The original “dad band” Steely Dan has its roots in Annandale-on-Hudson and the drug-infested dorm rooms of Bard College. Although initially comprised of six musicians, Steely Dan is headed by the core duo of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, who wrote all of the band’s material. The early part of the 70s saw the band write classic rock songs about a whole host of topics from getting caught smoking weed to sex and gambling addictions. The group’s first two albums Can’t Buy a Thrill and Countdown to Ecstasy have some solid rock n’ roll tunes intricately composed by Fagen on keys/vocals and Becker on bass. The track “King of the World” has a densely layered ascending synth line throughout the verses under which multiple tracks of electric guitar drift through with a country/western feel as well as a dreamy reverb-laden and wah-wah sound. The bridge captures me the most where Fagen and Becker’s obsession over jazz shines through: a ‘jazzy’ synth melody plays while more and more tracks accompany it all while the bass plays a sloppy, free-flowing riff. I think this is one of the first songs I heard from Steely Dan, and that synthesizer line has stuck with me since.
After the first several albums as a formal group, Becker and Fagen got sick of touring and wanted to focus all their energies in the studio. Leaving little role for other musicians, especially when session players were increasingly coming in, Becker and Fagen forced the other bandmates to leave. From the mid-70s onwards, Fagen and Becker became more successful and began buying up LA’s best musicians to play in their albums (their “band” was pretty much a musical chairs cycle of various studio players). By 1980, the LP Gaucho of only seven songs was worked on by 42 session players and 11 engineers over the course of 2 years. Their music became heavily based on harmonically complex (some would say overly intricate and technical) chord structures/changes (loads of 9th and 13th chords) as well as corny horn stabs. Also, if the production of Gaucho doesn’t showcase Steely Dan’s incredible arrogance as a band, most of their lyrics reflect their own inflated egos and conceited personalities; a majority of their songs are about washed up hipsters from the late 60s that are stuck in the mindset of fucking around with girls and drugs (“Hey Nineteen” is all about the narrator’s sexual journeys with this 19 year old and his disappointment over her not living up to his expectations.)
Nevertheless, Steely Dan is one of my favorite groups: there are very few songs that I dislike by them and their fusion of jazz melodies/chords with a rock rhythm section is a musical hallmark of the 70s. The track “Black Cow”, for example, expands from the standard classic rock sound and incorporates a vast, though completely overdubbed, brass section lending the song a full-bodied roundness that exemplifies much of the band’s feel. In fact, even the beginning of “Black Cow” illustrates the tight and crisp sound of many of their songs.
Steely Dan’s perfectionist attitude in the studio led them to instruct session players to incessantly record – especially on Gaucho – take after take, over and over again to nail each part. The obsessive recording process is also shown in their buying an expensive drum machine specifically for aiding in the album’s mixing process. Featuring drummer Bernard Purdie, “Babylon Sisters” showcases the signature Purdie shuffle (fast triplets against a half-time blues backbeat) over an oozy electric piano melody. Though I take a piss out of the recording process, the production quality is really something on this record: every instrument is playing so precisely and the sound is balanced so well that every instrument comes out pronounced, yet in its proper place.
More of a funk disco type tune, “Glamour Profession” starts off with a sweeping synth and staccato guitar melody all while a watery-sounding electric piano sets the atmosphere. The backing vocals on this track are worth mentioning: they give the song so much depth while Fagen sings in his airy tone.
After Gaucho, Steely Dan broke up: Becker was dealing with drug problems while Fagen was focusing in on a more solo career. Two decades later, they reunited and came out with albums in 2000 and 2003. The music sounds pretty much like a continuation of their stuff in the 70s: the meticulous attention to detail in production quality and virtually the same lyric material. “Pixeleen” is an upbeat funk rock song that starts with crisp electric guitar chords and an unwavering organ line. The whole song is tight-sounding and shows that they have perfected their sound to the point that when a Steely Dan song comes on you can recognize it instantly.
Although the band has been criticized for the over-production and near-elitism of their music, Steely Dan has remained one of my favorites groups and highly influential across all different genres. Many artists have sampled their work, including De La Soul, Beyoncé, deadmau5, Kanye West, MF Doom, John Legend, Ice Cube, etc… Repping the baby boomer’s hipster generation, Steely Dan has become the quintessential dad band through their nostalgia of the good old days – Fagen and Becker live in the past, reminiscing about the golden era of sex, drugs and rock n’ roll.