By Tim Ryan
Honolulu Star Bulletin
Legend has it that musicians Walter Becker and Donald Fagen considered thousands of names for their then-new band.
With the help of a computer, some of the lively monikers that came up were Penis Whip, Hard Donut, Chucky Upchuck, Thigh Patties, Virginia Mastic Wiener Whistle, Sucktion, Luvburst, Shredded Brain Compote and The Bloody Stumps.
Then came Steel Men, Steel-eye Pan, Steely Bob, Steely Robert, Steely Shiela and Sheedy Dan.
Instead, Becker and Fagen decided on naming the group after the steel dildo in William Burroughs’ hallucinatory novel “Naked Lunch.” Thus was born Steely Dan.
It seems fated that after that intensive research for the perfect if dubious name that Steely Dan would be, well, a bit different. (Fagen, Becker and their 11-piece backup band perform at the Blaisdell Arena tomorrow night.)
Steely Dan has lived up to that expectation. In the last three decades, the Dan has become perhaps one of the most ironic and cynical groups to perform on stage or enter a recording studio. Theirs is a sardonic, humorous and slightly surreal view, taking on world-weary themes about love, despair and the general human condition, mixed into jazz-catchy melodies.
For example, take the melancholy musings of an aging man in the hit “Hey Nineteen”: “Way back when in ’67, I was the dandy of Gamma Chi/Sweet things from Boston, so young and willing/Moved down to Scarsdale — Where the hell am I?” Then there’s “Kid Charlemagne,” about the death of the ’60s and focusing on the exploits of a drug dealer with so much style that “everyone stopped to stare at his technicolor motor home.”
One critic aptly described their unique music as “Borscht Belt meets Beat poet outlook.”
The arch duo first met at New York’s Bard College in 1967 and they soon were trying to sell their songs to the Brill Building crowd between gigs with Jay & the Americans and even Barbra Streisand.
In 1972, the now-defunct ABC-Dunhill record label whisked them to California, where they cut their debut, “Can’t Buy a Thrill,” that produced the classic rock hits “Reelin’ in the Years” and the sitar-infused “Do It Again.” Following that was the more exploratory rock of “Countdown to Ecstasy” and the acoustic country-jazz forays of “Pretzel Logic.”
In the early ’80s, they stopped touring because, as the two have said, they didn’t like it, and wanted to concentrate on songwriting and studio recording. Fagen established a reputation early on as a musical perfectionist that only increased with time. After the release of the masterful “Katy Lied” and “The Royal Scam,” “Aja” cemented that perfectionist notion, with its smooth pop-funk hits that wryly described both prostitutes (“Josie”) and candy bars (“Black Cow”).
Each of Steely Dan’s eight albums had entered the Top 40 charts and gone on to gold or platinum sales, buoyed by a string of 10 hits that began with “Do It Again” and ended with “Time Out of Mind.”
“They are the most demanding group of people in the industry that I’ve worked for,” guitarist Larry Carlton told the New York Times in 1977. “Nothing goes with a flutter in it. If three of the guys are cutting the part, great, and one part doesn’t feel right, they’ll call in a whole new band and redo the whole thing.”
In 2000, Steely Dan released their first album of original songs in 20 years, “Two Against Nature,” which went platinum and won the Grammy for Album of the Year. Their latest, “Everything Must Go,” was released in June to positive reviews.
Now, a word of warning for concert goers: If all goes according to previous shows on this recent tour, Steely Dan will take the stage on time. There will be no opening act.