The Sunday Dozen: Steely Dan

I hate the term yacht rock, especially when it’s misapplied to Steely Dan. They make smart, sardonic, and polished jazz pop rock. The Dan are too sophisticated to be lumped in with your average soft rock outfit and they rock in concert.

Steely Dan started off as your basic band but evolved into a group centered on the brilliant songwriting team of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen. They were active from 1971-1981 and reformed in 1993 for a tour followed by two swell albums. Walter Becker died in 2017 but Fagen continued touring. It’s only fitting: he’s the voice of Steely Dan, after all.

I was turned on to Steely Dan by a friend not long after their first album came out. He was related to then lead guitar player Jeff (Skunk) Baxter but unlike his cousin he was not a right-winger. I hope Skunk hasn’t converted him. Baxter moved on to the Doobie Brothers as Steely Dan became a floating array of musicians anchored by Becker and Fagen.

Becker and Fagen stopped touring in the mid-Seventies. In those days, musicians made their living off record sales and publishing, so they focused on writing and recording a string of brilliant albums. They did not return to the road until regrouping in the Nineties.

I’ve only seen Steely Dan once. It was at Jazz Fest 2007. They were fabulous. We were fortunate enough to have backstage passes via my OG NOLA blogger buddy, Dangerblond. I didn’t meet the band, but loved the show. Thanks again, Kim.

I know people who don’t like Steely Dan. I don’t get it. You’re missing out on some great music and mordant lyrics. It’s your loss, not mine.

As always, this list reflects my own taste and is in chronological order. There are more hits than in most previous dozens because Becker and Fagen liked being played on the radio and selling singles.

Reelin’ In The Years was the song that hooked me on Steely Dan.

My favorite Steely Dan album is Countdown To Ecstasy. Bodhisattva gets it off to a rocking start. Doesn’t sound like yacht rock to me, y’all.

Show Biz Kids is an addictive song with swell opening lyrics: “You go to lost wages, go to lost wages.” Holy double entendre, Batman.

There’s some disagreement at the internet lyrics sites. The other version is Los Wages, which is a different Las Vegas pun. I like them both. Thus spake Adrastos.

My Old School is the perfect pop rock song. It has a fabulous bridge and propulsive piano playing by Fagen. It’s based on a true story, which landed Becker in jail. That’s why he’s not going back to “my old school.” Who can blame him?

Pretzel Logic is a surreal road song whose lyrics are subject to interpretation. It’s also the title track of my second favorite Dan album. The cover was featured on Album Cover Art Wednesday in 2014.

I’m partial to the Dan’s album openers. Representing Katy Lied, here’s Black Friday:

The late great Ashley Morris and I bonded over Kid Charlemagne. It’s one of Steely Dan’s best live songs; a perfect closer or encore.

Aja is one of Steely Dan’s jazziest numbers. It features a brilliant sax solo by the great Wayne Shorter of Weather Report fame. It was a coin toss between Aja and Deacon Blues but I have a story for the former, not the latter. Besides, I dislike the Crimson Tide. Geaux Tigers.

Here’s the story. I was sitting in the first row at a Weather Report show and asked Shorter to play Aja. He said, “Great song. Wrong band.” It was the same show at which I asked the stolid Josef Zawinul to play Louie Louie. That’s the long and shorter of it.

Here At The Western World was the previously unreleased track on the first Steely Dan greatest hits album. It’s one of their loveliest songs.

I used Hey Nineteen as the title of a post about Mike Flynn in 2018. The song is about a skeezy guy, but not as skeezy as Flynn or Cousin Dupree. See below.

The Two Against Nature album won some Grammys. I dig the cover too. That’s why it’s the featured image. Becker and Fagen are shadowy figures, after all.

Back to the music. Gaslighting Abbie is another fine opening track. It’s a tune for our times: gaslighting is in.

As noted above, the narrator of Cousin Dupree is creepy and skeezy. It’s a great song with a great groove. Great grooves abound on Two Against Nature.

It’s lagniappe time. We have Walter Becker solo, Donald Fagen solo, and Rickie Lee Jones covering one of the Dan dozen.

7 thoughts on “The Sunday Dozen: Steely Dan

  1. If I had to pick a favorite Dan song, I’d be stuck, but one contender would be My Old School. Great lyrics. Great melody. Transcendent guitar solos. (Great guitar solos are a hallmark of a lot of Dan songs and they weren’t all by Skunk Baxter, either. An uncredited Rick Derringer (yeah, the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hoochie-Coo guy) offered one or two fine ones as well.

  2. Yeah, calling Steely Dan yacht rock means people aren’t listening to the lyrics, for one. No one that cynical would be caught dead on a yacht.

  3. SD is my go to rx
    I walk to their music early morning in dreadful tx humidity
    Within 40 min and one coffee, my day is ready to face.
    Been a SD lover since playing records in my attic room in CT! 73’

  4. My Old School came on the radio when I was driving around last week and I found myself wondering why people didn’t like Steely Dan. now I know i’m not alone.

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