The Guilty Pop Pleasures of Steely Dan

By Derk Richardson
San Francisco Bay Guardian

I’ve always felt a little ashamed about being seduced by Steely Dan.

But I thought that was all behind me, reduced to the occasional nostalgic tug of hearing “Rikki Don’t Lose that Number” on classic rock radio.

Wrong. Steely Dan is back with Two Against Nature, their first studio album in 20 years. Shortly after its release, this typically slick and slinky Walter Becker and Donald Fagen creation jumped into the top 10 on Billboard’s album chart.

Just as I did back in the ’70s when Steely Dan salvaged jazz-pop fusion — that radio-friendly genre that devolved out of the more threatening and creative jazz-rock-and/or-funk fusion experiments of Miles Davis, the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Weather Report — I have succumbed and my critical will power is crumbling. “There you go again,” my superego says with a patronizing Reaganesque shrug.

Steely Praise

Although Salon columnist Greil Marcus gave Two Against Nature a cranky appraisal, calling it “music precisely as airless as that offered on their last studio album,” most observers have marveled at the way Becker and Fagen have returned to classic form on the new CD.

Rolling Stone‘s David Wild declared “Two Against Nature is Dan defined,” and praised the new album’s “world-class chops and jazzy, postgraduate soul sound” and “wonderful, vague storytelling.” Cyber-guru novelist William Gibson got into the act on Sonicnet, proclaiming that “Steely Dan’s music was, has been and remains among the most genuinely subversive ouevres in late 20th-century pop.”

In The Independent (UK), Andy Gill has no problem with the latest version of Steely Dan sounding “as if they went straight back into the studio the day after finishing [1980’s] Gaucho and started work on this follow-up.” He argues that “the music on Two Against Nature sounds light, sharp and as fresh as tomorrow, finely-honed and timeless in a way that bears better comparison with the duo’s jazz heroes than any of their rock and pop peers.”

Jazz-Pop Meets Burroughs’ Dildo

For me, Steely Dan has long been one of those pop music guilty pleasures. Even in the early years, when such songs as “Do It Again,” “Dirty Work” and “Reelin’ in the Years” boasted memorable hooks, the often oblique lyrics and super-slick Hollywood studio production forced me to suspend my loyalty to gritty rock and roll realism.

The first two albums, 1972’s Can’t Buy A Thrill and 1973’s Countdown to Ecstasy, listed a working band, with guitarists Jeff “Skunk” Baxter and Denny Dias and drummer Jim Hodder fleshing out the sound around Becker’s bass guitar and Fagen’s keyboards and strange, slightly sinister vocals. But guest soloists, such as guitarist Elliot Randall, were crucial, and with Pretzel Logic (1974) and Katy Lied (1975), the music’s fabrication became more obviously dependent upon the skills of hired L.A. session players.

I felt like I was being manipulated by the clean, calculated, tight and tidy synthesis of R&B grooves, rock and blues guitar licks, and jazz-informed harmonies. Increasingly impatient with Becker and Fagen’s obtuse lyrics (“Bad sneakers and a Pina Colada my friend”), I was tempted to take them at their word (“Hot licks and rhetoric/Don’t count much for nothing”).

But surrender I did nonetheless to their seamless synthesis of punchy Sly Stone funk and harmonically advanced Weather Report jazz, their overlays of snappy guitars and keyboard riffs and their carefully cultivated horn and vocal arrangements.

I always instinctively recoiled from the instrumental wallpaper music made by such mid-to-late-’70s fusion stars as saxophonist Tom Scott (and the L.A. Express), Bob James, David Sanborn, Grover Washington, Jr. and others. Millions of people found it entertaining, soothing and perhaps even sophisticated. Hence the “smooth jazz” of Kenny G and Bony James today. It affected me like fingernails scratching on a blackboard.

But when the elements of jazz-pop were employed in the service of a good song, fronted by an engaging singer, the results could be compelling. Joni Mitchell pulled it off on 1974’s Court and Spark, borrowing the L.A. Express and other jazz session players. Paul Simon negotiated his New York equivalent around the same time, hiring ace fusion instrumentalists such as keyboardist Richard Tee, bassists Tony Levin and Anthony Jackson and drummer Steve Gadd for the pre-Graceland albums One Trick Pony and Hearts and Bones.

Becker and Fagen didn’t just dabble in jazz-pop from song to song or album to album. They created an entire musical persona, Steely Dan (named after a dildo in William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch), that pulled off neat tricks thanks to a rotating cast of jazz and fusion hotshots, at various times including reed players Scott, Michael Brecker, Pete Christleib and Wayne Shorter, percussionist/ keyboardist Victor Feldman, keyboardists Joe Sample and Don Grolnick, guitarists Larry Carlton, Lee Ritenour and Steve Khan, trumpeter Randy Brecker and drummers Gadd, Bernard Purdie and Jeff Porcaro.

Steely Dan music grew out of an encyclopedia of jazz-pop mannerisms and congealed into a singular, genuinely sophisticated style that peaked in 1977 with Aja.

Then after struggling through the recording of Gaucho, Becker and Fagen called it quits. They made individual solo albums (Fagen’s The Nightfly and Kamakiriad, and Becker’s 11 Tracks of Whack) and worked on various projects with other people. After mounting successful reunion tours in the ’90s, they drifted back into their musical marriage in the studio and came up with Two Against Nature.

Classic Steely Dan, Millennium-Style

This time around, the cast includes seven different drummers and a host of backup singers and reed and brass players. Becker plays most of the guitar parts with surprising aplomb and expressiveness, and Fagen assumes his usual keyboard duties (although on one track, “Negative Girl,” neither of the leaders plays a lick).

Guess what? It’s like nothing has changed in 20 years. Older men still leer at younger women (“Cousin Dupree”) and shady characters slither through surreal situations as Becker and Fagen toy with the English language. The Steely Dan sound, which always had a highly varnished sheen, has been preserved in amber. As Gibson wrote of Two Against Nature, “It’s as though it was composed in the time-machine, in its own little pocket of temporality.”

But in their lyrics, Becker and Fagen do acknowledge the predicament of two 50-something guys plying their timeless trade all these years later, and trying to advance it within the tight confines of their idiosyncratic, uptown bohemianism. The aging baby boomer in “What a Shame About Me” may be feeling a bit sorry for himself, sorting stock at a bookstore and “still working on that novel,” but he has gleaned enough wisdom to decline an invitation to rekindle an old flame, wistfully remarking, “You’re talking to a ghost, take a good look it’s easy to see.”

The old Steely Dan cynicism creeps in here and there but gives way to poignancy on such songs as “Almost Gothic” (a cerebral ode to infatuation) and “Negative Girl” (an arms-length lament for a coked-out, “deliciously toxic” and “exquisitely limpid” sweetheart). And both the title track, a psychedelic Burroughs/”The X-Files” scenario of battling infestation, and “West of Hollywood,” the epic closer that combines autobiography with L.A. apocalypse (“We burned right through the summer/ Till the axis of pain/pleasure sheared the arc of desire”), bespeak a certain determination not only to survive but prevail.

Ultimately, it’s the music that wins me over again. My own critical nature is still offended by most jazz-pop, but Becker and Fagen have taken it to exhilarating heights once more. It’s heady stuff, a visceral experience for the brain, a Steely Dan for the gray matter — and you can still respect yourself in the morning.

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