Top 10 Songs by: Steely Dan

7 October 2018

  • Someone said that you only really like a band if you have real trouble deciding what your top 10 songs of theirs are. Good point. It turns out that not as many acts meet that criterion as I would have thought. But when I remember one, I make up a playlist for it…

10. Josie

Like “Deacon Blues,” another one of Steely Dan’s Aja hits, “Josie” has a specially written intro revisited later in the song that’s absolutely killer. The song’s subject is the neighbourhood party girl (or whore?) who can never say no, and the boys are rejoicing her return. Take that, along with Chuck Rainey’s brooding bass and Larry Carlton’s and Dean Parks’ richly funky rhythm guitars, and you have one of Steely Dan’s best shindig tunes. This being the ’70s, there was still room on the radio for a blues with half of the expected chords replaced with jazz ones and even become popular: This one reached No. 26 on the Hot 100 charts. To the already long list of legendary drummers to have played on a Steely Dan date, you can add Jim Keltner, now. Ever an equal to Hal Blaine, Jim Gordon and Jeff Porcaro, Keltner has drummed for all the ex-Beatles except for Paul, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, and Crosby, Stills and Nash. That’s just the tip of the iceberg, too. His signature fill that restarts “Josie” after a brief stop toward the end of the song is a memorable moment and pure Keltner: not flashy, but very, very precise. There will be another drumming legend to perform on a live recording of this song many years later, but I’m getting a little ahead of myself. Suffice to say, it’s all world musicianship applied to a tightly constructed song that puts “Josie” over the top and puts an exclamation point to the most solid Steely Dan album of their entire discography. So, what else is new?S. Victor Aaron, 2012

9. Bad Sneakers

It is, in this writer’s opinion, one of their masterpieces. With Katy Lied Steely Dan was continuing to pull away from rock and roll towards jazz (which would culminate in their early incarnation with the albums Aja and Gaucho). It can be debated whether or not they ever truly belonged to rock music. They were always a very unique jazz-rock hybrid. But their earlier albums have a “pop” quality to them that their later albums did not. A song like “Bad Sneakers” is not exactly geared to the expectations of your average pop music fan in 1975. But it does not diminish the quality of the performance. Once again Walter Becker provides a quality guitar solo, and the grand piano, played by Michael Omartian gives the piece (and the overall album, actually) an air of elegance.‘Pete’, Of Buckley and Beatles, 2011

8. Deacon Blues

The intro to “Deacon Blues” contains more chord variations than you would hear in 99% of the pop songs ever created. While the sheer number and variation of chords is technically impressive, what’s even more impressive is the thematic unity of each piece. Fagen and Becker enriched their compositions with harmonic and melodic variety outside of the norm, but never lost sight of the need to create a satisfying whole. They also never lost touch with the need for a strong groove, and all the songs on Aja make you want to move.‘Altrockchick’, 2017

7. Hey Nineteen

Steely Dan isn’t the band people look to for documenting watershed moments in cultural history, but I think that intentionally or not, they did so with their Top 10 hit “Hey Nineteen.” I remember the first time hearing this tale of a man being frustrated by a girl he’s wooing not knowing about “‘Retha Franklin.” Along with that, there’s these other references: being in a college fraternity in ’67, moving down from Scarsdale (near NYC) and growing old. All this sounds a little autobiographical, doesn’t it? Maybe some of the details are made up, but from the first listen, it sounded to me for the first time that the older members of the baby-boomer generation were not feeling so young anymore. As Becker and Fagen respectively turned 30 and 32 during 1980, they could no longer live by their peers’ creed to not trust anybody over 30 without not trusting themselves. That was the most striking thing about Steely Dan’s story line to me. The Vietnam War was over, Civil Rights progressed and society had overall moved in their direction. As the ’80s dawned, these ex-hippies started cutting their hair, putting on ties and, after reeling in the years, wondered aloud, “where the hell am I.” Your moment has passed once you get nostalgic, and “Hey Nineteen” was the first time I can remember anywhere in popular media where the boomers started waxing poetic about the good ol’ days. Less than three years later, Hollywood blew that phenomenon wide open when the movie The Big Chill released. Even Steely Dan’s choice of recreational drugs had changed, from LSD and heroin to tequila and “fine Columbian.” Growing old sure does suck, don’t it?S. Victor Aaron, 2012

6. I.G.Y. (What a Beautiful World) (Donald Fagen)

Music can, to some extent, be judged on its technical merits, the quality of its sound. In this case I.G.Y. stands entirely in a class of its own. This track is so impeccably produced that professional audio engineers use it to calibrate their systems. It’s been called ‘the Freebird of Pro Audio‘ but it’s more like the International Prototype Meter. It’s a benchmark. Hifi geeks know this song so well that when listening to it they no longer necessarily hear the song, they hear the quality of the system it’s playing on. No other record even comes close to being used as widespread in this way. In conclusion, as Science Fiction is a literary genre we return to the lyrics. Note that nothing in the text is entirely unfeasible, or even improbable. There are no aliens, no transporters, no FTL drives, no dragons, no other dimensions and no magic wand bullshit. Politics aside humans could build everything in this song in a matter of decades. It’s an aspirational world Fagen has built, and it’s an achievable one. That is straight up hard science fiction. I don’t care how many synths you built or how spaced out your video is, this is the best science fiction song. I rest my case, thank you for your time.‘sjef’, 2012

5. FM (No Static at All)

If we say ‘FM (No Static At All),’ then Steely Dan fans and devotees of album music of the era will quickly recognise the title as the band’s theme song, which entered the Billboard Hot 100 on 3 June 1978. Steely Dan were, at the time, still riding the huge success of their sixth studio album Aja, released the previous September. It saw them moving ever further down the path of sophisticated jazz-flavoured song structures, which were evident on a new song that nevertheless had a distinct commercial edge. ‘FM,’ the single, was of even greater interest to the band’s legion of devotees because it wasn’t on Aja, and nor, surprisingly, did it appear on their first Greatest Hits collection, released by ABC a few months after the single, in late November 1978. It wasn’t available on a Steely Dan album until the 1982 release of the Gold retrospective. Written as ever by Steely Dan mainstays Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, the song featured Fagen’s distinctive vocals, Becker on bass, and studio A-listers such as Toto’s Jeff Porcaro on drums. With their trademark classiness, Fagen and Becker used a string arrangement by Johnny Mandel, a veteran of sessions for Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee, Count Basie and many other greats. The track also had the distinction of backing vocals by no fewer than three of the Eagles, Don Henley, Glenn Frey and Timothy B. Schmit. ‘FM (No Static At All)’ opened on the US chart at No. 67; four weeks later, it was in the top 40, and peaked at No. 22 at the end of July. It was victorious at the following year’s Grammys, albeit in one of the more technical categories, as engineer Roger Nichols won the Best Recording, Non-Classical award, just as he had done a year earlier for Aja.Paul Sexton, 2018

4. Glamour Profession

It doesn’t matter if you’re living on the Boulevard in a doorway, a high-powered celeb out on the town or the drug dealer who keeps them both going: “Living hard will take its toll.” Like many of The Dan’s best, the true meaning of this song lies hidden beneath a catchy funk riff and a soul hook. It’s about an unnamed Hollywood drug dealer, catering to the stars of sports and screen. You thought the “Glamour Profession” in question was acting or modeling? Get with it, son. This is the world of The Dan. The heroes are never America’s sweethearts, they’re the unsung urban gutter dwellers living fast and free.Nicholas Pell, 2012
For me, “Glamour Profession” is the standout track – I listen to it almost every day. It is such a unique piece of music. The lyrics are really brilliant, and the music serves them perfectly – the whole thing evokes an upscale, sleezy vibe. And of course, Steve Khan’s outro solo (and the “chorale” thing in the bridge) is sublime.‘Sloop John B’, 2017

3. New Frontier (Donald Fagen)

The basic plot is evident: a young man in a budding courtship with a young lady who has “a touch of Tuesday Weld,” against a Cold War backdrop. Another unabashedly, un-ironic song of romance from The Nightfly, and it becomes more and more clear that what Walter Becker brought to the songwriting partnership was delicious, literary-informed snarkery that keeps fans dissecting the words to their songs for years. What is lost with Becker’s input is gained in seeing a previously suppressed side of Fagen: a sentimental, old bastard all of 34 years old at the time of this record’s release. He cleverly weaves cultural references of the era with that sentimentality (“I hear you’re mad about Brubeck/I like your eyes I like him, too”), and it’s that time capsule aspect of “New Frontier” that keeps listeners locked into the narrative.S. Victor Aaron, 2012

2. Aja

The album’s title track “Aja” (is) an 8 minute showcase that mesmerises you with the sheer amount of talent at work. Drums, piano, guitar and more all weave seamlessly around each other as Fagen’s vocals lift you up. It flies towards a powerful crescendo that’ll leave you immediately wanting to listen to it again.Ben Webber, 2013
The eight-minute title track – famous for its drum solo, allegedly Steve Gadd sight-read it, second take. Drum solos were (and still are) very rare on pop and rock albums – in the 1970s they were reserved for half a side (or even one whole side) of a live album. They were indulgent, gratuitous, unnecessary. Listening to Aja, even now, over 30 years on, the drum solo is crucial to the song – it’s as if the smirk written in to this particular tune is the drum solo; as if Fagen and Becker wanted to subvert the norm by making a drum solo crucial, by making it part of the hook of the song. Of course Gadd played superbly, offering so many of his trademark “Gaddisms” but he still did so because Becker and Fagen said so, following their requests to the letter, note for note.Simon Sweetman, 2016

1. Doctor Wu

(Katie Lied’s) best song is “Doctor Wu.” It seems to be the story of a Vietnam vet looking for a fix from a mysterious character, pining for a woman (or just the drug?) he knows won’t be coming. This is the Katy from the album’s punning title (“Katy lies/ I could see it in her eyes”). The ache in the story feels real for two reasons. First, the lyrics are canny enough to open up to anyone’s experience: “I’ve been waiting for the taste/ You said you’d bring to me,” and “I went searching for the song/ You used to sing to me.” Second, the music is breathtaking. Rainey plays a bass part that throbs like a heartbeat, swinging the song forward against Jeff Porcaro’s steady snare. (Michael) Omartian’s piano, from the intro through the end, alternates between syncopated punches and gentle jazz comping. And the highlight is an improvised alto saxophone solo from jazz legend Phil Woods that puts more melody and feeling into about 16 bars than seems possible. Behind the sax solo, the piano and drums play dramatic stop-time figures that prefigure by a couple of years the brilliant Wayne Shorter tenor sax solo on “Aja.” But we hear the idea on this track first, in a slightly more direct form. On the LP, “Doctor Wu” was the end of side one. Woods plays more saxophone over the repeated lines “Are you with me, doctor?/ Can you hear me, doctor?” as the song fades out. He cracks his tone as he reaches up, he trills on a high note and then swirls downward. And if you listen carefully, you can hear Becker, who didn’t sing on Steely Dan albums during this era, yelling out the words. It was the end to a near-perfect 17-plus minutes of hip, yearning, sophisticated, literary, veiled but visceral rock music.Will Layman, 2018
Unlike most pop songwriters, Fagen and Becker shy away from romantic themes. When they do write love songs, they look for a new angle. They like to describe the contortions of a relationship subjected to an outside stress. Doctor Wu, the lead track on the album Katy Lied, is a love song with the foggy feel of an opium dream. Because the song is dotted with pronouns lacking clear antecedents, its meaning is hard to track down. “I know its a dope song, but it’s still very cryptic as to quite precisely what is going on,” was Burroughs’ comment on first hearing Doctor Wu. As Fagen points out, the theme is characteristic of Steely Dan. “Doctor Wu is about a triangle, kind of a love-dope triangle,” he says. “I think usually when we do write songs of a romantic nature, one or more of the participants in the alliance will come under the influence of someone else or some other way of life and that will usually end up in either some sort of compromise or a split. Okay, in this song the girl meets somebody who leads another kind of life and she’s attracted to it. Then she comes under the domination of someone else and that results in the ending of the relationship or some amending of the relationship. When we start writing songs like that, that’s the way it usually goes.”Arthur Lubow, 1977

I say: If you do nothing else, just listen to the piano in the 10 seconds from 2’33”. Possibly my favourite 10 seconds of music by anyone, ever.


All Top 10s in this series…


 

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