I remember first hearing Steely Dan at a record store on Bloor Street in Toronto in 1977. At seventeen years of age, I didn’t have a surplus of cash, so record buying decisions were never made without much consideration. One listen to Aja and no further consideration was needed. Aja is on Rolling Stone’s top 100 albums list and on my 10 Albums to Take to A Desert Island list (I suppose Rolling Stone’s list is more important, but whatever).
When music critic Eric Alper asked on social media what Album people love to listen to on their headphones, Steely Dan came in solidly at number two behind Pink Floyd.
I don’t know of any other band through the seventies that had such a clean studio sound as Steely Dan. Often defined as a jazz-rock band. Up front they wanted to be seen as a rock and roll band, but they clearly drew their inspirations liberally from jazz and blues, and were unafraid to live on the fringes. This is clearly evidenced by their cover of Duke Ellington’s 1927 East St. Louis Toodle-Oo on Pretzel Logic. The album opened with their most commercially successful track Rikki Don’t lose that Number. A couple tracks later Any Major Dude Will Tell You is another essential Steely Dan track. Skip forward two more and you’ve got a jazz cover. This was the only cover that Steely Dan ever released and clearly was there for musical reasons, not commercial concerns.
Even during the peak of their popularity they chose to stop touring in order to focus on perfecting their studio sound. Their near obsessive perfectionism was most evident during the year they took recording Gaucho in 1980 using reportedly 42 session musicians and no less than eleven engineers. Perhaps this lead to their split in 1981.
Clearly their creativity as a duo was only on hiatus and not over. They reunited and released their eighth studio album, Two Against Nature, twenty years after Gaucho. Unlike many artists who reunite after long breaks, this never was a financial move – it was musically and creatively motivated and recognized with four Grammys including album of the year.
So beyond multiple awards, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, platinum discs and forty million albums sold worldwide, why does the music of Steely Dan matter?
It matters because of the dichotomy of what is presented to the listener. Smooth jazzy rock music with ear-worm lyrics that speak to bitterness and sharp edges of our existence. Unlike an in-your-face Dylan or Springsteen song, Becker and Fagen at times appeared to veil their subversive lyrics in highly listenable harmonies and melodies. But it was never a veil intended to achieve commercial acceptance, but rather an ironic curtain that was a test. Most of us can sing a line or two from Reelin’ In the Years. But do the lyrics really register?
“Your everlasting summer
You can see it fading fast
So you grab a piece of something
That you think is gonna last
But you wouldn’t know a diamond
If you held it in your hand
The things you think are precious
I can’t understand.”
Kind of a sardonic practical joke that you better understand lest you be the next victim. If you want more evidence, Google steely dan sex toy – yup, that’s the origin of the duo’s moniker.