Whenever Rock N’ Roll fans talk about the best bands of all time many start with The Beatles and the Rolling Stones. That’s fine. Yet when the conversation is about one’s favorite bands of all time I still find many folks say The Beatles and the Stones. If that’s true, then great. Yet sometimes I think people say that out of some obligatory sense or something. Hey, I like the Beatles and the Stones too, but neither one makes my top ten of favorite bands. (the Stones are close though). Point being, who you like is who you like. We all have our reasons for the bands and artists we love. My all time favorite band is Led Zeppelin. I know I’ve got plenty of company in that regard. But my second favorite probably isn’t as high on people’s list: Steely Dan.
To call Steely Dan a “band” is a bit misleading. Its driving force was always two guys, and neither were named Steely or Dan.
Donald Fagen and Walter Becker. Just two musicians and songwriters who spent the ’70s being most comfortable in a recording studio. So much so, they released five albums between 1974 and 1980 without performing live. No supporting tours whatsoever. Could you imagine this approach in today’s music industry? Today we’d call that charity. There’s no money in music anymore. The only way to earn is to tour. Fortunately for Fagen and Becker, 40 years ago one could make a living off of album sales.
This is not to suggest these two guys did all the work themselves. They employed a vast array of talented sessions musicians along the way. Many dynamic and talented musicians contributed to the varying sound that was Steely Dan.
So what exactly is Steely Dan’s sound? Depends on who you ask. According to Google…..“Steely Dan drew from the gamut of American musical styles to create some of the most intelligent and complex pop music of the 1970s.” Well that’s a wonderful thing to say, but what does it mean? How about the trusty ol’ Wikipedia: “Blending rock, jazz, latin music, reggae, traditional pop, R&B, blues, and sophisticated studio production with cryptic and ironic lyrics, the band enjoyed critical and commercial success….” Ok, that’s more like it. I needed that quote a few summers ago while on vacation. When relaxing among friends, one asked the old scenario about being trapped on an island and having to choose the music of only one band/artist to listen to. His answer was, of course, The Beatles. When I said Steely Dan I thought he’d fall off his chair. Not out of laughter, just surprise. My reason was the variety. Though I feel all Steely Dan songs are mostly rooted in tight beats, rhythms, and solid production, their sound covers so much territory. No matter my mood, there’s typically something in their catalog that can satisfy it.
Long story short……..Fagen and Becker were extremely productive between 1972 and 1980, releasing seven studio albums in less than a decade. In fact, between ’72 and ’77 they released six albums in six years. An absolutely unheard of level of production by today’s standards, or even the past 30 years for that matter.
The 1980s were very cruel to many successful ’70s and late ’60s bands. People always said how smart Fagen and Becker were. Apparently they’re right. Instead of enduring the critical and/or commercial failures of their contemporaries, Steely Dan just avoided the 1980s all together.
Though they eventually started performing live on occasion in the 1990s, the year 2000 would be their big studio album return. They’d follow it up with another studio album in 2003, and that was it. They would spend the next 14 years (up until Walter Becker’s death in 2017) relentlessly doing the thing they avoided in the ’70s: touring.
In Review: “The Dan” (Part II) will break down their albums and notable songs.
Thanks for reading,