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How I Stopped Hating Steely Dan
I thought I was immune, but still became a Dan stan—this is my story
I often make jokes about Steely Dan fans.
They’re bros and geeks and sad wannabes. But the painful truth is that I’m one of them now.
And if you don’t watch out, it could happen to you too.
At least I can laugh at myself. That’s good, because fans like me are the real target of the jokes.
And it’s true—we are a trifle obsessed.
If you’re a Dan stan, you see the band’s influence everywhere. Random patterns take on new Dan-esque shapes. For you it’s just rush hour traffic, but for us it’s a message from the cosmos.
But I wasn’t always like this. Once upon a time, I was a Steely Dan skeptic, a real Dan-o-phobe. I thought I was safe from their pernicious influence, but I was wrong.
This is my story.
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Back in those days, I thought Steely Dan music was too slick. It was too polished and radio-friendly, with no rough edges. And that meant (or so I thought back then) that it must be shallow and contrived.
You need to understand the larger context.
Steely Dan represented the shift from a rock aesthetic to a pop aesthetic. For many listeners at the dawn of the Dan Era, rock was more than just a genre—it was going to save the world. At Woodstock, bombers turned into butterflies above our nation. During the Summer of Love, we wore flowers in our hair. We were finally going to give peace a chance.
But in 1971, when Steely Dan came together, this worldview was in collapse. John Lennon was still out there singing “Imagine”—released near the end of the year. But it stalled out at number nine of the Billboard chart. Meanwhile “Go Away Little Girl” by Donny Osmond got to number one.
Top 40 radio was splintering into two camps—the real stuff and the slick stuff. You felt like you had to pick a side. And it was obvious which side you picked.
Tough luck, Donny.
Steely Dan was clearly in the slick stuff movement. Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, the purveyors of this absolutely perfect studio sound, didn’t set their instruments on fire or trash their hotel rooms. They didn’t hang out with genuine Indian gurus who were teaching them a better way. They didn’t jam on the rooftop until the cops shut them down.
Instead, they were the kind of people who pave paradise and put up a parking lot.
So you weren’t going to hear “Show Biz Kids” at Altamont or Woodstock. But it just might be playing at the Gap or a 7th grade sock up.
I also had a bias against the over-produced sound of so many SoCal recordings back then. You could take all that stuff and send it off in a letter to yourself, as far as I cared. I just wasn’t digging it.
I listened to these tracks and muttered to myself: Imagine no pro sessions—it isn’t hard to do.
I couldn’t deny the skills of these ace session players. But sometimes I felt their versatility worked against them. I craved music with more prickly individualism—that’s probably why I gravitated towards jazz.
My attitude is much different nowadays.
“I listened to these tracks and muttered to myself: Imagine no pro sessions—it isn’t hard to do.”
I’ve seen such a decline in musicianship on commercial recordings over the years—even worse, the actual disappearance of real flesh-and-blood musicians. They’ve been displaced by loops, samples, and various pieces of hardware and software. And now the AI robots are coming. So, from the standpoint of the current moment, the idea of a recording studio packed with skilled professionals seems like a lost golden age of the distant past.
But that was all in the future back then. So I resisted the Dan during its glory years. It was slickly produced pop music. I had higher concerns.
In truth, I really didn’t know the band’s music very well. I didn’t own any Steely Dan albums—I only heard the stuff on the radio. On the other hand, their music was always on the radio. So I thought I had a pretty good handle on it.
Sure, I couldn’t deny that this stuff was catchy. But I had reservations:
The guitar solo on “Reelin’ in the Years” (by session player Elliott Randall) did earn my begrudging respect. But this same guitarist played on TV commercials for Pepsi and Burger King, so I still couldn’t really trust him.
The intro to “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” at first annoyed me with its mindless rip-off of a riff from Horace Silver—but when I learned that Victor Feldman (formerly with Miles Davis) was on the track, I realized this was more of a homage or inside joke.
I laughed at the lyrics to “My Old School” with those outrageous rhymes—California with tried to warn ya. I had to admit that this was the kind of thing I would try to do myself if I was writing commercial songs. Even so, it was a tune about school. C’mon.
These were just the radio hits, but they were all I knew about this band.
I still resisted the notion of buying an entire album of this music. The very idea of walking up to the counter of Tower Records with the Art Ensemble of Chicago in one hand and Can’t Buy Me a Thrill in the other was more than I could conceive.
But sometimes a lesser known Dan song found its way on to the radio—usually on one of those FM stations that played deep tracks. (I love that phrase—why did we ever stop using it?) These deep tracks contained surprises, musical twists that I wouldn’t expect from a pop band.
Frankly I was dumbfounded when I heard Steely Dan’s recording of “East St Louis Toodle-Oo”—a Duke Ellington hit from 1927. Walter Becker somehow imitated Bubber Miley’s distinctive plunger mute trumpet solo from the original recording, using only his voice and a plugged-in talk box.
Now that was a radical departure from the slick pop aesthetic I associated with those studio rats.
But the track that really stirred my enthusiasm was a fairly obscure number (another deep track) that closed side one of Steely Dan’s 1975 album Katy Lied. I don’t even recall how I stumbled upon this song, entitled “Dr. Wu.” I must have heard it on the radio, like the others. But this definitely wasn’t hit single material.
The lyrics of “Dr. Wu” were absolutely bonkers. It’s a story song, but the narrative is incomprehensible.
You meet Katy—for whom the entire album is named—in the opening line. But then she disappears, except for a brief appearance later, when we’re told that “Katy lies.”
And that’s it. That everything we know about Katy, and it ain’t much.
I was halfway crucified
I was on the other side
Of no tomorrow.
Frankly, I didn’t know you could use the word ‘crucified’ on AM radio. Except maybe on KLAC (570 on your dial), where Oral Roberts had his Sunday show. You certainly didn’t rhyme it with “lied,” “tried,” and “side” in a pop song.
Then an even more mysterious personage enters the tune—Dr. Wu. That’s another unexpected rhyme. Dr. Wu might just be an ordinary guy, but his presence serves as the centerpiece of the unfolding drama. At least for a time—because the scene soon shifts to Biscayne Bay, “where the Cuban gentlemen sleep all day.” (Where do they find these rhymes?).
Hearing this song was like getting a movie script with most of the scenes missing. But the forward momentum is insistent—how could it not be with Jeff Porcaro and Chuck Rainey in the rhythm section? So the music conveys a sense of narrative coherence that the lyrics can only hint at.
But the real kicker here was an unexpected alto sax solo—and from Phil Woods, of all people. Woods was a jazz heavyweight, and especially in those days. He’d even married Charlie Parker’s widow Chan and played Bird’s own horn.
In short, he was a genuine jazz star, not a studio musician. But somehow he went from Chan at home to Dan in the studio that day, and channeled his serious bebop chops into “Dr. Wu.”
I listened to that track over and over.
These things put a dent into my Dan-o-phobia. But it was just the start.
Finally, when Wayne Shorter appeared on a Steely Dan track, I waved the white flag. Fagen and Becker were no longer studio rats but major dudes with street cred.
It helped that Shorter delivered a blistering solo that is the total antithesis of the AM radio ethos I had assigned this band. The same is true of Steve Gadd’s drumming on this same deep track (“Aja”) which deliberately undermines the ultra-controlled dance grooves I had long associated with Steely Dan. Add to this the extreme length of the track—eight full minutes—and you could only assume that Fagen and Becker were playing slash-and-burn games with their radio-friendly image.
Of course, that wasn’t really true—because the next song on the album was “Deacon Blues,” which was a top 20 hit. (And deservedly so.)
But the larger truth was that Steely Dan now had a new image, at least in my mind. I now started describing what they did as jazz-inflected art pop. And I was increasingly aware of an edgy quality, especially in the lyrics. In fact, the words to the songs now struck me as deliberately designed to mock the conventional pop aesthetic.
For example, a typical pop hit on the radio in 1977 would have lyrics like this:
And you light up my life.
You give me hope to carry on.
You light up my days and fill my nights with song.
But Steely Dan torched these clichéd mush tunes. Fagen would sing a “song for the losers in the world” who “learned to work the saxophone”—these are our deacons of the blues, perhaps ordained deacons in the underground Dan order, but also pre-ordained to failure.
This is the night of the expanding man.
I take one last drag as I approach the stand.
I cried when I wrote this song.
Sue me if I play too long.
This brother is free.
I'll be what I want to be.
When you’re crying in one line, and saying “sue me” in the next—that’s just delicious. There’s so much to savor here, and I won’t even get started on the Alabama Crimson Tide (who also make a surprising appearance in these lyrics).
I heard this song as a declaration of independence. Independence from what, you ask? Well, a lot of things—but it included liberation from deadening commercial formulas.
So, in a strange sort of way, Steely Dan ended up representing the exact opposite of what I initially thought—it challenged pop banality, resisting pre-packaged sentimentality and conventionality. The fact that the band did all this while generating top 40 airplay just made that fact all the more impressive. Fagen and Becker were like a resistance force operating behind enemy lines.
I was now willing to buy a Steely Dan album, and didn’t care what the clerk at the counter thought.
It helped that my aesthetic attitudes were changing in other ways during this same period. I had gradually become much more wary of elitist notions in music (and music writing). This made me less jazz-obsessed, and more attentive to other genres.
But, above all, I grew more fond of those skilled studio musicians of the past—who started disappearing from the software-heavy sounds of late stage poptimism. The very same session players I had once scorned now seemed like the aristocracy of an Ancien Régime. I should have appreciated them more during their brief reign.
But at least I do now.
That, my friends, is how I became one of those obsessed Steely Dan fans everybody make jokes about. I see the freeway traffic jam, and think it’s a tribute to Aja. If I had a pair of Steely Dan shoes, I’d put them on, even if my dime dancin’ days are through. And when I pull into the service station, I mutter—to the confusion of anyone else around who isn’t a Dan stan— “Is there gas in the car?” Only to answer when I pull back out on the street: “Yes, there’s gas in the car.”
That’s how we roll in the Dan universe. The tank is full and we crawl like vipers through the suburban streets.
Go ahead and laugh. We are funny vipers, here to amuse you. But watch out. If it happened to me, and so many others, it could happen to you too.