Steely Dan are playing this year’s Coachella, they’ve been sampled by everyone from Kanye to Cities Aviv, and you can hear hints of their sardonic lyrical brilliance in indie rockers ranging from the Dismemberment Plan to Destroyer to Father John Misty. But for a band that made its name puncturing the remnants of the flower-child ’60s with a New York bohemianism that recalibrated the trappings of “cool,” the Dan are still widely considered anything but. Judd Apatow’s an admitted fan, but he still got a laugh line out of Knocked Up’s Seth Rogen at their expense (“Steely Dan gargles my balls… if I ever listen to Steely Dan I want you to slice my head off with an Al Jarreau LP”). One of the funniest running-gag tirades on The Best Show is Tom Scharpling’s fuming contempt for them (“If you like rock music, you can’t like Steely Dan,” and vice versa), even if his comedy partner Jon Wurster loves them. When the Minutemen covered “Doctor Wu” on 1984’s Double Nickels On The Dime, most punks must’ve figured it was a goof.
Critics had the tendency to laud them, especially during the first half of their career — Creem’s Richard Cromelin called them “the best band in America” during his assessment of 1974’s Pretzel Logic, and Stranded editor Greil Marcus called their “Doctor Wu” couplet “All night long, we would sing that stupid song/And every word we sang I knew was true” “two of the finest lines rock and roll has produced about itself.” But that was muso-wonk nerd stuff, at least in the eyes of the decade’s latter half and its zero-year punk rock rebellion; they might crack the Pazz & Jop top ten but good luck selling the louder-and-faster disciples of Lester Bangs on ‘em.
But bands with cryptic lyrics, intricate music-theory-bait arrangements, and dark humor have a way of eventually growing their cult. There’s definitely something kind of geek-chic about them; you could put them up there with Frank Zappa and Rush for rabid ’70s-rooted prog-adjacent enthusiasms, and they even have their own fairly thorough page on pop-culture deconstruction portal TV Tropes. If that kind of association threatens to ding up your indie cred and otherwise make you uncomfortable, well, you could always just shuck the trappings and dig in to the songs themselves. There, up in their acid-penned framework, it’s easier to think of them as Dylan-influenced weirdos who grew up into the lost American cousins of the UK’s Angry Young Men of the late ’70s. Think the similarly nasal, anxious, glibly frustrated and thoroughly postmodern Elvis Costello (who put Countdown To Ecstasy on his personal list of “500 Albums You Need” in a 2000 Vanity Fair article), or the sophisti-pop leanings of avowed fan Joe Jackson, or even legendary pub-punk oddball Ian Dury, who lauded Aja by calling it “heartwarming” and “upfull.”
And forget the relaxed cheeriness of the context that slotted them into the yacht-rock ranks with Loggins & Messina and the Doobie Brothers — shared sessionman personnel and L.A. neighborliness notwithstanding, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen were New York to the core, all Brill Building gone Burroughs, using the language of pop as their foot in the door to ease in creepier, more unsettling things. No amount of multi-tracked studio trickery, woodshedder scrubbed-up arrangements, or perfectionist, precise ultra-virtuoso slickness could really obscure the existential dread and hip-panic self-consciousness that made their lyrics resonate. So they piled on as much gloss as they could, stitched together all manners of hopped-up jazz and rhythm & blues permutations into the weave of their sound, and infiltrated the subconsciousness of future yuppies everywhere like some kind of Manchurian Candidate virus to make them eventually realize there’s futility in optimism. Chuck Klosterman caught hell for claiming that Steely Dan were more lyrically subversive than the Sex Pistols, but at least with John Lydon scowling at you, you know just what he’s saying and fast. Hear one of Steely Dan’s ostensibly lighthearted hits on the classic rock airwaves — something like “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” or “Black Friday,” endlessly catchy and hummable, and deciding to buy the rest of that album and dive in — and all of a sudden, you wind up hearing songs about creeps who screen porno flicks to teenagers or the death of a homeless addict. Oh hell — this isn’t Seals And Crofts at all. There are several ways to go through this bewildering process. Here they are.
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