The reasons for liking a particular artist can end up lost in the mists of time. But for me Steely Dan started with Larry Carlton’s guitar solo in ‘Kid Charlemagne’ longer ago than I care to remember. I asked for and received the newly released ‘Aja’ album for Christmas 1977 and they have followed me around ever since.
Once the rest of the band had been mostly jettisoned by the third album ‘Pretzel Logic’ the core writing partnership of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen could get properly down to business. Lifting the opening of Horace Silver’s ‘Song for My Father’ for ‘Rikki Don’t Lose That Number’ was a marker for the way forward. Other Jazz influences on that album included recording a Duke Ellington piece and ‘Parker’s Band’ with words made up mostly of Charlie Parker song titles. They dialed back the Jazz for the next 2 albums ‘Katy Lied’ and ‘The Royal Scam’ but by the time of ‘Aja‘ they were neatly perched on the tricky balancing point between Jazz and Rock. With many renowned soloists appearing, Wayne Shorter and Steve Gadd on the title track, and a sublime Fender Rhodes solo from Victor Feldman on ‘Black Cow’, they still managed to produce hit singles with ‘Peg’, and blues shuffles like ‘Deacon Blues’. ‘Gaucho’ from 1980 smoothed the formula out to the point that they had clearly run their course. It’s still a great record, probably my favourite, but the troubled production, and having an engineer erase a whole song, ‘Second Arrangement’, Becker being involved in an accident and losing his girlfriend to drugs all pointed the way to the exit.
After giving up live work in 1974, they reappeared on the legacy act circuit 20 years later and have toured consistently ever since. Two more studio albums, ‘Two Against Nature’, which really only won a Grammy to stop Eminem getting it, and the less than stellar ‘Everything Must Go’ appeared along with solo albums from both parties that really only served to show that they were better writers together.
The appeal of their music is different now than it was as a 14 year old. Favourite songs then were the simpler ones, ‘Peg’ and ‘Josie’ from ‘Aja‘, and ‘Show Biz Kids’ or ‘Reelin In The Years’ from earlier albums. One of the attractions now is the little nuggets that pop out of the songs even after all this time. Learning that Muswellbrook mentioned in ‘Black Friday’ is a real place, as is Mizar 5 from ‘Sign In Stranger’. Where do they get this stuff? The answer is an early life reading Science Fiction and listening to 50s Pop and Jazz. Their couldn’t care less attitude to the press and the in jokes in the lyrics stand them out from their peers. Recognising these and other pieces of Steely Dan lore, like the fact that the original sleeve notes to ‘Aja’ were actually written by Becker and Fagen, rather than a journalist, is all part of being a fan of the group. I am realistic enough to spot that their snarky approach to their music has worked against them though. An initial batch of badly transferred CDs was followed by a box set in 1993 ‘Citizen Steely Dan’ which misses off a couple of early singles and throws fans a bone with a couple of extra songs. The vaults contrary to their protestations are stuffed with bonus material and with various dodgy remasters floating about the market they are one of the major acts that really need some up to date super deluxe editions. With only one official single CD live album until this year they have left the market to what are bootlegs in all but name. The disregard for their audience this speaks to is one of the more frustrating parts of being a Steely Dan fan.
Of their solo albums I would suggest Donald Fagen’s ‘The Nightfly’, and the reunion solo albums, Fagen’s ‘Kamakiriad’ produced by Becker and with the latter’s influence all over the songs, and Becker’s ‘11 Tracks of Whack’ where Fagen returned the production favour. Becker’s contribution to the group is greatly underestimated. His solo work shows him to be the better lyric writer and as they settled into touring through the 90s and 00s his guitar playing grew in confidence and I would suggest he is one of the great under rated guitarists with a unique single note style and a neat line in solos.
Walter Becker passed away in 2017, and Donald Fagen has done his best to devalue the Steely Dan brand since then. From a rather unseemly lawsuit aimed at Becker’s estate to the two less than sparkling live albums released this year, the objective seems to be enhancing his pension rather than curating their legacy. That said I bought ‘The Nightfly – Live’ and ‘Northeast Corridor’ and will doubtless buy any other product he puts out. Because that’s what an obsessive fan does.
The best of many compilations is ‘Showbiz Kids: The Steely Dan Story, 1972–1980’.
Of the albums if you are a Jazz fan then go straight for ‘Aja’, and work back from there. If you are starting from a more rock fan perspective ‘Katy Lied’ makes a good entry point. ‘The Nightfly’ is a classic album in its own right. Of the more recent ones, ‘Two Against Nature‘ is the best, although their best reunion song ‘Godwhacker’ is on ‘Everything Must Go’, find it on your streaming platform of choice.
‘Alive in America’ from 1995 is best of a poor live selection. Find their ‘Plush TV Jazz-Rock Party’ TV special from 2000 on You Tube for the best of Steely Dan live, as well as some great examples of their humour directed at fanzine publisher Pete Fogel.