Published on November 12th, 2017 | by Brent Chittenden0
52 Albums That Changed My Life (and Other Exaggerations), Chapter 46: A Decade of Steely Dan
This album may come as a surprise for a number of readers. Some albums you can rectify with the thought “That’s what Brent grew up on” or “Those are strong albums from his childhood” or “Brent is stuck in the 90’s.” The album in this chapter kind of goes against most of this.
I discovered Steely Dan in my early twenties. Once again, it was through a cottage listening session but through a backass way of doing it. It was a sunny day sitting on Uncle Bill’s deck with an adult beverage, the first time I was having drinks with my uncle and my dad as an adult. Uncle Bill was playing Kamakiriad, Donald Fagen’s solo album. I fell in love with the album and asked who it was.
“Oh, it’s Donald Fagen, the guy from Steely Dan”
Now, I had read Naked Lunch at this point and a steam-powered strap-on isn’t something that leaves the imagination easily, I thought my uncle was kind of taking the piss out of me. He went inside and came out with a greatest hits collection.
“Give this a listen.”
Steely Dan is really a band that you have to give a few listens to before giving up on them. The music itself can sound a little soft due to the jazz influence. That same influence can also be a real turn off for some people. Me? I love it because of this, it kind of lulls you into a false sense of security because a lot of their music is smooth and calm, like Babylon Sister. But the more you listen to it, the more you realize how complicated some of the music was. Steely Dan had the fortune of coming up at a time when they could take a lot of time with recording an album. More complex compositions were possible because you could work on it and if it wasn’t working, you had time to rework it. Musically, I love “Reelin’ in the Years,” and despite my love of guitar, it’s more the rollicking sound of the piano that grabs me. I just love how it rolls and can settle into the background but comes right back to the forefront of the song.
The lyrics of Steely Dan work very similarly, you may not catch them the first or even the second time you give it a listen but once you start catching on, the lyrics of Steely Dan are well written, catchy and sometimes dark as hell. I once heard a podcast with Damian Abraham from Fucked Up say that he often thought Steely Dan would make great fodder for a punk tribute album, not so much because of the music (which he wasn’t a big fan of) but more due to the lyrics and their content. And he’s completely right because the lyrics of Steely Dan can be dark. Really dark.
Take “Black Friday.” The first part of the song is all about watching those committing suicide (due to a financial collapse) while taking what he can and running with the money before anyone catches on. “Deacon Blues” is in part about the giving a glorious name to the losers and nerds of the world but the tone of the song definitely isn’t that of the nerds and losers ever becoming the winners. “Peg” has a reference to a real-life story of actress Peg Entwistle, who committed suicide by jumping off the Hollywood sign.
I’m not exactly familiar with a lot of the softer rock bands of the 70’s and early 80’s beyond Steely Dan and The Eagles but I think it’s safe to say that not many were following suit with lyrics of those kind of topics. And if they were they weren’t written nearly as well as Steely Dan managed to do it.
My love of the band has only deepened as I’ve gotten older and I still find out things about the band’s music that surprise me and intrigue me. For example, I listen to a number of podcasts about pro wrestling. I have an unabashed love for pro wrestling, I love the athleticism, the pageantry of the entire thing. As of this writing, I am drooling in anticipation for the New Japan Pro Wrestlings biggest show, Wrestle Kingdom in January… but I digress. One of the podcasts I listen to is called The VIP Lounge, hosted by a former writer in pro wrestling, Alex Greenfield and a pro wrestler that works under the name of MVP. Now, MVP and I apparently have a lot of pop culture favorites in common. He’s a big fan of the Lone Wolf and Cub series of films as am I. We both love Blade Runner and we both love Steely Dan. But it was through MVP that I learned that Steely Dan had actually had an influence on hip-hop.
As I’ve stated before, I’m not huge into hip hop, I like what I like but I often don’t go digging into it as much as sometimes I think I should. But due to MVP’s mention on the podcast, I went digging and found all of these rap tracks using Steely Dan samples as a base. It was still easily recognizable but many of these artists had also managed to do some really creative things with the songs. Even Kanye West, who I am not a big fan of, grabbed me with his song “Champion” and the use of “Kid Charlemagne”.
A Decade of Steely Dan is a great place to get your feet wet with before you dive into albums like Aja. It contains “Black Friday,” “Deacon Blues,” “FM,” “Peg,” and “Reelin’ in the Years.” But give it a few listens. If you’re like me and it starts to grab your head, explore it a little further.