Steely Dan

Walter Becker and Donald Fagen chilling in the lobby
Walter Becker & Donald Fagen

I grew up with this crew's music. Pops had all the albums, even Donald Fagen's solo record The Nightfly. Countdown To Ecstasy, The Royal Scam and Aja were in heavy rotation working on projects in the garage. I've still got distinct memories of Bodhisattva and Kid Charlemagne kicking off a hard day's work. I also remember hearing the radio announcement that they were coming to town in '94, with the duo back together for the first time in nearly 15 years. This the summer of Warren G's Regulate and its integral use the groove from frequent Dan collaborator Michael McDonald's I Keep Forgettin'. That was cool.

I was gutted to hear of Walter Becker's passing last year. Like Bowie, the duo seemed like they'd be around forever. I always thought I'd get the chance to see them play live after their triumphant comeback at the turn of the century, a time when they seemed to come to town with some regularity. Just goes to show you: don't put these things off! (Perhaps appropriately) this piece isn't terribly organized or in-depth, just a deeply personal selection of random access memories of these beatnik denizens residing comfortably at the interface of rock and jazz in singular fashion.

Steely Dan The Royal Scam ABC

I really came to Steely Dan's music around the turn of the century, when my brother Brian got into them in a big way. He was the skater getting down with the Purdie shuffle, knocking out a kickflip to The Caves Of Altamira. Around that time, we seemed to watch the great Aja documentary1 once a fortnight, in between movies like Tin Men, Scarface and The Good, The Bad And The Ugly, videos that I'd check out from the Clairemont Library (where I was working at the time).

Steely Dan Aja ABC

That's one of the great music documentaries ever, sidestepping the often gossipy tenor of the format and getting down to the nitty gritty of the music itself (images of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker hunched over the mixing desk, isolating tracks in playback!). The other highlight being giants like Wayne Shorter and Bernie Purdie showing up like it's no big deal. It dovetailed nicely with the era's studio experimentation with Snakes, our post-Slam/Keven Saunderson beats inspiring dreams of being the Steely Dan of techno(!)2 Santiago, innit.

Kruder & Dorfmeister DJ-Kicks Studio !K7

The thing with this music is that it made perfect sense in light of what I happened to be listening to anyway, current favorites like 4 Hero, Innerzone Orchestra, Erykah Badu and As One alongside the vintage sounds of Herbie Hancock, Sly Stone and Curtis Mayfield, music that I'd only recently begun to explore (now that I was finally making decent money working at the library!). Even slightly earlier, I remember hearing Karma's Look Up Dere — in the context of Kruder & Dorfmeister's DJ-Kicks — and clocking the sample from The Royal Scam. I used to listen to Jazzanova's remix anthology an awful lot too.

Steely Dan Countdown To Ecstasy ABC

My brother had all the albums so, due to that brotherly policy where you don't double up on albums the other one owns (since you can just borrow them down the hall),3 I didn't pick them up until a bit later. I remember the exact occasion like it was yesterday too: a young lady canceled a date with me the hour before, and rather than get all melancholy over the fact, I made a beeline for the Sports Arena Tower Records. My thinking being, hey, why not just spend the date money on records instead? Which of course turned it into a win/win situation in an instant!

Bryan Ferry Another Time, Another Place Island

I ended up scoring the bulk of both the Steely Dan and Bryan Ferry back catalogs (on sale, no less!), and then spent the rest of the day down at Mission Beach listening to them. I used to keep a beach chair stashed in my truck for just such occasions. Memories of the summer sun setting over the Pacific Ocean to the strains of Deacon Blues. Languid and bittersweet, and so on and so forth. That turned out to be a pretty good day.

Donald Fagen The Nightfly MCA

Not long after, I picked up the two new records — Two Against Nature and Everything Must Go, along with Fagen's solo debut The Nightfly. The latter record's central conceit mirroring my own fantasies of somehow scoring a late night slot on some local radio station, deep in the mix after midnight playing a selection of Recloose, UR and BFC records. My other foundational memory is of those landlocked mid-summer days back in '95, my brother and I chilling out to the sun-glazed daydream slipstream of China Crisis (two albums of whose were Becker-produced), beats melting into the urban haze.

Steely Dan Katy Lied ABC

If it's difficult to separate the music from the memories in this case, such are they so closely intertwined, it's even more so trying to choose a favorite album. Theirs is a discography you almost want to take in as a whole rather than anything more piecemeal, the whole story stretching the length of its expanse, creeping into its nooks and crannies. With key tracks like Razor Boy, Any World That I'm Welcome To and Third World Man never making the compilations, the singles don't even tell half the story!

And I couldn't do without the (totally atypical) Byrds-reminiscent hoedown With A Gun, even if the band themselves seem rater unimpressed by the track.

Steely Dan Can't Buy A Thrill ABC

As such, it's difficult to land on a favorite album. At various times it's been the relatively rugged Countdown To Ecstasy, The Royal Scam's overcast dread, Katy Lied's perfect fusion of both sides of the coin and (more recently) the sleek shapes of Gaucho. I still go back and forth. Sometimes I think that against all odds Can't Buy A Thrill is the one, with all the rough edges the debut outing entails. After all, Do It Again still sounds like the blueprint for the whole nineties Dust Brothers aesthetic. 'Nuff flavor!

Steely Dan Greatest Hits ABC

Complicating matters further is that the original 1970s Greatest Hits has what might be their greatest sleeve of all,4 while FM (recorded for the soundtrack to the film of the same name)5 came out a year later, thus missing the cut. Aja is a near perfect record (the volcanic build up to Wayne Shorter's solo in the title track, swoon!), but I always thought I Got The News let down the side a little bit. Maybe I should cook up a little playlist?

Steely Dan Pretzel Logic ABC

At the end of the day, Steely Dan, with their beatnik vibes and smart-ass sensibility, coupled with a supreme knack for penning a killer tune, often came out head and shoulders above many of their more serious peers.6 As such, it seemed like checking in with these cats was the perfect way to sign off with the canyon, for instance, seeing as these eternal outsiders technically weren't even canyon figures at all!

Steely Dan Gaucho MCA

The duo's search for studio perfection found them staring the machine squarely in the eye (see Gaucho's state-of-the-art production techniques, sequenced rhythms, etc.), standing in stark contrast to the longhair, loose-fitting spirit of the times (the be-suited jazz interface meets Kraftwerk?). That's a pretty far-sighted move, in retrospect. It's the perfect rejoinder to bring us back to the Room's normal mode of operation and into the realm of Terminal Vibration's final chapter: 1980 and the interface of machine soul.

Footnotes

1.

Classic Albums: Steely Dan - Aja. Eagle Vision, 1989. Documentary.

2.

Upon reflection, perhaps Deep Space Network fits the bill best of all?

3.

The same went for Van Halen and Led Zeppelin.

4.

And later sampled by Smith & Mighty on the great Bass Is Maternal LP.

5.

That sleeve always makes me flash on Spacetime Continuum's Double Fine Zone, which come to think of it isn't entirely inappropriate.

6.

Not unlike, dare I say it... Ween!

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