Some artists peer into their past through the medium of memoir, others do it through their songcraft. Steely Dan opted for the latter, creating a song that examined the many facets of their upbringing, set to a bouncy backdrop and chorus line. And inspired by Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man, the band a standing from which they could use a backdrop to create their own sense of truth.
The song was released in 1977, and although it’s credited to Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, the track is thought to be Fagen’s almost entirely alone. Written in his house in Malibu, the song offered Fagen a chance to create something grander and more truthful than many of his past efforts had afforded him to do. “‘Deacon Blues’ is about as close to autobiography as our tunes get,” Fagen recalled. “We were both kids who grew up in the suburbs, we both felt fairly alienated. Like a lot of kids in the ’50s, we were looking for some kind of alternative culture, an escape from where we found ourselves.”
Fagen played synthesiser on the track, while Becker played bass. Typical of the band’s outlet, the song featured a host of session players who were fleshing out the tune that was growing grander and more angular. Bernard ‘Pretty’ Purdie played the drums, and jazz player Pete Christlieb worked out the rousing saxophone player. Christlieb took the opportunity to let his instrument out and soar, and recorded the solo in a mere two takes.
The title of the track was inspired by American professional football player Deacon Jones, as the band felt his name – all two syllables of it – fitted the tone of the song. Fagen sounds striking, creating a fiery vocal part that keeps the essence of the tune in more ways than one, bringing new life to the finished product.
Ironically, the song inspired the Scottish rock band Deacon Blue, and the band continued the narrative of the American outfit. “They call Alabama the Crimson Tide, call me Deacon Blues,” Donald Fagen told Rolling Stone magazine: “Walter and I had been working on that song at a house in Malibu. I played him that line, and he said, ‘You mean it’s like, ‘They call these cracker a–holes this grandiose name like the Crimson Tide, and I’m this loser, so they call me this other grandiose name, Deacon Blues?’ and I said ‘Yeah!’ He said, ‘Cool, let’s finish it.'”
‘Deacon Blues’ appeared on Aja, the band’s most popular album, a record that also featured the jaunty ‘Peg’. The album as a whole is one of the band’s sunniest, and most genuinely playful, winning the Grammy Award for Best Engineered Recording – Non-Classical, starting an outlet that made them the American counterparts to 10cc and Alan Parsons.
In 2006, Aja was placed in the book 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, ensuring that the band’s continued success has reached a new generation of listeners. The band decided to call the album Aja because they were inspired by a Korean woman who married the brother of one of his secondary school friends.
At the time, Steely Dan was enjoying the rhythms of jazz, which allowed Fagen to create a more spontaneous form of singing, giving the band the chance to create a more urging form of performance. ‘Deacon Blues’ also holds one of the crispest, more crystal-like guitar hooks in 1970s radio, which was created by guitarist Larry Carlton and piano player Victor Feldman playing sustained chords to the sound of Purdie’s cymbal crashes. The rest of the brass was arranged by Tom Scott, who had recently worked with Beatle guitarist George Harrison, as the Beatle returned to the rock headlines he had enjoyed in the early 1970s.
‘Deacon Blues’ stands up with some of the most inventive tunes in the band’s canon, as they created a tune that was both searching and commercial, tying the band’s studio proclivities under one tidy roof. As it happens, the songs in question created a sense of intimacy between the singer, and the listener, offering a portal into Fagen’s personal milieu, making it one of the strongest selections in his personal life.