Steely Dan have gone under something of a reappraisal in the last couple of decades. During the 1980s and 90s, the group were almost universally dismissed as the embodiment of ’70s pot-smoking pretence. Their blend of Latin rhythms, complex jazz-infused chord progressions, and slick Motown production value, marked them out in stark contrast to the minimalist punk, grunge, and no-wave bands that held everyone’s attention for so long.
However, as the years have rolled along, Steely Dan have come to be regarded as something of an antidote to the onslaught of landfill indie, bubblegum pop, and perenially stale trap that many complain dominate today’s airwaves. In contrast to their innocuous modern counterparts, Steely Dan now stand for the outspoken music fans of the world, that old-guard who still deem music as an essential tool in the war against normality. Is it any wonder, then, that their very name stems from one of the 20th century’s most outrageous and sexually explicit literary works?
Steely Dan weren’t the only 1970s band to take their name from a work by America’s enfant terrible, William S. Burroughs. The Soft Machine, Thin White Rope, and Steely Dan are all examples of bands who honoured the infamous Beat writer. That’s not to mention the countless group’s (such as The Beatles, The Velvet Underground, Joy Divison) who were inspired by his writing style and unrelenting emphasis on the seedy underbelly of modern society.
However, Steely Dan were the only one of those bands to knowingly take their name from a literary sex toy. ‘Steel Dan’ was the name Burroughs gave to the dildo that appears in his seminal work Naked Lunch, an unflinching work novel that, through a series of interlinked vignettes, explores the control of human consciousness – whether that be through sex, drugs, money, or political power. It is a highly unsettling work that, like Camus’ The Stranger, has been allowing undergraduates to appear intellectual as they ogle each other from across the canteen floor ever since its publication.
But Burroughs’ ‘Steely Dan’ isn’t just any dildo. ‘Steely Dan III from Yokohama’ is the steam-powered strap-on worn by Mary during one of the most sexually explicit scenes in a book that is jam-packed with orgies of every possible variety. At the time ‘Steely Dan III’ is mentioned, Burroughs’ book has slipped into one of its catatonic, sex and drug-induced fits, offering up scenes of excess in which “Lesbien Zen Monks” meet “Leopard Men” in a swirl of bodily fluid. For Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, the name of the rubber dildo that forms the centre of one such scene had a certain ring to it, and the pair swiftly adopted it as their own, an act which (perhaps subconsciously) has allowed the group to gain a bit of Burrough’s anarchic cool by virtue of association.