I never wanted to like Steely Dan.
When I was young, scruffy and cool, their music was old, lame and brightly polished. It was extremely not punk rock, hip hop or metal. When classic rock radio played “Do it Again,” I’d impatiently wait until it was over and hope Van Halen would come on next (also, for the sake of full transparency, I should admit thought it was a Santana song for about 10 years).
Steely Dan’s fans weren’t sexy or edgy. They were the old white men playing flawless and lifeless diminished chord sequences on expensive hollow bodied guitars. The band was at the nucleus the boring, grammy award musical establishment.
But becoming a fan of Steely Dan was inevitable for me. With their sideways take on jazz/funk, pure pop hooks and bulletproof musicianship, they created a musical venn diagram intersection I couldn’t resist.
In the wake of Walter Becker’s death, I’ve been thinking about Steely Dan, a band I reluctantly grew to love.
I fell into Steely Dan hard around the same time I had kids. I wasn’t alone. Several of my friends told me they went through the same journey. Steely Dan had been recommended by too many authority figures, like guitar teachers and college professors, to be cool. But then there was some gateway song that hooked them. Maybe the way in was the high gloss groove of “Peg,” which tickled their ears first as a De La Soul Song. In other cases, the sprawling guitar of “Reelin’ in the Years” or the deep, melancholy rock groove of “Dirty Work” provided the entry.
I know just enough about music theory to ruin my enjoyment of a lot of songs. I’m not that bad—I don’t value songs with odd time signatures over good ol’ 4/4—but I get picky about musicianship. I love a good guitar solo. I appreciate finicky and obsessive music production that stacks layers of sound and rewards repeated headphone listens. All that coalesces in Steely Dan. You might not catch the low in the mix rhythm guitar in “Dirty Work” until you’re paying attention after hearing the song 1,000 times but it’s a revelation when you do.
The high-level musicianship and crafty production are used to create listenable pop songs. At their best, Steely Dan’s music has immediacy and hooks. They’re not Emerson Lakes and Palmer 18 minute progressive rock mini-opera etudes. “Peg” is pure radio sugar, with bright colors and bounce. It’s like a Hall and Oates song, only with more overt lechery.
I don’t know much about how Steely Dan worked as a musical partnership but from what I understand, Donald Fagen was the central genius who wrote and sang the songs and played all the keyboards. I think Becker was like the Matt Stone to his Trey Parker—a catalyst, organizer and muse.
It’s weird bingeing on Steely Dan after Becker’s death, looking for his signature musical accomplishments. So much of their magic was made by studio musicians—Becker once said he’d be fine to not play at all on Steely Dan’s songs. My guess is that Becker was responsible for those fussy little details lurking low in the mix.
So rest in peace, Mr. Becker. You wore down my defenses. I can’t help but respect that.