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How Steely Dan become the ultimate cult band

BY Brendan Sainsbury

30th Aug 2022 Music

How Steely Dan become the ultimate cult band

Five decades ago, Steely Dan amassed an army of session musicians to perfect their seemingly improvised but tightly rehearsed jazz-rock fusion

As a kid growing up in 1980s Britain in the wake of punk rock, Steely Dan weren’t on my radar.

While punk was raw, energetic and in-your-face, the complex jazz-rock crafted by Steely Dan members, Don Fagan and Walter Becker was slick, polished and extravagantly well-produced.

Not old enough to grasp its subtleties and nuances, I derisively labelled it “elevator music” and went back to my Clash records.

Time moved on and my tastes matured. By the late 1990s, with punk a distant memory, I decided to give Steely Dan another listen.

Immersing myself in the intricate chord structures and opaque lyrics of albums such as Pretzel Logic, I quickly realised, second time around, that the songs of Fagan and Becker were as subversive and edgy as anything Johnny Rotten had ever written.

It was just that, back in the 1980s, they had been too complex and clever for my unversed teenage ears to appreciate.

If ever a band didn’t conform to a label, it was Steely Dan. Fifty years after the release of their debut album Can’t Buy A Thrill, their music continues to defy neat classification.

For many, the beauty is in the contradictions—the way that the band’s smooth, silky songs are created from such wildly dissonant elements.   

Becoming Steely Dan

Unorthodox from the outset, song-writing partners, Don Fagan and Walter Becker first moved from gritty New York to glamorous LA in 1971.

Signed by American record producer Gary Katz, they formed a six-piece band, named it Steely Dan after a fictional sex-toy, and proceeded to create what would become the quintessential sound of Californian jazz-rock.

Despite being a talented live act, the band gave up touring in 1974 with the goal of pursuing pop perfection in the studio.

Disposing of most of their original line-up in favour of a revolving roster of session players, Fagan and Becker set themselves up as conductors of an ever-changing musical “co-op” that quickly came to epitomise the group’s super-slick sound: an improbable juxtaposition of cynical, esoteric lyrics and skilfully crafted tunes.

"It was like Mozart blended with Jack Kerouac in a smoky jazz club"

It was like Mozart blended with Jack Kerouac in a smoky jazz club. This was no easy-listening elevator music. In a Steely Dan song every word had a meaning, every note a justification.    

The lyrics were particularly important. Steely Dan didn’t croon dewy-eyed love songs like their fellow west coast rockers.

Instead, inspired by their penchant for beatnik literature, Fagan and Becker penned jaded, world-weary tales of losers, hookers, drug-dealers and outlaws, full of sardonic quips and black humour.

The fact that such downbeat stories collided caustically with the band’s velvety music only made them better.

Pursuing pop perfection

Musically, what began as a radio-friendly combo of classic rock mixed with R&B evolved, over the course of seven albums, into jazzier, more challenging songs.

Gradually, as the band logged bigger hits, they were able to buy more studio time, hire better musicians and employ finer studio wizardry.

Aja, Steely Dan’s sixth studio album, which came out in 1977, was so meticulously produced that some critics deemed it almost perfect. But for many of the musicians who worked on the record, it was something more than perfect.

“We would work past the perfection point, until it became natural, until it sounded almost improvised in a way,” said session guitarist Dean Parks in a 1999 documentary about the Aja album.

"'Babylon Sisters', the hit single from the 1980 album Gaucho, allegedly went through 274 mixes"

“It was like a two-step process. One was to get to perfection, the other was to get beyond it and loosen it up a little bit so that it didn’t have to be the perfect, squeaky-clean goal.”

Parks was one of 40 session musicians to perform on Aja. Save for Fagan on vocals/synthesizer and Becker on guitar/bass, every number brought together a different “orchestra” of musicians specifically curated for the song.

It’s testament to the band’s genius that many great session musicians defined their careers through their work on a Steely Dan tune.

Notables include Larry Carlton’s avant-garde guitar solo on “Kid Charlemagne”, Steve Gadd’s and Wayne Shorter’s astounding drum/sax face-off on the song “Aja”, and Eliot Randall’s one-take guitar lick on “Reelin’ in the Years”, later rated by Jimmy Page as his all-time favourite.

The band’s attention-to-detail could sometimes exasperate. Guitarist, Jay Graydon finally nailed the wonderful Polynesian-style guitar riff on the song “Peg” after the efforts of six other multi-talented players (including Larry Carlton) had been rejected.

“Babylon Sisters”, the hit single from the 1980 album Gaucho, allegedly went through 274 mixes.

The Steely Dan sound lives on

Did their sterling efforts pay off? Undoubtedly. The complexity and depth of Steely Dan’s immense body of work is one of the main reasons the band’s music is so timeless and still resonates today.

"De la Soul sampled them on their 1989 song, 'Eye Know'"

De la Soul sampled them on their 1989 song, “Eye Know”. Kanye West did the same on his 2007 hit, “Champion”. Not surprisingly, the band has recently acquired a cult following among millennials.

For the vacillators, I recommend starting with Aja and working slowly backwards. And if you don’t like them yet, trust me, you soon will.

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