Steely Dan has been more of a conceptual framework for inventive music-making than a typical rock band. Spearheaded by a pair of resourceful musical auteurs – Donald Fagen and Walter Becker - they have done nothing by the books since launching Steely Dan in 1972. The band’s very name is a scatological reference from a novel by Beat Generation anti-hero William Burroughs. Though Steely Dan recorded prolifically for much of the Seventies, they toured for only a brief spell early in that decade, deciding they much preferred the studio to the road. This allowed them to craft a wry, nuanced and hyper-literate series of albums - seven in all, released from 1972 to 1980 - that are highly regarded by connoisseurs of pop hooks, jazz harmony and desiccating wit.
Beneath the highly polished surface of Steely Dan’s music, astute listeners could hear a visceral love of and identification with the very soul of jazz. Fagen and Becker referenced Duke Ellington, Stan Getz and Horace Silver at least as much as any rock-oriented source material. Even so, there was a certain accessible quality to songs like “Reelin’ in the Years,” “Do It Again” and “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” that allowed Steely Dan to connect with rock fans, especially those who were college-aged and –educated.
Co-founders Donald Fagen and Walter Becker met in 1967 while attending Bard College in upstate New York. After serving as touring musicians with Jay and the Americans and trying their hand as staff songwriters, they formed Steely Dan in Los Angeles as an outlet for a growing backlog of offbeat, original material that no one else seemed inclined to record. In the beginning, Steely Dan was an actual band with a lineup of Fagen, Becker, guitarists Denny Dias and Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, and drummer Jim Hodder. This configuration cut the albums Can’t Buy a Thrill, Countdown to Ecstasyand Pretzel Logic. Though Dias remained on board through 1977’s Aja, Steely Dan were almost completely Fagen and Becker’s fiefdom by the time of Katy Lied, their fourth album.
On record, the duo recruited the cream of L.A.’s jazz-pop studio scene, including Michael McDonald, Victor Feldman, Jeff Porcaro, David Paich, and jazz stalwarts like David Sanborn, Tom Scott, Michael Brecker, Larry Carlton, Chuck Rainey, Bernard Purdie, Phil Woods and Wayne Shorter. Producer-engineer Gary Katz, who worked on every album through 1980’s Gaucho, was a vital member of the Steely Dan brain trust whose input was critical to the perfectionist, audiophile quality of the group’s recordings. The A-list musicians provided a glossy top coat to Steely Dan’s agreeably sleek music - an ironic vehicle for their cutting, urbane and often black-humored lyrics.
The group also had a serious side, too, that’s often been overlooked. “Deacon Blues” (from Aja) presented a moving portrait of a down-at-the-heels jazzman, “Kid Charlemagne” nervously surveyed a drug dealer’s netherworld, and there was much to suggest that Fagen and Becker weren’t just mocking the decadent affectations of the Seventies - though no one did that very thing better than they. Steely Dan hit a commercial and artistic peak in the late Seventies. The hugely popular Aja, released in the fall of 1977, had nothing to do with any musical currents that were popular at the time, but its jazz-inflected lushness and inscrutable intelligence appealed to listeners across the spectrum. Aja, which soared to #3, was soon certified platinum – it was, in fact, one of the first albums to receive this newly created award, which recognized sales of one million copies. Within a year of its release, Steely Dan – whose musical sophistication and sardonic outlook made them unlikely candidates for Top Forty success – charted four hit singles: “Peg,” “Deacon Blues, “FM” and “Josie.” Rolling Stone dubbed them “the perfect musical antiheroes for the Seventies.”
Steely Dan’s long-delayed seventh album, Gaucho, appeared in 1980. A year later, they announced they were breaking up. Over the next two decades, relatively little new music surfaced from either of them. Fagen released a solo album, The Nightfly, in 1982, but would not be heard again until 1993, when his ambitious Kamakiriad – produced by Becker, and representing the duo’s first real collaboration since Gaucho – was released. That same year, they reincarnated Steely Dan as something it had rarely been in its previous lifetime: a touring entity. Fagen and Becker led the “All New Steely Dan Orchestra ‘93” on a national tour. A comprehensive box set, Citizen Steely Dan: 1972-1980, was released late in the year. Walter Becker issued his one and only solo album, 11 Tracks of Whack, in 1994. Steely Dan hit the road again with the “Citizen Steely Dan Orchestra ’94.” Highlights from the two tours were culled for Alive in America, a single CD released in 1995.
In February 2000, Steely Dan released Two Against Nature, their first album of all-new material in two decades. Later that year, Fagen and Becker compiled and annotated a two-CD best-of, Show Biz Kids: The Steely Dan Story. In 2001, Two Against Nature won a Grammy for Best Album and Steely Dan was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It was an improbably successful year for a band that had been largely dormant for the previous 20. Chalk up one more ironic conquest for the unpredictable Steely Dan.