a continuation of the dark, sophisticated jazz-rock of Katy Lied. But rather than a stale retread, it’s an improvement on its predecessor. The songwriting is sharper, and even though the playing was exemplary on Katy Lied, the studio musicians featured here elevate the material even further. Jazz guitarist Larry Carlton guested on Katy Lied but he’s all over The Royal Scam, and his dazzling solo on ‘Kid Charlemagne’ is perhaps his most iconic moment. Drummer Bernard Purdie appears for the first time on a Steely Dan record and his precise and funky work is a terrific fit for the band.
Steely Dan’s work is always filled with cynicism, but it’s particularly pronounced on The Royal Scam. Almost all of these tales are dark, the abusive husband and cheating wife of ‘Everything You Did’ perhaps the most extreme example. ‘Everything You Did’ features the line “turn up the Eagles, the neighbours are listening, which in turn inspired Henley and Frey to include the reference of “steely knives” on Hotel California. Elsewhere, ‘Kid Charlemagne’ is my favourite moment from the Steely Dan catalogue, a portrait of LSD chemist Owsley Stanley with funky clavinet and the line “Is there gas in the car? Yes there’s gas in the car.” ‘The Fez’ is another great Purdie groove, ‘Haitian Divorce’ uses talk box guitar, and low key songs like ‘Sign In Stranger’ and the title track are pretty and accomplished.
The Royal Scam is another great Steely Dan album, one of the better records in their 1970s catalogue.
Beloved by audiophiles, Steely Dan’s sixth album was a further progression towards a pristine studio sound. While the two previous Steely Dan albums were dominated by a smooth jazz sound, they featured songs like ‘Black Friday’ and ‘Everything You Did’ that were driven by raw, bluesy guitars, while the group’s lyrics constantly poked at the dark underbelly of society. But Aja is a surprisingly warm and compassionate set of songs, out of character compared to Becker and Fagen’s work, even though they throw in the occasional subversive lyric like “She prays like a Roman/With her eyes on fire.” Regular contributors like Larry Carlton, Chuck Rainey and Bernard Purdie are back, and notable additions to the group’s roster of session players include Weather Report’s Wayne Shorter and drummer Jim Keltner.
The most accessible songs are the succinct upbeat songs named after women – ‘Peg’ was later sampled by De La Soul, and has a prominent Michael McDonald backing vocal, while ‘Josie’ is bouncy and fun. Elsewhere, the material’s deeper – the title track is close to pure jazz with its Shorter solos and relaxed feel. The crown jewel is ‘Deacon Blues’, an autobiographical tale of Fagen and Becker’s musical aspirations as suburban teenagers, probably the most heartfelt piece the group ever released. Purdie’s patented shuffle drives ‘ Home At Last’, while the kiss off of the opening ‘Black Cow’ is the album’s most negative piece.
It’s smooth and calm, but Aja is far too sophisticated and intelligent to be written off as elevator music, and its perfect veneer is the peak that Steely Dan had been working towards.
Gaucho was recorded in New York, changing the pool of session musicians that Steely Dan were used to working with; previous albums were recorded in Los Angeles. The sessions were beset with difficulty – Becker’s girlfriend died of a drug overdose in his apartment and he broke his leg in a traffic accident, while an engineer accidentally deleted a song named ‘The Second Arrangement’. Gaucho is very similar to Aja in shape – seven tracks, with a smooth, jazzy veneer. Perhaps the biggest fault of Gaucho is that it lacks the upbeat tracks that Aja had – songs like ‘Peg’ and ‘Josie’ helped to provide balance, but Gaucho is all languid. Gaucho is generally regarded as Steely Dan’s weakest album in their initial run, although it’s undergone positive reappraisal.
Despite its reputation, as one of the band’s more insular albums, the singles ‘Hey Nineteen’ and ‘Babylon Sisters’ both received airplay – ‘Hey Nineteen’ is typical of the jaded atmosphere of the album as a whole, with the line “She don’t remember the queen of soul”. My favourite song here is the title track – jazz pianist Keith Jarrett sued for the similarity to his piece “Long As You Know You’re Living Yours”, and was given a co-writer credit, but the result’s impressive, a song that unwinds over a complex jazz progression. ‘My Rival’ is perhaps the least accomplished song here, but everything else is strong – the album suffers from its homogeneous sound but it’s full of well-crafted tunes.
Gaucho is a step down from most of Steely Dan’s work in the 1970s, but there’s still a lot of beautiful music here.
After more than a decade in creative partnership, Fagen and Becker split after the difficult sessions for Gaucho. Becker moved to Hawaii and took up avocado farming, in an attempt to clean up his drug habit, while Fagen recorded his solo debut. In many ways, The Nightfly is a continuation of the smooth jazzy sound of Aja and Gaucho, and it utilises familiar musicians like Jeff Porcaro, Larry Carlton, and Michael Omartian. But while it’s stylistically very similar to Steely Dan, its lyrical outlook is very different – it’s evident that Becker supplied a lot of Steely Dan’s acerbicism, and instead The Nightfly is wistful and nostalgic. It’s based on Fagen’s suburban New Jersey childhood, in properous and confident 1950s America, listening to late night jazz radio.
The Nightfly is such a smooth and consistent album that it’s difficult to pick out highlights. My favourite is the title track with its crisp rhythms, and electric piano stabs, but in some ways the most notable material are the sentimental, 1950s-tinged songs like ‘Ruby Baby’ and ‘Maxine’, that are the biggest departure from Steely Dan’s work.
Very much a continuation of the excellence of Steely Dan’s first phase, The Nightfly is a very strong epilogue to their early career.
Ten Favourite Steely Dan Songs
Night By Night
Any Major Dude Will Tell You
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