Today’s installment of my chronological Favorite Songs By Favorite Bands series moves me into my transitional and transformative early teen years, which unfolded in the somewhat bizarre surroundings of Long Island’s Mitchel Field. Our family’s quarters there (my father was in the Marine Corps) had been built in the 1920s, and it looked and felt that way, both inside and location-wise, sitting in the middle of a deteriorating military base that was doing double duty as the campus for Nassau Community College. We were a five-minute bike ride from Nassau Coliseum, home of the New York Islanders and (for the first couple of years I was there) the New York Nets, and the Coliseum was also a major regional music venue. I saw my first big rock shows there, and in the pre-Ticketmaster era, our proximity meant we were able to get lots of good tickets to see/hear lots of good things because we could be at the on-site Box Office pretty much instantaneously when event ticket sales were announced.
My best friend during the Mitchel Field era was named Jim Pitt, and he was the first peer of mine who shared the sort of arcane musical obsessiveness that was already a defining trait of my character and personality. (You can read more about Jim here. Note: It’s a sad story). Steely Dan ranked high among our shared musical passions, which was timely, as I believe they hit their creative peak with their most current albums of that period in my life: The Royal Scam (1976) and Aja (1977). Our other greatest shared musical passion was Jethro Tull, which I will discuss in the next chapter of this series.
Jim and I both had newspaper delivery routes, and I remember begging my mother to drive me to the record store so I could get Aja with my own scratch soon after its release. I already had a copy of The Royal Scam at the time, in the dreaded 8-track tape format. Those records were pretty much picture perfect for Jim and I as a pair of smart and sarcastic teens, feigning a degree of personal and artistic sophistication that we most certainly hadn’t really grown into yet. It didn’t hurt much that Steely Dan were popular with some of our “normal” friends too. Jim and I saw that as a brilliant case study of cultural subversion, since Steely Dan main-men Donald Fagen and Walter Becker truly created some of the most insidiously weird popular music ever made.
I had already been somewhat dialed into the Dan before I moved to Mitchel Field and met Jim. My aunt had their first two albums, Can’t Buy A Thrill (1972) and Countdown to Ecstasy (1973), and I liked and listened to them back in my Steppenwolf and Wings days. Steely Dan had some big AM radio hits in the early ’70s (“Do It Again,” “Reelin’ in the Years,” and “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number”), and their albums’ deeper cuts also got spun a fair bit in the emergent free-form FM arena. Steely Dan later acknowledged that relationship when they contributed “FM (No Static At All)” as the theme song for the film FM, which Jim and I watched together at Mitchel Field’s little base movie theater. It was pretty lousy, but we loved it, if you know what I mean.
I’m largely a self-taught guitarist who mostly only played stuff I wrote myself, but I did take a couple of months worth of lessons around 1974 or 1975, and the required class book was a collection of popular songs that had been dumbed-down to beginner guitar level. The book included “Reelin’ in the Years” and “Do It Again,” though the latter was somewhat inexplicable as you were asked to essentially strum the same chord endlessly through the song’s verses, with a few changes in the chorus. A great guitar song it’s not, unless you’re in charge of delivering the solo, and have the skill to do so. I later bought more professional-level Steely Dan music books that included all of their first six albums and, Holy Moly, the chords and changes those things contained were often mind-blowing, most especially their distinctive “mu major” chords. Becker and Fagen explained the mu major approach in the introduction to the Steely Dan Song Book, with a healthy dose of their customary snideness and snark. I didn’t really understand the theory behind the mu major chords, but I liked the way they sounded, and used them in my own playing and composition.
Many years after Jim and I created our own little self-contained Steely Dan appreciation society, I developed another friendship that also heavily featured the Dan within its dynamic. This friend’s name was Wilson Smith, and you can read more about him here. (Note: It’s also a sad story). Over many years and conversations, Wilson and I figured out that there were two distinctive aspects to the Steely Dan lyrical universe.
- Becker and Fagen extensively used imperative or directive forms in their lyrics, regularly and aggressively. A sample: “I think you better tell me everything you did, baby” from Royal Scam‘s “Everything You Did.” Not “would you tell me?” or “could you tell me?” or “won’t someone tell me?” They used straight up command forms, directed your way, no doubts about it: “You better tell me.” Donald and Walter didn’t ask you for your advice or ideas or thoughts or suggestions; if they wanted them, they gave them to you, as orders, or commands, or statements that this was the way it was going to be. You there: “turn up the Eagles, the neighbors are listening,” over and over and over again. It’s a key part part of their menacing lyrical charm, I think.
- The world(s) that Becker and Fagen created are deeply rooted in very precise places, a huge number of which are specifically named over the course of their nine studio albums. Steely Dan’s realities aren’t generic ones, but are rather set in their own places, precisely, which always makes them seem more real, more lived in, and more meaningful than less observational fare might have been. They are universal in their precision, and precise in the universality of their messages because of that.
We used the first concept to develop an interactive website called “WWDWD: What Would Don and Walt Do?” The core concept was that Becker and Fagen were the coolest, wisest people in the world, and they’d laid out brilliant rules for living in their lyrics. You could ask a question, hit a button, and receive a message from the Dan, as a sort of Magic Eight-Ball or Oblique Strategies approach to changing your thinking or actions. The WWDWD site is no longer functional, but I preserved all the narrative and text from it, and used it in my 2017 eulogy for Walter Becker, which you can read here. Wilson and I also scoured the complete Steely Dan lyrical catalog and developed a listing of every specific location referenced in the Dan’s lyrics, which you can see here. That was some good music nerdery, that was. The Dan in all of their arch wryness and technical sophistication inspired that.
As I did in my Wings reflections yesterday, I suppose I do need to at least acknowledge the dismaying widely-held and too-often-voiced opinion that Steely Dan stand as some manufactured epitome of everything that was wrong with music in the late ’70s as the punk eruption changed everything, forever. Somehow writing technically sophisticated songs with strange lyrics, having them performed flawlessly by some of the best players practicing their trades, and then scoring platinum-level pop hits with the outcomes is to be considered inferior to lo-fi three chords and a cloud of dust nihilism heard by hundreds, not millions. I certainly love a lot of that latter kind of stuff, mind you, but it should never be a didactic, dialectic “either/or” proposition. At bottom line, I have little to no patience with those who dismiss the Dan for being too good at what they did. That’s just nonsense. Stop it.
In assessing my top ten favorite Steely Dan songs, half of them come from the glorious duo of The Royal Scam and Aja, including the entire first side of the second album, one of the most perfect, beautiful stretches of music I’ve ever encountered. The other five albums of their original 1972-1980 run (Becker and Fagen reunited in the early 2000s to record another pair of studio albums, and to tour regularly until Becker passed away in 2017; Fagen still tours under the band moniker) are all represented except for 1974’s Pretzel Logic. That album contains “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” and a fine collection of tunes, but it’s always felt somehow transitional to me, neither a product of the original live band, nor a product of the session wizard era that followed it, and it featured a lot of songs that were leftovers from Becker and Fagen’s early days as a songwriting team for hire. A fine record, for sure, but nothing from it rises to Top Ten level for me over the arc of their career. Here’s what does:
#10. “Deacon Blues,” from Aja (1977)
#9. “King of the World,” from Countdown to Ecstasy (1973)
#8. “Sign in Stranger,” from The Royal Scam (1976)
#7. “Black Cow,” from Aja (1977)
#6. “Reelin’ in the Years,” from Can’t Buy a Thrill (1972)
#5. “Black Friday,” from Katy Lied (1975)
#4. “Gaucho,” from Gaucho (1980)
#3. “Kid Charlemagne,” from The Royal Scam (1976)
#2. “Midnight Cruiser,” from Can’t Buy a Thrill (1972) (Note: Depending on the issue/version of this album you have, the song can be titled “Midnight Cruiser” or “Midnite Cruiser.” I’m going with the former as a spelling stickler. It’s one of a small number of Dan songs not sung by Donald Fagen, with original drummer Jim Hodder [RIP] handling the vocals, if you’re wondering why it sounds so different).
#1. “Aja,” from Aja (1977)
Note #1: Click Here for an after-the-fact summary of this series, with a convenient listing of links for all articles contained within it.
Note #2: For those who stream your music, Marcia has created a Spotify playlist with all of the songs discussed in this series. Note that the browser embed link below is limited to 100 preview songs. We have confirmed that all 120 songs included in the series are available when you open the playlist in the Spotify app.