Steely Dan: criminally underrated

From Issue 4

Many people are quick to call bands overrated because of their sustained popularity, such as The Beatles or Pink Floyd. One band that has been almost criminally underrated in my opinion, is my current favorite band Steely Dan.  Steely Dan are an American rock band that blends elements of jazz and pop with impeccable production quality and ironic lyricism, and released nine albums over the course of 31 years. The band’s primary members are Donald Fagen and the recently deceased Walter Becker, in addition to several studio musicians who also helped with live performances. The group broke in 1981  a period of legal and personal troubles and reunited in 1993. An interesting thing to note is that Fagen had a case of stage fright, and was initially reluctant to perform live, but eventually got over it as his interpretations of the songs were preferred. 

Steely Dan’s sound is characterized in its clarity, both in the ability to understand vocals and to hear each instrument distinctly through a song. Both Becker and Fagen can sing, best exemplified by the song “Turn That Heartbeat Over Again”, in which both members sing separately and in chorus.  The use of a female chorus is prominent throughout the albums Gaucho and Aja. The use of piano and horns such as the saxophone adds an element of jazz to the more traditional rock sound of guitar, bass, and percussion. Solos feature prominently in Steely Dan songs, with piano, guitar and saxophone each having time to shine.The band’s first hit single “Do It Again features solos from a sitar and an organ. 

My discovery of them is an interesting anecdote in of itself; I was playing Guitar Hero with a friend when we happened to choose the song “Do it Again” . The song stood out to me because its lyrics and its catchy melody. Steely Dan’s lyrics are the most notable part about the band, as they are dark and often tell a story. New York City and Los Angeles heavily influenced Becker and Fagen, with many of their albums having grimy characters associated with big city life. “Everyone’s Gone To The Movies” is a song that subtly discusses adult films. “With A Gun” sounds upbeat with its acoustic guitar strumming, but covers robbery, murder, and revenge. “Dirty Work” is told from the perspective of a self loathing man having an affair with a married woman. Name dropping and references are also prevalent in Steely Dan songs with Scotch Whiskey, Annandale, New York, and funnily enough Crimson Tide football all being mentioned in song.