Steely Dan embodied and flaunted their contradictions: spotlessly produced and impeccably performed studio creations about unsympathetic losers and aging, horny sociopaths. They borrowed from the most soulful and emotional black music — twisting but not impenetrable jazz, organ-swole R&B, locked-in funk at least as deep and labyrinthine as the Meters — for an antiseptic, whitewashed, downright creepy waiting-room version that sold “sophistication” to rockers in the guise of toxic masculinity at its most polished.
Donald Fagen and Walter Becker’s vision enlisted the best playing money could buy and stamped it down into a bloodless veneer to disquieting (and hilarious) effect. Randy Newman’s black-humored irony was deeply optimistic by comparison; you could ascertain his politics.
All we knew about Fagen and Becker is that they knew how gross, overpaid men could think. They kept their ideals of right and wrong to themselves, and it helped the great practical joke their music performed: Witness 2000’s excellently sickening reunion album Two Against Nature snatching the album of the year Grammy from Eminem despite songs narrated by a pedophile and a horny cousin.
This was all by design of course; did I mention they were named after the dildo in Naked Lunch? Steely Dan’s lightweight music flaunted a dark heart and beat Patrick Bateman to the synthesis by decades. They also knew how to boogie and wail, as the finest collective of un-ragged instrumentation ever corralled into one ongoing rock project. In tribute to the late Becker, who died yesterday at the age of 67, here are Steely Dan’s best moments.
15. “Deacon Blues” (Aja, 1977)
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The soft jazz-filled hit “Deacon Blues” may as well be Steely Dan’s theme song, at least for the characters Fagen and Becker inhabited on record. “I’ll play just what I feel / Drink scotch whiskey all night long / And die behind the wheel” was these jazz fetishists’ version of “Hope I die before I get old.” Towards the end, Fagen spits, “Sue me if I play too long.” No one did.
14. “Your Gold Teeth” (Countdown to Ecstasy, 1973)
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This minimalist epic builds on the Latin rhythms of “Do It Again” for a driving, seven-minute groove that could’ve come from Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions, with an abstract warning against materialism that references all kinds of crazy things: Cathy Berberian, tobacco in Peking, and classic roulades, all things that have been rarely mentioned in pop songs before or since. Steely Dan was quickly establishing themselves as one-of-a-kind smartypants writers who could still burn a rock venue to cinders with their guitar solos.
13. “Barrytown” (Pretzel Logic, 1974)
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Whoa, almost a straightforward jangle-pop song! Being the Dan of course, the cheerful demeanor of “Barrytown” (which sounds like a companion piece to “Werewolves of London” or something in its chiming piano parts) turns out to be a kiss-off to the born-again evangelists of Barrytown, whom Fagen and Becker often encountered in school at Bard. “Leave me or I’ll be just like the others you will meet/ They won’t act as kindly if they see you on the street,” Fagen sings to some poor Jehovah’s Witness sap who’s probably had 45 doors slammed in his face that day alone. Yet this time they really tap into a special kind of justifiable angst; who wouldn’t love to tell those solicitors off?
12. “Fire in the Hole” (Can’t Buy a Thrill, 1972)
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Fagen’s incredible piano virtuosity and nerve-wracking chord changes on this rare Dan ballad alone make it one of the group’s best, tensest offerings. Just listen to that intro, the flat-footed stomp of the drums behind ivories so tickled they’re laughing their ribs off. Then there’s the thumping, discordant bass, the sour-into-sweetness as the verse becomes chorus, and Fagen reminding himself he’s just another freak. Elton John should be so blistering.
11. “Show Biz Kids” (Countdown to Ecstasy, 1973)
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A relentless, Fogerty-style creaky slide-blues vamp that never changes beat or keys (huge rarity for these boys), “Show Biz Kids” is one of the most incendiary meta songs in all of rock. It adds a rare class-consciousness to Fagen’s usual cynicism (“While the poor people sleeping / All the stars come out at night”) and isn’t too proud to indulge in the maschismo itself (“They got the shapely bods / They got the Steely Dan T-shirt”). Then there’s the climactic “They don’t give a fuck about anybody else” that psychedelic Britpoppers Super Furry Animals sampled to immaculate effect on their early single “The Man Don’t Give a Fuck.” (Steely Dan is secretly one of rock’s all-time best sample sources, also encompassing Kanye West’s “Kid Charlemagne” flip on “Champion” and De La Soul’s earnest use of “Peg” to pretty up “Eye Know.”)
10. “Hey Nineteen” (Gaucho, 1980)
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Gaucho was a glossier, more high-definition blow-up of the Dan’s widescreen subversions (and perversions) best displayed on their final top ten hit on the Hot 100, “Hey Nineteen,” which may as well have been titled “Yes, Please Stand Close to Me.” Donald Fagen sings to the titular-age lust interest over one of the tightest grooves of his career, explaining who “Retha” Franklin is and plying her with Cuervo Gold. He was only 32 at the time; in 20 years he’d be one-upping himself by writing about “Janie Runaway,” an underage girl whom he tries to score a three-way out of.
9. “Any Major Dude Will Tell You” (Pretzel Logic, 1974)
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Pretzel Logic is Steely Dan’s most soulful album and least cynical-seeming, and “Any Major Dude Will Tell You” exemplifies both. The 1974 career highlight brims with a warmth unheard on the ice-sculpture jazz of later offerings or their more cryptically angry early tunes, and the jagged optimism of the lyrics even matches: “Any minor world that breaks apart falls together again,” sings Fagen, over a ballet of tricky chords that never quite land right side up but always sound perfect, in their sideways splendor.
8. “Time Out of Mind” (Gaucho, 1980)
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Like “Hey Nineteen” and “Peg” before it, this increasingly jazzy outfit turned out a deceptively upbeat tune with 1980’s “Time Out of Mind” with a sexy, smiling chorus about “chasing the dragon” despite (or because of?) the addictions tearing Walter Becker apart from artistic success and his friendship with Donald Fagen as the group’s dissolution approached. Then again, Becker’s lyrics were as scabrous and sarcastic as Warren Zevon’s, which is the right kind of tonic for a band who painstakingly assembled the drum track for Gaucho’s title tune out of 46 separate takes. Perfectionist addicts have to entertain themselves, too.
7. “Janie Runaway” (Two Against Nature, 2000)
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Two Against Nature is Steely Dan’s most immoral album by some distance, and they give their sleaze an appropriately huge dollop of funk. All the E-Z listening vibes, perfectly placed horn fills, biting scratch-chords and bass-slaps proved the perfect disguise for a Grammys-conquering Trojan horse whose centerpiece finds a pedophile offering his charge a “birthday in Spain” if she’s “not afraid to try new things” with him and her friend Melanie. The audacity of the song is hardly the whole story, as the character sketch itself is pitch-perfect in its soulless knowledge of what lurks in the hearts of men not far from their own age. Evil genius at its most evil, and genius.
6. “Bodhisattva” (Countdown to Ecstasy, 1973)
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Kicking off the commercial nonstarter Countdown to Ecstasy, which may be Steely Dan’s most impressive album song for song, “Bodhisattva” swings and thunders for five minutes over a rockabilly whirlwind injected with guitars exploding bebop. The guitars are far more clean-scrubbed than say, those of Dickey Betts, but they come closer to boogieing into the swamp anything else Fagen and Becker ever did.
5. “Do It Again” (Can’t Buy a Thrill, 1972)
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Steely Dan’s breakthrough single (and second-highest-charting Hot 100 hit, peaking at No. 6) was in no way characteristic of the band they’d become, except insofar as A) they’re chameleonic and B) it was early excellence. Much has been made of the fact it’s a mambo, but most mambo-rock fusion songs don’t typically have an electric sitar solo followed by an organ one. Then there’s the reverse helplessness of the lyric, in which Donald Fagen’s protagonist shoots someone dead but gets rescued from the gallows because “the hangman isn’t hanging” that particular day — and this somehow makes him more miserable.
4. “Cousin Dupree” (Two Against Nature, 2000)
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No matter how smooth and nostalgic Steely Dan’s amazing comeback Two Against Nature may have looked on the surface, it was one of their most insidious albums ever, particularly with this easy-rolling boogie as its first single, where the narrator creepily croons to his own cousin about how she’s “grown,” and promises to teach her everything he knows. Steely Dan is nothing if not a great joke on the caricature of their audience, balding-ponytailed midlife-crisis guys cruising for younger tail, and here the aural sugar helps some of their ugliest (and most gut-busting) lyrics go down. The cousin in question rebuffs Dupree about the “dreary architecture” of his soul, and he still doesn’t get it: “But what exactly turns you off?”
3. “Peg” (Aja, 1977)
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This is supposed to be it, right? The moment a bunch of sleazy inside-joke studio virtuosos put the wisecracking aside for an upbeat, resolutely straightforward pop tune paying tribute to a glamorous girl — and actually makes an evenhanded pass at infatuation if not love. “Peg” achieved that narrative commercially, becoming one of Steely Dan’s absolute biggest hits and keynoting Aja, their most successful album. But it was just a subtler version of the same darkness that laced all of Steely Dan’s material; the high-spirited Lyricon (sort of a synthesized woodwind) riff and famous, De La Soul-sampled “I know I’ll love you better” hook are ultimately serving an unreliable narrator’s tribute to an actress he may or may not be coercing into a pornographic venture. Listen for the telling, quieted voice intoning “I don’t want to do this” around the 3:16 mark. And you thought Eminem was a sicko.
2. “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” (Pretzel Logic, 1974)
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Here’s where Fagen plays it cool and still ostensibly makes a jerk of himself: Rikki was a professor’s wife he gave his number to, pending her having “a change of heart,” over an astonishing number of chord changes for a No. 4 Hot 100 hit. “Send it off in a letter to yourself,” he urges, ridiculously. This kind of subject was played just smooth enough, and in one of the band’s most tuneful works ever, to give them their highest-charting tune ever. There’s a good chance Rikki dodged a bullet, though.
1. “Reelin’ in the Years” (from 1972’s Can’t Buy a Thrill)
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The most straightforward rock’n’roll song Steely Dan ever made is one of their most recognizable hits, a relentlessly happy-sounding shuffle with a tango of doubled guitar solos that could’ve come from Thin Lizzy. It was so bouncy that Donny and Marie covered it on their variety show in 1978 with a backdrop of ice skaters, despite the fact it’s one of the most vicious breakup songs in the genre’s history: “You wouldn’t even know a diamond if you held it in your hand,” “You’ve been telling 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,” “The things that pass for knowledge I can’t understand.” But those guitar solos, man. Jimmy Page once told an interviewer they were his all-time favorites.
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