I grew up hearing Steely Dan on the radio. I’d hear songs like “My Old School”, “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number”, “Do It Again”, “Hey Nineteen”, and of course the classic AOR rock standard “Reelin’ In The Years” and I’d cringe as a kid. It sounded like old man rock. I could picture some grey-haired cats looking like Cheech and Chong drinking fortified wine on a back porch talking about “the man” bringing them down and listening to the soft jazz rock stylings of the Dan on a transistor radio. When I was really little it just sounded like foreign music; ditties sung in a far distant language that didn’t compute like Steve Miller and KC and the Sunshine Band did. But when I was older and buying music on my own Steely Dan sounded stale and cheesy. I imagined some guy at the piano wearing a suit and tie singing lines like “I have a friend in town, he’s heard your name, We can go out driving on Slow Hand Row” or “The Cuervo Gold, The fine Colombian, Make tonight a wonderful thing” and it just seemed ridiculous to me. It was elevator music for intellectual yippies. It wasn’t real music, like what was coming out of the Sunset Strip in the 80s. That’s where it was really happening, dude.
Of course, when you’re 13, 14, and even 15-years old Steely Dan is a little above your intellectual pay grade. You had to grow up a bit before those records could actually sink in. Once I started reading guys like Hunter S. Thompson, Henry Miller, William S. Burroughs, and bought my first Thelonious Monk album things started to shift in my brain in regards to Steely Dan. But I didn’t become a full-fledged Steely Dan fanatic until I was about 21-years old and one of my oldest friends made me a single 90-minute Maxell cassette mix tape of Steely Dan that everything clicked for me. I don’t know if it was the track order, the ebb and flow between the jazzier tracks and the more rock and roll tracks, or if it was just because my brain was ready to compute the Fagen/Becker universe, but that tape was nearly worn to nubs. He put the standard stuff on there, but he surrounded the tried and true with deep cuts that I’d never heard. “Sign In Stranger”, “Monkey In Your Soul”, “Razor Boy”, “Through With Buzz”, “Pearl of the Quarter”, “Haitian Divorce”, “Night By Night”, “Glamour Profession”, ‘My Rival” and the list went on(for 90 minutes or so) and I was smitten.
When you’re a kid you don’t get the references. You don’t lock into the subversive nature of Fagen and Becker. You concentrate on the lightheartedness of the music and you don’t pay attention to the darker worlds Fagen is creating in the lyrics. Donald Fagen and Walter Becker grew up beat generation freaks. They were into William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, the science fiction of Philip K Dick, arthouse movies and 50s and 60s bebop. They were coming from Long Island and bathing their brains in seedy streets, after hours clubs, and the counter-culture before it was called the counter-culture. Once I started looking for Henry Miller paperbacks in secondhand book shops and trying to unlock the prose of Burroughs the subversive nature of the Dan truly opened up for me.
It’s nearly impossible for me to choose a favorite Steely Dan album. When I was younger I tended to ignore the early records. For some reason I didn’t consider them “true” SD albums until it was just Fagen and Becker in a studio with Gary Katz leading a who’s who of musicians like mad scientists building the perfect beast. But as time went on I’d go back and listen to those records with new, older ears and realized just how fucking good records like Can’t Buy A Thrill and Countdown To Ecstasy were. Countdown To Ecstasy is my second favorite Steely Dan album. “Pearl of the Quarter”, “Razor Boy”, “Showbiz Kids”, “Boston Rag” and the absolute jam of “Your Gold Teeth” get me every time. That break down in “Your Gold Teeth” with the electric piano floors me every time I hear it.
So what’s my favorite Steely Dan record you ask? Well that’s an answer that revolves and evolves daily. It depends on my mood and what I’m wanting out of Steely Dan. Some days it’s Katy Lied, other days it’s The Royal Scam. And of course there’s Aja, arguably the tightest 40 minutes every committed to vinyl by two guys from Long Island that went to Bard College and were in a band with Chevy Chase. The Royal Scam has the most consistently great tracks for me. With “Kid Charlemagne”, “Sign In Stranger”, “Haitian Divorce”, “Everything You Did”, and “Don’t Take Me Alive” donning this record there’s little to no fat here. And Katy Lied sporting “Black Friday”, “Bad Sneakers”, “Doctor Wu”, “Chain Lightning” and “Any World(That I’m Welcome To)” it’s like picking a favorite child or wife(if you live in Utah.) Those two albums are absolutely bulletproof for me, but for the sake of argument we’ll pick Aja for today because, well it’s fucking Aja.
Aja was Steely Dan’s LA record. They’d recorded in New York on every album up to this point, but decided to go to Los Angeles for a change of sound. Turned out it made them miss the Big Apple and they made their most New York album ever. “Home At Last” is an ode to their hometown, disguised as Homer’s Odyssey. It has an absolute killer shuffle groove thanks to maestro drummer Bernard Purdie.
I think the most important thing to point out is the fact that Aja contains the best album opener ever. That’s a big statement, I know, but in the hundreds of times I’ve heard “Black Cow” I’ve never not felt like pouring a scotch, lighting an unfiltered cigarette, and staring off into the distance while watching slinky bodies groove on a dance floor. This track is the most New York thing I’ve ever heard and I never tire of it. Dark, sexy, and cool as hell. “In the corner/Of my eye/I saw you in Rudy’s/You were very high“, Fagen sings over a slow motion groove and a killer bass line(courtesy of Chuck Rainey.) The whole scene here I want to be in. I love the delivery of the lyrics and the vibes. This is the proto late-era Dan sound.
Of course there’s the title track which has jazz legend Wayne Shorter improvising an amazing solo over it. I feel this record is spiritually connected to Shorter’s solo work, in-particular Speak No Evil and Juju. Fagen and Becker have always been masters at picking the right guy for the right job on SD albums, and this might be their most genius move. The song feels like an extended post-bop tome. “Chinese music under banyan tree/Here at the dude ranch above the sea.”
The most popular song on here is “Peg”, and for good reason as it’s brilliant. A funky pop track about a girl making adult films. “Done up in blueprint blue/It sure looks good on you“. A pop hit with porn thrown is just a touch of the beautiful dark humor and subversive nature of Fagan and Becker. Plus, this track just kills. Who wouldn’t feel like getting up shaking what the Lord gave ’em when this starts up?
There’s also a line of nihilism that runs through Steely Dan’s discography which I think goes back to their beat generation love. Live fast, die young, have fun doing it. “Deacon Blues” might be the most subversive thing on here. “I’ll learn to work the saxophone/I’ll play just what I feel/Drink scotch whiskey all night long/And die behind the wheel” is one of those lines that just stuck to the wall of my skull from the first day I heard it.
“Josie” seems to be an ode to the ultimate party girl making her grand return to a town and friends she left behind. “We’re gonna break out the hats and hooters/When Josie comes home/We’re gonna rev up the motorscooters/When Josie comes home to stay” is delivered with a solid beat courtesy of legend Jim Keltner and the bass thump of Chuck Rainey. It’s like the late night jazz club heroin drip flip side to “The Boys Are Back In Town”, though I think I’d be more afraid of Josie than those cats over at Johnny’s Place.
“I Got The News” is just a fun little funk track with a fast-paced vibe and this great line, “Broadway Duchess/Darling if you only knew/Half as much as/Everybody thinks you do“.
If someone had a gun to their head and was told to pick the best Steely Dan album, I feel Aja would be a proper choice. It’s the shining diamond(or gold tooth) among a smile nine albums wide. They did make two really great records in the 2000s; 2000s Two Against Nature and the bluesier, rawer Everything Must Go from 2003. While they still had the intricate arrangements and smart and humorous lyrics those two feel like records from a different Fagen and Becker. The seven albums between 1972 and 1980 felt like one whole piece. A tapestry of 70s production and a long run idea that spanned through each release. While the albums differed a bit each time out, they still felt very much like two guys strengthening their musical muscles. And I feel the best shape they were ever in was with Aja.
So if you’re reading this and thinking “No way. Steely Dan blows”, well I’d say maybe give them another chance. Maybe start with Countdown To Ecstasy then go to The Royal Scam. Or put some headphones on and dial in Katy Lied for shits and giggles. Or maybe the ultra sheen of the New York-recorded LA-sounding Gaucho would suit you? Or just say screw it, throw on Aja and just realize you were wrong about Steely Dan the whole time. Either way, it’s time you come to terms with how wrong you were about Donald Fagen and Walter Becker. It’s okay, we’re all wrong once in a while.
I don’t have that mixtape anymore, but I made a digital version for you. Check it out below.
I crawl like a viper
through these suburban streets
Make love to these women
Languid and bittersweet