Favorites: Steely Dan (1988-1995)

They looked upon the promised land

Steely DanI’m doing Favorite Songs by Favorite Bands thing that J. Eric Smith did. He also picked Steely Dan, albeit at a far earlier period, 1976 to 1978. I liked them well enough then, but there were always other artists I was listening to more often.

But by the late 1980s, that was no longer the case. As I stated when Walter Becker died a few years ago, “I discovered that I owned all nine of their core albums, including that greatest hits album and Donald Fagan’s The Nightfly.”

And as Eric noted in his tribute to Becker, “The wisdom of Steely Dan was so sublime that one could get all of life’s answers from it.”

You’re at a party of people with diverse musical tastes. Yet almost everyone could at least tolerate Steely Dan, whether they were fans of grunge or pop or soul or jazz. There was a certain universality about them, that they were VERY GOOD and quite clever, to boot. As their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame page begins, “Wry. Crafty. Cerebral. Acerbic. The perfectionists of Steely Dan made deviously slick music.”

Tunes

I was loathed to come up with a list three years ago, and that hasn’t changed. But I will anyway.

Haitian Divorce (The Royal Scam) “They wrangle through the night.”
My Old School (Countdown to Ecstasy)
Aja (Aja) “Up on a hill…”
Rikki Don’t Lose That Number (Pretzel Logic) “But if you have a change of heart…”
Hey, Nineteen (Gaucho) – “That’s ‘Retha Franklin!”
Do It Again (Can’t Buy a Thrill, which was more of a band effort than the subsequent Becker/Fagan and session musicians)

Bodhisattva (Countdown)
Peg (Aja) As is true in a number of cuts, LOVE the Michael McDonald vocal.
Black Friday (Katy Lied)
Babylon Sisters (Gaucho)
Deacon Blues (Aja) “They call Alabama the Crimson Tide”
The Royal Scam (Royal Scam) – the first time I heard this song, I immediately played it again

Vaguely related, I was happy to see the Doobie Brothers were selected for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year. That means original Steely Dan guitarist Jeff “Skunk” Baxter and contributing SD vocalist Michael McDonald got in.

Walter Becker of Steely Dan

Only Becker and Fagan are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, inducted in 2001.

If you had asked me a couple weeks ago what I thought of Steely Dan, I would have said I liked them well enough, though I have rarely blogged about them in the 12+ years I’ve been doing this. But after Walter Becker, half of the core duo with Donald Fagan, died this month at the age of 67 (!), I realized how much more engaged with the band than I had realized.

For one thing, I discovered that I owned all nine of their core albums, The Royal Scam on cassette (!) and all the others pictured here on vinyl, including that greatest hits album and Donald Fagan’s The Nightfly. The latter two Steely Dan albums, which came out after a 20-year hiatus, and a different GH compilation I have on CD.

For another, people were posting lyrics on Facebook, with no citations, and I knew, and loved, them all. “No static at all” – FM, from a movie I’ve never seen. “Is there gas in the car? Yes, there’s gas in the caaar!” – Kid Charlemagne. And my favorite, “She don’t remember Queen of Soul” – Hey, Nineteen.

The group, which was actually a band, including future Doobie Brother Jeff (Skunk) Baxter, when I first bought Can’t Buy a Thrill around 1973, became a pair with various sidemen, including future Doobie Brother Michael McDonald; I hear his vocal so clearly in songs such as Peg. Only Becker and Fagan are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, inducted in 2001.

I never saw them perform live, but listen to what is billed as What Is Probably the Greatest Steely Dan Show Ever, in 1974. Also, watch Steely Dan’s Final Concert With Walter Becker. “Group played a career-spanning set in Greenwich, Connecticut on May 27th.”

There are too many songs that I love to pick a Top 10 list. In addition to FM, they might include these, most of which I won’t find links to, for time’s sake:

Can’t Buy a Thrill – Do It Again, Dirty Work, Reelin’ in the Years
Countdown to Ecstasy – Bodhisattva, My Old School
Pretzel Logic – Rikki Don’t Lose That Number, East St. Louis Toodle-Oo
Katy Lied – Black Friday, Bad Sneakers, Doctor Wu
Royal Scam – Kid Charlemagne, The Fez, Haitian Divorce, title track
Aja – Deacon Blues, Peg
Gaucho – Babylon Sisters, Hey Nineteen
Two Against Nature – Gaslighting Abbie, title track

Also, Coverville 1184: Walter Becker Tribute & Steely Dan Cover Story II