My Top 10 Steely Dan Songs
Donald Fagen and Walter Becker. These guys are Steely Dan. There is no guy named Dan, as some non-fans think. The name comes from an old novel, “Naked Lunch,” by William S. Burroughs and refers to a steam-powered dildo!
Actually, for most of its existence, Steely Dan has been those 2 guys, or was, until sadly Walter Becker passed away in 2017. But for almost 50 years, these two Rock and Roll Hall of Famers have produced some of the best music of our generation: Complex, lyrical, and genre-busting. If you’ve listened to them over the years, the songs remain ageless. If you haven’t, and you listen to one of their songs today, you won’t realize that it may have been written 40 years ago or more.
I remember the first time I heard Steely Dan. My older brother had been away at Adelphi College on Long Island in 1972, and when he came home at the winter break, he brought with him an album: “Can’t Buy A Thrill.” Now, at the time, I was the bass player in a high school garage band, and we played mostly simple rock songs by groups like Black Sabbath, Grand Funk Railroad, and Creedence Clearwater Revival. When my brother urged me to listen to this new sound, I was reluctant.
Then the needle hit the vinyl. What?! That sound!! First “Dirty Work,” then “Reelin’ In The Years,” all the way to “Turn That Heartbeat Over Again.” I was hooked. Every song was unique and told a story. And the chord structure! There was no way me or my band could play that! But I didn’t care. I wore my turntable needle to a nub listening to that album. And the cover was totally psychedelic.
And then, in 1973, my brother and I saw them with their band at UC Irvine. Through the pot-filled haze that surrounded us, I heard those mesmerizing tunes and fresh lyrics. I was high without being high.
From that point on, through undergrad and medical school, Steely Dan was my go-to music. They continued to release extraordinary albums from 1973 to 1977, including “Countdown to Ecstasy,” “Pretzel Logic,” “Katy Lied,” The Royal Scam,” and probably their ultimate masterpiece, “Aja.” Their final album before the duo broke up was “Gaucho,” one of my favorites.
And after they broke up in 1981, Donald Fagen released “The Nightfly” in 1982, a classic jazz/pop album that I listened to on my Sony Discman at 3am while making rounds as a surgical intern in New York.
They reunited in 1993, released several more albums, and toured regularly. I’ve seen them in concert at least 10 times, and have noticed that the audience is delightfully mixed with boomers like me and young hipsters who have discovered Steely Dan’s magical tunes. Since Walter Becker’s death, Donald Fagen continues to tour as Steely Dan and consistently sells out the concert venues.
I recently heard an interview with Don Henley and the late Glenn Frey about their musical influences. Top on their list was Steely Dan, whose music and fascinating lyrics inspired them to write “Hotel California” because they too wanted to tell exotic stories.
So here is a list of my Top 10 Steely Dan songs, not necessarily in any order. This was hard because there could easily be another 10 or 15 favorites. Nevertheless, here they are. If you’re a fan, comment and let me know your favorites. If you’re not, I ask you to listen again and see if you’re touched by their funky, original, eclectic sound and lyrics.
This is off the album of the same name. And it’s pronounced like Asia. The song is one of the longest, but is a beautiful mix of jazz and rock, and tells the story of a man loving a beautiful woman who brings him peace.
#2 Kid Charlemagne
This song is off the 1976 album “The Royal Scam” and is about an LSD dealer. Oddly enough, Fagen was not big drug user. And the lyrics? Unique!
- “Clean this mess up or we’ll all end up in jail,
- Those test tubes and the scale,
- Just get it all out of here
- Is there gas in the car?
- Yes, there’s gas in the car
- I think the people down the hall know who you are.”
#3 Reelin’ In The Years
This was their second big hit in 1973 after “Do It Again” and was on the “Can’t Buy A Thrill” album. A horrifying version was done by Donny and Marie Osmond on their show in 1978. I’m still recovering. The song is about the frustration over a lost love, who is searching for something she’ll never find.
This song is the title song on the album ”Gaucho,” which was their last until re-uniting in the early ’90s. The lyrics of this song are totally mysterious, but seem to be about an odd love triangle between people of different socioeconomic backgrounds. And nobody has yet figured out what the Custerdome is!
- “Who is the gaucho, amigo?
- Why is he standing in your spangled leather poncho
- And your elevator shoes?
- Bodacious cowboys
- Such as your friend will never be welcome here
- High in the Custerdome.”
#5 Black Friday
This song is on the “Katy Lied” album and was about the original black Friday in 1869 when many wealthy investors tried to corner the gold market and lost everything. Oh those greedy rich guys. Won’t they ever learn?
- “When black Friday comes
- I stand down by the door
- And catch the grey men when they
- Dive from the fourteenth floor.”
Peg is a funky, jazzy song with a great beat and heavy backup vocals by Michael McDonald. It was a hit in 1977 off the “Aja” album. As with all Steely Dan lyrics, these too are cryptic. There have been multiple interpretations by others, including that it’s about an actress auditioning for a porn movie, or a reference to an actress named Peg Entwistle who jumped from the Hollywood sign in 1932. Either way, it’s got an irresistible beat.
#7 Rikki Don’t Lose That Number
“Rikki” was released in 1974 off the “Pretzel Logic” album and was Steely Dan’s biggest single. It has an iconic opening, with percussion and xylophone, followed by the sound of chimes, before breaking into:
- “We hear you’re leaving, that’s okay
- I thought our little wild time had just begun…”
Some say it’s about a gay experience, while others say it’s about drugs.
#8 Home At Last
Also on “Aja,” this is an ode to Homer’s Odysseus. The song conveys the desperation to get home from a long perilous journey. It mirrors the part of the story when Ulysses’ crew straps him to the mast of the ship and he orders them to cover their ears so as not to be driven onto the rocks by the sirens’ song. Even the opening piano riff sounds like waves crashing about.
- “Well the danger on the rocks is surely past
- Still I remain tied to the mast
- Could it be that I have found my home at last
- Home at last.”
#9 Deacon Blues
Yet another amazing song from “Aja,” Deacon Blues seems to be about a down and out musician trying to make it big.
“They call Alabama the Crimson Tide
Call me Deacon Blues”
It’s a vivid description of life after dark in the seedy underbelly of the club and bar scene, but this guy has had enough and has given up caring whether anyone likes his music.
And the sexy, oozy lyrics:
- “I crawl like a viper
- Through these suburban streets
- Make love to these women
- Languid and bittersweet
- I rise when the sun goes down
- Cover every game in town
- A world of my own
- I’ll make it my home sweet home.”
Languid and bittersweet?! Damn that’s good!
#10 Hey Nineteen
“Hey Nineteen” is off the “Gaucho” album. This song is particularly relevant to the Manopause crowd. It’s the sad story of an old guy trying to make it with a young girl. We’ve all seen it. He’s knows it’s wrong…
- “Hey nineteen
- We can’t dance together
- No we can’t talk at all.”
…but he goes for it anyway, with a little help.
- “The Cuervo Gold
- The fine Colombian
- Make tonight a wonderful thing.”
A cautionary tale indeed!
Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame
Donald Fagen and Walter Becker were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001 as Steely Dan. They were languid and bittersweet in their acceptance speech. I would have expected nothing else.
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CAT STEVENS: Full circle by Larry Pollack
Too young To Rock At Woodstock by Richard Basis