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 a Grammy Award for Album of the Year.The band's studio album discography is as follows:
"Katie lies 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 Weeklyarticle 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".
Black Sheep Hit: The band's biggest UK hit is "Haitian Divorce", which is atypical of their style, showcasing reggae influences that never otherwise appeared in their discography before or since. It peaked at #17, and is one of only two Top 40 hits the band managed in the UK (the other is "Do It Again", which managed #39). Compare to the United States, where "Haitian Divorce" is actually one of their more obscure singles (its one of only three Steely Dan singles to not make a Billboard Hot 100 chart appearance, the other two being "Bad Sneakers" and "Cousin Dupree" and even those made other Billboard charts).
It should be noted however, that whilst "Haitian Divorce" was done in that style as a comment on the Caribbean location of the song, Walter Becker has long been a big reggae fan. His songs My Waterloo and Hat Too Flat on his solo album 11 Tracks Of Whack are done in a reggae style, and his album Circus Money shows reggae and dub influences on almost every track.
Breakaway Pop Hit: "FM (No Static at All)" was a top 30 hit in 1978, released at the height of the band's popularity. The movie it was written for, FM is now obscure.
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".
Creator Backlash: The band states in the liner notes for The Royal Scam remaster that they despise the album's cover. They're not too fond of the cover for Can't Buy A Thrill either.
The band have called their first single Dallas and Sail The Waterway "stinko" and first album Can't Buy A Thrill "juvenilia". However, in the latter case, they still like the album, it's just that they didn't know what type of music they were going for.
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.
"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).
He Also Did: Original guitarist Jeff "Skunk" Baxter moved onto The Doobie Brothers after he left the band after Pretzel Logic. He's now a missile defense adviser.
Backing vocalist Michael McDonald also became a member of The Doobie Brothers and later had a successful solo career, all while continuing to provide backing vocals to Steely Dan albums up through Gaucho. He still occasionally tours with them (usually with his own solo band as the opening act) from time to time as well, most notably on their 2006 tour.
Drummer Jeff Porcaro went on to become a founding member of Toto and played on many records, such as Michael Jackson's Thriller and Madonna's Like A Prayer. Unfortunately, he died in 1992.
Incredibly Lame Pun: The covers to their albums Pretzel Logic (a pretzel cart) and Katy Lied (a katydid).
Keep Circulating the Tapes: The two songs on the band's first single, Dallas and Sail The Waterway have never been released on CD.
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
Lyrical Dissonance: Many of their songs sound very smooth and mellow, but the lyrics? Wow, are they dark.
A couple of notable examples; "Turn That Heartbeat Over Again", which sounds upbeat, until you realize it's about a heist gone horribly wrong, and "Everyone's Gone To The Movies", which is even more upbeat sounding, and is about a guy inviting kids to his house to watch porno movies.
Worse yet, it doesn't really sound like watching porn is the intended end game of that particular nightmare scenario. 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.
Judging by the delivery, it appears to be narrated by a mafia member announcing the death of "Daddy". Most likely, Daddy is someone who wronged them.
Missing Episode: By accident, the final version of 1980's The Second Arrangement was nearly completely erased by the engineer. Only a small fragment remains. The band regarded the song as the centerpiece of the album at the time. They were so upset about the loss of this 'perfect take' that they cut the song from the album Gaucho entirely, and did not rerecord it later on. It was either replaced by "Third World Man" or "Hey Nineteen" depending on what you read. However, demo versions of the song have been bootlegged and the band finally performed it live once in 2011.
Donald Fagen mentioned that they actually did have a backup copy of the final song, but the sound quality wasn't as good as the other tracks on the album, and attempts to rerecord it did not produce as good results.
The Pete Best: ChevyChase was the drummer for Fagen and Becker's Bard College proto-Steely Dan band The Leather Canary. This promptly satisfies the mandatory requirement to mention Chevy Chase in any article or entry on Steely Dan.
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.
Title Track: "Pretzel Logic", "The Royal Scam", "Gaucho", "Aja", "Two Against Nature", "Everything Must Go"
Troubled Production: Gaucho. Among the things that caused the production to be a living hell include:
Becker was hit by a car before record was to begin, and while recovering from leg injuries which delayed production, developed other infections.
Becker and Fagen becoming control freaks in production, demanding dozens of takes from studio musicians and continuous tweeks to already recorded material (Becker, Fagen and their longtime producer Roger Nichols recorded 55 different fade-outs for "Babylon Sisters" before deciding on one they liked).
A song called "The Second Arrangement" — which the band had slaved over moreso than any other track — was accidentally wiped by a recording assistant and eventually had to be scrapped.
Made more frustrating (for them) by the fact they'd recorded countless versions of it to get the take they liked, had a backup copy (in inferior quality, apparently), and couldn't 'regain the magic' when attempting to record it with a different band. Most bands would use one of the existing takes they had regardless of quality, but not Steely Dan.
Visual Pun: Pretzel Logic and Katy Lied's album art with a pretzel stand and katydid respectively.