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Music / Steely Dan

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Walter Becker (l), Donald Fagen (r).
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.
— "Deacon Blues"

Steely Dan is a jazz-rock duo (originally a full group) consisting of songwriters Donald Fagen (vocals, keyboards) and Walter Becker (guitar, bass). The duo were the only consistent members of the band since they would hire a rotating set of talented musicians for each album. 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 after the Troubled Production of their seventh album, Gaucho, with Donald Fagen putting out a solo album, The Nightfly, the year after. Fagen and Becker reunited in 1986 while working as session musicians on Rosie Vela's Zazu, and in 1993, they reformed Steely Dan. In 2000, the band released their first album in 20 years, Two Against Nature, which won them four Grammy Awards, including Album of the Year. The group was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2001.

Steely Dan was praised for the sophistication behind their studio work (they rarely toured) and the complex nature of their sardonic lyrics, which starred a cast of dysfunctional characters. Fagan and Becker would reference their own experiences within the lyrics, including cryptic shoutouts to their favourite drinks, colleges they attended, and people they knew personally.

Becker died of esophageal cancer on September 3, 2017 at age 67, shortly after having an operation meant to treat it; Becker had been battling the disease for several months. The cause of Becker's death was initially kept private before being disclosed by his wife, Delia, two months later. Fagen has said he will continue the band on his own.

Studio album discography:

  • Can't Buy a Thrill (1972)
  • Countdown to Ecstasy (1973)
  • Pretzel Logic (1974)
  • Katy Lied (1975)
  • The Royal Scam (1976)
  • Aja (1977)
  • Gaucho (1980)
  • Two Against Nature (2000)
  • Everything Must Go (2003)

Their best-known songs (or at least those most often heard on the radio) include:

  • "Do It Again"
  • "Dirty Work"
  • "Reelin' in the Years"
  • "Bodhisattva"
  • "Show Biz Kids"
  • "My Old School"
  • "Rikki Don't Lose That Number"
  • "Black Friday"
  • "Bad Sneakers"
  • "Kid Charlemagne"
  • "Deacon Blues"
  • "Peg"
  • "Josie"
  • "FM (No Static at All)"
  • "Babylon Sisters"
  • "Hey Nineteen"

"You go back, Jack, and Trope it again":

  • Action Girl: The title character of "Pixeleen" seems to be a teenage girl who is involved in a fight with an assassin in the subway, complete with descriptions of the weapons she's carrying- while also having to deal with her father and boyfriend calling her in the middle of it. (However, it is also hinted that the whole song is just a video game.)
  • After the End: "King of the World" certainly sounds like it. The lyrics suggest that the last man on Earth is free to take whatever's left of society, right down to 'cobalt cigarettes', which are slowly killing him through radiation poisoning.
  • Album Title Drop: The title of "Katy Lied" is (slightly modified) from "Doctor Wu":
    "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 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".
  • Apocalypse How: "King of the World" is Class 2 knocking on the door of Class 3, if the lyrics are any indication.
  • Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking: Apparently, Buzz stole all his money, his girl, and isn't very funny.
  • The Big Rotten Apple: "The Royal Scam". Also, the bizarre cover of the album of the same name, depicting a vagrant sleeping under skyscrapers (that at least suggest New York) that are morphing into the heads of vicious animals.
  • 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 and 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".
  • Blind Without 'Em: Walter Becker wore glasses his entire life, and never wore contacts or had laser surgery. Since the 2000s, Fagen has needed them too and is frequently seen with prescription sunglasses. In fact, in the 70s, they frequently refused to be photographed without sunglasses.
  • Bookend: The opening song (Black Cow) and closing song (Josie) of "Aja" both mention a place called "Rudy's".
  • Break Up Song: "Black Cow" is about breaking up with someone due to self-destructive (i.e. drug) habits.
  • California Collapse: "My Old School", though played with in the sense of "when pigs fly":
    California tumbles into the sea
    That'll be the day I go back to Annandale
  • 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 each song's chorus contains the line "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".
  • Chocolate Baby: The "Who's that kinky so-and-so" conclusion of "Haitian Divorce".
  • Cool Shades: Donald Fagen's eyewear of choice.
  • Darker and Edgier:
    • The duo were considered the anti-heroes of the 1970s since their music wasn't very radio-friendly for the most part, mainly due to the darker subject matter when compared to other pop and jazz songs of that era. Instead of writing love songs, Steely Dan's music was often cynical and featured unlikeable characters. Working class schmoes, addicts, hitmen, gangsters, prostitutes and pimps were the main protagonists and the inability to escape your fate was a recurring theme throughout the band's songwriting.
    • Within their canon itself, Gaucho is an example, at least lyrically. Even by the band's standards, an unusually large number of songs are about prostitution, drug abuse, drug dealers, poverty, and similar topics. Musically, it's also moodier and less harmonically complex than Aja, although some songs (e.g., "Babylon Sisters", "Glamour Profession") still contain complex arrangements.
  • 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.
    • Jim Hodder, the drummer on the first two albums, is relegated to singing backing vocals on one song on "Pretzel Logic" (while at the time still being part of the touring band and an official band member).
    • Denny Dias went from being a full band member on the first three album to one of many session guitarists used on the next three after Becker and Fagen broke up the band.
  • Did You Just Punch Out Cthulhu?: Godwhacker is about a bounty hunter team who have been hired to KILL GOD HIMSELF! It's implied in the lyrics that they're called the "Godwhackers" because they've killed lesser gods before.
  • Divorce in Reno: The main theme of "Haitian Divorce", which tells us about a similar practice involving Haiti.
  • 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.
  • Drunk Driver: "Deacon Blues" contains the line "We'll drink Scotch whisky all night long and die behind the wheel."
  • 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.
    • "Haitian Divorce"'s plot involves the protagonist, Babs, getting drunk on a Zombie (a highly alcoholic cocktail) at a bar at a good hotel, then heads to a dive bar so she can get even more drunk on cheap alcohol. At this dive bar, she meets a man who is also drunk and they later have sex, resulting in her becoming pregnant, and forgetting about who the father was until the kid was actually born.
  • Dysfunction Junction: None of the characters in The Dan's songs are well-adjusted or sensible. A strong example is the protagonist of "Deacon Blues", a suburban man with delusions of wanting to live a decadent life of playing jazz in smokey bars and having passionless one night stands.
  • Epic Instrumental Opener:
    • "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.
    • "Reelin' in the Years" starts with an extensive and memorable guitar solo.
  • Epic Rocking: Fitting the band's Jazz Fusion sound, many of their songs go on for quite a while. Topping the six-minute mark are "West of Hollywood" (8:21), "Aja" (7:57), "Deacon Blues" (7:33), "Glamour Profession" (7:29), "Your Gold Teeth" (7:02), "Everything Must Go" (6:45), "The Royal Scam" (6:28), "Two Against Nature" (6:17), and "Jack of Speed" (also 6:17). In fact, they have never been ones to cut their songs short - roughly a quarter of their songs run around five minutes or higher, surprisingly including some of their biggest radio hits like "Do It Again" (5:56), "FM (No Static at All)" (4:52), and "Hey Nineteen" (5:06, although there is a single edit that runs 4:44).
  • 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).
  • Get Thee to a Nunnery: "The Fez," although it can be guessed from context that nobody calls a condom a "fez" anymore.
  • Good Bad Girl: "Josie" is about a notorious neighbourhood girl who's back in town, sung from the perspective of the boys who plan to have a good time with her.
  • Homesickness Hymn: "Home at Last" by Steely Dan was written about the band regretting moving to Los Angeles from their native New York, though the raw emotions are a bit buried by an extended metaphor involving Homer's The Odyssey.
  • I Am the Band: Since Becker's 2017 death Fagan has continued performing under the Steely Dan name.
  • 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.
  • Longest Song Goes Last: Two Against Nature's "West of Hollywood" (8:21) and the title tracks of "Everything Must Go" (6:45) and "The Royal Scam" (6:28) are the longest tracks on their respective albums.
  • Lyrical Dissonance: Many of their songs sound very smooth and mellow, but the lyrics? Wow, are they dark.
    • "Do It Again", the first song off their first album, sets the tone for their entire discography. It details three scenarios: a bandit who escapes the gallows after killing another man over water; a pussy-whipped fool who's taken advantage of by his manipulative lover; and a man who can't stop his gambling habit despite his losses. Violence, women and money will always drive men toward self-destructive behavior that repeats itself, as bluntly put by the chorus:
      Yeah, you go back, Jack, do it again
      Wheel turnin' 'round and 'round
      You go back, Jack, do it again
    • "Gaslighting Abbie" is about a man and his mistress plotting to do Exactly What It Says on the Tin to his wife.
    • "Two Against Nature" is filled with seemingly Word Salad Lyrics, virtually all of them bearing some sort of reference to Voudoun religion. Erzulie is mentioned explicitly; Baron Samedi is alluded to:
      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" is about a heist gone horribly wrong.
    • "Throw Back the Little Ones" is about bending everything to one's own whim.
    • "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. LaPage is planning on filming the teens as well.
      "I know you're used to 16 or more
      Sorry, we only have 8"note 
    • 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.
    • Many of the songs from Gaucho allude to hard narcotics and the dark side of drug addiction, and the seedy characters who deal them or take them.note 
  • May–December Romance: "Hey Nineteen" is a deconstruction: the relationship isn't working too well because the partners have no shared knowledge or common interests.
  • Malaproper: Averted. The album (and song) title Aja looks like a misspelling (and presumably slight mispronunciation) of "Asia", but is actually the name of the wife of one of their friends. She was Korean, but her name is not related to the continent at all.
  • Medium Awareness: "Deacon Blues" has the line "Sue me if I play too long"; at the time of release it was their second longest song, then only beaten by the title track of Aja immediately preceding it (and only one song afterward would be longer than "Deacon Blues").
  • Meaningful Name: Hoops McCann the basketball player from "Glamour Profession", though it's likely a nickname.
  • Miniscule Rocking: Only one song in their entire catalogue qualifies, "Through With Buzz" from Pretzel Logic (1:32).
  • 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"
  • Ode to Intoxication:
    • "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.
  • 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", protesting a drug bust that occurred at Bard College while Becker and Fagen were students. An interesting historical footnote is that G. Gordon Liddy, who would later be convicted of orchestrating the Watergate burglaries alongside E. Howard Hunt, was then the local prosecutor; he is the "Daddy G" mentioned in the song.
  • Radio Song: F.M. (No Static at All). A song created as the opening song for the film FM. The song sings the praises of Blues, Reggae, Elvis Presley and the lack of static when compared to AM.
  • Rearrange the Song:
    • The band liked to rearrange tracks, in particular "Reelin' In The Years" and "Rikki Don't Lose That Number" when they started touring. They stated it was because they'd gotten bored with the old versions.
    • Two leaked demos, "Megashine City" (from the Can't Buy A Thrill period) and "Talkin' Bout My Home" (from the Gaucho period) are essentially the same song, but with some different lyrics and different arrangements (blues and lounge jazz respectively). It is unknown why the band chose to return to the song so much later.
  • 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?"
  • Shout-Out:
    • "Turn up the Eagles, the neighbors are listening" from "Everything You Did". They returned the favor by including the line "They stab it with their steely knives" in "Hotel California".
    • "Cathy Berberian knows there's one roulade she can't sing" from Your Gold Teeth. Cathy Berberian was an avant-garde singer who was thrilled to be mentioned in song.
    • From "FM":
    "Nothing but Blues and Elvis"
    • From "Hey Nineteen":
    "Hey Nineteen! That's Aretha Franklin / She don't remember / Queen of Soul..."
    • "Parker's Band" is a shout-out to one of the band's influences, jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker.
    • Can't Buy a Thrill is named after a line from Bob Dylan's "It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry", from Highway 61 Revisited.
  • Singer Namedrop: From "Show Biz Kids":
    "They got the Steely Dan T-shirt"
  • Something Blues: Again, "Deacon Blues".
  • Special Guest: Dire Straits frontman Mark Knopfler played the guitar solo on "Time out of Mind". Fagen and Becker caught wind of the band when "Sultans of Swing" became a hit and liked Knopfler's guitar work on the song so much that they brought him into the studio.
  • Specs of Awesome: Walter Becker was 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.
  • 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. It 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.
    While the poor people sleeping
    With the shade on the light
    While the poor people sleeping
    All the stars come out at night
    • "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 Wacky Nazis: "Chain Lightning" is about two former Nazis returning to the site of Hitler's Nuremberg speech.
  • Title Track: "Pretzel Logic", "The Royal Scam", "Gaucho", "Aja", "Two Against Nature", and "Everything Must Go" lend their titles to that of their respective albums.
  • Uncommon Time: "Aja". The last word of the chorus ("you") inserts a measure of 3/4 meter into an otherwise 4/4 section. That Other Wiki sums up the shenanigans in the song's instrumental break:
    The first part goes on for 17 bars, one in 2/4, as the other musicians vamp on staccato chords beneath. The interlude chords briefly return, and Gadd resumes keep the beat, with a few more flourishes, while Shorter's solo continues. Then the vamp and drum solo resume for another 17-bar section, this one including one bar in 3/4, that ends with a descending chord progression that takes us back into the intro.
  • Visual Pun: Pretzel Logic and Katy Lied's album art with a pretzel stand and katydid respectively.
  • War Is Hell: "Third World Man", a scathing critique of U.S. miltary intervention and its effect on soldiers.
    • Also note "Fire In The Hole", based on the duo's experince dodging the draft during the Vietnam War.
  • Won't Do Your Dirty Work: The song "Dirty Work", which is about a man tired of being used for sex by a woman in an unfaithful relationship.