Yacht music, that‘s a bit fucking harsh. Now I know that Steely Dan are at their best while drinking or smoking something strong watching a warm sun sink into a tropical sea with a fragrant tropical breeze a blowing.
And I can understand that back in the late 70s Steely Dan was looked at as being part of rock and roll’s problem. Fat bloated rockers creating indulgent never ending wankery. And if you were harassed in Joh’s Queensland, freezing in a squat with no job in Brixton or embracing the grime of a bankrupt New York then The Saints, The Clash and The Ramones are going to be a fuckload more relevant towards your daily grind.
Lets face it I’m Stranded, White Riot, Beat On The Brat have the passion, the rawness, the energy you need to feel you’re not alone and that you can take control of your life by picking up a guitar and letting it all out.
It is true that The Boston Rag, Hey 19 or Black Cow do not offer those pleasures.
But yacht music!
No, I am not buying it and with the death this week of Walter Becker, half the creative heart of Steely Dan I feel the need to say a few words for an outfit often maligned.
When I first heard Reeling In the years, Do it Again or Rikki Don’t lose that Number is was out of a small transistor radio speaker tuned to Brisbane’s pop music station on the AM dial. There was no JJJ. There was no FM radio.
I listened to top 40 and along with Cat Stevens, Rod Stewart, Helen Reddy, Creedence and many more there was Steely Dan.
Perfectly constructed 3 minute pop songs that told a story and you could sing along too, just like Maggie May, I Am Woman and Proud Mary but different too.
Of course back then I was 10 or 11 and knew nothing about jazz, ace West Coast session musos, east coast liberal arts colleges, weird chords or Kurt Vonnegut.
It was only a little later as a teenager heady with the power of Led Zeppelin and the sheer what the fuck of Ziggy era Bowie that I realised how Steely Dan rocked as well.
Until The Darkness’s I Believe In A Thing Called Love has there been a song I would want more in an air guitar competition than Reeling in The Years.
When I see 13 year olds on YouTube playing it note for note with nonchalance I want to cheer and then push them under a bus.
Once I had their early albums I found out that just about every song had a guitar solo, interesting lyrics and sing along choruses.
And then as Punk and new wave came along I put them all aside.
Which of course you could say was when the Dan really begun to show their true colours. The albums got jazzier, more complex and less top 40 sing along and yet there was really no flab to my ears. Even with their jazz backgrounds and musical talent tracks didn’t go on forever, the playing was not overwrought but clean and precise. The lyrics from the very beginning were sly and dry and not a little cynical so the stories were still told but Becker and Fagen had moved closer to their true selves.
I can’t remember when Steely Dan came back into my musical life. I think maybe mid to late 80s when through friends I took more notice of jazz, maybe it was De La Soul’s sampling of Peg in their song Eye Know that did it. Being a person who likes to know about his likes I checked out a lot more background and of course their liner notes on the reissued early albums said much more about the Dan philosophy.
Certainly I was now old enough to understand more how upbringing, education and influences shape bands, and how those influences may not be direct musical influences but different cultures, literature, art etc.
I also understood more that Steely Dan was really a band for only a short while and like the Beatles post 65 it was really just Becker and Fagen, the studio and the gun hired hands.
I had been to the USA and could understand why a NY frame of mind might be different from an LA one and while I am not a jazz nut I now understood where back in the 70s the Dan were coming from and going too.
But most importantly I now got that rock and roll can be many things and that a shouted angry phrase over three chords is not always better but just different from a observational narrative with a sax solo or having two drummers on one track. And it’s ok to love both and indeed play both every day for the rest of your life.
By that stage of course Steely Dan itself was at rest with Becker and Fagen making solo albums and raising families and doing whatever it is that musicians do when they are not making music which I guess is broadly what the rest of us who don’t make music do.
Since then like a lot of 70s artists Steely Dan have got back together, released some good albums and toured. I saw them here in Brisbane and I sung along to the early songs and marvelled at the musicianship on display. It was a sit down gig of course.
Looking at this piece I am not sure I have said anything that would change the mind of those who dismiss Steely Dan as limp 70s soft rock aka yacht music. In the end my outrage doesn’t make me right and them wrong anyway.
I just know that Steely Dan covered rare ground, creating sparkling top 40 singles, embracing the studio and the session musician ethos to produce albums of real craft and exhilarating music and of course a unique, wry vision.
Wherever there is angry youth Joe and The Clash will live and wherever that angry youth end up; older, wiser and a little better off I know that Steely Dan will be there too.
Vale Walter Becker
My top three Steely Dan moments
Every second of the lyrically ambiguous Ricky Don’t Lose That Number
The joyous Peg with great bass and drums work by Chuck Rainey and Rick Marotta
The awesomeness of Elliot Randall’s guitar solo in Reeling In The Years.