I disagree with Steely Dan. But that doesn’t mean I don’t like them. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that during the period of 1972 – 1980, they released some of the finest albums of that era, and in Walter Becker and Donald Fagen had one of the finest songwriting duos to operate in the spheres of popular music.
Throughout the 1970s Steely Dan were the last word in sophisticated pop, blending rock and roll with pop sass, jazzy arrangements, intelligent / cynical lyrics, and a dedication to sonic detail and musicianship that bordered on fanatical. While Becker and Fagen would remain the band’s only constant members, in their early days they boasted the twin guitar line up of Denny Dias and Jeff Baxter, drummer Jim Hodder and vocalist David Palmer, however Becker and Fagen’s eternal pursuit of perfection led to Palmer’s departure after just one album, and the rest of the band were gradually sidelined in favour of session musicians until they were totally dispensed with by the mid 70s and Becker and Fagen decreed that Steely Dan were henceforth a studio-only act. This led to them exploring ever more sophisticated and jazzy textures over the more pop-rock direction that had served them so well in their early days.
Becker and Fagen had been a songwriting duo for a few years, and had even recorded a soundtrack before settling on the Steely Dan name and heading into the recording studio to record the material that would result in their debut album, Can’t Buy a Thrill, being released in 1972. A startlingly assured debut, it remains one of the band’s finest, and to certain fans remains their best. As it is the only album recorded with vocalist David Palmer, Can’t Buy a Thrill has a unique tone among Steely Dan’s output, as it is their only album where Donald Fagen does not take lead vocals on every track. It is also the band’s poppiest release, boasting classic numbers like “Do it Again”, “Dirty Work” and the seriously wonderful “Reelin’ in the Years”.
If Steely Dan had punctuated the 70s with pop-rock albums like Can’t Buy a Thrill, then they could conceivably have become one of the most commercially successful acts of the decade, however Becker and Fagen were striving for more than mere commercial success, and there were already early hints of their single-minded pursuit of perfection on their debut, with session guitarist Elliott Randall brought in to record the solo on “Reelin’ in the Years”, which was just the slightest hint of things to come for the band as the decade progressed.
1973’s Countdown to Ecstasy underlined Steely Dan’s ambitions to be much more than a radio-friendly pop-rock act. A far darker toned album than their debut, song structures were extended and the whole album was considerably less accessible, to the point where it didn’t even chart here in the UK. While there weren’t any obvious hit singles to be had, “Bodhisattva” was a rave up of immense proportions to open the album and demonstrated that Steely Dan could channel no small amount of rock and roll fire when the mood took them. Elsewhere songs like “Show Biz Kids” and “My Old School” would establish themselves as key tracks in the Steely Dan songbook. Countdown to Ecstasy is an album which rewards perseverance and repeated plays, revealing its charms over time, despite its lukewarm reception on release, in retrospect, Countdown to Ecstasy is one of Steely Dan’s finest albums. While it may have been a step back for the band in terms of sales, Countdown to Ecstasy confirmed that the depths hinted at Can’t Buy a Thrill were genuinely there, and that the original five piece line up of the band were no slouches when it came to their musical chops
It is perhaps surprising then that Steely Dan’s third album, fan favourite Pretzel Logic, found Becker and Fagen utilise ever more session musicians to supplement Steely Dan’s core band, with Hodder only appearing on backing vocals. While tracks like the hit “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number”, “Barrytown”, “With a Gun” and “Any Major Dude Will Tell You” saw a return to more commercial, even playful, numbers, Pretzel Logic as a whole hinted at Becker and Fagen’s jazzier ambitions, particularly on the syncopated “Parker’s Band” and the straight cover of “East St Louis Toodle-oo”.
Perhaps the band’s most fun album next to their debut, in many ways Pretzel Logic is the definitive Steely Dan album, capturing the band at the mid-way point between the pop-rock of their early days, and the full-blown jazz-rock of their later albums. It was also the last album for Baxter and Hodder, as they had become increasingly discontent with being sidelined in the studio and Becker and Fagen had tired of touring and had decided that the way forward was for Steely Dan to become a purely studio-based act, as their music had become too sophisticated to try and translate into live performance on stage.
It is ironic then that their next album, 1975’s Katy Lied, despite being their first with Becker and Fagen being backed up by a band made up of studio session big-hitters, is their roughest sounding since their debut. Rather than detract from the more raw sound added a touch more grit to proceedings, away from the ever more smotth and polished sound that Becker and Fagen had been advancing towards up to that point. Rumour has it that Katy Lied was Becker and Fagen’s least favourite Steely Dan album, but for this listener, it’s one of their most rewarding and interesting albums, with irresistible numbers like “Black Friday”, “Bad Sneakers” and “Doctor Wu”. As it turns out, the slight lack of polish only enhances the songs, as Becker and Fagen had long focused on writing lyrics about the seedy underbelly of life, so their insistence that the band’s music become ever more sophisticated was very much at odds with the subject matter of their lyrics, which while resulting in an interesting tension between lyrics and music, meant that they were becoming increasingly at odds with each other as their career progressed. Katy Lied demonstrated how effective it would have been if they had allowed for the occasional imperfection to slip into their music and slightly echo the fallibility of the characters in their lyrics.
Katy Lied seemingly lit a fire under Becker and Fagen to ensure that they would never accept anything less than absolute perfection in the studio. While all their albums had been engineered and produced to allow each instrument enough room to sound absolutely clear and undisturbed by anything so crass as echo, they would henceforth insist on many multiple takes until they were absolutely satisfied that the music could not in any way sound better. While this single minded focus on perfection is laudable, it was at the expense of anything that sounded spontaneous. Royal Scam is an album that sounds like it has been polished to a high sheen, yet it still had the very vaguest touch of rock and roll about it, as it was the band’s most guitar-orientated album to date. It resulted in the band’s biggest hit album here in the UK to date, and even boasted the only one of their singles that charted on this side of the pond in the shape of “Haitian Divorce”.
The Royal Scam, despite featuring tunes like “Haitian Divorce” and “Kid Charlamagne” also marked the moment where Becker and Fagen’s obsession with jazz arrangements seemingly overtook their love of pop music, indeed 1977’s Aja was so polished and sophisticated that not so much of a smear of commercial rock music was present. Instead Aja was full blown jazz rock, with jazz session musos now dominating proceedings. It is Steely Dan’s most sophisticated album by some distance and from a pure sound standpoint it is breathtaking, however anyone yearning for a great pop song in the mould of “Reelin’ in the Years” will be disappointed. “Peg” is the album’s one vaguely accessible number, “Deacon Blue” inspired the band of the same name and “Josie” hints at a great pop song trying to reveal it’s true identity despite the heavy disguise of some none-more-tasteful jazz-rock.
After six albums in as many years and having cornered the sophisticated jazz-rock market, 1978 saw Becker and Fagen take a year off, with only a greatest hits set hitting the shelves. 1979 saw them head back to the studio though, with the weight of expectation hung heavy upon them. The year leading up to 1980’s Gaucho saw Steely Dan struggle with a plethora of legal and personal issues, all of which caused the album to undergo a longer gestation than their previous releases, and while the result was a solid halfway house between the high-quality jazzing of Aja and the more accessible (but not too accessible you understand…) approach of The Royal Scam, there was also a feeling of burnout about it as well. It was obvious that Steely Dan had achieved all that they had set out to achieve and now was the perfect time to down tools before they started to repeat themselves.
Fagen was the first out of the blocks with his solo album, The Nightfly, while Becker would indulge in some production duties, but wouldn’t issue his first solo album until the mid 90s, by which time they had taken the decision to resurrect Steely Dan as a touring entity. There would be two more albums at the start of the new millennium, however, well received though they were, neither have been embraced by their fans as their 70s work and Gaucho.
In 1999 there was an extensive reissue campaign, resulting in all seven of their studio albums to that time enjoying a remaster. Compilations have been plentiful, but really, any Steely Dan dude will tell you that the best way to appreciate Steely Dan is through their studio albums.
I don’t agree with Steely Dan though. Or more to the point, I don’t agree with Becker and Fagen and their constant push to ever more sophisticated and jazzier sounds. I may be in the minority, but the jazzier that Steely Dan became, the less interesting I found them. For me their first four albums were their best work, and everything after Katy Lied is just a bit too slick. That said, there are many that will disagree, and insist that they only became a truly great band once they had dispensed with the pop fluff and embraced smooth sophistication. Whatever the case, Becker and Fagen were responsible for one of the most unique ctalogues in popular music and they should be celebrated for that fact.