It says a lot about Steely Dan that they got their name from a William S. Burroughs reference to a rather robust sex toy (presumably not unlike the Buzzcocks). It says even more that Chevy Chase was their first drummer when they were essentially a jazz band. This odd mix of an artistic literary canvas, splattered with youthful comedic irreverence and earnest musical intent has served them very well indeed.
The broad spectrum of tastes in every field has made sure everything that Steely Dan and Donald Fagen embarked upon was utterly unique. However, Fagen’s artistic infatuation remains an oddity in another singular sense, because he has never succumbed to snobbery on the matter. In his own work, he has forgone the stiff-upper-lip that usually meets with reverence in favour of individualistic expression and shoved a middle finger in the face of typical critical standards.
It is this sense of self-aware self-expression that has meant Fagen and Steely Dan have continued to find a growing audience. It is no surprise that in the Twitter age where near-nonsensical acerbic wit sits millimetres from the glare of solemnity, his work has enjoyed a resurgence.
Clearly, his music tastes also joyously follow suit. Not only is his scope wildly eclectic, but it is also devoid of hipster gatekeeping as he evidently doesn’t let flippant bandwagon opinions get in the way of a good tune. That much has been evident throughout his career. However, it was particularly apparent when he appeared on Capital Radio in 1982 and provided a guest DJ set.
At the time, Fagen was promoting his solo record The Nightfly which fittingly had a genre-straddling radio feel to it. As he told Capital host Charlie Gillett on the night: “It’s kind of a combination of a lot of disc jockeys that I used to listen to when I was a kid.”
Shortly after explaining that, he put his own record to one side (not much of a fan of self-promotion) and delved passionately into the records he loves the most. For the all-important opening track, he went with Ray Charles. “He’s always been one of my favourites,” he declared (as transcribed by Steely Dan Reader). “He’s kind of legendary and the track I selected is basically a blues with a big band arrangement.”
The equally legendary Fagen then continued to take fans on a journey through soul, jazz, pop and blues that all linger in the welter of his own sound, which he briefly paused upon with the track ‘New Frontier’, explaining: “You’ll hear a little blues guitar played by Larry Carlton, and it’s kind of a track reflecting the spirit of the times. The storyline is basically about a bunch of kids who have a party in a fall-out shelter while their parents are away for the weekend.”
Below you can delve into the curated playlist, from “beautiful records” by Betty Carter and Ray Charles that inspired him as a 14-year-old to the “terrific” and “raspy” vocals of Clyde McPhatter’s of The Drifters (one of Fagen’s favourite singers).
Donald Fagen’s favourite records DJ set:
- ‘I’ve Got News For You’ – Ray Charles
- ‘Leave My Kitten Alone’ – Little Willie John
- ‘Piece Of My Heart’ – Erma Franklin
- ‘One More Heartache’ – Marvin Gaye
- ‘New Frontier’ – Donald Fagen
- ‘Wild About My Lovin’’ – Lovin’ Spoonful
- ‘Goldfinger’ – Shirley Bassey
- ‘Every Time We Say Goodbye’ – Ray Charles & Betty Carter
- ‘Pennies from Heaven’ – Frank Sinatra & The Count Basie Band
- ‘Three-Thirty-Three’ – Clyde McPhatter & The Drifters