Favorite Bands: Steely Dan

The first time I noticed Steely Dan was in junior high. WGCL in Cleveland would play “Hey Nineteen” in heavy rotation. I knew the chorus. “Please take me along when you slide on down…” But one line puzzled me.

“The Cuervo Gold, the fine Columbian make tonight a wonderful thing.”

I had no clue what that meant. Columbian what? What’s Cuervo Gold? It was all too much for my 13-year-old brain. Now? There’s a bottle of Cuervo Gold on my liquor shelf. (The only Columbian in the house is a stale jar of Maxwell House.)

But “Hey Nineteen” was my entree to this quirky duo that provided the soundtrack to the cocaine-fueled 1970’s. (And no, I never partook of said fuel. Messrs. Daniels and Killian gave me all I needed.) It’s an odd band, really only Walter Becker and Donald Fagen. An early incarnation featured Chevy Chase on drums.

They burst on the scene in 1972 with a weird song that featured more percussion than melody called “Do It Again,” a song about murder and gambling and illicit love, all with one theme: You go back, Jack, and do it again. If anything, it’s about compulsion, and the wrong kinds of compulsion at that. It’s like Pink Floyd with an American jazz beat and New York sensibility. There’s also “Reeling in the Years,” about trying to recapture those early adult years and “Dirty Work,” about what it’s like to be the other man or other woman. These are not happy songs, but they are quite catchy.

At this point, Steely Dan was a full band featuring future Doobie Brother Jeff “Skunk” Baxter on guitar. Over time, though, the members peeled away, replaced by a rotating cadre of session players (including another future Doobie, Michael McDonald). Even though Steely Dan lived in Los Angeles, their music was clearly an East Coast creation. Many of the lyrics refer to New York and the intellectual culture there. But one of my favorite lines comes from the title track of Pretzel Logic.

“I have never met Napoleon, but I plan to make the time.”

That’s just a fantastic image.

Their last three albums during their original run, all recorded in the late 1970’s, stripped away any pretense that Steely Dan was a band in the sense that the Rolling Stones or Pink Floyd or The Doobie Brothers were bands. It was all Becker and Fagen. The music became longer, more complex. And there was a sense of boredom that reflected the burnout America was experiencing in the late 70’s. After 1979’s Gaucho, which featured “Hey Nineteen,” they called it quits for about fourteen years.

Regrouping in the 90’s, Steely Dan seemed more comfortable with itself, touring with Michael McDonald almost as a third member. Touring, though, was a novelty for Steely Dan. They’d spent the seventies almost entirely in the studio with only one tour. They did not return to the studio until 2000 with Two Against Nature. The music was more polished (if that’s even possible), but lyrically, they picked up right where they left off. Becker described Two Against Nature as the album you should listen to before going back and hearing Steely Dan’s entire catalog.

I disagree. You should listen to Can’t Buy a Thrill, their debut album, before anything else.