Steely Dan are one of the most important bands of all time. A cult group of the highest order, their misanthropic, surreal lyricism and cerebral music marked them out from their peers in the 1970s, giving their music an endurance that has continued to live on and inspire countless generations. Today, some 50 years after they broke onto the scene with their 1972 debut Can’t Buy a Thrill, Steely Dan remains one of the most lauded outfits in music history, a testament to their pioneering work.
Ostensibly, the 1970s was the decade of Steely Dan, and over the course of that momentous period, they grew even more experimental, taking their music down the meandering path that they first trod with their debut. One of their most divisive points came with the release of their fourth album, Katy Lied, in 1975. A great album, at the time, it was criticised for being a limp husk in relation to the trio of stellar efforts that came before it.
The record was the first after the disbandment of the original Steely Dan lineup, which already placed it on an uneven footing in the eyes of consumers because the band’s initial configuration was so lauded. Due to touring and recording schedules, a rift had appeared in the band, leading to this career-defining schism. For Steely Dan masterminds Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, this didn’t matter though, and on Katy Lied, they continued to work with some of the Los Angeles area’s most eminent studio musicians.
A highlight of the album is undoubtedly the lead single ‘Black Friday’. Don’t be fooled though, this is not a Christmas song, and wasn’t specifically written about the carnage we see in shops around the early Christmas period. Rather, it was written about the original ‘Black Friday’, a failed 1869 scheme that left many wealthy investors broke.
These investors attempted to secure a monopoly on gold and bought as much of it as they could so it would drive up the price, filling their coffers on an unprecedented scale. However, thanks to a good old bit of government intervention, these greedy investors were thwarted, and the plan backfired spectacularly. The government found out about the plan, and to combat it, they released $4 million worth of gold into the market, driving down the price, leaving the investors in dire financial straits.
As is often the case in culture, the term ‘Black Friday’ would become used for a different purpose. It is unclear of the specific date, but in the ’60s, the term started to gain popularity as stores marked it on their calendar as the day in the Christmas shopping season when they’d be “in the black”, which meant making money. Back then, black ink was used to indicate profit and red for loss, hence the line, “I’m going to strike out all the big red words from my little black book”.
Referencing the original ‘Black Friday’, Steely Dan’s song tells the tale of a fictional, unscrupulous speculator who makes his fortune in the American gold market before fleeing to Australia to live off his profits, settling in Muswellbrook, New South Wales. Fagen later explained why the obscure Australian town was chosen: “It was the place most far away from LA we could think of … and, of course, it fitted the metre of the song and rhymed with book”.
Even though Becker and Fagen had never been to Muswellbrook, they did a good job at utilising some classic Australian stereotypes, which is reflected in the genius line, “Nothing to do but feed all the kangaroos”.
A classic Steely Dan anthem, ‘Black Friday’ has more pulp to it than we ever expected. Whilst it is brimming with some questionable lyricism about the land down under, it remains a fan favourite for a good reason. It’s a real earworm, and for those who doubted Katy Lied, it was the most evident indication that despite the lineup changes, this was still the same Steely Dan. Becker and Fagen weren’t going anywhere, and the best was yet to come.
Listen to ‘Black Friday’ below.