Hey Nineteen

I’ve always loved Steely Dan’s music. I can see straight linear connections between both theirs and Frank Zappa’s music: the luscious brass sections (in particular with regard to Grande/Petite Wazoo, FZ’s ’88 tour, and so on), the odd chord changes (if, to put it lightly, perhaps more subtle in the case of SD), the obscure, idiosyncratic lyrics, obsessively controlled musical improvisation, above all the superb musicianship. And a sense of humor.

But for some reason Steely Dan gets all the FM airplay, and Zappa close to never got any. Steely Dan throughout their career played “The Trojan Horse” card: faux easy listening with the lyrics acting as a sinister under-the-belt sting — whereas FZ made it his trade to always be up front and confrontational. Opposites. Which funnily enough, they both ended up benefiting from.

Are you guys ‘n gals Steely Dan fans? What are your favorites? If not, what puts you off about their tightly studio-controlled recordings?

34 Responses to “Hey Nineteen”

  1. Hans says:

    “Oh, we’re so fucking smart fooling the soccer moms and accountants who think they ‘get us’. “No, they didn’t actually said as much, but I do. Smart muzak, but still muzak.

  2. Barry's Imaginary Publisher says:

    faux easy listening / smart muzak… semantics! ;)

  3. urbangraffito says:

    I’ll admit, Barry, I liked the early Steely Dan, during those first few handful of albums when they were still actually a working, functioning, touring band – up until around the ‘Katy Lied’ album. After that, they were just a studio entity, and that’s around the time, as I recall, that Zappa described their music as “sterile”. I should add, too, that I’m of the opinion that if you cannot reproduce your music for a live audience, all you’ve really created is a nice sounding commodity. From 1977 onward, that’s pretty much Steely Dan.

  4. Barry's Imaginary Publisher says:

    A quote from urbangraffito:

    I’m of the opinion that if you cannot reproduce your music for a live audience, all you’ve really created is a nice sounding commodity.

    I’ve nothing against a nice sounding commodity m’self…

  5. Rob says:

    Dark Side of the Moon, for example, was a pretty good studio commodity. I know that when they play it “live” it’s at least half pre-recorded (and still sounds great). How does this very common practice fit in he scheme of things?

  6. Brett says:

    A quote from urbangraffito:

    I’ll admit, Barry, I liked the early Steely Dan, during those first few handful of albums when they were still actually a working, functioning, touring band – up until around the ‘Katy Lied’ album. After that, they were just a studio entity, and that’s around the time, as I recall, that Zappa described their music as “sterile”. I should add, too, that I’m of the opinion that if you cannot reproduce your music for a live audience, all you’ve really created is a nice sounding commodity. From 1977 onward, that’s pretty much Steely Dan.

    Wouldn’t your criteria discredit many other classic albums, such as “Pet Sounds” and “Sgt. Pepper?”

  7. Hans says:

    A quote from Barry’s Imaginary Publisher:

    faux easy listening / smart muzak… semantics! ;)

    Semantics? I never said “faux easy listening”. But I wish I had.

  8. Theydon Bois says:

    I love Steely Dan. For all of their glossy radio-friendly sheen, their music is as laden with “eyebrows” as FZ’s. I always remember an interview where either B or F mentioned that any idea that made them laugh would be retained on the record, and I think that this really shows in the daft details that sneak into their arrangements. Hence the silly organ interjections in “My Rival”, the tiny chromatic change in one of the keyboard chords in the intro of “Kid Charlemagne”, the single electric piano note popping out in the middle of the bridge of “Your Gold Teeth”. And, of course, the lyrics! “I just sing that Ghana rondo / E l’era del terzo mondo” is such a beautifully absurd rhyme.

    Plus, of course, there are cameos from Flo & Eddie, and Vinnie. You can’t complain about that.

  9. Jake St. Vitus says:

    Dan and FZ are the top 2 for me. Nothing finer. “Sterile” is the red herring. I don’t care if it can’t be reproduced live (which it can) but rather the joy that the listening brings. Plus I enjoy talking to all the countless people who like Steely Dan and don’t realize all the sinister beneath the sheen. They just like the line about tequila… What I don’t actually care for is the current music of Steely Dan – which I do find quite sterile. I actually enjoyed Fagen’s solo work (Nightfly in particular but also Karmakiriad) more than the last 2-3 new Dans.

  10. sMiLeY CHaNGo says:

    Steely Dan is fantastic.

    Unlike most music, I never tire of theirs.
    They have been a favorite of mine since
    forever.

    I’m 51 years old. Is anyone else here tired
    of Led Zepplin?

  11. jonnybutter2 says:

    I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with being a studio-only band.

    I like some of their songs ok, but I do think they sound a bit sterile sometimes – and a bit nihilistic. Their songs were never really about anything, except world-weary angst, which palls after a while (and is kind of adolescent). But they certainly knew what they were doing, recording and arrangement-wise.

    I got really really really sick of Steely Dan because I grew up in the US, and a few of their songs were played on the radio so many times that you couldn’t help but sort of hate them – but that’s not exactly their fault.

    I liked songs from ‘The Nightfly’.

  12. jonnybutter2 says:

    Got to love ‘Show Biz Kids’, however.

  13. urbangraffito says:

    A quote from Rob:

    Dark Side of the Moon, for example, was a pretty good studio commodity. I know that when they play it “live” it’s at least half pre-recorded (and still sounds great). How does this very common practice fit in he scheme of things?

    Rob, I wouldn’t accuse Pink Floyd’s live performances of ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ to be at “least half pre-recorded”. Unlike Steely Dan’s studio only possible sound, the only sounds pre-recorded at Pink Floyd concert’s of ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ are sound effects. The songs on Pink Floyd albums were always meant to be performed before an audience.

    A quote from Brett:

    Wouldn’t your criteria discredit many other classic albums, such as “Pet Sounds” and “Sgt. Pepper?”

    I suppose it would, Brett. While I can say I enjoyed listening to the albums you mentioned (and other studio creations) – being a life long aficionado of live music and the wonderful variations live performance brings to individual compositions, I think I can understand where FZ was coming from when he thought Steely Dan’s studio music sounded sterile. Then again, this probably outlines my own particular musical bias than anything else.

    I have to agree with jonnybutter2, though, “they certainly knew what they were doing, recording and arrangement-wise.” Especially post 1977. On the radio, in those days, if you weren’t listening to a studio entity like Toto, there was Steely Dan. That just seemed to be the sound of the mid-to-late-seventies. Thankfully Pink Floyd came out with The Wall, and FZ came out with the one-two punch of Shiek Yerbouti and Joe’s Garage.

    A quote from sMiLeY CHaNGo:

    Steely Dan is fantastic.

    Unlike most music, I never tire of theirs.
    They have been a favorite of mine since
    forever.

    I’m 51 years old. Is anyone else here tired
    of Led Zepplin?

    I’m 46 and I still listen to Led Zeppelin. There’s some music of which I never tire. When it comes to early Steely Dan, those albums and songs are Countdown To Ecstasy’s “Bodhisattva” and Katy Lied’s “Doctor Wu”.

  14. Lee R. says:

    I keep going back and forth between my favourite Dan albums…”Katy Lied” usually comes out on top. No, make that “Aja”.. No wait…

    I love all Dan albums, with the exception of the most recent two ones – I haven’t spent any time with those in relation to the rest of the catalog

  15. mike says:

    Steely Dan vs. The Eagles!
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yb_XEwgfmDk

    Interesting interview w/ Donald Fagen, mentions FZ’s influence on their music.
    http://nymag.com/arts/popmusic/profiles/16453/

  16. Rob says:

    I was afraid I had burnt out on Steely Dan in the days when they ruled the FM airwaves (no static at all…), but I made a mix cd from their Citizen Steely Dan box a couple of weeks ago and was pleasantly surprised to see how fresh it still sounded. I was really blown away by the live version of Bodhisattva that I had never heard before!

  17. jonnybutter2 says:

    A quote from jonnybutter2:

    live version of Bodhisattva

    Yeah, that’s good.

    I have to put in a better word for Steely Dan here. There really are songs of theirs which are mockable, but they also did a lot of good stuff.

    It’s not fair to blame them entirely for how they are perceived in the US. I don’t know how it was for people in other parts of the world, but SD was so overplayed on the radio and on muzak (background music in stores, etc.) that it’s hard for a sentient American to not gag a little at the mention of their name. I have heard ‘Rikki Don’t Lose That Number’ approximately 70,000 times, ‘Black Cow’ at least 90,000 times (not their best song by far), ‘Asia’ 40-45k times, ‘Deacon Blue’, etc. etc. It just makes you want to vomit after a while. And as Barry said, while SD got absolutely saturation-airplay, Zappa – who was so much more inventive, both in terms of music and narrative – got almost zero.

    The conclusion? KILL UGLY RADIO!

  18. urbangraffito says:

    I’m pretty much with jonnybutter2 on this one, Barry.

    I find it quite interesting that the two Steely Dan albums that I really admire and enjoy, Katy Lied and Countdown to Ecstasy, almost never got any airplay besides the two tracks I mentioned earlier. Also, as I’ve mentioned to Barry elsewhere, there seems to be a gender divide when it comes to SD and Zappa – almost all the women I’ve known (with some exceptions, too) loved SD more than Zappa, while the men almost always loved Zappa more than SD. What does that say about SD’s music and we guy’s who listen to it? Pure musical enjoyment? Or a means to get those panties off? Nudge, nudge, Barry, wink, wink.

  19. SOFA - Philostopher/Chef says:

    Have been watching this thread. I like Steely Dan. Personally, I do not find their music “sterile” at all. And – as FZ often said – if you like it, it’s great and if you don’t, it’s shit…
    I will say that their early albums, up to aja (which was a good release, simply over-played, IMO) appeal to me more. The original post asked for fav’s. Well Bodhisatva was mentioned, as was Show Business Kids (how they got the word fuck past the censors, Ill never know). I love East St. Louis Toodle-oo.
    I’m with the dude that said he made a mix off of Citizen, which I own, that he liked… And – frankly – I can say that about FZ too. My favorite Zappa discs are the ones I have (or my Zappa friends have) created.
    And tho’ I respect Michael McDonald, SD started going downhill for me with his increased involvement.

  20. gooey miles says:

    nothing worse than a music snob you like it or not its not brain surgery ……….like frank said if you like it its good if not its crap and remember rap is short for crap

  21. Barry's Imaginary Publisher says:

    The conversation continues on bloody Facebook:

    A quote from Barry’s Imaginary Publisher:

    (My friend Claire): Same here – am loving the Steely Dan!!! x

    A quote from Barry’s Imaginary Publisher:

    (My friend UrbanGraffito): Here is where the gender divide comes in, Jurgen. Side by side, most women I’ve known (yes, there have been exceptions, too) have preferred Steely Dan, while the guys preferred Zappa’s music. Makes one wonder, doesn’t it?

    A quote from Barry’s Imaginary Publisher:

    (Barry’s Imaginary Publisher): I dunno Mark. Could it be because Steely Dan have this image of being a couple of nerds, whereas FZ is more the alpha-male type? Perhaps it’s just a case of “coolness by proxy” that tends to draw the guys toward FZ.

    A quote from Barry’s Imaginary Publisher:

    (My friend Nath): I think it’s only a question of lyrics if you see what I mean. I remember academic professors telling me that Zappa had no academic potential because he was a pornographer ! He’s’ been labelled a sexist by generations of feminists.

  22. urbangraffito says:

    Besides the music, itself, Barry, which both Zappa and SD were absolute perfectionists (I can’t say I felt any “cooler by proxy” by listening to Frank), it was what Zappa sang about that distinguished his music from that of SD for me. I could more readily relate to Zappa’s real world subject matter and themes (corrupt, sex-crazed politicians; big-legged girls (love them saddle bags), hitch-hikers, flakes, truckers, divorced husbands, etc) compared to SD’s sometimes pointless lyrics. Perhaps that’s why Zappa was such an easy target for generations of feminists – he actually dared to say something about North American/U.S. culture in his music – Zappa’s music always had balls (and eyebrows). SD’s music never dared the way Zappa’s did.

  23. Thinman says:

    I always thought SD was easy-listening elevator stuff.

    Th.

  24. Balint says:

    (hm, unfortunately I hardly even know them… I’ll check!)

  25. davidrog says:

    I’m also a huge Steely Dan fan. I think they took a lot more “chances” on those earlier albums. Their new albums seem to be filled with mid-tempo jazz/funk numbers, with the occasional track on which they stretch out a bit.

    Steely Dan has always had excellent musicians, especially in the lead guitar slot. Like with Zappa’s music, it’s the guitar solos in Steely Dan’s songs that get my attention.

    I believe that Steely Dan opened for the FZ on a few 1973/74 tour dates. There’s a reference to “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” during the Helsinki (YCDTOSA II) show. It does seem to be rather sarcastic though.

    I have a friend in NYC who got an all access pass to a Rolling Stones show at the Beacon Theater in 2006 (where the “Shine A Light” movie was recorded.) He went to grab some food backstage, and ended up sitting next to Donald Fagen. They discussed some of Steely Dan’s music for a bit, then my friend asked Fagen if he was a Zappa fan. Fagen said that he loves Zappa’s music and went to see the Mothers many times at the Garrick Theater. How cool is that?

  26. urbangraffito says:

    A quote from davidrog:

    I’m also a huge Steely Dan fan. I think they took a lot more “chances” on those earlier albums. Their new albums seem to be filled with mid-tempo jazz/funk numbers, with the occasional track on which they stretch out a bit.

    Steely Dan has always had excellent musicians, especially in the lead guitar slot. Like with Zappa’s music, it’s the guitar solos in Steely Dan’s songs that get my attention.

    I believe that Steely Dan opened for the FZ on a few 1973/74 tour dates. There’s a reference to “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” during the Helsinki (YCDTOSA II) show. It does seem to be rather sarcastic though.

    I have a friend in NYC who got an all access pass to a Rolling Stones show at the Beacon Theater in 2006 (where the “Shine A Light” movie was recorded.) He went to grab some food backstage, and ended up sitting next to Donald Fagen. They discussed some of Steely Dan’s music for a bit, then my friend asked Fagen if he was a Zappa fan. Fagen said that he loves Zappa’s music and went to see the Mothers many times at the Garrick Theater. How cool is that?

    Those earlier albums of SD have always been more appealing to me as well, davidrog, not only because they seemed to be more adventurous musically, but their songs also seemed more rooted in the common everyday experiences of the day. Perhaps that had more to do with Donald Fagen and Walter Becker’s age, though (like the rest of us).

    That Fagen said he loves Zappa’s music and that went to see the Mothers many times at the Garrick Theater says something about how these two musicians viewed one another. And that I have albums by both Zappa and SD says something about their effect upon popular musical tastes, as well as my own.

    Bodhisattva:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mSIRAF75sa0&feature=related

    Your Gold Teeth:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G3BjjpZedl8&feature=related

    Barrytown:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0FmLOP8G4pM&feature=more_related

  27. Slap says:

    I’ll admit to losing the thread with Aja and Gaucho, because of the over-saturation.

    But otherwise, huge fan. Katy Lied and (particularly) The Royal Scam are my favorites (“turn up the Eagles, the neighbors are listening….”); I love Countdown and Pretzel Logic, as well. (and for fun, cue up their wonderful version of East St Louis Toodle-oo from PL, then play Ellington’s original — what an incredible re-arrangement….!)

    Lately, I’ve found that I can just begin to get over the “overplayed” aspect of Aja and Gaucho, and have come to realize there was MUCH more there than I used to believe.

    I’m also a big fan of the latest incarnation, from Kamakiriad (really, a Dan album in all but name) through the last couple. That commercial, “ezy listening” sheen is pretty clever — beneath that sheen lurks some incredibly complex horn chart voicings, with all manner of clusters dotting the landscape.

    They’re lyrical smartasses, maybe a bit too enamoured of their own clever wordplay, I’ll grant, and definitely distant and at times condescending. But I generally don’t look to lyrics to find something to which to relate — I approach them from a “how well do they use the language” viewpoint, and on that front, I’ve always found their lyrics to be literate and smart, real examples of the craft.

    (Get hold of some of the proper sheet music for some of these tunes — the level of chordal imagination is pretty fiercely high.)

    Just one note, to Urban: the “can’t play it live” aspect is a thing of the distant past for this band. All of the live stuff I’ve heard from them recently is equal to the studio complexity and proficiency. (Improvements in stage monitoring and sound coupled with the large numbers of Berklee grads available have effectively eliminated all F&B’s previous objections/difficulties.)

    Besides, how can any real FZ fan dislike a band that managed to achieve gigantic MOR success while being named after a dildo?

  28. green-hocker says:

    Love me some SD. And with regard to the view that they are a studio only band, while that was true for the longest time, they have been touring regularly for the last decade or so. I’ve seen them 6 or 7 times now and they’ve been some of my favorite shows ever. (Except one at the Toledo Zoo. Evidently they couldn’t play over 90dB or so lest they disturb the animals. Pretty lame.)

  29. urbangraffito says:

    A quote from Slap:

    They’re lyrical smartasses, maybe a bit too enamoured of their own clever wordplay, I’ll grant, and definitely distant and at times condescending. But I generally don’t look to lyrics to find something to which to relate — I approach them from a “how well do they use the language” viewpoint, and on that front, I’ve always found their lyrics to be literate and smart, real examples of the craft.

    (Get hold of some of the proper sheet music for some of these tunes — the level of chordal imagination is pretty fiercely high.)

    Just one note, to Urban: the “can’t play it live” aspect is a thing of the distant past for this band. All of the live stuff I’ve heard from them recently is equal to the studio complexity and proficiency. (Improvements in stage monitoring and sound coupled with the large numbers of Berklee grads available have effectively eliminated all F&B’s previous objections/difficulties.)

    Besides, how can any real FZ fan dislike a band that managed to achieve gigantic MOR success while being named after a dildo?

    I agree, Slap, that “the “can’t play it live” aspect is a thing of the distant past” and this particular criticism was only directed at Steely Dan when they were a studio entity. No one can deny that their current live shows possess the musical complexity and proficiency that would appeal to any FZ fan.

    Speaking of being “lyrical smartasses, maybe a bit too enamoured of their own clever wordplay” – I recall laughing well into the night as my son and I invented new lyrics for Donald Fagen’s “New Frontier” from his 1982 album Nightfly:

    “Well I can’t wait till I move to the city
    Till I finally make up my mind
    To learn design and study overseas

    Let’s pretend that it’s the real thing
    And stay together all night long
    And when I really get to know you
    We’ll open up the doors and climb into the dawn
    Confess your passion your secret fear
    Prepare to meet the challenge of the new frontier”

    The music is great, but Fagen might as well be singing from the Yellow Pages…

  30. jonnybutter2 says:

    A quote from jonnybutter2:

    The music is great, but Fagen might as well be singing from the Yellow Pages…

    Very American-centric lyrics there, UG, so it’s not surprising that it sounds like gobbledy to someone from another country. ‘Nightfly’ is about being young in the US in the pre-hippie/pre-drugs 1960s. ‘New Frontier’ was the general name and theme of the Kennedy administration. If you’re familiar with the tropes of that period, Fagen’s lyrics sound spot on. For example, just about every other word out of Kennedy’s mouth during his campaign and shortly thereafter, was ‘challenge’ (also ‘vigor’ – one of Zappa’s early labels was a goof on that: ‘Vigah’ = ‘vigor’ pronounced in Boston accent).

    The pre-hippie 60s in the US was a strange mixture of utopianism and fatalism, which I think Fagen captures very well on that CD.

  31. urbangraffito says:

    Thanks for clearing that up, jonnybutter2. The lyrics on that album were always somewhat obtuse to my Canadian sensibilities and understanding. Thanks for the heads up on the code words, vernacular, and tropes of that period Fagen was getting at – it suddenly makes perfect sense.

  32. jonnybutter says:

    It’s hard to imagine the US being more self-obsessed and overweening than it is right now, but in the early 60s it really was. Kennedy’s rhetoric was stuffed full of ‘bear any burden, pay any cost..’-type stuff (voila Vietnam). For Americans in the early 60s, the US was The World (certainly the ‘Free World’). So utopia songs like ‘IGY’ are really very canny in respect to the theme of the album. I don’t mean entirely to sneer at my country in that era – it was a much better place in some very basic ways than it is now (also a worse place in some ways).

  33. xorg says:

    How’s this for conceptual continuity? The band I saw live most recently at Hammersmith was Steely Dan and now there’s a Zappa album recorded at Hammersmith, with me in the audience, scheduled for release. Spooky!

  34. Dave McMann says:

    A quote from xorg:

    How’s this for conceptual continuity? The band I saw live most recently at Hammersmith was Steely Dan and now there’s a Zappa album recorded at Hammersmith, with me in the audience, scheduled for release. Spooky!

    Very spooky!!
    Last thing I bought was Alice Cooper Theatre of Death, recorded at Hammersmith, next will be this:-)

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