Steely Dan: 10 Essential Songs
In honor of the late Walter Becker, we look back at some of the sly jazz-rockers’ best
“It wouldn’t bother me at all,” Steely Dan’s Walter Becker told Rolling Stone‘s Cameron Crowe in 1977, “not to play on my own album.” He was stating a fact – Steely Dan famously staffed their sessions with the finest studio musicians they could find – but he was also summing up the weird oblique approach to rock-stardom shared by him and his longtime songwriting partner Donald Fagen. From their earliest days as jazz-loving Bard College hipsters to their heyday as wry sophisto-pop aesthetes, the pair were always the strangest kind of hitmakers, cramming their tunes full of as many brainy chords, obscure references and off-color characterizations as possible. Yet, against all odds, they still carved out their own proud niche in the classic-rock canon. Following the sad news of Becker’s passing at age 67, we round up some of the pair’s most memorable oddball anthems.
“Reelin’ in the Years” (1972)
Leave it to Steely Dan to sound nonplussed about the song they’re maybe best known for. “It’s dumb but effective,” Donald Fagen told Rolling Stone in 2009 of the Can’t Buy a Thrill Single. “It’s no fun,” Walter Becker added, compounding the chill in the room. Still the track is a prime early example of what would become the Dan’s trademark vibe, marrying a sardonic kiss-off to an ex (“The weekend at the college didn’t turn out like you planned”) to a bouncy shuffle groove and adding on some white-hot guitar dazzlement courtesy of Elliott Randall to bring the whole thing home.
“My Old School” (1973)
Becker and Fagen settled an old score with this rollicking rock-meets-R&B tune, inspired by a pot bust from their Bard College days that still left a bad taste with the two budding stars. “California tumbles into the sea/That’ll be the day I go back to Annandale,” Fagen sings ruefully of the institution’s upstate locale, as a perfectly orchestrated horn line tumbles down behind him.
“Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” (1974)
In classic Steely Dan fashion, the duo lifted a vamp from a classic Blue Note side – Horace Silver’s “Song for My Father” – to kick off this snide account of a college romance that never was. As Fagen told it, he took a shot at seducing the then–married and pregnant Bard schoolmate Rikki Ducornet, but she never called. Like most Steely Dan love songs, this one comes with a twist of the knife: “You tell yourself you’re not my kind/But you don’t even know your mind.”
“Black Friday” (1975)
Drawing inspiration from the gold crash of 1869, Becker and Fagen portrayed a financial meltdown as an excuse for end-of-the-world revelry on this driving, devil-may-care Katy Lied opener. “Gonna do just what I please,” the typically deluded narrator vows. “Gonna wear no socks and shoes/With nothing to do but feed/All the kangaroos.”
“Kid Charlemagne” (1976)
Steely Dan led off their hardest-hitting album, The Royal Scam, with this supremely funky chronicle of the rise and fall of a countercultural legend, inspired by famed acid cooker Owsley Stanley III. “I think he was based on the idea of the outlaw-acid-chef of the ’60s who had essentially outlived the social context of his specialty but of course he was still an outlaw,” Becker once said of the song. Larry Carlton’s consummately stylish guitar solo would become mythic among the band’s muso fans, while Kanye West prevailed upon the band via handwritten letter for permission to sample the song in 2007’s “Champion.”
We can’t help but mistrust the narrator of this snazzy funk tune, who seems to be making promises to an aspiring starlet that may or may not turn out to be bunk – a classic Steely Dan theme. “And when you smile for the camera,” Fagen sings. “I know they’re gonna love it.” The pair worked their studio recruits to the bone trying to achieve this Aja standout’s consummately breezy groove, famously veto-ing a series of guitar hotshots’ passes at the solo, before settling on a gem of a lead from Jay Graydon.
“Deacon Blues” (1977)
In one of their more tender odes to middle-class pretension, Fagen and Becker pay tribute here to a dude from the suburbs who’s dreaming of the freer, edgier life he might enjoy if he could only learn to play the saxophone. “The protagonist is not a musician,” Becker explained in the Classic Albums doc on Aja. “He just sort of imagines that that would be one of the mythic forms of loserdom to which he might aspire. And who’s to say that he’s not right in a thing like that?” In the same doc, Fagen called the song “about as close to autobiography as our tunes get,” maybe alluding to the way he and Becker had idolized jazz musicians when they were still suburban kids dreaming of escape. The Dan imagined the title as a sort of mascot for the would-be down and out: “If a college football team like the University of Alabama could have a grandiose name like the ‘Crimson Tide’ the nerds and losers should be entitled to a grandiose name as well,” Fagen once explained.