Steely Dan is an American rock band; its core members are Walter Becker and Donald Fagen. The band's popularity peaked in the late 1970s, with the release of seven albums blending elements of jazz, rock, funk, R&B, and pop. Rolling Stone magazine has called them "the perfect musical antiheroes for the Seventies."
The band's music is characterized by complex jazz-influenced structures and harmonies played by Becker and Fagen along with a revolving cast of rock and pop studio musicians. Steely Dan's "cerebral, wry and eccentric" lyrics, often filled with sharp sarcasm, touch upon such themes as drugs, crime, and their true-to-life "contempt of west coast hippies." The pair are well-known for their near-obsessive perfectionism in the recording studio, with one notable example being that Becker and Fagen used at least 42 different studio musicians, 11 engineers, and took over a year to record the tracks that resulted in 1980's Gaucho - an album that contains only seven songs.
Steely Dan toured from 1972 to 1974, but in 1975 became a purely studio-based act. The late 1970s saw the group release a series of moderately successful singles and albums. They disbanded in 1981, and throughout most of the next decade, Fagen and Becker remained largely inactive in the music world. During this time, the group steadily built and maintained "a cult following." In 1993, the group resumed playing live concerts; the early 21st century saw Steely Dan release two albums of new material, the first of which earned a Grammy Award for Album of the Year. They have sold more than 30 million albums worldwide and in March 2001, were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Special attention was given to the individual sound of each instrument. The recording was done with the utmost fidelity and attention to sonic detail, and mixed so that all the instruments are heard and none are given undue priority (a deft and accomplished use of the multi-tracking process). For example, in the song "Parker's Band", two drum kits are used, which gives the song an unexpected drive, without overpowering the sound; it is not even immediately apparent that there are two drum kits on the track. Their albums are also notable for the characteristically 'warm' and 'dry' production sound, and the sparing use of echo and reverberation - effects which were often heavily over-used on other rock recordings of this period. Long known as perfectionists, they often recorded take after take before selecting the player or performance that made the final cut on their albums.
Steely Dan's songs cover a wide range of topics, but in their basic approach they often create fictional personas that narrate the experience. The duo have said that in retrospect, most of their albums have a 'feel' of either Los Angeles or New York City, the two main bases where Becker and Fagen lived and operated (see below). Characters appear in their songs that evoke these cities. Themes of sex, drugs, and rock 'n roll appear, but never in a straightforward manner, neither encouraging nor discouraging, and many (if not all) of their songs are tinged with an ironic edge.
Additionally, many would argue that Steely Dan never wrote a real love song. However, some of the demo-era recordings show Fagen and Becker at their most romantic. Such songs include "This Seat's Been Taken", "Oh, Wow, It's You", "Come Back Baby", and "Rikki Don't Lose That Number". Other themes are also present, such as prejudice, aging, failure, poverty and middle-class ennui, but these are typically seen from an ironic and detached perspective. Many of their songs concern love, but none can be classed as straightforward love songs, since there is inevitably an ironic or disturbing twist in the lyrics. One may think the song is about love on first inspection, however, upon deeper analysis the listener realizes that the real story is about prostitution, incest ("Cousin Dupree"), or some other socially unacceptable subject.
Steely Dan's lyrics contain subtle and encoded references, unusual (and sometimes original) slang expressions, a wide variety of "word games" and intriguing lyrical choices and constructions of considerable depth. The obscure and sometimes teasing lyrics have given rise to considerable efforts by fans to explain the "inner meaning" of certain songs. Jazz is a recurring theme, with references abounding in their songs, and there are numerous other film, television and literary references and allusions, such as "Home at Last" (from Aja), which was inspired by The Odyssey.
Some of their lyrics are notable for their unusual meter patterns; a prime example of this is their 1972 hit "Reelin' In the Years", which crams an unusually large number of words into each line, giving it a highly syncopated quality.
"Name-checking" is another Steely Dan lyrical device; references to real places and people abound in their songs. The song "My Old School" is a well-known example, referring to Annandale (Annandale-on-Hudson, New York is the location of Bard College, which both attended and where they met), and the Two Against Nature album (2000) contains numerous references to the duo's original home region, the New York metro area, including the district of Gramercy Park, The Strand bookstore and well-known upmarket food business Dean & DeLuca.
The band also often name-checks drinks, both alcoholic and non-alcoholic, in their songs: rum and cokes ("Daddy Don't Live in That New York City No More"), piņa coladas ("Bad Sneakers"), zombies ("Haitian Divorce"), black cows ("Black Cow"), Scotch whisky ("Deacon Blues"), retsina ("Home at Last"), grapefruit wine ("FM"), cherry wine ("Time Out of Mind"), Jose Cuervo Gold Tequila ("Hey Nineteen") and kirschwasser ("Babylon Sisters") are all mentioned in Steely Dan lyrics.