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Caution: words like "gladstone bag", "kirschwasser" and "Andrea Doria" are in the lyrics.

  • Jun 17, 2009
Keep this in mind while reading this write up about Steely Dan:  The band went through a word machine of different names for the band that ranged from the likes of "Penis Whip" and "Leather Canary" before settling on Steely Dan which is named after a sex toy from the book Naked Lunch.

Just Saying.

Steely Dan is one of those weird enigmas of the music world that always comes up here and there.  They had some hits and some albums and dissapeared for a number of years before springing back up again.  As they grew in popularity, they grew more independent and away from a lot of producing strangleholds and influences.  They had the attitude to garner the attention of the music community as a stand out but their weird songs and strange cryptic lyrics as well as limited touring kept them just out of most mainstream.  The people who knew about them and liked their tastes made them platnium sellers.

The band, if you can call it that started with Donald Fagen as piano player and lead singer and Walter Becker on bass with backup vocals.  Jeff "Skunk" Baxter and Denny Dias rounded out the guitar section and Jim Hodder took the drums.  By their third album, Fagen and Becker announced there would be no more touring  (they hated it) and most of the band eventually disbanded leaving Donald and Walter in the studio to vegetate with their session players to crank out the records.

The first album was Can't Buy a Thrill and also featured a second lead singer David Palmer taking over some of the songs at the behest of the studio due to Fagen's uncomfortability on stage.  Do it Again and Reel'in in the Years were the hits.  The rest of the songs played nicely like Dirty Work or were simple affiars redeemed by excellent playing as is the case with Change of the Guard.

Countdown to Ecstacy was next and was the most rocking the band ever had done.  You get the feeling that the album was meant for the live audiences they would play for at the time.  Nothing was a hit and in a strange show, Fagen and Becker wanted to bizare Show Biz Kids with it's scathing lyrics, weird chourus durge and an F bomb thrown in as the hit.  Needless to say on the third count, it's airplay was limited.  Bodhisatva is one of their most famous tracks and everything else from the mellow Razor Boy to the fallout survival tale of King of the World was great.

Pretzel Logic was the third and most mainstream album tapping into more 70's pop roots instead of 70's rock like the previous album did.  Rikki Don't Lose that Number was a big hit for the band but after here the band was never quite the same.

Evolving up from 70's pop to a more jazz style is Katy Lied.  Again, no real stand out but in an ironic twist it's one of their most popular albums, ironic in that for years Donald and Walter avoided even listening to the album due ot falty recording equipment that left some songs distorted.  Shame.

Keeping the jazz but adding more guitars came The Royal Scam with one of those great vinyl album covers: a homeless man as a display piece among monuments.  Crime was a theme in this album whether it be Kid Charlegmenes LSD chemist, a man on in the run in Don't Take Me Alive or even lies about the US to immigrants in the title track.  Some might say it's a weak album but along with Countdown, one of my favorites.

The apex of their creative talents hit with Aja.  If you strip away the rock from their jazz, you get the idea here.  Aja is a lush and beautifully produced album with some complex playing and a real attention to detail.  The songs might not be as magnetic but you can't deny the effort especially in the title track.

Years passed by and they had one more album to crunch out and the production was almost a killer.  Studio headaches which included a deleted track, drug issues and even a report of plagerism reared their ugly heads on Gaucho their seventh album.  Featuring a similar style to Aja but with some of the pop put back in from previous albums.  Babylon Sisters and Hey Nineteen ruled the roost here but Glamour Profession and Time out of Mind soar too.  If you can find it, The Second Arrangement the deleted track is out there as a demo, try and find it. 

Burned out from work, and with their sound becoming passe in the new rising MTV world of the 80's Steely Dan folded up after this.  Donald Fagen would get some soundtrack work and a nice solo career with his albums.  Walter turned his attention to producing and moved to Hawaii.  A box set of their work came out and had more or less all of their albums in one collection.  There were a few odds and ends thrown in including a killer live version of Bottisatva from the 70's (you can hear Michael McDonald on the track) but aside from that, if you already had the albums, you weren't gaining much other then remastering, and all of their old albums have now had that done as well if not better.

Years passed by, best of's got released and around 1993, Steely Dan surprised almost every one of their fans by returning for get this: a tour.  The touring went on for a couple of years and even yielded a compilation of their touring calledAlive in America but you can tell time and new tastes had a toll on the bad.  Their increased jazz tastes had a big impact on older tracks which sounded completly different and Fagens voice started to sound muted (though you can still tell it's him singing).  The plus side is that if you can't see them in concert, the CD sounds like a real live concert.  I saw them in Milwaukee a couple of years ago and I couldn't tell the difference. 

Touring led to a new album in 2000 called Two Against Nature and much like their debut almost 25 years ago, not one track was weak.  You could easily put this on a shelf next to Gaucho and swear it was only released a few years after.  Many awards and an induction into the Rock N' Roll hall of fame followed shortly.  A DVD also was released around this time.

2003 wasn't quite as kind with the release of Everything Must Go.  Steely Dan are reknowned perfectionists when it comes to their tracks but this album is arguabbly the loosest they ever sounded.  It's not a bad album but it's definetley a step down from the previous Two Against Nature.  A recurring theme of the end of the world punctuates many of the tracks here.  Blues Beach and the Last Mall got some praise but the awesomely titled Godwhacker steals the show here.  Slang of Ages is the first Dan track that has Walter Becker taking the lead vocals.  Recent live shows has Becker doing the same thing with other songs that Fagen had sung previously such as Haitian Divorce and Daddy Don't Live in That New York City No More. 

Some copies of the album also feature a bonus DVD called Steely Dan confessions where Donald and Walter are talking to the cab driver from Taxi Cab confessions while she takes them around town and pick up some lovely ladies to talk to.  Speaking of live shows, I've seen Donald Fagen interviewed before and he seems stiff as a board and real uncomfortable at times even on the Confessions video.  On stage you could swear he was a different person and had some real energy.

Steely Dan has continued to tour over the years both here in the US and overseas into Europe and Japan.  I'm not going to sit here like a snob and say that this music is for us more evolved music fans because it isn't true.  The band has enough hits and catchy hooks that a lot of people can enjoy, its only when you start to scrape away at those lyrics that twist and turn like an ouroboros is when people will look away.  Look away from the band named after a sex toy.
Donald Fagen of Steely Dan Walter Becker of Steely Dan Walter and Donald in a famous Vegas cab

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Quick Tip by . October 06, 2009
Eccentric and cryptic song lyrics and are powered by some great arrangements and an ever changing sound from rock to jazz.
About the reviewer
John Nelson ()
Ranked #23
Born in Wausau Wisconsin. Move at an early age to Ventura California and lived for 8 years. Growing up in a big city landscape didn't prepare me for my next move: Archbold Ohio with a population of … more
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About this band


Steely Dan is an American jazz-rock band centered on core members Walter Becker and Donald Fagen. The band reached a peak of popularity in the late 1970s, with the release of seven albums blending elements of jazz, rock, funk, R&B, and pop. Rolling Stone magazine has called them "the perfect musical antiheroes for the Seventies."

The band's music is characterized by complex jazz-influenced structures and harmonies played by Becker and Fagen along with a revolving cast of rock and pop studio musicians. Steely Dan's "cerebral," "wry" and "eccentric" lyrics are filled with sharp sarcasm which often touches upon such "dark" themes as drugs, crime, and their true-to-life "contempt of west coast hippies." The pair are well-known for their near-obsessive perfectionism in the recording studio, with one notable example being that Becker and Fagen used at least 42 different studio musicians, 11 engineers, and took over a year to record the tracks that resulted in 1980's Gaucho — an album that contains only seven songs.

Steely Dan toured from 1972 to 1974, but in 1975 became a purely studio-based act. The late 1970s saw the group release a series of extremely successful singles and albums. They disbanded in 1981, and throughout most of the next decade, the duo remained largely inactive in the music world. During this time, the group steadily built and maintained "a cult following." In 1993, ...

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