Steely Dan. Photo taken from the sleeve of their Greatest Hits LP.
If you're too wet behind the ears to have heard of Steely Dan: Hats off to you. While I was still getting headrushes from my first cigarettes and being introduced to The Dan via worn-out LPs slipped my way by my high school music teacher, perhaps you were still just a twinkle in the mailman's nutsack. I'm jealous, not least because you've got a treat in store—a world of musical discovery awaits you.
Second things second, if you call yourself a music fan, and if you're aware of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen's head-spinning, jazz-rock-funk-West-Coast-narco / East-Coast-cynic, tight-assed, hook-filled, head-spinning, epoch-defining catalogue and think it's not for you, then, sorry, you're not working hard enough, here's why.
The Dan define a particular era of music, and because their sonic legacy has wormed its way into huge moments in modern pop music—from the 80s right through to now. Their music was both at the heart of the 70s scene and yet one step removed: inimitably sophisticated both musically and lyrically, their way with a tough, slick beat and a whip-sharp lyric and hook has seen them sampled by everyone from Ice Cube to De La Soul to Kanye to DJ Rashad.
Their attention to detail is legendary in studio circles, and yet they're anything but po-faced: listen to any one of their songs about washed-up coke dealers, or old white dudes trying to pick up underage chicks in bars, and tell me they're not masters of deadpan.
Below are just a few reasons why you should get hip to The Dan, man.
THEY'RE NAMED AFTER A STEAM POWERED DILDO
Steely Dan's namesake is a giant flying steam-powered dildo from William Burroughs's Naked Lunch. Donald Fagen put it well: "We just wanted to give the band a little more thrust than most other bands."
STEELY DAN SONGS ARE EVERYWHERE, RIGHT NOW
Think you've never heard any of their songs? Dead wrong. Kanye made Steely's 1976 song "Kid Charlemagne" the basis of 2007's "Champion."
The whole groove of De La Soul "Eye Know" is lifted from Steely's monster hook from "Peg."
And "We On 1" by DJ Rashad (RIP) wouldn't be on anything if it wasn't for the stuttering Steely Dan sample of "Aja" (fast-forward to the 0.41 mark).
If you've seen The Sopranos, you'll have heard Tony singing along to "Dirty Work" as he goes about his "waste management" business.
The fact is if you've listened to any music made on the West Coast anytime since about 1972, you'll have heard their influence. Their tentacles are everywhere.
It's not only hip-hop artists borrowing their chops. If you're looking for a one-page intro to their desiccated brand of humor, check out this open letter they wrote to Owen Wilson's brother Luke, after the former lifted the narrative of their 2000 song "Cousin Dupree" for the plot of his 2006 movie You, Me and Dupree, without so much as a by-your-leave. Below is an excerpt of said letter, but seriously, the whole thing is well worth the read.
THEY WRITE SONGS LIKE THIS
One of two songs on their 1980 album Gaucho about gnarly old perverts trying to pick up girls below the legal drinking age (there must have been something in the water eh?), this one is set to an impossibly laconic bar-room funk soundtrack. Sharp-eared listeners will notice the bang-on-time kick and snare, the calling card of The Dan's bespoke drum machine 'Wendel' (of which more later). Meanwhile the outro line—"The Cuervo Gold / The fine Columbian"—leaves you in two minds as to whether our protagonist is ending the evening drinking and sniffing with company, or alone."Show Biz Kids"
With a subject matter that wouldn't be out of place on a Frank Ocean or Weeknd album (the refrain runs "Show biz kids making movies of themselves / You know they don't give a fuck about anybody else"), this showcases the early years, hard-chooglin' Dan at their R&B best. The hook was also sampled by Welsh psych-pop pioneers Super Furry Animals as the basis of their classic "The Man Don't Give A Fuck." A particular live favorite, the version of said Super Furries song released in 2004 holds the record for the most instances of the word "fuck" on a single track. Another feather for your cap, pop quiz fans.
THEY INVENTED THE DRUM MACHINE
OK, so plenty of people can lay claim to this one, but when it comes to the first full-frequency, programmable drum machine, "Wendel"—a bespoke unit created by Steely Dan's head engineer Roger Nichols for $150k—claims first prize. (That cool 150 was taken out of Gaucho's recording budget.) It remains the only drum machine ever awarded a Grammy.
SOUND ENGINEERS USE AJA AS THE LITMUS TEST FOR BALANCING THE ROOM
Here's some nerd knowledge to drop at an upcoming dinner party or first date. Steely's sixth album, Aja, is a classic sound engineer's PA testing album. Along with Donald Fagen's first solo album, The Nightfly, they're the apogee of late 70s, early 80s sonic fidelity and that's because…
THEY WROTE THE BOOK ON STUDIO OBSESSIVENESS
Think Kanye driving Rick Rubin to the point of a nervous breakdown as he assembled the mind-bending tapestry of Yeezus into a coherent whole takes some beating? Or Björk spending three years on her own weaving the micro-beat tapestry textures of Medullah? Becker and Fagen are the original legendary studio taskmasters.
Beginning as an off-the-peg 70s touring band, Steely Dan's initial auxiliary members—whose chops just couldn't cut it—were gradually whittled away by the exacting standards of the songwriting duo, and replaced by a rotating battalion of the finest, most expensive session players LA had to offer. They were in turn routinely terrorized by the expressionless pair as they sought the ultimate drum take, slickest horn stab, or the most perfectly enunciated background vocal.
Watch this clip—from their classic albums doc—from 4 minutes 10 seconds in for a deeply deadpan recounting of them burning through the cream of the USA's top session guitarists in pursuit of the premier solo take for 1977's "Peg." (Carry on watching to see Michael "The Silver Walrus" McDonald's BVs for the same track get torn to pieces).
The studio console manufacturer Neve, perhaps unwisely, allowed Steely Dan the use of one of the world's first fully automated mixing desks for in order to complete their funkiest, most airtight album, Gaucho. With the technology at hand to control every infinitesimal detail, Fagen responded by putting the studio engineers through 250 separate mixdowns of the track "Babylon Sisters," at which point the Neve technicians duly presented him with a platinum floppy disk (which they had painted with nail polish). That wasn't enough for Fagen, who was finally satisfied at mix number 274. Before scrapping the whole thing again the following week.
Uptight enough for you? Throw in cocaine abuse on an epic scale and there's no surprise that following Gaucho's 1980 release they crashed and burned (Becker most spectacularly—he also lost his girlfriend to a drug overdose in that year.) The band did not tour or release music again for many, many years
Gabriel Stebbing makes music as Night Works.