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Music

The song Steely Dan wrote to mock John Lennon

@SamWKemp

Like many of the biggest groups of the early 1970s, Steely Dan grew up under the shadow of The Beatles. When Donald Fagen and Walter Becker came together in 1971, the pioneering group had already been broken up for more than a year. They may have wondered if they had somehow absorbed the ghost of ‘The Fab Four’ and that it was their responsibility to carry the flame in their absence. Indeed, Fagen and Becker intentionally modelled themselves off The Beatles, choosing to emphasise writing and recording than relentless touring. However, Steely Dan could also be highly critical of The Beatles’ former members at times, as the song ‘Only A Fool Would Say’ makes devastatingly clear.

By the mid-1970s, Steely Dan was less of a band and more of a musical operation with Becker and Fagen in the directorial chair. When the pair formed Steely Dan in 1971, they’d always dreamt of it being a space for them to showcase their “special material”. But for a long time, they were forced to write bubblegum pop tunes for artists like Tommy Roe or The Grass Roots. After Donald Fagen’s panic disorder made it impossible for him to front the group and money problems began making touring unfeasible, they decided to take a turn inwards and make their home in the studio, where they quietly honed their ecstatic brand of jazz-infused rock, relying on a stream of talented session musicians.

As time went by, Steely Dan garnered a huge fanbase and several notable fans, including Paul McCartney. However, Macca’s former bandmate, John Lennon, wasn’t so enamoured. The two artists likely crossed paths during Lennon’s time in New York, where Steely Dan had been based since their inception, but it’s unlikely they ever became particularly close. Not least because Steely Dan wrote a song mocking Lennon’s 1971 track ‘Imagine’.

One of the most intoxicating tracks from Steely Dan’s 1972 album Can’t Buy A Thrill, ‘Only A Fool Would Say’, opens with an upbeat bossa nova groove crafted from layers of conga, snare, strummed acoustic guitar, and undulating bass. Floating above mellow electric guitar lines, Donal Fagen paints a picture of Lennon as an ignorant aristo whose talk of world peace is completely at odds with the life of the poor and impoverished. “Our world become on/ Of salads and sun / Only a fool would say that,” he begins “A boy with a plan / A natural man /Wearing a white stetson hat”.

Fagen’s image of Lennon as the highfalutin elitist is quickly contrasted with another artfully rendered portrait: this time of the “man in the street” who doesn’t have the luxury of believing in some hippie’s utopian ideal. Fagen tells Lennon to have a little more empathy, to understand that asking somebody with nothing to abandon their worldly possessions and pursue a life of immaterialism is, at best, laughable, and at worst, dangerously insensitive. “You do his nine to five / Drag yourself home half alive / And there on the screen / A man with a dream,” Fagen sings.

The sentiment behind Steely Dan’s lyrics is likely quite familiar. When Gal Gadot organised a Hollywood singalong of Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ in the first month of the Covid-19 pandemic, she was immediately criticised for misreading the room. Far from sparking a surge in benevolent acts of kindness, listeners found a disconnect between Gadot and the gang’s call for the jobless to “imagine no possessions”, and that fact the various stars who contributed to the rendition were singing from multi-million dollar mansions. Clearly, Fagen was right to mock Lennon; his lyrics are still causing outcry to this day.

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