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How science fiction greatly influenced Steely Dan

Jazz-rock masters Steely Dan are iconoclasts in every sense of the word. One of the most influential groups to have graced the industry, their unique style has found a place in the hearts of various demographics ranging from stoner art school students to former acid-loving uncles who still live at your grandmother’s house. 

Popular music’s resident misanthropes, Steely Dan’s complex music and surreal lyricism rank among the very best, and their refreshing sound is best described as timeless. There’s a reason why Steely Dan are still lauded today, some 51 years after their formation, and why many of their contemporaries have faded into obscurity. 

The band was formed by Donald Fagen and Walter Becker in 1971 after they struck up a friendship whilst studying at New York’s Bard College in the late 1960s. Sharing a wicked sense of humour and a love of Charlie Parker’s music, as well as an unyielding disdain for hippiedom, the two hit it off and quickly formed one of music’s most powerful songwriting duos.

There’s a deep irony to this, as aesthetically, Steely Dan were hippies, but in attitude, they were not. In many ways, they were hipsters, and their music is imbued with the sort of edgy sentiment that would be parodied in the distant future by shows such as Nathan Barley.

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Needing a name, they looked to one of the original hipsters, ‘Beat’ literature hero and genuine maniac William S. Burroughs. Fans of his oeuvre, Fagen and Becker found their name in his controversial 1959 novel Naked Lunch. ‘Steely Dan III from Yokohama’ is a giant, steam-powered strap-on dildo used by the character Mary, and the band knew that this was the perfect subject material for the name of their band. Now they were all set to set the world on fire. 

Given that Steely Dan’s name originates in the realm of literature, it comes as little surprise to heed that their lyrical style was greatly inspired by books, and in particular, those of the science fiction genre. When sitting down with New York magazine about his latest album Morph the Cat, Donald Fagen revealed how he and Becker were influenced by all things science.

The interviewer put it to Fagen that a couple of the songs on Morph the Cat are futuristic, as was his previous album Kamakiriad, and then asked whether he liked science fiction as a child. To which Fagen responded: “Yeah, I was actually a member of the Science Fiction Book Club. That was the golden age of science fiction; all the great writers were active then.”

Asked which writers captivated him, Fagen said: “Well, I loved C. M. KornbluthI loved A. E. van VogtI liked the guys who were really social satirists. A lot of these guys came out of the Socialist movement of the thirties, and they had a very funny way of criticizing society. I really learned a lot from them.”

Getting slightly cheeky, the interviewer then dropped all pretences and asked the Steely Dan man if he stole from any of the science fiction writers in particular. He revealed that he did, and that it was one writer that informed him and Becker’s lyrical style more than any. He said: “Certainly Alfred Bester. He was a New Yorker. His first novel, The Demolished Man, got the rapid flow of life in the city, which I think is still present. There’s something about the flow of Alfred Bester’s prose that I think affected the way Walter Becker [the other half of Steely Dan] and I write lyrics.”

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