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Those of you who read this column regularly know that I am a big fan of the British Invasion era bands. This is not to say that I hold American bands in disdain. Actually, that could not be more untrue, because the revolution in early American music made possible the British Invasion. Without Buddy Holly (Sir Paul is reputed to have a pair of his cufflinks), Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Bo Diddley, and many, many others, the British Invasion never would have happened.
But that was then. This evening I wish to point out what I consider to be one of the very best American bands, and they are still with us. Considering the circumstances, it is unlikely that they ever came to be, and considering one of their performers really self destructive habits, it is a wonder that they continue.
I am speaking about Steely Dan, one of the best American bands ever. Actually, dozens of musicians were part of SD, but two and only two ARE Steely Dan. Those would be, in alphabetical order by last name, Walt Becker and Donald Fagen. He was born to Jewish parents in New Jersey in 1948, making him 62 now and eligible to collect early Social Security benefits.
Becker, born as Walter Carl Becker in 1950, still has a few years to go, since he is only 60. He is originally from New York, and Fagen from New Jersey. For most of us below the Mason-Dixon Line, there is little difference.
The two met during college in 1967 at Bard College on Annandale-on-Hudson, and this will be important later. Their friendship and professional collaboration was set from that moment until this day, although they sort of got sidetracked for a while. Before we continue, let us listen to the first Steely Dan song of which I was ever aware. It is called Reeling in the Years, and I first heard it whilst dinosaurs still walked the Earth on the Fort Smith, Arkansas 100,000 watt station KMAG. We from Fort Smith use the phrase, “When KMAG was really KMAG”. It went to country and talk formats later.
Throughout this post I have attempted to provide live footage of the songs that I chose, since they did a lot more studio work than live. However, in a couple of cases either the live version was not available to my limited search skills, or that the live version just was not good enough compared to the studio version.
It is Fagen singing. He did keyboards mostly, and Becker played guitar mostly.
In any event, they toured with several bands that no one remembers today, Jay and The Americans being one of them. Remember any of their songs? No, neither do I.
Their producer finally realized that they were unique and suggested that they form their own band. Since both Becker and Fagen were fans of “Beat” literature, they took the outrageous name of Steely Dan, the steam powered sex tool written about by William S. Burroughs in his book popular with the Beats, Naked Lunch. Now for an aside.
Several years ago our entire nuclear family took a trip to New Orleans for Saint Patrick’s Day. They still have parades then, but it is not nearly as elaborate as isMardi Gras. The folks in New Orleans do not need much prodding to have a parade. Eldest Son, an excellent writer, had been reading Burroughs for quite some time, and wanted to visit his house in Algiers, just across the Mississippi River. We got sort of a late start, but crossed over and found it. It was getting dark, but I still have a picture of him standing beside the plaque that remembered Burroughs. Digital cameras are great!
Anyway, Steely Dan released their first record album, and the song that I provided was on it. They had another hit from that record, called Do it Again, about the dangers of gambling about lots of things. I do not think that this is the studio version. Here it is.
I LOVE Hammond organ! But that is just me.
After their initial success, they went further, with several record albums (this was in day of vinyl), and some of the tunes were excellent.
Their next record album, Countdown to Ecstasy, has what I consider the very best song of their career, but I am sort of prejudiced. Please allow me to close out the installment with that one. By then, their sounds were much too complex to reiterate in public, so there were no tours for the most part. Here is a partial list of the musicians on that record, of course Becker and Fagen were the front liners.
Denny Dias, who probably had more to do with Steely Dan than anyone else. Fired by Becker and Fagen later.
Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, who still plays with them from time to time. He was also very important in the American band The Doobie Brothers, one that I have NEVER liked a whit. But that, again, is just still me.
Rick Derringer, aka Richard Zehringer, who had a top hit with Hang on Sloopie. Wow.
There were at least a dozen other folks playing and/or singing. It made it near impossible to tour at the time.
In addition, there were at least three saxophone players on that record. I normally do not like brass bands, (well, reed ones in this case), but they came together well.
In 1974 Pretzel Logic was released. It had one monster hit, Rikki Don’t Lose that Number, about what I remember is a friend trying to turn another friend onto pot. If you have a different take on it, please tell me in the comments. Some say that it has to do with a homosexual plea towards a friend, but the lyrics do not say anything like it. It is a nice song, and here it is:
This is a very rare live performance from that time. By the way, the term “number” at the time referred to a marijuana cigarette. Perhaps it still does today, I do not know.
Their next record was Katy Lied, in 1975. I have it on CD, and find it to be quite less than ordinary. If you disagree, please comment.
Likewise, The Royal Scam, released in 1976 did not have anything for me that I thought was important. Again, if you disagree, please comment.
Aja, released in 1977, redeemed the band. Not only was there one good song on it, there were at least three.
Black Cow is excellent. Here is a rather recent showing, live, of it.
Deacon Blues might be their defining tune. I chose the older copy of it, to preserve the flavor of the original. This is Steely Dan at their best. Please tell me what you think.
This record had still another great song on it, called Peg. It is about a girlfriend who has gone to porno to make money, as best as I can tell. If I am wrong, please comment. Here it is.
I chose that one because I think that it is the one from the record album. Who is the voice in the background? He sounds like one of the Doobie Brothers.
Gaucho, in 1980, may have been the epitome of the band. Thirty-eight, give or take a few, musicians participated on the record, not counting Becker and Fagen. Some of the hit songs are burnt into our minds, viz:
My first choice is Hey Nineteen! It is the ultimate tribute to a self absorbed man trying to regain his youth via a sexual encounter with a much younger girl. The reality of this is astounding.
By far the most controversial song that they ever recorded was Time out of Mind. If one looks into the lyrics carefully, it has to do with smoking free base heroin off of a sheet of aluminum foil, “chasing the dragon.” I was in college at the time, and I remember that this was the most popular song then, and I think that lots of my fellows followed it. I never chased the dragon, but I know several friends that did. Most of them quit. Here it is.
I chose to use the original, since the live version was too distracting. I hope that you like it. The music is wonderful, but the message is sort of disturbing.
The band still goes on, but I have given you what I consider to be the best of their work. I shall close with my favorite song that they ever wrote and performed, and remember the connexions to Annandale. I THINK that the references to Mexico and Guadalajara have to the protagonist pressuring that his girlfriend get an abortion (remember, the Annandale days of theirs were long before Roe vs. Wade), but if you have a better idea, please comment.
This one is terrible! Lip synced, no saxophones on stage, and the guitar closing cut off, but from the original album insofar as the soundtrack goes. Let us see if we can do better. (I NEVER tire of hearing the tune, so even a bad rendition of it is nice).
That is better! No moving pictures, but a better take on the music. I LOVE THAT SONG! I must say that oleanders are not likely in Annandale, but the girlfriend might have been from a warmer climate. I take it that they had broken up by then.
Unlike The Who, Steely Dan were a bit more mysterious in the meanings of some of their imagery, so my interpretations of their meanings are not a sure as my interpretations of what The Who usually meant. That is why I asked for your opinions about what the lyrics really mean.
Featured at Thestarshollowgazette.com. Crossposted at Dailykos.com