By Ed Masley
The Arizona Republic
Jazz-loving soft-rock perfectionists Donald Fagen and Walter Becker topped some of the ’70s’ most sophisticated pop recordings with lyrical portraits of life on the dark side, casting a cynical eye with black humor and pathos on the American Dream as it was being acted out on a cocaine binge in the City of Angels. And that may not sound much like a recipe for infiltrating mainstream sensibilities, but Steely Dan were wildly popular — while almost never touring! — thanks to singles as indelible as “Do It Again,” “Reelin’ in the Years,” “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” “Peg” and “Hey Nineteen.”
Here’s a look back at 10 of the duo’s most enduring singles:
- ‘Hey Nineteen’
The first single out of the box from 1980’s Gaucho, their final release before taking a 12-year hiatus, it peaked at No. 10 on Billboard’s Hot 100. The lyrics paint a pathos-laden portrait of a midlife crisis in which an older man reflects on the challenges of dating college girls. The tone is set with the devastating first verse: “Way back when / In ’67 / I was the dandy/ Of Gamma Chi.” This new girl doesn’t even know Aretha Franklin. And as the narrator sighs on the chorus, “No, we can’t dance together / No we can’t talk at all.” But the saddest lines are just after the bit about her having no idea who Aretha Franklin is: “She thinks I’m crazy / But I’m just growing old.”
- ‘FM (No Static at All)’
In which the Dan pay tribute to power of the FM dial to put a lover in the mood as only they would do it: “The girls don’t seem to care what’s on / As long as it plays ’til dawn / Nothin’ but blues and Elvis and somebody else’s favorite song.” And it got enough airplay on the FM dial to peak at No. 22 as the hit from the soundtrack to the 1978 film FM.”
- ‘Deacon Blues’
A second Top 20 single from Aja, “Deacon Blues” is smooth, sophisticated jazz-rock, giving voice to a down-on-his-musician who dreams up a fancier name to take the sting out of his failures. “They got a name for the winners in the world,” he sings. “I want a name when I lose / They call Alabama the Crimson Tide / Call me Deacon Blues.”
The 1977 album Aja would become their biggest-selling effort, a double-platinum triumph. And this undeniably danceable single — released, as it was, at the height of the disco era — was a big part of the reason, a No. 11 hit on Billboard’s Hot 100. The groove is closer to a funky smooth-jazz vibe than disco but it definitely made sense at the time to casual pop fans as the lyrics paid sardonic tribute to an aspiring young actress.
- ‘The Fez’
The vibe is on the funky side of smooth jazz. And the lyrics? On the silly side of kinky. Or the kinky side of silly. “No, I’m never gonna do it without the fez on,” the narrator sings, because as the lyrics go on to explain, “I want to be your holy man.” It’s pretty lightweight compared with much of the band’s best work, but that just makes it that much more endearing. The second single from The Royal Scam, it peaked at No. 59.
- ‘Black Friday’
How dark could their lyrics get? Try the opening line to this highlight from Katy Lied: “When Black Friday comes, I’ll stand down by the door / And catch the gray men when they dive from the 14th floor.” But the narrator doesn’t jump. He collects what he’s owed and before his friends find out, he’s on the road, flying off to Australia. A minor hit, it peaked at No. 37.
- ‘Rikki Don’t Lose That Number’
The lead single from the Dan’s third album, Pretzel Logic, this one peaked at No. 4, the band’s highest-charting entry on the Hot 100. It’s a fairly conventional breakup song, but the scars are still fresh and the lyrics capture that feeling, no matter how aloof they read: “I thought our little wild time had just begun / I guess you kind of scared yourself, you turn and run / But if you have a change of heart …” It also features a searing guitar lead by Baxter and a groove that feels a little like the Horace Silver track “Song for My Father” enjoying a boat drink with Roy Orbison on “Blue Bayou.”
- ‘My Old School’
Piano-driven pop with upbeat, Motown-flavored accents, this “Countdown to Ecstasy” highlight was inspired by a raid by sheriff’s deputies on the campus of Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., where Becker and Fagen were among the more 50 students arrested. It features a nasty guitar lead from future Doobie Brother Jeff “Skunk” Baxter and one of the catchier chorus hooks, which vows “I did not think the girl could be so cruel / And I’m never going back to my old school.”
- ‘Reelin’ in the Years’
Fagen himself once referred to this single as “dumb but effective” in an interview with Rolling Stone. And he’s clearly right about that second part. The second hit single from Can’t Buy a Thrill, it hit No. 11 on the Hot 100, with lead vocals from Fagen and an Elliott Randall guitar lead Jimmy Page has gone on record hailing as his favorite solo ever. Randall does kind of reach out and grab you from his first notes on the intro. As for Fagen’s lyrics, they’re the kind of mean Bob Dylan mastered in the ’60s. Best line: “You been tellin’ me you’re a genius / Since you were 17 / In all the time I’ve known you / I still don’t know what you mean.”
- ‘Do It Again’
Their breakthrough single is much darker than the gently swaying Latin-funk groove — picture War gone yacht-rock — would suggest, a sordid tale of excess with allusions to the gallows. The man who just keeps doing it again is apprehended at the border in the first verse: “And the mourners are all singin’ / As they drag you by your feet /But the hangman isn’t hangin’ /And they put you on the street.” The lead single from Can’t Buy a Thrill (1972), it peaked at No. 6 on Billboard’s Hot 100.