In the late 60s, after graduating from Bard College and kicking out their then-drummer, Chevy Chase, guitarist Walter Becker and keyboardist and vocalist Donald Fagen (both also songwriters) formed a semi-popular band known as Steely Dan, one that continues to this day. Releasing their first album, Can’t Buy a Thrill, in 1972, Fagen and Becker (the only two consistent members of the group) rode a wave of moderately-successful singles (though they only charted as high as #4 on the Billboad Charts with “Ricki Don’t Lose That Number”) until the plague-ridden production of their 1980 album Gaucho led them to part ways for almost two decades. Coming back on scene in 1999 with Two Against Nature, the album and it’s single “Cousin Dupree” both won Grammy Awards, notably beating out Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP. They released their last joint album, Everything Must Go, in 2003, and have toured on and off for the last 9 years. They just recently announced their latest tour, and this author is proud to announce that he’ll be attending their August 1st show at Ravinia in a few weeks.
Over the past few years, I’d been exposed to “Do It Again” and “Bodhisattva” through Guitar Hero, and “Reelin’ in the Years” from 97.9 FM (The Loop!!!!!). I was never really “hooked” until I found a greatest hits album lodged in my dad’s CD collection early this year. I threw it on my Xbox, and queued a few tracks up as I’d play Call of Duty or Mercenaries 2. The classic rock image I had of them was quickly changed when I noticed the hints of R&B, jazz, and funk throughout the album. I went back to my iPhone (which already had the first two mentioned tracks) after catching “Josie” on Slacker Radio one day, downloaded the track, and within a week, the rest of A Decade of Steely Dan became digital neighbors with the lonely track from Aja.
Why does it all appeal to me so much? There’s hardly a track of theirs (save “The Fez”, at least) that doesn’t have some seriously well-done lyrical writing – I can’t think of another band known for “triple- and quadruple-entendres”. You can lose yourself in the complexity of the arrangements – you follow one instrument one time, another one the next time, it feels like a slightly new experience every time. They’ve got a track for just about every taste and mood I can think of – if I’m feeling down or dejected, “Do It Again” can do the trick; if I need some serious drum beats and guitar solos, “Time Out of Mind” perks me up; if I feel up for some harder, more rock-oriented music, “Don’t Take Me Alive” always leaves me with an evil smirk.
Lastly, this may be invoking my inner hipster (assuming I haven’t already killed the bastard), but the lack of serious mainstream success/popularity (a la the Rolling Stones, Journey, or even Dire Straits) gives it a certain appeal all in itself. You know these tracks weren’t made for the masses (generally speaking; “Cousin Dupree” does have a bit of a pop vibe about it), they were made to be quirky, inventive, unusual, and all-around, whatever the fuck Becker and Fagen wanted them to be. It’s a quality rapidly vanishing from today’s musical spectrum.
The general public may never give a shit about Steely Dan again, but hey, leaves more tickets for the people who really appreciate ’em.