The stranger at the table is always the most interesting member of the party, and Steely Dan have always had something of the stranger about them. At the height of their fame, their reclusive tendencies and refusal to tour were as intriguing as they were frustrating. Steely Dan ended up casting themselves as outsiders, creators on the fringe of the rock world. For their fans in the old guard, the duo were the enfant terribles of the music business – the anarchical nihilists spitting in the face of posturing rockers. But what made Steely Dan so subversive, and why does that subversion remain unmatched so many years later?
In 1993, something remarkable happened. After 19 years of absence from the stage, Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen and Walter Becker – then in their forties – announced that they would be embarking on a live tour of the US. Within minutes, the tickets had all been snapped up – both by long-time listeners desperate to see the duo in concert and by new fans, twenty-something jazz fans who would otherwise have been listening to grunge bands.
While Steely Dan may have been the rebels of the 1970s, by the standards of your typical ’90s grunge fan, they were brown bread. So what had so attracted so many young people to these golden oldies? Speaking to the LA Times, Becker explained how Steely Dan’s jazz-infused songcraft offered an antidote to more traditional forms of musical avant garde-ism: “The ‘anarchists,’ or people who are interested in more interesting lyrics, are generally speaking not interested in jazz harmonies,” he began. “They want something more raw and what they perceive to be subversive-sounding, which usually means clanging guitars.
He continued: “And it was just a quirk of Donald’s and my natures that we thought superimposing jazz harmonies on pop songs was subversive in a much subtler way. But I guess most people who are writing music and songs don’t really look at it that way . . . luckily for us!” Fagan went on to add: “I think people who are sophisticated in the sense that they want to hear some substance in the lyrics are musically going to tend to be primitivists. They have that kind of nostalgia de la boue, they’re into this purity thing of rock ‘n’ roll — they see it as once being the sort of revolutionary teenage thing and they want to maintain that.”
The brilliance of Steely Dan is that their songs contain that same subversion in a highly-polished, artfully arranged musical package. In the ’70s, the group was a throwback to a kind of music widely regarded as belonging to the older generation. “It has to do with when we were born and how we grew up,” Fagen explained. “Even though we were really too young to experience a lot of the golden age of jazz in the ’50s, nevertheless that’s what we were into, through recordings.”
In this sense, Steely Dan were one of the first ‘retro’ bands. Their songs seemed to hark back to a lost musical past that was, in many ways, a private pleasure. They were outsiders because their musical roots lay not in the guitar-based anarchy of The Velvet Underground but in the modal sweep of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie. Eventually, of course, this difference became their greatest asset.