Steely Dan are one of the most consequential bands of all time. A cult group of the finest standard, their misanthropic, surreal lyricism elevated their intellectual music and marked them out from their peers, giving their work an endurance that has continued to inspire many. Incredibly ahead of their time, when you listen to Steely Dan’s work within the contemporary context, what they achieved in such a small amount of time is nothing short of astounding.
Whilst the band have many stellar moments ranging from their 1972 debut Can’t Buy a Thrill to 1980’s Gaucho, for diehard Steely Dan fans, one stands out as their masterpiece. This is 1977’s Aja, and across the record, the band hit the heights that they’d been teasing since they first broke through. A complex and multi-faceted record, fusing jazz and yacht rock, they went stratospheric and were to never look back.
Aja is without a downside, and even though people often choose the title track as the pinnacle of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker’s achievements, you cannot overlook ‘Deacon Blues’, the closing track of side one. The song is noted for its excellent and dynamic production, which has made it the perfect choice for testing audiophile listening equipment.
Of the song’s opening lyrics and overall themes, Fagen explained: “The concept of the ‘expanding man’ that opens the song may have been inspired by Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man. Walter and I were major sci-fi fans. The guy in the song imagines himself ascending to the levels of evolution, “expanding” his mind, his spiritual possibilities, and his options in life.”
In a 2015 interview with the Wall Street Journal, Fagen and Becker recalled composing their fan favourite. “It’s the only time I remember mixing a record all day and, when the mix was done, feeling like I wanted to hear it over and over again,” Becker said. “It was the comprehensive sound of the thing.”
Fagen then explained that he feels there was “one thing we did right” when creating ‘Deacon Blues’, “We never tried to accommodate the mass market. We worked for ourselves and still do.”
Luckily for fans of the band and song, in a television documentary where Fagen and Becker look at the song by each isolated track, they discussed how they wrote ‘Deacon Blues’, going into more detail than ever before about its provenance. In the clip, Fagen briefly shakes off his customary guard and admits, “‘Deacon Blues’ is about as close to autobiography as our tunes get”.
He said: “We’re both kids who grew up in the suburbs. We both felt fairly alienated. Like a lot of kids in the fifties, we were looking for some kind of alternative culture — some kind of escape, really — from where we found ourselves.”
Watch the clip below.