L-R: Walter Becker, Donald Fagen
I'll learn to work the saxophone
I'll play just what I feel
Drink Scotch whiskey all night long
And die behind the wheel
Steely Dan is a jazz-rock duo (originally a full group) consisting of songwriters Donald Fagen (vocals, keyboards) and Walter Becker (guitar, bass). The band is named after a dildo in William S. Burroughs
' Naked Lunch
. (There is an alternate story
for where the name came from, however considering their reputation
, and their site's content, it's a bit of a toss up as to which story is really true, and if you ask them, they'll probably just play along.)
The band is known for a string of hit singles released from 1972 to 1980. The duo split in 1981, and reunited in the early 1990's, with the band releasing their first album in 20 years, Two Against Nature
in 2000. That album won them four Grammy Awards
, including Album of the Year.The band's studio album discography is as follows:
Their best known songs (or at least most often heard on the radio) include:
- "Do It Again"
- "Dirty Work"
- "Reelin' In The Years"
- "My Old School"
- "Rikki Don't Lose That Number"
- "Black Friday"
- "Bad Sneakers"
- "Kid Charlemagne"
- "Deacon Blues"
- "FM (No Static At All)"
- "Babylon Sisters"
- "Hey Nineteen"
"You go back, Jack, and Trope it again":
- After the End: "King of the World" certainly sounds like it.
- Album Title Drop: From "Doctor Wu":
You can see it in her eyes
But imagine my surprise when I saw you"
- Alma Mater Song: Subverted; "My Old School" is actually about a grudge against their alma mater, Bard College, for being complicit in the wrongful arrest of some fifty students, including Fagen and Becker, by sheriff's deputies during a raid of the college's dorms in 1969. Fagen was so angry with the school, he refused to attend graduation a few weeks later.
- The song claims that they won't go back to Annandale-On-Hudson — the college town in Upstate New York where Bard College is located — until "California tumbles into the sea". Fagen returned to Annandale in 1985 to accept, of all things, an honorary degree (as well as speak at commencement). He went back there again in 2001 for an Entertainment Weekly article about the song. Still, twice is more than most people return to their alma mater, even those who don't write sneering songs about how much they hate the school.
- Anti-Love Song: They wrote many of these. Among them: "Dirty Work", "Reelin' in the Years", "Rikki Don't Lose That Number" and "Hey Nineteen".
- Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking: Apparently, Buzz stole all his money, his girl, and isn't very funny.
- Bilingual Bonus: Sort of. The outro of "Only a Fool Could Say That" includes one of the band saying the song title in Spanish.
- Biting-the-Hand Humor: their website, among many other hilarious writings, contains a number of appeals making their case for inclusion in the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame. When they were finally voted in, they immediately opened a fake auction for the commemorative trophies awarded by a "self-styled 'official' musical honorary organization". Items offered in exchange ranged from cash offers to "somebody's gold teeth" and something simply described as "biological matter".
- Call Back: Walter Becker's solo track Down In The Bottom includes the line "Down in the suburbs where it's hard to tell - if I got the bear or the bear got me". This is a reference to a Steely Dan outtake called "You Got The Bear" of which the chorus is "only time will tell, if you got the bear or the bear got you".
- Their second album has a song called "Your Gold Teeth" and their fourth has a song called "Your Gold Teeth II". The songs are unrelated musically, but share a chorus of "throw out your gold teeth, see how they roll" (or a variation thereof).
- Canon Discontinuity: The two songs the band released before Can't Buy A Thrill, "Dallas" and "Sail the Waterway". Aside from their original release as the two sides of their first single, they've been released on the Japanese compilation "Steely Dan" and the UK "Plus Fours" EP. But the band have never allowed them to be released on CD. Fagen and Becker are on record as calling the songs "stinko".
- Cool Old Guy: Both of them, now that they're in their 60s.
- Cool Shades: Donald Fagen's eyewear of choice.
- Demoted to Extra: David Palmer, the band's "original" lead singer (he only sang on three tracks on the first album, as well as in concerts) was bumped down to one of several backing vocalists for Countdown to Ecstasy. No surprise that he's gone by Pretzel Logic, since the band had abandoned touring.
- Downer Ending: The title character of "Charlie Freak" pawns off his last possession, a gold ring, only to die from a drug overdose not long afterwards.
- Drunken Song: Several of their songs mention some kind of alcoholic beverage, and even those that don't often sound like they were written by a very morose drunk, or are about the results of a bender.
- Epic Instrumental Opener: "Bodhisattva."
- "Babylon Sisters" as well.
- "Your Gold Teeth II" opens with a fairly lengthy and definitely distinctive synth solo, on top of a chord progression which has little to do with the rest of the song.
- "Reeling In The Years" and "The Boston Rag" have these as well.
- Epic Rocking: "Aja," "Deacon Blues," "Your Gold Teeth," and "West of Hollywood."
- They have never been ones to cut their songs short - roughly a quarter of their songs run 5 minutes or higher, surprisingly including some of their biggest radio hits ("Do It Again," "FM," "Hey Nineteen")
- Other 6-minute or longer songs include "The Royal Scam," "Glamour Profession," and "Jack of Speed."
- Forgotten Trope: The Haitian divorce of, well, "Haitian Divorce." Until the liberalization of US divorce law, East Coast Americans trying to divorce their spouses without that spouse's consent would travel to Haiti to get divorced, since Haitian law had long permitted unilateral divorce. This was the most common alternative to Nevada divorce for people on the East Coast, since Haiti was closer than Nevada; one reason you see it less in fiction is that unlike Nevada divorce—whose laws and decisions on marriage and divorce, being those of an American state, must be given "full faith and credit" by other states—Haitian divorce in the US is governed by the less-expansive law of "comity." Thus many state courts—e.g. New Jersey—refused to recognize Haitian divorces until the state legislature adopted no-fault divorce as well. However, New York did recognize Haitian divorces (bizarrely, because it long had the most restrictive divorce laws in the nation—they didn't adopt no-fault until 2010).
- Heterosexual Life-Partners
- Incredibly Lame Pun: The covers to their albums Pretzel Logic (a pretzel cart) and Katy Lied (a katydid).
- Kissing Cousins: Played with in "Cousin Dupree", where the title character hits on his sexy cousin Janine and promptly receives a thorough dressing-down for being creepy and incestuous... which doesn't bother him at all.
- Limited Lyrics Song: "The Fez" repeats these four lines three times, with only minor syntax variations in the first two lines each time:
No I'm never gonna do it without the fez on, oh no
Ain't never gonna do it without the fez on, oh no
That's what I am, please understand
I wanna be your holy man
- Literary Allusion Title: The band is supposedly named after a dildo in William S. Burroughs' Naked Lunch.
- Lyrical Dissonance: Many of their songs sound very smooth and mellow, but the lyrics? Wow, are they dark.
Madame Erzulie she come last night
Bang you silly but leave a nasty bite
There on your nightstand much worse than that
Panatela and old black derby hat
- "Turn That Heartbeat Over Again" sounds upbeat, until you realize it's about a heist gone horribly wrong.
- "Everyone's Gone To The Movies", which is even more upbeat sounding, is about a creepy neighborhood guy inviting teenagers to his house to watch porno movies. It's hinted that Mr. La Page is planning on filming the teens as well.
- Not nearly as squicky but also notable is "Daddy Don't Live in that New York City No More", a very cheery and bouncy song about all of the various amoral activities that Daddy will no longer be involved in, now that he's died. The nonchalant delivery suggests that the singer thinks the world might be better off without Daddy in it. It's been posited that "Daddy" is a mob boss that the narrator didn't want around anymore.
- May-December Romance: "Hey Nineteen", although the relationship isn't particularly intimate.
- Malaproper: Their album (and song) title Aja, is a misspelling (and presumably slight mispronunciation) of "Asia".
- Justified in that it was the name of one of their friends' wives. She was apparently Korean.
- Minimalistic Cover Art: Aja◊
- Morality Ballad: "Kid Charlemagne"
- New Sound Album:
- Pretzel Logic sort of half qualifies, as they were in the process of ending the early "real band" phase of their career in favor of their later approach of putting together whatever studio musicians could best accompany them on each track. As a result you get material like "Rikki Don't Lose That Number" and "Barrytown", which seem like the same group that did the first two albums next to more experimental, esoteric stuff like the title track, "East St. Louis Toodle-Oo" (both their only instrumental and only cover) and "With a Gun" (their only song based around an acoustic guitar part, which actually sounds downright folky)
- Aja is much jazzier as a whole than their earlier albums, and abandons most of the pop-rock influences they had up to that point, to the point of having two tracks longer than seven minutes.
- Non-Appearing Title: "Pretzel Logic", "The Caves of Altamira"
- Obsession Song: "Rikki Don't Lose That Number"
- Ode to Intoxication: "Black Cow"
- "Time Out Of Mind" is a song entirely about heroin and various methods of consuming it.
- "Jack Of Speed" is most certainly not discussing a guy moving at high velocity.
- One Woman Song:"Aja", "Peg", "Josie" and "Rikki Don't Lose That Number"
- Precision F-Strike: From the lyrics of "Show Biz Kids"
Show biz kids, making movies of themselves
You know they don't give a fuck about anybody else
- Protest Song: "My Old School"
- Rated M for Manly
- Real Song Theme Tune: There was a syndicated classic rock radio show in the 80s and 90s called Reelin' In The Years. Guess what the theme song was.
- Refrain from Assuming: The song is called "Peg", not "Your Favorite Foreign Movie".
- Sanity Slippage: "Bad Sneakers":
"And I'm going insane
And I'm laughing at the frozen rain
And I'm so alone
Mama when they gonna send me home?"
- Sex Tourism: "Haitian Divorce", probably (it isn't the whole story, though).
- She Is All Grown Up: "Cousin Dupree"
- Shout-Out: "Turn up The Eagles - the neighbors are listening" from Everything She Did. The Eagles returned the favor by including the line "They stab it with their steely knives" in Hotel California.
- "Cathy Berbarian knows there's one roulade she can't sing" from Your Gold Teeth. Cathy Berbarian is an avant-garde singer who was thrilled to be mentioned in song.
- From "FM":
"Hey Nineteen! That's Aretha Franklin
/ She don't remember / Queen of Soul..."
- Singer Namedrop: From "Show Biz Kids":
"They got the Steely Dan T-shirt"
- Single Stanza Song: "The Fez".
- Something Blues: Again, "Deacon Blues".
- Specs of Awesome: Walter Becker is never seen without his huge glasses.
- Step Up to the Microphone: "Slang of Ages" from Everything Must Go and "Book of Liars" from the band's one live album, Alive in America are Walter Becker's only lead vocal credits in the band's history. He also sings half of the lead vocal for "Turn That Heartbeat Over Again" on Can't Buy a Thrill.
- "Midnite Cruiser" is sung by Jim Hodder, the band's drummer during the Can't Buy A Thrill "actual band" era. So is "Dallas", the A side of the band's first single.
- Subverted by "Dirty Work", "Brooklyn (Owes the Charmer Under Me)" and "Turn That Heartbeat Over Again", the three songs sung by David Palmer on Can't Buy A Thrill. As mentioned before, he was intended to be the singer for the band. Technically, the rest of Can't Buy A Thrill would have been a Step Up to the Microphone example for Donald Fagen if he and Becker didn't become unsatisfied with Palmer's live performances during the ensuing tour.
- Several demo songs like "Undecided", "Soul Ram", "The Mock Turtle Song", "A Horse In Town", one version of "Sun Mountain" and "Brooklyn" are all sung by either David Palmer or Jim Hodder. With the sound quality it is sometime hard to tell.
- Stop and Go: "Bodhisattva"
- Suicide by Cop: The narrator in "Don't Take Me Alive" seems to be attempting this.
- Take That: The song "Show Biz Kids" is one against L.A. and the Hollywood social scene in general.
While the poor people sleeping
With the shade on the light
While the poor people sleeping
All the stars come out at night
- Also includes a bit of Biting-the-Hand Humor and Self-Deprecation, since among the show biz kids' fashionable accessories are Steely Dan t-shirts.
- Also, "Only a Fool Would Say That" seems to be a deconstructive critique of John Lennon's Imagine."
- Or, alternatively, mocking others' cynical reaction to the idea of peace and love.
- "Deacon Blues" is one long, subtle middle finger to everyone that doesn't like their music.
This brother is free
I'll be what I want to be
I'll learn to work the saxophone
I'll play just what I feel
- Those Two Guys
- Those Wacky Nazis: "Chain Lightning" is about two former Nazis returning to the site of Hitler's Nuremberg speech.
- Time Travel: Apparently what "Pretzel Logic" is about
- Title Track: "Pretzel Logic", "The Royal Scam", "Gaucho", "Aja", "Two Against Nature", "Everything Must Go"
- Visual Pun: Pretzel Logic and Katy Lied's album art with a pretzel stand and katydid respectively.
- Yandere: "My Rival"