Steely Dan, pictured in 2017
Lead image via Wikimedia

You Have to Applaud Steely Dan, Even If You Can't Stand Them

I saw them at Wembley Arena with my dad (obviously) and it felt very much like the last bastion of beat generation-inspired jazz.
Emma Garland
London, GB

In the Pixar version of my life, the first 15 years would be reflected by a timelapse of Saturday afternoons in the family car. My dad at the wheel of an old Scirocco, so aggressively silver you can taste iron when you look at it, my mam in the passenger’s seat and me in the back staring out of the window. The lush industrial sprawl of the south Wales valleys rushes past outside, unchanging, as we cycle through the years. The opening piano chords of Steely Dan’s “Home At Last” ring out from the car stereo repeatedly: da-DUH-duh-DA-DA-DA.

Advertisement

I am small at first, pudgy legs too short to do anything but stick directly out in front of me like a teddy bear on a shelf, just happy to be here: da-DUH-duh-DA-DA-DA. Bigger now, with grazed knees and a favourite kind of sandwich: da-DUH-duh-DA-DA-DA. Even bigger. Can we listen to something else? da-DUH-duh-DA-DA-DA. Big enough to have my own CD player, but not even the angsty tones of Nirvana’s In Utero are able to drown out: da-DUH-duh-DA-DA-DA. Finally, a fully formed, scowling teenager: da-DUH-duh-D- OH MY GOD TURN IT OFF OR I WILL THROW MYSELF OUT OF THE CAR.

Overexposure leads to disdain. For years, “Home At Last” made me wince like I was suffering from an incredibly pathetic form of PTSD. Whenever my dad put it on or played it on his keyboard at home, it would make my muscles tense up involuntarily. Sometimes he did it on purpose just to see how many blood vessels in my eyes would burst. I hated it. Hated it with the full force of my being, as I would later do with music thrust upon me by various boyfriends. Then, sometime in my mid-twenties, the inevitable happened. One day I put it on of my own accord, and sighed: for fuck's sake, this is really good. Fast forward half a decade later and my dad and I are at Wembley Arena together, watching Steely Dan play their first UK dates since co-founder Walter Becker passed away in 2017.

It’s difficult, in the UK, to get a good gauge on what the average Steely Dan fan looks like. Their cult following in the US takes a different shape than their UK audience, although, based on a small poll of my parents and their friends, I would say that one of the strongest bonding agents is humour. Cutting humour, like when my dad complimented the backing singers harmonies by saying “I like them, they sound like an American advert for soap”, or just very, very dark humour. For example “Everyone’s Gone To The Movies” from 1975’s Katie Lied is about an ephebophile who invites all the kids in the neighbourhood around to show them porn, but the chorus written from the point of view of the parents goes: “Everyone’s gone to the movies / Now we’re alone at last!” Humour for people who are aware of the weights of the world to a fault and need to make fun of them, basically – which isn’t confined to any demographic at all.

Advertisement

Unfortunately though, arena shows tend to price out a lot of people, including young people in general, who usually consume their parents’ music in their own ways (i.e. at house parties or alone on the bus). Also big high security gigs full of mainly middle-aged British people is a sombre vibe before the fourth pint. I saw Santana play “Smooth” at Hyde Park last summer and not a single fucker moved. With all that in mind, Wembley is a sea of baby boomers dressed in either leather jackets and neck scarves or formal shirts and jeans, none of whom move until the last 30 minutes when some people get drunk enough to break the arena’s “no standing up” rule and try to dance while the ushers tell them off. The vibe is distinctly ‘1PM at a jazz festival’ with a hint of ‘I hope I don’t see my therapist here.’

Still, Steely Dan are a fundamentally hard to place band anyway. Their fusion of bebop, pop, R&B and prog has the the laid back attitude of LA but the chaos and humour of New York. Their lyrics are often dark and ironic, the product of troubled minds, but their sound – for all its uneasy melodic progressions – lands sunny side up. Walter Becker and Donald Fagen look like two English Literature professors and their songs are populated by an endless parade of freaks and geeks, but you have to wonder if their British audience at least would be more likely to make fun of the secluded lifestyle of tai chi and avocado trees Walter Becker retreated into in the 80s.

Advertisement

The lack of links between Becker and Fagen, their music, and their fans, does make sense though. The sound – and more crucially, methods of achieving it – of their run of albums in the 70s was at odds with both the reckless nature of chart rock at the time, and the intentionally rudimentary punk that was kicking back against it. Even with the backdrop of rock and roll excess on their side, 1977’s Aja – their most commercially and creatively successful album – elicited eye-rolls. Becker and Fagen shared a Kubrickian neurosis when it came to art, working under punishing, self-imposed regimes and running an endless string of the world’s greatest musicians through the studio in the pursuit of perfection. For some, this lacked feeling. In Rolling Stone’s original review, Michael Duffy noted that Aja “will continue to fuel the argument by rock purists that Steely Dan’s music is soulless, and by its calculated nature antithetical to what rock should be.”

Incidentally, when Aja turned 40 in 2017, several publications ran retrospectives describing it as “punk”. For all their subversions, Steely Dan have to be some of the most mass-marketable outsiders the music industry has ever seen. They carved out a niche, made it their own, and did it so well you have to applaud their artistry even if you can’t stand it.

Becker and Fagen met at Bard College, where they got really into beatnik culture (the name “Steely Dan” references a steam-powered dildo in William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch) and, according to fellow Bard musician, Terence Boylan, 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.”

Advertisement

Considering they’re now primarily beloved by the jeans and sheaux crowd, the picture painted of Becker and Fagen sounds more like the origin story of band on the Sacred Bones roster. But those foundational cultural touchstones are both evergreen and apparent, even if they are buried in conceptual lyricism (Frank Zappa called it “downer surrealism”) and instrumentals so intricately put together that if you remove one element the whole thing would collapse like a house of cards.

It’s no wonder their cult status among younger generations is so in-jokey at this point it provides at least half the material for Inzane Johnny’s memes. One way or another, Steely Dan’s influence can be felt everywhere from Prince to Prefab Sprout, De La Soul to The Ergs!, but perhaps that determined push against the grain, that sense of outsiderdom, provides the backbone of their appeal in the first place.

Despite being a sit-down affair and without the unassuming but powerful presence of Walter Becker, the Wembley show feels very much like the last bastion of beat generation-inspired jazz. Positioned behind a Fender Rhodes with sunglasses on the whole time, Donald Fagen asks how the sound is, to a muffled response, then says something along the lines of “death by indifference”. It’s a strange venue for them to play, the usual effect of their music, so textured it bristles against your skin, offset somewhat by size of the room and imposed sitting down. No one on stage seems to mind though. When he wasn’t making fun of the audience, Fagen spent the whole time with his head thrown back, almost laughing his way through the setlist the way my dad used to laugh at me when I was 15 and yelling at him to turn the music off. And if you were them you would, wouldn’t you.

You can follow Emma on Twitter.