20 Album Greats: Steely Dan

One of my all-time favourite bands, Steely Dan actually became a case of one of my all-time favourite duos. Steely Dan comprised Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, two talented musicians and wordsmiths who called upon some of the best session musicians in town to craft their own inimitable brand of jazz rock.


It's easy to forget that in the early days of Steely Dan there used to be another vocalist. David Palmer was on hand to provide a more conventional turn at the microphone, and his soulful vocals are well suited to this quietly maudlin ode about a chap embroiled in an affair with a married woman.

More commercial than your average Steely Dan tune, it's said that Dirty Work was only a reluctant afterthought on the album. Fagen and Becker weren't that bothered with adding it to the Can't Buy A Thrill roster, which explains why Palmer took on vocal duties. It's far better than its creators thought, with a lovely saxophone break from session musician Jerome Richardson.


The term, 'Difficult Second Album' is a well-worn cliché in music circles, but Steely Dan ran with this concept for the follow-up to Can't Buy A Thrill. Countdown To Ecstasy is less accessible than its more radio-friendly older brother, with most of the eight cuts longer in length.

Bodhisattva sets out the more experimental approach with this fast-paced, largely instrumental piece. Its minimalist lyrics are – according to Fagen – a parody of the way in which Western peoples regard Eastern religion. The simplified chant along the lines of “Bodhisattva, Bodhisattva, would ya take me by the hand” is said to reflect the simplified approach to Eastern religion – the Bodhisattva in question, is incidentally, a human being that – having reached enlightenment – chooses to eschew a higher plain in order to stick around and help fellow humans attain the same kind of spiritual freedom.


If I'm being brutally honest, the thing that draws me to particular bands and songs is the tune rather than the lyrics. Superficial I know – but while you can pen the deepest, most touching lyrics in the universe, if you don't have the hooks to draw me in, then why on Earth would I want to listen to it?

I suppose that's why I'm a massive Steely Dan fan. Their melodies and tunes still sound fresh and interesting 40-something years on, and The Boston Rag is a good case in point. What starts out as a laid-back steel guitar-driven tale of druggy college days turns into a soaring chorus with some typically killer harmonies. The instrumental break is also a classic case of sleight of hand. Beginning with single solitary piano notes, it quickly becomes a blistering electric guitar workout.

Tell all your buddies that this ain't no drag.


Steely Dan take on the apocalypse with blistering results.

Narrating the aftermath of a nuclear attack from the point of view of a man speaking into his old 'ham radio', King Of The World is a great example of Steely Dan's pull-no-punches social commentary. The chorus sums up the dangers of nuclear war well with its biting “No marigolds in the promised land, there's a hole in the ground where they used to grow”.

The arrangement is, as ever, immaculate, with its four-in-one arrangement. The simple three chord ascension of the verses. The drama of the chorus. The intense middle cacophony with a barely audible “My face is on fire”. And my favourite aspect of this track, the instrumental winding instrumental keyboard/guitar battle, which sees off the Countdown LP in fine style.


If Countdown To Ecstasy had been more difficult to read, this showed in the comparatively lowly Billboard chart showings. Pretzel Logic, on the other hand, is far easier on the ear, and proved to be far more popular with the public, lodging in the Top 200 Billboard Album charts in the Summer of 1974.

One of the most listenable of the Pretzel pile is the smashing Night By Night. I'm a big sucker for those 1960s brassy film scores, and Night By Night takes its inspiration from those halcyon days. The main brass/horn riff and chorus wouldn't have sounded out of place in a Henry Mancini or John Barry soundtrack, which gives this song plenty of appeal.


Steely Dan, while revered for their sarcastic, blackly comic lyrics, aren't so well known for their kindly reassurances. Any Major Dude Will Tell You is one of the few exceptions to the rule: a gentle meditation on the struggles of depression.

“Any major dude with half a heart surely will tell you my friend,” reassures Fagen. “Any minor world that breaks apart falls together again”. It's a quietly moving track, sensitively played and sung – but in typical Steely Dan style, there's always room for an oblique reference. “Have you ever seen a Squonk's tears? Well, look at mine.” A Squonk is a mythical creature that can cry itself into a pool of tears. It would get a song all to itself a couple of years later on Genesis' A Trick Of The Tail album.


Steely Dan were always ones to wear their jazz influences on their sleeves. The jazzy arrangements are part and parcel of their repertoire. This short but sweet Side Two opener celebrates one of the Dan's heroes, Charlie Parker.

Fast and furious, it's a song that packs an awful lot into its short time-frame, with attacking drums, Fagen's urgent but celebratory vocals, and a lovely middle bridge in which you can “spend a dizzy weekend smacked into a trance”.


A loose sequel to the original Your Gold Teeth from the Countdown album. This one is actually a rare case of the sequel being better than the original.

What I like about this one is its sheer unpredictability. The spellbinding jazzy opening instantly draws you in with its unusual chord arrangement, before settling into a laid-back waltz. Jeff Porcaro – session drummer and future Toto member – anchors the song well, while Denny Dias provides some sterling guitar work.

Denser than average, Your Gold Teeth II superbly pre-empts the bolder direction that Steely Dan will take with the Aja album. Richly arranged but oddly catchy, I'll even forgive the very 1975-sounding bubbly synth in the intro.


The star of the Chain Lightning show is guitarist Rick Derringer, who imbues this 12 bar blues shuffle with a great sense of purpose and feeling.

It's one of the many musical wonders of what's essentially a duet between Donald Fagen and future Doobie Brothers main man Michael McDonald. Once described as the vocal equivalent of a big old teddy bear by Katie Puckrik on a recent BBC4 West Coast music survey, McDonald's distinctive vocals can be heard on many a Katy Lied track. While light in tone musically, it's said that the lyrics are far darker, grimly and sardonically musing on the horrors of a far right rally.


The Royal Scam was the first Steely Dan album I encountered in 1994. Having been impressed by the 1976 hit single Haitian Divorce on the radio, I quickly snapped up the parent album.

It became a regular favourite – not just because of the top flight musicianship, but because of its attitude. The snarky and offbeat lyrics were much more interesting than the average '90s pap, but what's great about The Royal Scam is that it frequently champions the outsider. As a shy, gawky introvert, The Caves Of Altamira spoke volumes to me, and still does.

This celebration of the introspective introvert is paralleled with the eponymous caves of Altamira in Spain. But musically, it's far from being the retiring loner at the party. Bursting with energy, a fizzing brass section, and an emotive saxophone solo from John Klemmer, Caves is easily one of the lesser known Dan songs worth checking out.


Another reason I quickly got hooked on The Royal Scam was this paean to sci-fi escapism. The two readers of my blog may have stumbled across the odd Doctor Who review or 50, so it's no surprise that Sign In Stranger is right up my street.

It's quietly brooding for the most part, with a creeping drum rhythm, a hammering piano instrumental and that regular refrain of “You zombie, be born again my friend – won't you sign in stranger?” followed by a quick guitar solo motif. At the end, the song completely changes gears, erupting into a pounding brass workout with some brilliantly heavy drums.


The epic closing title track observes the American Dream from the point of view of what's allegedly a Puerto Rican couple or family arriving in the US of A. The dream quickly becomes a nightmare, as that initial optimism becomes a descent into poverty and drugs.

1976 was the year of bicentennial celebrations, but in true Steely Dan style, Fagen and Becker swapped the waving flags for a more down to earth look at what was really happening around them. The repeated pounding drum beat underscores the quiet fury of this song, which rounds off the LP with characteristic Dan bite.

See the glory, indeed.

13. BLACK COW (From AJA)

Uptown baby, uptown baby...

The funky rhythm of Steely Dan songs inevitably made them a target for rap sampling. Aja was to prove particularly rich in rap pickings, with Peg forming the basis of De La Soul's excellent Eye Know and Black Cow for Lord Tariq and Peter Gunz's Deja Vu (Uptown Baby).

The slinky rhythm of Black Cow instantly marks out Aja as one of the all-time great Steely Dan platters – an exercise in minimalism with its quiet drum beat, electric piano plinky plonking and the cooing background vocal commentary from Clydie King, Sherlie Matthews, Venetta Fields and Rebecca Louis. “So outrageous!” they whisper repeatedly at the end, as this tale of a relationship that's well and truly hit the skids fades out.

14. AJA (From AJA)

The centrepiece title track of Aja pushes the Steely Dan boundaries like no track had ever done before. Meticulously produced and played, Aja is around eight minutes in length.

While newcomers may blanch at such a prospect, stick with it and you'll be rewarded with some of the finest session musicianship committed to tape. Steve Gadd's drum work is impressive, starting out as a gentle accompaniment to Fagen's love song to the eponymous heroine that's the perfect antidote to the hurly burly of life. By the instrumental, Gadd's drumming has slowly built up in power to hit the dramatic heights of the instrumental break. He's competing with the stunning saxophone solo of acclaimed jazz saxophonist Wayne Shorter, creating a superlative musical tapestry.


I remember seeing a documentary about the making of Aja many moons ago. One of the aspects that sticks in the mind is legendary drummer, Bernard Purdie explaining how his unique 'Purdie Shuffle' groove was used to great effect on the wonderful Home At Last track.

Aja is the pinnacle of Steely Dan's decision to seek out the cream of American session musicians. It's choices like Purdie that give Aja that extra edge, in that each musician is completely in tune with Fagen's and Becker's vision for the album. I'm sure that the number of takes entered three digits, but with the shuffling groove of Home At Last, the work was well worth it.


It's that man Purdie again, who showcases the Purdie Shuffle on the Gaucho opener.

Gaucho had been a long time coming. Once upon a time, the gap between Steely Dan albums was a matter of months, while the gap between Aja and Gaucho is over three years. The Fagen and Becker quest for perfectionism had maybe over-reached itself, but tracks like Babylon Sisters showcase the immaculate musical gloss to a tee.

Gaucho is more of a world-weary, older look at the world. The single Hey Nineteen despairs at the age gap between an older guy and his younger girlfriend, who have absolutely nothing in common. Babylon Sisters takes the same kind of approach, telling the story of a middle aged man initially enticed and then horrified by a sleazy lifestyle of sex and drugs. Once a young man, our anti-hero is now way too old for this kind of malarkey, and the melancholic tunesmithery conveys this misery very well indeed.


The older I get, the more of a sentimental old fool I become. The right song at the right time can create a tear in my eye, and one of those tear-jerkers is the guitar solo of the Gaucho closer, Third World Man. Thank you, Larry Carlton. You've made me look like Ian Beale.

Carlton's emotive guitar work is part of this poignant Gaucho closer. While many of the album's characters are depicted as complete losers, there's a twinge of pity for Third World Man, Johnny. Quite who Johnny is remains a mystery, and I guess that Becker and Fagen meant it that way. But it's a gentle salute to the “little guy” and the last hurrah for nearly 20 years.


It's February 2000, and Steely Dan are back... back... BACK! Any doubts that Becker and Fagen couldn't quite capture the magic of old are quickly dispelled. What A Shame About Me gets everything right with its bluesy shuffle, some first class guitar (Becker's on lead guitar duties here, which he does very well indeed), and the sad tale of another misfit.

If Gaucho's protagonists were largely at the dawning of middle age, then Two Against Nature is smack bang in the middle. What A Shame's main man meets up with an old flame, and while she's become rich and famous, he's still in the doldrums. Self-pitying maudlin never sounded so catchy.


Two Against Nature's title track swishes in like it's inviting you to some swanky dinner party. Bongos and drums get the shebang started before some woozy saxophone chimes in, along with an unusual sound for a Steely Dan record – hand claps.

One of the most upbeat tracks on Steely Dan's comeback album, you could argue that it's basically Becker and Fagen sticking two fingers up at the ageing process: “Two against nature love this gig/Pull up the weeds before they're too damn big/Two against nature stand alone/Who's gonna chase the shape of things unknown.”

Given the subsequent passing of Walter Becker, it's a lyric that takes on a new kind of poignancy.


Rounding off this list in epic fashion, West Of Hollywood was once described by Fagen as an attempt at a serious story told from the view of someone without much coherence.

An autobiography of sorts, West Of Hollywood matches its life story with plenty of scope, thanks to its generous eight-plus minute length. The melodies are as sharp as ever (I particularly like the unusual chords of the middle 'Almost got there' bit), and there's an exhaustive saxophone workout from Chris Potter thrown in for good measure.