I have always maintained that Steely Dan’s music was, has been and remains among the most genuinely subversive ouevres in late-20th-Century pop.” – William Gibson, “Any ‘Mount of World”

Supermarket Subversion

So you’re standing around at the supermarket, getting your organic arugula and fair trade coffee when you hear music — unbelievably smooth music. The track, a light, jazzy soul number, features a piano and a trio of backup singers cooing every 45 seconds or so. As you approach the counter, the girl at the checkout catches you grooving. You abruptly stop and load your groceries, shifting your attention to the vocals. As the clerk rings up your responsible, locally grown produce you realize the tune you’ve been enjoying is about smoking heroin.

Depending on your temperament, you’re either horrified and confused or the latest convert to the cult of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, collectively known as Steely Dan. In the early 1970s, this duo took over a previously existing band after responding to an ad reading “Looking for keyboardist and bassist. Must have jazz chops! Assholes need not apply.” Thankfully they ignored the last part. After two records the interlopers fired their band mates, relying exclusively on the cream of Los Angeles-based studio musicians to craft an obsessively perfect brand of rock. Seven records with nary a bad track among them later, the pair fractured, before reforming 20 years later to record lesser material on self-aware and self-absorbed albums.

Steely Dan have an artistic voice that is more akin to Nabokov and Delillo than Jagger and Richards. While other bands have attempted to be literary, few have succeeded. The Dan, however, don’t waste time or insult your intelligence by name checking allegedly “obscure” works from the realm of the written word. They just give you a soundtrack for blowing a rail of coke off the cover of The 42nd Parallel before staying up all night to finish your dissertation. Classy arrangements form the backdrop of tales worthy of the greatest writers of the 20th Century, with lyrics clearly influenced by the towering achievements of American literature. Their songs have everything — compelling protagonists, lovably repellent anti-heroes, femme fatales, vibrant settings and evocative language.

Lit Rock for Jazz Cats

Becker and Fagen are known primarily for two things: Bitter, sarcastic lyrics that glorify the bebop hipster of yore and a maniacal attention to studio perfectionism. The world of a Steely Dan song is one of sleeping off a Scotch bender in the trunk of a Cadillac car, still dressed in a cheap suit with one last bump of C tucked in your coat pocket to chase the hangover away come morning. It’s a world of washed-up jazz musicians getting by on their name and style in a world that has passed them over. Danland is a place where LSD manufacturers are folk heroes and old men raid college campuses with a bag of snow and a bottle of tequila looking for a mate. It is a world of pure, unrelenting sleaze, worthy of the Burroughs novel from which the band takes its name. Love may not exist in Danland, but infidelity (“Haitian Divorce”), child molestation (“Everyone’s Gone to the Movies”) and lust resulting in self-loathing (“Dirty Work”) do.

The band’s influences come primarily from soul and jazz, but there are also flirtations with funk, reggae and just about every style of African-American since R&B. The obsession with black music is not a one-way admiration. Anecdotal evidence suggests that Steely Dan have a bigger following among black folk than any other white rock group. Nor are the pair without their more famous and talented admirers in the black music community, including De La Soul, Ice Cube and MF Doom. For whatever it’s worth, and I think it’s worth something, the present writer has known two black women whose parents loved Steely Dan so much they named them “Aja.”

Rendezvous With Studio Perfection

The studio perfectionism is what makes The Dan who they are. When you listen to a record like Aja or Gaucho it’s easy to picture the pair breaking down and rebuilding a preamp from scratch in a fit of cocaine-induced manic productivity. Listen to the demos some time. Fagen isn’t much of a singer, and while the backup band smokes, the fact that 20 or so takes have been spliced together probably doesn’t hurt matters much.

If you’ve never been a Danfan but have wondered what the appeal is, I recommend the following mix to get you started. Soon you’ll be chewing off the ear of anyone who will listen about the merits of The Dan and confusing your friends with your bizarre new obsession. Numbers refer not to my personal preferences, but to track order for your entree into the world of Danfandom.

  1. “My Old School” (Countdown to Ecstasy)
  2. “Kid Charlemagne” (The Royal Scam)
  3. “Pearl of the Quarter” (Countdown to Ecstasy)
  4. “Reelin’ in the Years” (Can’t Buy a Thrill)
  5. “Deacon Blues” (Aja)
  6. “King of the World” (Countdown to Ecstasy)
  7. “Everyone’s Gone to the Movies” (Katy Lied)
  8. “Monkey in Your Soul” (Pretzel Logic)
  9. “Haitian Divorce” (The Royal Scam)
  10. “Your Gold Teeth II” (Katy Lied)
  11. “Time Out of Mind” (Gaucho)

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NICHOLAS PELL writes about the untold corners of popular culture just before they bubble over into the mainstream and become bowdlerized. His work first appeared in the alleged "punk rock bible" Maximumrocknroll when he was just 15 years old. Since then he has written for The Hit List and London PA. He is currently working on a history of the 1990s hardcore punk sub-genre known as powerviolence. When not writing, editing and researching he can be found dancing to soul and rocksteady or searching for the perfect pair of Levi Sta-Prest jeans. His personal website is nicholaspell.com.

30 responses to “It Takes a Lot of Cocaine to Be as Smooth as Steely Dan”

  1. Joe Daly says:

    Great essay on a classic band. It’s always a rush to be talking to a guitarist, regardless of their style, and to find out they’re a Walter Becker fan. You can’t help but respect a guy who is so musically accomplished, yet who defines the sublime perfection of “less is more” guitar playing. The notes he doesn’t play are often more powerful than the ones he does, and the way he floats around genres within their songs makes their sound so unpredictable.

    Admittedly I lean towards heavier guitar-driven music, although I love any well-crafted song. And so when I roomed with a relentless Steely Dan head some years ago, I was more than happy to let him walk me through their catalog. Eventually I started playing “Pearl of the Quarter” whenever I’d do an open mic night, and to this day, it’s my all time fave Steely Dan song.

    This is a solid piece of music appreciation. Well done, man.

  2. James D. Irwin says:

    I always hate Steely Dan until one of their songs comes on the radio.

    Becker and Fagen are the antithesis of everything I believe rock and roll to be about, but I’ll be damned if their stupid, power chord-free songs aren’t the perfect, catchy, gentle antidotes to Motorhead-related whiplash.

    Just as long as they’re not warning Rikki to lose that number…

    • Yeah, Steely Dan are sort of the anti-Motorhead. I’ve never really thought of this before, but it seems true.

      • Christopher D Ely says:

        Exactly how I felt for so many years. This is not rock and roll. That bugged me because I’m so in love with rock music. But then I got older and loved everything from classical to gregorian chants and ragas. I realized that music needed to be much wider than my narrow innner passage. SD helped me get there. And so much beyond because of the beautiful lyrics.

  3. Nathaniel Missildine says:

    I had a roommate who kept trying to convert me to Steely Dan, and I remember after several tries I finally understood what he was getting at while listening to “Deacon Blues,” somewhere right around the line “drink Scotch whiskey all night long/die behind the wheel”. It became obvious they knew exactly what they were doing. Though I never was a full convert. I always liked the idea of them more than actually listening to them, but maybe it just takes a long time.

    Thanks for this well-written summary.

  4. I can only establish my Steely Dan bona fides by saying I actually bought a copy of Donald Fagan’s The Nightfly as a teenager, mostly because I was jonesing for new material. There’s some good songs on that album, even though it was mostly panned. It seems worth mentioning that, although Becker and Fagan ran through dozens of studio guys, it’s still Skunk Baxter’s licks that I so clearly identify with their sound–both because of the intelligence and economy of his playing–that I almost consider him the third member.

    Spending a lifetime defending Dan them from the ZZ Top “they suck” crowd has had its rewards. The main one being that all these years later I feel I can safely say that I was right. Night by Night still sounds as gleefully smug as ever. Not so, perhaps, Afterburner.

    A final point–one of the earliest Dan iterations had Chevy Chase as its drummer. A bit of trivia good for a free pint at almost any bar equipped with a jukebox.

    • dwoz says:

      There’s also a LOT of Larry Carleton on those albums. I identify Skunk more with the Doobies than I do with Steely Dan, but that’s just me.

      Skunk Baxter is now a defense contractor, a consultant on anti-terrorism.

  5. dwoz says:

    I’m not sure how you can leave “New Frontier” off your list.

    In another bit of Steely Dan trivia, Roger Nichols, the man behind the board for all those records, just passed away of pancreatic cancer, perhaps prematurely because he was unable to afford continuing treatment.

  6. […] I don’t relate to all the drug references—too square, I guess—in this piece from The Nervous Breakdown called It Takes a Lot of Cocaine to Be as Smooth as Steely Dan, I’ve been a Steely Dan fan […]

  7. Simon Smithson says:

    Nicholas Pell, you’re as likely to know this as any other man living – is it true a Dan reference is the real story to the line ‘You can stab it with a steely knife/but you just can’t kill the beast’?

    • dwoz says:

      you be watchin’ you some Hollywood Steve, Simon?

    • “We just wanted to allude to Steely Dan rather than mentioning them outright, so ‘Dan’ got changed to ‘knives,’ which is still, you know, a penile metaphor.” – Glenn Frey

    • Paul says:

      The Steely knives reference in Hotel California was response to a line in the SD song Everything You Did (Turn up the Eagles the neighbors are listening). Becker supposedly had a girlfriend (You were a roller skater) and they used to fight/argue a lot. Frey & Henley were big fans of SD. So they “returned” the reference in their song, 7 months later. Frey, Schmit and Henley would later sing background vocals on the SD hit, FM (no static at all).

  8. aviva says:

    well put, mr. pell. have always loved the dan, and one of the few musical acid tests for me of any one person’s integrity is whether or not they get them.
    one of my favorite dan stories: a friend woke up in the hospital after a massive heroin overdose. his roommate was a 6’7″ black man recovering from something similar. they lay there side by side for a while, not speaking, then the roommate switched on the radio. ‘peg’ was playing, and he started to dance. after a few moments, andy joined him, and the two of them just danced around the room, asses hanging out of their gowns, very happy to be alive.

  9. […] I picked this song second because I just finished reading A Walk on the Wild Side. Interested parties can read my review over at my Goodreads page. I suppose as long as I’m advertising myself, I should point out that I recently published a longer-form article about Steely Dan at The Nervous Breakdown. […]

  10. David McCullough says:

    Brilliant. Absolutely love the post. I agree that the first run of albums has no bad songs. And, as I listen to their music over and over through the years, new songs emerge as favorites all the time. I grew up on Steely Dan, but I was the rare acolyte at an all-Black college. Still, everyone new Peg was the shit. I’d add that to the list you’ve got, but I wouldn’t take anything you’ve suggested off. A total treat to read…

  11. […] The Best of Steely Dan (“It Takes a Lot of Cocaine to Be as Smooth as Steely Dan“) […]

  12. rpmkel says:

    Enjoyed your article, Nicholas. I have experienced the same sensation in Brooklyn supermarkets. I think supermarket playlists have the same Steely Dan Factor that Seven Levy discovered on his iPod shuffle. But you’re all way too hard on Fagen’s solo albums and later Dan tunes. Here in Brooklyn audiophiles have been using The Nightfly to test audio equipment for years. It’s long been considered one of the most perfectly recorded albums. I’ve spent years perfecting my Steely Dan playlist and, amazingly enough, it shares only one cut with yours. Here it is:
    1) Josie (Live — from Alive in America)
    2) Babylon Sisters (Live — from Alive in America)
    3) Show Biz Kids (the funkiest SD cut ever!) (Countdown to Ecstasy)
    4) Don’t Take Me Alive (Royal Scam)
    5) Haitian Divorce (Royal Scam)
    6) Here at the Western World (Steely Dan: Gold or 1978 Greatest Hits)
    7) Aja ( Aja)
    8) Home At Last (Aja)
    9) FM (FM movie soundtrack or Citizen Steely Dan)
    10) Gaucho (Gaucho)
    11) Century’s End (Steely Dan: Gold)
    12) Chain Lightning (with Phoebe Snow, from New York Rock & Soul Revue)
    13) Tomorrow’s Girls (Kamakiriad)
    14) On the Dunes (Kamakiriad)
    15) The Goodbye Look (The Nightfly)

    • Their post-reunion stuff doesn’t do anything for me. The playlist also excludes solo material, though I *do* love “The Nightfly.”

      “So you say there’s a race
      Of men in the trees
      You’re for tough legislation
      Thanks for calling”

      • rpmkel says:

        The Nightfly is required listening. I do think Fagen’s voice is under-rated. Like Elvis Costello, it may be an acquired taste, but no voice expresses skeevy yearning better than Fagen’s. And as he gets older he gets skeevier. That’s definitely part of the appeal of the later stuff. They’re worth a re-listen. I’d recommend these cuts:
        Cousin Dupree (Two Against Nature)
        West of Hollywood (Two Against Nature)
        Book of Liars (from Becker’s solo album, 11 Tracks of Whack)
        Things I Miss the Most (Everything Must Go — they had a great Steely Dan T-shirt for this, too)
        Pixeleen (Everything Must Go)
        Everything Must Go (Everything Must Go)
        Morph the Cat (Morph the Cat)
        The H Gang (Morph the Cat)
        What I Do (Morph the Cat)

  13. tc says:

    No love for Two Against Nature? Janie Runaway fits into Danland as well as anything mentioned above.

  14. Don Leblanc says:

    Has anyone heard the “Lost” track called “Wet Side Story” ?

  15. Gene Callahan says:

    No. Kid Charlemagne is not a hero. The guy drinking scotch whiskey all night long is not being glorified. This is art, not advocacy.

  16. Peter says:

    What a great read. I grew up on the Dan and many added substances. Drink scotch whiskey all night long Yes I did that. Waited for the taste you said. Steely Dan are without a doubt the best band I have ever heard and still today I love all tracks. Every song has a time and place in my life. Laying around in a sarong topless girls good shit to smoke hey the 70s were fuckin unreal. Did Katie Lie who cares and Peg don’t forget Peg. I am 55 now and have done ok in life But as soon as I play a Dan song I drift back and back.

  17. The Javier says:

    As the hipsters discover Steely Dan, one must ask if they are ready for the intellectual debauchery that Walter and Donald explore? While it is instructve and satisfying to explore great music of years past, be careful with The Dan as you may fall into their trap! One may not be ready for the abuse and drug fueled world they experience while exploring the work of these heathens! My heroes yes, but I lived, thrived and survived this unsavory world! When things turn weird, the weird turn pro! So proceed with caution but now your self-actualization will be complete if you survive these great artists!

  18. J says:

    I read this same article about a year and a half ago and within a couple months had downloaded every album of theirs on iTunes. I’m a mellow old soul of decades past (although I am young enough to have been born a couple years after Gaucho). This stuff just sucks me in. Great jazz with naughtiness hidden in plain sight. It’s hard to relate this music to the current generation because the beat just has zero in common with typical hip hop or R&B. Plus, you need to be mellow and almost meditative to “get” it. What young person in their right mind has that kind of concentration? Fortunately, I’m not in my right mind?

  19. BigA says:

    Got to see the Dan touring in support of “Countdown” years ago. Great show. Years later, I was hanging out with a friend who’s a blues singer. The bass player in his band at the time was Chuck Rainey. We left the club after the show and were heading to grab a bite to eat. Somebody cued up a copy of the “Royal Scam”. Chuck said, “Man, this is really good. Who is it?” We all looked at one another and said, “Dude, among others, this is you.” He laughed and allowed as how he had played on so much different stuff that it was hard to keep up.
    Walter Becker died today and I already have my tickets for an October show. It may be great, but it won’t be the same.

  20. BigA says:

    Walter Becker died today. I already have my tickets for an October show. It may be great, but it won’t be the same.

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