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: