Steely Dan remains one of the most influential bands of all time. A cult group, loved by everyone from your obscure uncle to the art school student, their misanthropic and surreal lyricism augmented by experimental and mind-blowing music marked them out from their peers in the 1970s. This inherent juxtaposition has given the band longevity, and their work retains a freshness that many of their contemporaries do not.
Formed by Walter Becker and Donald Fagen in 1971 after they met at New York’s Bard College in the late ’60s, Steely Dan’s rise would be swift and meteoric. The two bonded over black humour and the music of Charlie Parker, and an overall contempt for many elements of hippiedom. The last point is terribly ironic as, aesthetically and musically, they were hippies, just not in the conventional, flower-power, Donovan Leitch kind of way. One could maybe argue that Becker and Fagen were the original hipsters. Hippies but so not hippies, man.
The duo performed in many groups such as Jay & the Americans before forming Steely Dan, cultivating musical experience. Owing to the pair’s iconoclastic outlook, the frontman of the Americans, Jay Black, “disaffectionately” dubbed them “the Manson and Starkweather of rock ‘n’ roll”, referring to cult leader Charles Manson and spree killer Charles Starkweather. If this does not account for their bleak outlook and humour, I don’t know what does.
Sick of the New York scene, the pair moved to LA in November 1971. It was here that they quickly formed Steely Dan. They recruited Gary Katz as producer, and he would work on every album of theirs up until 1980s Gaucho. They then enlisted Denny Dias and Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter as guitarists and Jim Hodder on drums. Fagen took on keyboards and the vocals, and Becker assumed the role of bassist. They were ready, aside from one thing.
Now, all they needed was a name. Of course, it would come from a left-field but unsurprising source. As both Becker and Fagen were huge fans of the bizarre world of 1950s ‘Beat’ literature, they chose the name Steely Dan. It was pulled directly from William S. Burrough’s highly controversial 1959 novel, Naked Lunch.
So what or who is ‘Steely Dan’, you might ask? For those of you who haven’t read the meandering, psychotropic book, ‘Steely Dan III from Yokohama’ is the name of an oversized, steam-powered strap-on dildo that is used by Mary during the chapter of the book entitled ‘A.J.’s Annual Party’.
‘Steely Dan III’ is mentioned in a chapter of the book where it truly loses any vague semblance of sanity it once had. In Mary’s discussion of ‘Steely Dan III from Yokohama’, there is also freakish discussion of ‘Steely Dan I’, ‘Steely Dan II’ and even a “Lesbian Zen monk”. A Fear and Loathing type of work, it’s well worth a read for those who dare open up its nonsensical and misanthropic world.
Given their lyrical themes of porn, drugs, and dark introspection, it comes as no surprise that Becker and Fagen would choose a name for their product that came from the twisted mind of William S. Burroughs. I did say hipsters, right?