Steely Dan: the original postliberals of pop
The duo's cautionary lyrics have received new attention from Generation Z
Steely Dan are having a moment. The 1970s jazz-rock duo are the subjects of a new book, as well as increasingly popular social media accounts such as “Good Steely Dan Takes” and “People Dancing to Steely Dan”, which now number tens of thousands of followers.
As with Fleetwood Mac before them, TikTok has introduced the band to a whole new generation of fans, who seem to care less about the aesthetic concerns that had until recently restrained the hipster music press from praising them. In 2000 the music publication Pitchfork gave the band’s comeback album, Two Against Nature, a score of 1.6 out of 10; it has now published retrospective reviews of the band’s most esteemed studio albums, with all of them rated 8.3 or higher.
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If one is left to wonder how taste-making music journalists could have ever been so sniffy about tunes that blend bossa nova, jazz, and soul, then it is worth considering the fundamental conservatism of their lyrics.
For while the music of Steely Dan might have been revolutionary, their lyrics were ultimately jaded and cynical. Having previously been beatniks, the band’s Donald Fagen and Walter Becker became pop’s first postliberals, with their most celebrated songs railing against the progressive excesses and naïve dreams of the 1960s and ’70s.
Their first album was released in 1972, with their early hit “Only a Fool Would Say That” alleged to be a riposte to John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’, which had been released the previous year. It criticised the hypocrisy of a man in a multimillion-dollar penthouse apartment singing about a world without possessions — I heard it was you/ Talking ’bout a world where all is free/ It just couldn’t be/ And only a fool would say that — and supposedly invited Lennon to consider what the ordinary working man would think of his message:
While Steely Dan songs are often about drugs or sex, and in some cases both, they nonetheless contain a critical awareness of the ultimate nihilism of this lifestyle. According to Alex Pappademas, one of the authors of the recent book, Dan lyrics are often “about people who can’t help driving headlong toward one form of destruction or another […] even when they know the truth” of what they’re doing.
Their 1976 song “Kid Charlemagne” — familiar to most under-40s from the Kanye West sample — was written about LSD pioneer Owsley Stanley. But after paying homage to his exploits in 1960s San Francisco, they lament that he was ultimately a failure.
Son, you were mistaken/ You are obsolete/ Look at all the white men on the street refers to the displacement of hallucinogens by cocaine. As Steely Dan knew in 1976, the expansion of drug consumption from a niche activity to something done by normies — whether in the San Francisco summer of love or the UK rave scene of the late ‘80s and early ’90s — led not to consciousness expansion and social and economic transformation, but more often to loneliness, mental illness and death.
Their song “Peg”, famously sampled in De la Soul’s “Eye Know”, was written about a woman desperate to find stardom, who ends up appearing in porn films (“foreign movies”). While she obtains the short-term fame and fortune she had sought, the chorus warns, Peg, it will come back to you — a salutary lesson for young women on OnlyFans today, who may feel a brief empowerment and even earn some money, at the cost of having their content on the internet forever, to be stumbled across by their children and grandchildren.
It is about time the hipster music press gave Steely Dan their due, but we shouldn’t ignore the core message of their lyrics. And it’s no surprise these words resonate with Gen Z TikTokers — in many ways a more cynical, sober, and even conservative generation than the two that came before them.
With the advent of internet radio I have recently re-found seventies music and came to the conclusion that it is by far the best era for songwriting and musical talent. Yes Steely Dan, Fleetwood Mac, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, but also other bands I didn’t really listen to before like Creedence, Nazareth and Iron Butterfly. And many more of course.
The 70’s was my era. When iTunes came along and the wife and I were able to search and download all those old favourites we were in 7th heaven for weeks.
I knew Clapton well, and spent John Bonhams last 2 weeks alive with him in St Jean Cap Ferrat- he was planning to leave Led Zepplin and had a place at Harpur Adams agricultural college, to pursue his dream of farming: the PR machine never ever let this out.
The Kinks are much more ‘post-liberal’, and a few years before Steely Dan
“Girls will be boys and boys will be girls
It’s a mixed up, muddled up, shook up world”
Much as I admire David and Ray, not in the same class…
Much as I love Steely Dan, I have to disagree. The brothers Davies deeply appreciated the working-class London that formed them. No one else had the insight or conviction to swim against the tide at the height of the ‘Counter Culture’, What the Kinks produced in that era has stood the test of time far better than most of their peers. Similarly, Becker and Fagen were smart enough to subtly expose the reality of the hippie dream by a holding a mirror up to it. The only other artist in the US at the time brave enough to call out hippie culture was a young Jonathan Richman – just listen to “I’m Straight” which he recorded in 1971 and you’ll want to shout for joy.
One might also mention Donald Fagen’s first solo album “The Nightfly” (1982), a Boomer’s teenage years in the early 1960’s U.S. ‘burbs.
More than mention: Laude, Venerate, Study, Lionize…
Steely Dan were an extraordinarily talented, skilled and creative band, so relatively unknown as, unlike now, it was an era of an art form that one day will be recognised alongside the great 19th century classics, and just packed with superb talent.. composing, playing, arranging and recording
I think The Eagles are due for similar treatment among the younger generation. I happened to hear Don Henley’s “The End of the Innocence” the other day (co-written by Bruce Hornsby), and wow, it sounded so appropriate for our times. IMHO the second verse is a shockingly accurate description of Biden.
As a 1980s former music journalist, it’s honestly difficult to imagine most of the pop/rock/rap of today being listened to for anything more than nostalgia purposes in the future; evaluated purely on the merits it’s nothing to write home about (whence the use of sampling — a great way to capitalize on a talent greater than one’s own).
At the risk of making myself sound like my dad when confronted with the Stones et al, today’s current music pales into insignificance when compared to the sheer talent, originality and vivacity of the output in the 60s/70s/80s
It’s as if any genre can only be young once, and that was its youth. Listening (which i avoid when possible) to the droning of Ed Sheerin and the high-pitched whining of endless female vocalists is akin to watching the middle-aged trying to dance like they once did – simply embarrassing.
The CD reissues also have very amusing liner notes from WB & DF.
Steely Dan – Unkempt curmudgeons that they are/ were are responsible for some of the finest sound ever recorded (and by that I mean Asia)…
While their stick does not have the emotional resonance of a Mitchell or the unbridled glowing brilliance of a Hendrix, Coltrane, or Prince the sound is the finest ever to eminent from a pair of decent speakers…
So does all this mean that Radiohead is chopped liver?
What put an end to it? By that I mean the 1970s music we liked so much? Rap? As even Jordan Peterson likes to point out, “rap” charmed the world. Why did that happen? Why did we abandon Steele Dan for, say, Eminem or Snoop Dog? Does the arch of music bend from Palestrina to 50 cent?
Nothing is inevitable but the resurgence of interest in SD has an undeniable logic. They produced the definitive chronicle of a ‘tectonic’ cultural shift in the 70s, as the possibilities imagined in the cloudy haze of the hippie/beat scene collided with the sordid, sleazy reality of abuse and dependency, accompanied by the dangers introduced with the ‘professionalization’ of the drug trade by cartels and their ‘distributors’. To be fair, SD have maintained a pretty steady cult following, which pores obsessively over lyrics for oblique drug allusions, clues to the identities (or plights) of their cast of shady characters, and even for evidence of substance-fueled inspiration, like the exuberance of tracks like Bodhisattva. Timing is everything, and they hit their creative stride at exactly the point when the music industry controlled the resources to underwrite unlimited studio time with elite musicians until SD had transferred their internal soundscapes onto tapes. The cynical brilliance of scoring their wry, dyspeptic vignettes with exquisitely complex melodies and arrangements also produced no end of hilariously ironic effects, from their treatment as ‘yacht rock’, placed in regular rotation on ‘soft rock’ stations, to their role in introducing the general public to slang for smoking heroin. With cultural malaise now playing out as civilizational decline, SD’s jaded misanthropic take seems more relevant than ever.
I love Steely Dan but would say they were about as hipster as it gets. From the smirking in-joke of the William Burrows band name to the meta referencing lyrics (famously in Show Biz Kids They got the Steely Dan T-shirt/And for the coup-de-gras/They’re outrageous) to the customary struggle with demon addictions (in fairness Walter Becker’s ‘Down at the Bottom’ is superbly self-effacing in this regard).
Being an anti-pop star is a hard trick to pull off. What you always get, even on the weaker comeback albums – is supreme musicality, originality and wit. The wonderful Doctor Wu, for example,
Biscayne Bay/Where the Cuban gentlemen sleep all day
I went searching for the song/You used to sing to me
Katy lies/You could see it in her eyes
But imagine my surprise/When I saw you
Plus Michael MacDonald on backing vocals – it doesn’t get much better. Suspect they wouldn’t have been a bundle of fun live but hey -ho. Who wants to don the t shirt and join the queue for hot dogs at the megadome? Not Donald or Walter, that’s for sure.
Also nothing like The Dan (and there is nothing like The Dan) there is the fake but wonderful Daisy Jones and The Six. Give the album Aurora a sincere listen and you will find some excellent 70s mid tempo mixed gender harmony pop to, if you come down from your purist high horse, really enjoy…
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