When we were in Hawaii last summer we listened to a lot of Steely Dan, one of the few bands the whole family – from (at the time) 2 to 43 with a couple of teenagers thrown in the middle – could mutually appreciate. The teens dug the rocking guitar solos (Skunk Baxter, Rick Derringer, Lee Ritenour, Larry Carlton, and Elliot Randall who did the great solo on “Reeling In the Years”) and black humor lyrics, the baby liked the beat, and the oldsters (43, 32) loved the songs, long since burrowed deeply into our psyches.
But there is something else about the Dan I haven’t heard much mentioned: in a relatively brief ten-year career through the ’70s, the band completed an archetypal journey from adolescent to middle-aged musical taste, i.e. from skewed, melodic, sometimes hard-edged rock (Cant’ Buy a Thrill, Countdown to Ecstasy, Pretzel Logic, Katy Lied) to sophisto-jazzy dance beats (The Royal Scam, Aja), to elegant cocktail jazz (Gaucho). In ten years they acted out a musical life.
Singer/keyboardist Donald Fagen and guitarist Walter Becker, the only permanent members of Steely Dan, were hugely successful on both a popular and artistic level. Their twisted, cynical perspective on life evidenced itself from the beginning: the band was named after a marital aid in the William S. Burroughs book Naked Lunch (Chevy Chase played drums in one of their pre-Dan bands).
They brought a wry lyrical sophistication, unparalleled musical chops, and amazing production values in helping to create jazz/rock. Some of their greatest songs include “Do It Again,” “Reeling In the Years,” “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” “My Old School,” “Deacon Blues,” and “Hey Nineteen.”
In an unlikely turn of events, the Dan returned after 20 years in 2000 with the Grammy-winning Two Against Nature sounding very Steely Dan: jazzy, hi-fi, and cynical. They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001.