Steely Dan is an American jazz rock band whose music also blends elements of funk, R&B, and pop.
Founded by core members Walter Becker and Donald Fagen in 1972, the band enjoyed great critical and commercial success in the late 1970s and early 1980s before breaking up in 1981. Rolling Stone has called them “the perfect musical antiheroes for the Seventies”. Steely Dan reunited in 1993 and has toured steadily ever since.
Recorded with a revolving cast of session musicians, Steely Dan’s music is characterized by complex jazz-influenced structures and harmonies. Becker and Fagen are whimsical, often sarcastic lyricists, having written “cerebral, wry and eccentric” songs about drugs, love affairs, and crime. The pair is also known for their near-obsessive perfectionism in the recording studio: Over the year they took to record Gaucho (1980), an album of just seven songs, Becker and Fagen hired at least 42 studio musicians and 11 engineers.
Steely Dan toured from 1972 to 1974 before retiring from live performances, becoming a studio-only band. After the group disbanded in 1981, Becker and Fagen were less active throughout most of the next decade, though a cult following remained devoted to the group. Since reuniting in 1993 Steely Dan has released two albums of new material, the first of which, Two Against Nature, earned a Grammy Award for Album of the Year. They have sold more than 40 million albums worldwide and were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in March 2001.
In a VH1 list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time, Steely Dan were listed at #82.
Formative and early years (1967–1972)
Walter Becker and Donald Fagen met in 1968 at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York. As Fagen passed by a café, The Red Balloon, he heard Becker practicing the electric guitar. In an interview, Fagen recounted the experience: “I hear this guy practicing, and it sounded very professional and contemporary. It sounded like, you know, like a black person, really.” He introduced himself to Becker and asked, “Do you want to be in a band?” Discovering that they enjoyed similar music, the two began writing songs together.
Becker and Fagen began playing in local groups. One such group, known as The Bad Rock Group and later as The Leather Canary, included future comedy star Chevy Chase on drums. They played covers of songs by The Rolling Stones (“Dandelion”), Moby Grape (“Hey Grandma”), and Willie Dixon (“Spoonful”), as well as some original compositions.Terence Boylan, another Bard musician, remembered that Fagen took readily to the Beatnik life while attending college: “They never came out of their room, they stayed up all night. They looked like ghosts — black turtlenecks and skin so white that it looked like yogurt. Absolutely no activity, chain-smoking Lucky Strikes and dope.” Fagen himself would later remember it as “probably the only time in my life that I actually had friends.”
After Fagen graduated in 1969, the two moved to Brooklyn and tried to peddle their tunes in the Brill Building in midtown Manhattan. Kenny Vance (of Jay and the Americans), who had a production office in the building, took an interest in their music, which led to work on the soundtrack of the low-budget Richard Pryor film You’ve Got to Walk It Like You Talk It or You’ll Lose That Beat. Becker later said bluntly: “We did it for the money.” A series of demos from 1968 to 1971 are available in bootleg form. This collection features approximately 25 tracks and is notable for its sparse arrangements (Fagen plays solo piano on many songs) and lo-fi production, a contrast with Steely Dan’s later work. Although some of these songs (“Caves of Altamira”, “Brooklyn”, “Barrytown”) were re-recorded for Steely Dan albums, most were never officially released.
Becker and Fagen joined the touring band of Jay and the Americans for roughly a year and a half. They were at first paid $100 per show, but partway through their tenure the band’s tour manager cut their salaries in half. The group’s lead singer, Jay Black, dubbed Becker and Fagen “the Manson and Starkweather of rock ‘n’ roll”, referring to cult leader Charles Manson and spree killer Charles Starkweather.
They had little success after moving to Brooklyn, although Barbra Streisand recorded their song “I Mean To Shine” on her 1971 Barbra Joan Streisand album. Their fortunes changed when one of Vance’s associates, Gary Katz, moved to Los Angeles to become a staff producer for ABC Records. He hired Becker and Fagen as staff songwriters; they flew to California. Katz would produce all their 1970s albums in collaboration with engineer Roger Nichols, and Nichols would win six Grammy Awards for his work with the band from the 1970s to 2001.
After realizing that their songs were too complex for other ABC artists, at Katz’s suggestion Becker and Fagen formed their own band with guitarists Denny Dias and Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, drummer Jim Hodder and singer David Palmer, and Katz signed them to ABC as recording artists. Fans of Beat Generation literature, Fagen and Becker named the band after “Steely Dan III from Yokohama“, a strap-on dildo mentioned in the William S. Burroughs novel Naked Lunch. Palmer joined as a second lead vocalist because of Fagen’s reluctance to sing in front of an audience and because the label believed that his voice was not “commercial” enough. Fagen then lacked confidence in his voice and occasionally suffered from stage fright.
In 1972, ABC issued Steely Dan’s first single, “Dallas”, backed with “Sail the Waterway”. Distribution of “stock” copies available to the general public was apparently extremely limited; the single sold so poorly that promotional copies are much more readily available than stock copies in today’s collectors market. As of 2015, “Dallas” and “Sail the Waterway” are the only officially released Steely Dan tracks that have not been reissued on cassette or compact disc. In an interview (1995), Becker and Fagen called the songs “stinko.”
Can’t Buy a Thrill and Countdown to Ecstasy (1972–1973)
Can’t Buy a Thrill, Steely Dan’s debut album, was released in 1972. Its hit singles “Do It Again” and “Reelin’ In the Years” reached No. 6 and No. 11 respectively on the Billboard singles chart. Along with “Dirty Work” (sung by David Palmer), the songs became staples on classic rock radio.
Because of Fagen’s reluctance to sing live, Palmer handled most of the vocal duties on stage. During the first tour, however, Katz and Becker decided that they preferred Fagen’s interpretations of the band’s songs, persuading him to take over. Palmer quietly left the group while it recorded its second album. He wrote the No. 2 hit “Jazzman” (1974) with Carole King.
Released in 1973, Countdown to Ecstasy was not as commercially successful as Steely Dan’s first album. Becker and Fagen were unhappy with some of the performances on the record and believed that it sold poorly because it had been recorded hastily on tour. The album’s singles were “Show Biz Kids” and “My Old School“, both of which stayed in the lower half of the Billboard charts (though “My Old School” and — to a lesser extent — “Bodhisattva” became minor FM Rock staples in time).
Pretzel Logic and Katy Lied (1974–1976)
Pretzel Logic was released in early 1974. A diverse set, it includes “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” (No. 4) and a note-for-note rendition of Duke Ellington and James “Bubber” Miley‘s “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo“.
During the previous album’s tour, the band had added vocalist-percussionist Royce Jones, vocalist-keyboardist Michael McDonald, and session drummer Jeff Porcaro (of Sonny & Cher). Porcaro and McDonald contributed significantly to Pretzel Logic (as they would to future Steely Dan recordings), reflecting Steely Dan’s increasing reliance on session musicians (including Dean Parks and Rick Derringer). Drummer Jeff Porcaro and Katy Lied pianist David Paich would go on to form Toto. Striving for perfection, Becker and Fagen sometimes asked musicians to record as many as forty takes of each track.
Pretzel Logic was the first Steely Dan album to feature Walter Becker on guitar. “Once I met (session musician) Chuck Rainey“, he explained, “I felt there really was no need for me to be bringing my bass guitar to the studio anymore”.
A rift began growing between Becker-Fagen and Steely Dan’s other members (particularly Baxter and Hodder), who wanted to tour. Becker and Fagen disliked constant touring and wanted to concentrate solely on writing and recording. The other members gradually left the band, discouraged by this and by their diminishing roles in the studio, although Dias and McDonald contributed until 1977 (Aja) and 1980 (Gaucho), respectively. Baxter and McDonald went on to join The Doobie Brothers. Steely Dan’s last tour performance was on July 4, 1974, a concert at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium in California. A recording of the show’s opening track, “Bodhisattva”, was released as a B-side, and appears as the opening track on the compilation album “Steely Dan Gold”.
Becker and Fagen recruited a diverse group of session players for Katy Lied (1975), including Porcaro, Paich, and McDonald, as well as guitarist Elliott Randall, jazz saxophonist Phil Woods, saxophonist/bass-guitarist Wilton Felder, percussionist/vibraphonist/keyboardist Victor Feldman, keyboardist (and later producer) Michael Omartian, and guitarist Larry Carlton—Dias, Becker, and Fagen being Steely Dan’s only original members. The album went gold on the strength of “Black Friday” and “Bad Sneakers“, but Becker and Fagen were so dissatisfied with the album’s sound (compromised by a faulty DBX noise reduction system) that they publicly apologized for it (on the album’s back cover) and for years refused to listen to it in its final form.Katy Lied also included “Doctor Wu” and “Chain Lightning”.
The Royal Scam and Aja (1976–1978)
The Royal Scam was released in May 1976. Partly because of Carlton’s prominent contributions, it is the band’s most guitar-oriented album. It also features performances by session drummer Bernard Purdie. The album sold well in the U.S.A. though without the strength of a hit single. “Haitian Divorce” (Top 20) drove sales in the UK, becoming Steely Dan’s first major hit in that country.
Steely Dan’s sixth album, the jazz-influenced Aja, was released in September 1977. Aja reached the Top Five in the U.S. charts within three weeks, winning the Grammy award for “Engineer – Best Engineered Recording – Non-Classical.” It was also one of the first American LPs to be certified ‘platinum’ for sales of over 1 million albums.
Featuring Michael McDonald’s backing vocals, “Peg” (No. 11) was the album’s first single, followed by “Josie” (No. 26) and “Deacon Blues” (No. 19). Aja solidified Becker’s and Fagen’s reputations as songwriters and studio perfectionists. It features such jazz and fusion luminaries as guitarists Larry Carlton and Lee Ritenour; bassist Chuck Rainey; saxophonists Wayne Shorter, Pete Christlieb, and Tom Scott; drummers Steve Gadd, Rick Marotta and Bernard Purdie; pianist Joe Sample and ex-Miles Davis pianist/vibraphonist Victor Feldman and Grammy award-winning producer/arranger Michael Omartian (piano).
Planning to tour in support of Aja, Steely Dan assembled a live band. Rehearsal ended and the tour was canceled when backing musicians began comparing pay. The album’s history was documented in an episode of the TV and DVD series Classic Albums.
After Aja’s success, Becker and Fagen were asked to write the title track for the movie FM. The movie was a box-office disaster, but the song was a hit, earning Steely Dan another engineering Grammy award. It was a minor hit in the UK and barely missed the Top 20 in the U.S.A.
Gaucho and breakup (1978–1981)
Becker and Fagen took a break from songwriting for most of 1978 before starting work on Gaucho. The project would not go smoothly: technical, legal, and personal setbacks delayed the album’s release and led Becker and Fagen to subsequently suspend their partnership for over a decade.
Misfortune struck early when an assistant engineer accidentally deleted “The Second Arrangement”, a favorite track of Katz and Nichols, which was never recovered. More trouble — this time legal — followed. In March 1979, MCA Records bought ABC, and for much of the next two years Steely Dan could not release an album. Becker and Fagen had planned on leaving ABC for Warner Bros. Records, but MCA claimed ownership of their music, preventing them from changing labels.
Turmoil in Becker’s personal life also interfered. His girlfriend died of a drug overdose in their Upper West Side apartment, and he was sued for $17 million. Becker settled out of court, but he was shocked by the accusations and by the tabloid press coverage that followed. Soon after, Becker was struck by a taxi while crossing a Manhattan street, shattering his right leg in several places and forcing him to use crutches.
Still more legal trouble was to come. Jazz composer Keith Jarrett sued Steely Dan for copyright infringement, claiming that they had based Gaucho‘s title track on one of his compositions, “Long As You Know You’re Living Yours” (Fagen later admitted that he’d loved the song and that it had been a strong influence.)
Gaucho was finally released in November 1980. Despite its tortured history, it was another major success. The album’s first single, “Hey Nineteen“, reached No. 10 on the pop chart in early 1981, and “Time Out of Mind” (featuring guitarist Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits) was a moderate hit in the spring. “My Rival” was featured in John Huston’s 1980 film Phobia. Roger Nichols won a third engineering Grammy award for his work on the album.
Time off (1981–1993)
Steely Dan disbanded in June 1981. Becker and his family moved to Maui, where he became an “avocado rancher and self-styled critic of the contemporary scene.” He stopped using drugs, which he had used for most of his career. Meanwhile, Fagen released a solo album, The Nightfly (1982), which went platinum in both the U.S. and the U.K. and yielded the Top Twenty hit “I.G.Y. (What a Beautiful World).” In 1988 Fagen wrote the score of Bright Lights, Big City and a song for its soundtrack, but otherwise recorded little. He occasionally did production work for other artists, as did Becker: one credit was British group China Crisis, who were strongly influenced by Steely Dan.
In 1986 Becker and Fagen performed on Zazu, an album by former model Rosie Vela produced by Gary Katz. The two rekindled their friendship and held songwriting sessions between 1986 and 1987, leaving the results unfinished. On October 25, 1991, Becker attended a concert by New York Rock and Soul Revue, co-founded by Fagen and producer/singer Libby Titus (who was for many years the partner of Levon Helm of The Band and would later become Fagen’s wife), and spontaneously performed with the group.
Becker produced Fagen’s second solo album, Kamakiriad, in 1993. Fagen called it the most satisfying recording experience of his career.
Reunion, Alive in America (1993–2000)
Becker and Fagen reunited for an American tour to support Kamakiriad, which sold poorly despite a Grammy nomination for Album of the Year. With Becker playing lead and rhythm guitar, the pair assembled a band that included a second keyboard player, a second lead guitarist, a bassist, three female backing singers, and a four-piece saxophone section. During this tour, Fagen introduced himself as “Rick Strauss” and Becker as “Frank Poulenc“.
The next year, MCA released Citizen Steely Dan, a boxed set featuring their entire catalog (except their debut single “Dallas”/”Sail The Waterway”) on four CDs, plus four extra tracks: “Here at the Western World” (originally released on 1978’s “Greatest Hits”), “FM” (1978 single), a 1971 demo of “Everyone’s Gone to the Movies” and “Bodhisattva (live)”, the latter recorded on a cassette in 1974 and released as a B-side in 1980. That year Becker released his debut solo album, 11 Tracks of Whack, which Fagen co-produced.
Steely Dan toured again in support of the boxed set and Tracks. In 1995 they released a live CD, Alive in America, compiled from recordings of several 1993 and 1994 concerts. The Art Crimes Tour followed: Steely Dan performed across the U.S.A. before playing in Europe for the first time in 22 years and touring Japan in October. After this flurry of activity, Becker and Fagen returned to the studio to begin work on a new album.
Two Against Nature and Everything Must Go (2000–2003)
In 2000 Steely Dan released their first studio album in 20 years: Two Against Nature. It won four Grammy Awards: Best Engineered Album – Non-Classical, Best Pop Vocal Album, Best Pop Performance by Duo or Group with Vocal (“Cousin Dupree“), and Album of the Year (despite competition in this category from Eminem‘s The Marshall Mathers LP and Radiohead‘s Kid A). In the summer of 2000, they began another American tour, followed by an international tour later that year. They released the Plush TV Jazz-Rock Party DVD, documenting a live-in-the-studio concert performance of popular songs from throughout Steely Dan’s career. In March 2001, Steely Dan was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
In 2003 Steely Dan released Everything Must Go and began a new tour. In contrast to their earlier work, they had tried to write music that captured a live feel. Becker sang lead vocals on a Steely Dan studio album for the first time (“Slang of Ages” — he had sung lead on his own “Book of Liars” on Alive in America). Fewer session musicians played on Everything Must Go than had become typical of Steely Dan albums: Becker played bass on every track and lead guitar on five tracks; Fagen added piano, electric piano, organ, synthesizers, and percussion on top of his vocals.
Touring, solo activity (2003–present)
After Everything Must Go, Steely Dan devoted themselves to performing and touring. During a break from live music, Fagen released Morph the Cat: so began the “Sugartooth” McDan and The Fab-Originees.com Tour of 2006. Former collaborator Michael McDonald played with Steely Dan during their encore. The Heavy Rollers Tour followed in 2007, including dates in North America, Europe, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand, making it the largest and most geographically diverse Steely Dan tour.
The 2008 Think Fast Tour was smaller, and shows were predominantly limited to the United States and Canada. Steely Dan performed at the Montreal Jazz Festival in July. That year Becker released a second solo album, Circus Money, produced by Larry Klein. In 2009 Steely Dan toured Europe and America extensively for their Left Bank Holiday and Rent Party Tour, alternating between standard one-date concerts at large venues and multi-night theater shows that featured, on given nights, performances of The Royal Scam, Aja, or Gaucho in their entirety. The following year, Fagen formed the touring supergroup Dukes of September Rhythm Revue with McDonald, Boz Scaggs, and members of Steely Dan’s live band, whose repertoire included songs by all three songwriters. The 2011 Shuffle Diplomacy Tour included an expanded set list, and Steely Dan toured Australia and New Zealand, their longtime studio engineer Roger Nichols dying of pancreatic cancer before the tour started. Fagen released a fourth solo album, Sunken Condos, in 2012.
A 2013 American tour, Mood Swings: 8 Miles to Pancake Day, began in July, featuring one show in Toronto and an 8 night run at the Beacon Theater in New York City. Jamalot Ever After, their 2014 United States tour, ran from July 2 in Portland, Oregon to September 20 in Port Chester, New York.
Their Rockabye Gollie Angel tour the following year included opening act Elvis Costello and the Imposters and dates at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival.
Musical and lyrical style
Special attention is given to the individual sound of each instrument. Recording is done with the utmost fidelity and attention to sonic detail, and mixed so that all the instruments are heard and none are given undue priority (a deft and accomplished use of the multi-tracking process). For example, in the song “Parker’s Band“, two drum kits are used, which gives the song an unexpected drive, without overpowering the sound; it is not even immediately apparent that there are two drum kits on the track. Their albums are also notable for the characteristically ‘warm’ and ‘dry’ production sound, and the sparing use of echo and reverberation. Long known as perfectionists, they often recorded take after take before selecting the player or performance that made the final cut on their albums.
Becker and Fagen favor a distinctly soul-influenced style of backing vocals, which after the first few albums were almost always performed by a female chorus (although Michael McDonald features prominently on several tracks, including the 1975 song “Black Friday” and the 1977 song “Peg“). Venetta Fields, Sherlie Matthews and Clydie King were the preferred trio for backing vocals on the group’s late 1970s albums. Other backing vocalists include Tawatha Agee, Brenda White-King, Carolyn Leonhart, Janice Pendarvis, Catherine Russell, Cynthia Calhoun, Victoria Cave, Cindy Mizelle, and Jeff Young. The band also featured singers like Patti Austin and Valerie Simpson on later projects such as Gaucho.
Horn arrangements have been used on songs from all Steely Dan albums. They are usually jazz-oriented, and typically feature instruments such as trumpets, trombones and saxophones, although they have also used other instruments such as flutes and clarinets. The horn parts occasionally integrate simple synth lines to alter the tone quality of individual horn lines; for example in “Deacon Blues” this was done to “thicken” one of the saxophone lines. On their earlier albums Steely Dan featured guest arrangers and on their later albums the arrangement work is credited to Fagen.
Composition and chord use
Steely Dan are famous for their use of chord sequences and harmonies that explore the area of musical tension between traditional pop sounds and jazz. In particular, they are known for their use of the add 2 chord, a type of added tone chord, which they nicknamed the mu major. Other common chords used by Steely Dan include slash chords for example B/C or E-7/A. This notation shows a chord (shown to the left of the slash) with a note other than the tonic (shown to the right of the slash) as the lowest pitched note.
Steely Dan’s lyrical subjects are diverse, but in their basic approach they often create fictional personae that narrate the experience. The duo have said that in retrospect, most of their albums have a ‘feel’ of either Los Angeles or New York City, the two main cities where Becker and Fagen lived and worked (see below). Characters appear in their songs that evoke these cities. Themes of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll appear, but never in a straightforward manner, neither encouraging nor discouraging, and many (if not all) of their songs are tinged with an ironic edge.
Additionally, many would argue that Steely Dan never wrote a real love song. However, some of the demo-era recordings show Fagen and Becker at their most romantic. Such songs include “This Seat’s Been Taken”, “Oh, Wow, It’s You” and “Come Back Baby”. Other themes are also present, such as prejudice, aging, failure, poverty and middle-class ennui, but these are typically seen from an ironic and detached perspective. Many of their songs concern love, but none can be classed as straightforward love songs, since there is inevitably an ironic or disturbing twist in the lyrics. One may think the song is about love on first inspection; however, upon deeper analysis the listener realizes that the real story is about prostitution (Pearl of the Quarter), incest (“Cousin Dupree“), underage sex (Everyone’s Gone to the Movies), or some other socially unacceptable subject.
Steely Dan’s lyrics contain subtle and encoded references, unusual (and sometimes original) slang expressions, a wide variety of “word games” and intriguing lyrical choices and constructions of considerable depth. The obscure and sometimes teasing lyrics have given rise to considerable efforts by fans to explain the “inner meaning” of certain songs. Jazz is a recurring theme, with references abounding in their songs, and there are numerous other film, television and literary references and allusions, such as “Home at Last” (from Aja), which was inspired by Homer‘s Odyssey.
Some of their lyrics are notable for their unusual meter patterns; a prime example of this is their 1972 hit “Reelin’ In the Years“, which crams an unusually large number of words into each line, giving it a highly syncopated quality.
“Name dropping” is another Steely Dan lyrical device; references to real places and people abound in their songs. The song “My Old School” is a major example, referring to Annandale (Annandale-on-Hudson, New York is home to Bard College, which both attended and where they met), and the Two Against Nature album (2000) contains numerous references to the duo’s original region, the New York metro area, including the district of Gramercy Park, the Strand Bookstore, and the upscale food store Dean & DeLuca. In the song “Glamour Profession” the conclusion of a drug deal is celebrated with dumplings at Mr. Chow, a Chinese restaurant in Beverly Hills.
The band also often name-checks drinks, typically alcoholic, in their songs: rum and cokes (“Daddy Don’t Live in That New York City No More”), piña coladas (“Bad Sneakers”), zombies (“Haitian Divorce”), black cows (“Black Cow”), Scotch whisky (“Deacon Blues“), retsina (“Home at Last”), grapefruit wine (“FM”), cherry wine (“Time Out of Mind”), Cuervo Gold (“Hey Nineteen“), kirschwasser (“Babylon Sisters”), Tanqueray (“Lunch with Gina”) and Cuban breeze (Fagen’s solo track “The Goodbye Look”) are all mentioned in Steely Dan lyrics.
Artist information provided by WikiMedia