By Donny Kutzbach
BUFFALO — I was born in 1974, so the magic of Steely Dan was probably never really supposed to be for me. It seemed meant for those who had an inkling of the power of street-corner doo wop, had heard the early Motown singles and knew the studio-created perfection of the albums that came out with the Atlantic Records label on them. Those people would include my parents, so through them Steely Dan seeped into my life. How could it not? As much as my youth was defined by the stylized coiffures of early MTV — from Billy Idol to Cyndi Lauper — it was also dictated by the countless hours harnessed in the back of my parents’ four-door sedan.
That’s where Steely Dan was.
Steely Dan crossed all the lines, from AM to the stations on the other band like AOR and the then burgeoning light FM. They were on all of them. By the time the CD age took hold and my dad brought home both our first CD player and A Decade of Steely Dan, I was sold. My personal ethos was steeped in the Who and Dylan, and I was buying every punk record I could find and rap music was entering my mind. Still, I loved Steely Dan, and not even in the derisive, guilty-pleasure way.
No band ever came close to blending jazz, pop, rock and soul so seamlessly, as Steely Dan major domos Walter Becker and Donald Fagen spent months upon months writing and arranging their records. then hiring the greatest sessioners to play the parts. As much as I loved punk rock’s off-the-cuff, DIY spirit, there was magic in the Dan’s unashamed professionalism and studio-crafted perfection. Lyrically they fell right in line amongst Dylan and Randy Newman. Below the sonic sheen upfront were lyrics rife with literate, sardonic humor, sharp irony and dark themes that belied the airy jazz arrangements and hooky choruses. They told urbane tales of uptown cats trying to slum it, luckless chumps getting ripped off and plenty of characters doing things they shouldn’t be.
In spite of the soulful qualities of the music and their undeniable boho nature, Steely Dan has been written off as “whitebread” by some. That couldn’t be farther from the truth, and the Dan gets street cred through the past few generations of hip hop acts (everyone from De La Soul and Arrested Development to Cypress Hill, Ice Cube and Lord Tarique and Peter Gunz) sampling them.
When both arena rock shows and Steely Dan were simultaneously at their heights in the mid 1970s, Becker and Fagen famously gave up on the notion of touring, preferring to stay in the studio. They shocked the world in 1993, after more than a decade of dormancy, by finally taking the show on the road and mounting a tour. Since then they’ve been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, released two albums — including 2000’s Grammy winner Two Against Nature — and continue to play live dates.
And all these years later, now in my 30s, I tend to feel a lot more like a character in a Steely Dan song than the rebellious kid in the punk rock t-shirt.
Steely Dan plays a sold out show on their High Rollers Tour—fittingly at Seneca Niagara Casino—this Saturday, June 2, at 8pm.
Turn Up the Steely, The Neighbors Are Listening
Countdown to Ecstasy (1973): Countdown would be a remarkable second album for any band but it is particularly so for Steely Dan, considering that Becker and Fagen were just getting their bearings following the blindsided hit factor of Can’t Buy a Thrill. They had to be a “real” band and that meant the solidification of a lead singer, which Fagen seems to grasp here with equal apprehension and relish. The brilliance of “My Old School” is found both in its undeniable groove and the perfect brass parts as well as the storytelling that chapters the fall from upper crust liberal arts college to county jail shame. It’s classic Steely Dan, and whether or not Countdown is their best record is of little consequence because it’s perfectly played parts, jazzy arrangements and derisive wit are the the real template for all Steely Dan record that would follow.
Pretzel Logic (1974): Their third album was arguably Steely Dan’s pinnacle of pop perfection, from the infective two note bassline of the cautionary “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” to the Dylanisms of “Barrytown” and the coy message and succinct cool of “Any Major Dude Will Tell You.” Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, Denny Dias and Ben Benay lend their perfected lead guitar grease to make it as much of gritty rock album as the smooth Becker and Fagen would ever allow.
Katy Lied (1975): A masterful exercise in studio perfection where Messrs. Fagen and Becker get assistance from no less than legendary drummer Hal Blaine, guitarist Steve Miller and Dan regular Michael McDonald. There’s the usual Steely Dan theme of upper-class turmoil, like the stockbrokers looking/hanging off the ledges in “Black Friday” and the druggy love triangles in note perfect “Doctor Wu.” While the duo long rejected the album as a failure due to a malfunction in the still experimental DBX noise reduction system, it remains one of their studio high points.
Aja (1977): This is an album the duo really fussed over. With only seven songs, Aja is perhaps the Dan taking the jazz fusion of the day and perfectly cementing it to a pop market working to exhibit a radio-ready stream of hits. There’s the expertly plotted “Black Cow,” the downtrodden, downbeat nature and thematics of “Deacon Blues” and the bright, optimistic nature and studio perfect sheen of “Peg.” The only argument against Aja might be that it is almost too sonically perfect.
Two Against Nature (2000): Whether or not it was among their finest work, it was their first after two decades and it was enough to win Becker and Fagen a stack of Grammys including album of the year. The time showed that Fagen and Becker had lost little along the way. It was, if nothing else, a true return to the band’s thematic and studio honed greatness from the “incest is best” call of “Cousin Dupree” to the deadpan of “West of Hollywood.”
Donald Fagen – Nightfly Trilogy box (2007 – Rhino) In stores July 10: From the solo years, here are Fagen with 1982’s groundbreaking retro-future themed masterpiece The Nightfly, 1993’s Kamakiriad (produced by Becker) and 2005’s under-appreciated Morph the Cat as one complete set. The forthcoming box also includes enhanced mixes, plus bonus audio and never before seen video.