Steely Dan

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.
Jump to navigation Jump to search
/wiki/Steely Dancreator
L-R: Walter Becker, Donald Fagen

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 band known for a string of hit singles released from 1972 to 1980. The duo split in 1981, and reunited in the early 1990's, with the band releasing their first album in 20 years, Two Against Nature in 2000. That album won them a Grammy Award for Album of the Year.

The band's studio album discography is as follows:

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

Steely Dan provides examples of the following tropes:

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".
  • Badass Long Hair: Walter Becker, and previously Donald Fagen.
  • Biting the Hand Humor: Their website, among many other hilarious writings, contains a number of appeals making their case for inclusion in the Rock 'n' 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".
  • Black Sheep Hit: The band's biggest UK hit is "Haitian Divorce", which is atypical of their style and slightly ska-influenced. It peaked at #17, and is one of only two Top 40 hits the band managed in the UK (the other is "Do It Again", which managed #39). Compare to the United States, where "Haitian Divorce" is actually one of their more obscure singles (its one of only three Steely Dan singles to not make a Billboard Hot 100 chart appearance, the other two being "Bad Sneakers" and "Cousin Dupree" and even those made other Billboard charts).
  • Breakaway Pop Hit: "FM (No Static at All)" was a top 30 hit in 1978, released at the height of the band's popularity. The movie it was written for, FM is now obscure.
  • 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".
  • Cool Old Guy: Both of them, now that they're in their 60s.
  • Creator Backlash: The band states in the liner notes for The Royal Scam remaster that they despise the album's cover. They're not too fond of the cover for Can't Buy A Thrill either.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Epic Riff: "Reelin' In The Years", "Hey Nineteen", and a non-guitar example, "Rikki Don't Lose That Number".
    • The opening "Rikki Don't Lose That Number" riff is lifted directly from the Horace Silver Quintet's "Song for My Father." Well, they are a jazz fusion duo, after all...
  • A Good Name for a Rock Band: Named after a dildo in William S. Burroughs' Naked Lunch.
  • Foe Yay: hinted at, at the end of "My Rival"
  • He Also Did: Original guitarist Jeff "Skunk" Baxter moved onto The Doobie Brothers after he left the band after Pretzel Logic. He's now a missile defense adviser.
    • Backing vocalist Michael McDonald also became a member of The Doobie Brothers and later had a successful solo career, all while continuing to provide backing vocals to Steely Dan albums up through Gaucho. He still occasionally tours with them (usually with his own solo band as the opening act) from time to time as well, most notably on their 2006 tour.
      • Drummer Jeff Porcaro went on to become a founding member of Toto and played on many records, such as Michael Jackson's Thriller and Madonna's Like A Prayer. Unfortunately, he died in 1992.
  • Heterosexual Life Partners
  • I Am Not Shazam: No, there is no guy named Steely Dan.
  • Incredibly Lame Pun: The covers to their albums Pretzel Logic (a pretzel cart) and Katy Lied (a katydid).
  • Keep Circulating the Tapes: The two songs on the band's first single, "Dallas" and "Sail The Waterway", have never been released on CD.
  • Kill the God: The whole point of "Godwhacker".
  • Literary Allusion Title: The band is supposedly named after a dildo in William S. Burroughs' Naked Lunch.
  • Lyrical Dissonance: Many of their songs sound very smooth and mellow, but the lyrics? Wow, are they dark.
    • A couple of notable examples; "Turn That Heartbeat Over Again", which sounds upbeat, until you realize it's about a heist Gone Horribly Wrong, and "Everyone's Gone To The Movies", which is even more upbeat sounding, and is about a guy inviting kids to his house to watch porno movies.
      • Worse yet, it doesn't really sound like watching porn is the intended end game of that particular nightmare scenario. 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.
        • Judging by the delivery, it appears to be narrated by a mafia member announcing the death of "Daddy". Most likely, Daddy is someone who wronged them.
  • Lyrical Shoehorn: Averted, but some lyrics may seem like one due to not understanding the Genius Bonus. "Deacon Blues", for instance: The lyrics, in general, are very dark and melancholy (see page quote), until it gets to:

They call Alabama the Crimson Tide
Call me Deacon Blues!

    • To some, that just seems like a Lyrical Shoehorn, but the part of the chorus just beforehand is "they got a name for the winners in the world/I want a name when I lose". The University of Alabama is chosen as an example of a "winner" and were well known as a dominant force in college football under legendary coach Bear Bryant. The "Deacon Blues" part? It refers to the Wake Forest Demon Deacons, a college football team that were particularly lousy during the seventies.
  • May-December Romance: "Hey Nineteen", although the relationship isn't particularly intimate.
  • Malaproper: Their album (and song) title Aja, is a misspelling (and presumably slight mispronunciation) of "Asia".
    • Justified in that it was the name of one of their friends' wives. She was apparently Korean.
  • Minimalistic Cover Art: Aja
  • Missing Episode: By accident, the final version of 1980's The Second Arrangement was nearly completely erased by the engineer. Only a small fragment remains. The band regarded the song as the centerpiece of the album at the time. They were so upset about the loss of this 'perfect take' that they cut the song from the album Gaucho entirely and did not rerecord it. It was either replaced by "Third World Man" or "Hey Nineteen" depending on what you read. However, demo versions of the song have been bootlegged and the band finally performed it live once in 2011.
  • Morality Ballad: "Kid Charlemagne"
  • Non-Appearing Title: "Pretzel Logic", "The Caves of Altamira"
  • Obsession Song: "Rikki Don't Lose That Number"
  • One-Woman Song: "Peg", "Josie" and "Rikki Don't Lose That Number"
  • The Pete Best: Chevy Chase was the drummer for Fagen and Becker's Bard College proto-Steely Dan band The Leather Canary. This promptly satisfies the mandatory requirement to mention Chevy Chase in any article or entry on Steely Dan.
  • 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"
  • Rated "M" for Manly
  • Refrain From Assuming: The song is called "Peg", not "Your Favorite Foreign Movie".
  • Sampled Up: The "you know they don't give a fuck about anybody else" line from "Show Biz Kids" is used as the refrain for "The Man Don't Give A Fuck", a 1996 single by Welsh psychedelic band Super Furry Animals. This sample is repeated fifty times in the five minute song.
  • She's All Grown Up: "Cousin Dupree"
  • Single-Stanza Song: "The Fez".
  • Something Blues: Again, "Deacon Blues".
  • Step Up to the Microphone: "Slang of Ages" from Everything Must Go is Walter Becker's only lead vocal credit in the band's history.
    • "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.

While the poor people sleeping
With the shade on the light
While the poor people sleeping
All the stars come out at night

    • 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.
    • Also, "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.
  • Those Two Guys
  • Those Wacky Nazis: "Chain Lightning" is about two former Nazis returning to the site of Hitler's Nuremberg speech.
  • Troubled Production: Gaucho. Among the things that caused the production to be a living hell include:
    • Becker was hit by a car before record was to begin, and while recovering from leg injuries which delayed production, developed other infections.
    • Becker and Fagen becoming control freaks in production, demanding dozens of takes from studio musicians and continuous tweeks to already recorded material (do you like the fade-out for "Babylon Sisters"? Well it took 55 attempts for Becker, Fagen and their longtime producer Roger Nichols to decide on a version they liked).
    • A song called "The Second Arrangement" -- which the band had slaved over moreso than any other track -- was accidentally wiped by a recording assistant and eventually had to be scrapped.
  • Visual Pun: Pretzel Logic and Katy Lied's album art with a pretzel stand and katydid respectively.
  • Yandere: "My Rival"