Steely Dan are more punk than you think

Nick Triani recounts his own feelings about the often misunderstood sonic pioneers Steely Dan and why everything isn’t as it seems.

Nick Triani recounts his own feelings about the often misunderstood sonic pioneers Steely Dan and why everything isn’t as it seems.

Photo manipulation Nick Triani

No Static At All

When Walter Becker passed away in early September, a few thoughts crossed my mind. He was seemingly the unsung hero in Steely Dan, never a focal point of the band like Donald Fagen was (though his death re-addressed that misconception of mine). Another feeling was how my own love for the band had grown out of an ingrained hate and misconception of their true worth and artistry. Not too many years ago, a producer friend of mine cringed at the mere mention of the band, shocked at my love for them, his premeditated preconceptions on Steely Dan a common reaction from those who “don’t get it” or simply don’t know it.

Not too many years ago, a producer friend of mine cringed at the mere mention of the band

I got the ‘FM (No Static at all)’ 7” from my sister, a record I didn’t pay too much attention to in my early teens. My first serious band contained a couple of Steely Dan nuts whose sole ambition at times seemed to be to play out a perfect version of the outro from ‘Kid Charlemagne’. Those bloody chords. I longed for two chord strums after painfully mastering some five fret shapes. It was a few years after that band disbanded that I “got Steely Dan” and recognized that my former bandmates eagerness for all things Fagen and Becker was actually an education of sorts to this fledgling songwriter. It’s a bit late guys, but belated thanks for introducing the band to me.

From my perspective it also helped that some mid-1980s performers I really appreciated were beginning to name check Steely Dan as an influence. Be it Prince, Prefab Sprout, The Blue Nile or Microdisney (Sean O’Hagan‘s music still carries a taste), it was beginning to be hard for me to ignore the pull of Steely Dan. The whole sample-bility of Steely Dan’s music also added extra dimension to some fledgling hip-hop (say hello, De La Soul). Being a William Burroughs fan, their name procured from Naked Lunch, and being more than a little risque – actually bought the band into the realms of cool in my mind (how naive and sweet my youthful years could be). Fagen and Becker were different and deeper – attitude filled dudes even – who were probably a lot smarter than your average AOR jazz-rocker – or myself for that matter. That doesn’t imply they were intellectuals or aloof, although they may well have been, but the feeling I get is that they knew what they were about and what they wanted. Ultimately, the studio was where the band found their edge and artful extremism.

Can’t Buy A Thrill

It was only last month that Donald Fagen commented how he couldn’t afford to make the albums he wanted to make anymore. Lack of money from music sales just doesn’t support spending large amounts of time in the recording studio. It was a sad indictment of where we’ve arrived in pop culture and the value of music in any sense. If the pop world can’t afford to put its greatest musical innovators in the studio it has a real problem as an evolving artform. Steely Dan can be surely classed amongst that rare breed of studio revolutionaries who forged their own sound through tireless experimentation, strong-willed conviction and a search for undescribable minimalism. With Steely Dan’s music every note and sound is essential (as are those notes and sounds you don’t hear).

With Steely Dan’s music every note and sound is essential (as are those notes and sounds you don’t hear)

Fagen and Becker’s studio perfection reached legendary heights, where some of the world’s greatest musicians were put through the rack in the pursuit of just the right feel, touch and time. In their search for the perfect take, Becker and Fagen procured a new kind of production ideal. Yes, they did frequent a musical territory which can most definitely be ascribed to the worst aspects of musical expression – the muso. Under their own punishing regimes and guidance however, they extinguished any braggadocio from many session musicians they used – always putting that exceptional talent to the best use of any given song. In my opinion, this distinguishes Steely Dan’s output from their 1970s contemporaries. Yes, these cats could play better than anyone out there, but it wasn’t about that, it was about delivering the sound that Becker and Fagen heard in their heads. And that wasn’t easy.

 

Any Major Dude Will Tell You

Steely Dan are often called out as a perfect example of a seamless, mellow 1970s California sound, but in reality, it’s much more complicated than this. Yes, listening to their music you could call it smooth, laid back even at times. But the contradictions persist. My reality deems me to inform you that Steely Dan’s heart for me is all New York and not LA. The edge is there. Becker and Fagen (from New Jersey and Queens respectively), were outsiders, New York kids hustling in the Big Apple trying to make a dime writing tunes for others at ABC/Dunhill Records. This was a great school for Becker and Fagen to hone the necessities of their songcraft, their pop melodicism a distinct character that set Steely Dan apart from jazz-rock peers. For me Steely Dan are much more Velvet Underground than Chicago, and they could often be as extreme as Lou Reed’s avant merchants. The extra cachet for Steely Dan is they sold 40 million albums being that nerdy and weird.

Yes, they moved to LA in 1971 and formed Steely Dan, but the stories in their songs concerning underground hipsters and black music heroes, delivered in a tone with a wry sardonic sarcasm is always New York black rather than LA beige – jazzers without the rock if you like. Fagen’s laconic voice, unusual and certainly not smooth or conventional in anyway, again places the band outside the session player axis. Yes, he’s a good singer, but really different to our conventional wisdom or notion of what equates as a ‘good singer’. That voice fronting some of the most peerless and competent pop music ever created is in itself in keeping with Steely Dan’s sense of outsider rule breakage. In the musical circles that Steely Dan populate, this could even be viewed as punk.

That voice fronting some of the most peerless and competent pop music ever created is in itself in keeping with Steely Dan’s sense of outsider rule breakage

And is there a band in popular music that features the Fender Rhodes keyboard so prominently? The instrument features on so much of their catalog (reaching peak infiltration on Gaucho), acting as the glue between bass, drums and everything else – guiding, fluid and more. The prominence of the Fender Rhodes in Steely Dan’s music is another mark against the conventional and perceived wisdom of rock music. When I saw Steely Dan’s Helsinki show in 2000, one of my most prominent memories was the sound and volume of the Fender rhodes – heavy with chorus, a tinge of distortion, but powerful and like a blanket of sound in its own right.

Two Against Nature

But ultimately I don’t need to defend Steely Dan’s artful pop music or weather it’s cool or not. The thought remains that together, Fagen and Becker’s articulate collaboration was the cause of constant evolution and once given the keys to the creative playground, they proceeded to create music that justified their own unique visions. So what if they spent over a year making Aja or Gaucho? In the literal hi-stakes of 1970s rock n roll excess, Steely Dan’s studio largesse was a rare example of every second of that time being worth it.

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Article was written by

  • nick

    Editor in chief at OQM. I’m also a co-founder, writer and handle some management too. I’m owner and head A+R at the record label Soliti.

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