Walter Becker wouldn’t have cared about my 10 favorite Steely Dan songs, and most likely you don’t either.
But it’s raining too hard to walk, and I don’t wanna think about work, so here ya go, in no order but chronological.
Feel free to agree or disagree in the comments …
1. “Dirty Work.” Steely Dan fans love Becker and Fagen’s quirkiness — their insistence on wedging jazz chords into pop songs, their frequent name-drops of specific (if sometimes imaginary) places and people, and like that.
I go for that too. But I also think 1972, pound for pound, was the best year of the Seventies for Top 40 music; and I love the fact that these two weirdos were able to create songs that walked right onto the mass airwaves and held their own. Becker and Fagen would have plenty of time to get weird — and they would take it — but Radio-Friendly Dan is a distinctly winsome creature of its own.
“Dirty Work” wasn’t one of the two singles from Can’t Buy A Thrill, but I’ve heard it on the radio a bunch of times and it sure sounds fantastic, starting with that flare of Hammond organ that makes me sit upright and pay attention. And just try not to sing along (in your head, if nowhere else) with that simplest of choruses.
2. “Razor Boy.” I wrote about this mournful little cha-cha once, several years ago, and everything there is still true. Ray Brown’s upright bass meets Skunk Baxter’s pedal steel guitar and it works wonderfully. The chorus is at once sad and soaring.
3. “Your Gold Teeth.” In which Becker and Fagen match angular licks to a hard-boiled Dashiell Hammett sort of lyric, over another uncategorizable Latin groove. I suppose the long solo section in the middle is awfully rockish, but I do enjoy hearing Fagen and Baxter stretch out. Fragments of the lyric from this one often occur to me at totally random moments (usually it’s “Got a feeling I been here before / Won’t you let me help you find the door?”)
4. “Any Major Dude Will Tell You.” From my least favorite of the classic Dan LPs, Pretzel Logic. (You will eventually note the absence of Becker and Fagen’s reunion albums from this list; I’ve just never gotten into them like I did the Seventies stuff.)
This one is uncharacteristically gentle and reassuring, like a pat on the back, and as a much younger lad I once derived reassurance from it for a brief period.
(Of course, knowing Becker and Fagen, they probably wrote this lyric in the voice of one junkie singing to another, or something perverse like that. But on its surface, at least, it is unique in the Seventies Dan catalog, and all the more charming for it.)
5. “Bad Sneakers.” From my favorite of the classic Dan LPs, 1975’s Katy Lied, which features the Dan’s most consistently successful marriage of subterranean lyrical darkness with the surface charms of jazz and pop.
The swelling up of piano and melody on the chorus here — “Bad sneakers and a pina colada, my friend / Stompin’ on the avenue by Radio City” — shines like a Manhattan marquee; it’s Cole Porter for the age of ‘ludes and paranoia. Also a nifty guitar solo (as if that need be specified in a Steely Dan review). And is that another electric sitar on the intro?
6. “Chain Lightning.” The single baddest, tightest, most laid-back, in-the-pocket shuffle of the Seventies, which is saying a mouthful.
And while I’ve always thought of Rick Derringer as an arena-rock mope — the sort of gent perfectly suited to the 11 a.m. slot at Cal Jam — he delivers the goods in a big way here. Dig the chord-clang at 1:25; or the way he dances down into the muck at the bottom of the neck and then skips up again; or the snotty Jeff Beck-ish pick-flick at 1:41.
Not gonna write about the rest of the songs until I listen to this one again.
7. “Sign In Stranger.” From the “Dirty Work”/”Razor Boy” school of mournfulisms, I guess, comes this downbeat reggae dirge (and how often do you get to write “reggae dirge”?) about a future Wild West in which you can dodge your past misdeeds just by jumping from planet to planet.
Fagen’s narrator sounds like a pitchman preying upon the disaffected and spat-out, offering promises of easy redemption in the kinds of terms you’d hear on late-night infomercials (“Do you have a dark spot on your past? / Leave it to my man, he’ll fix it fast”) along with appeals to his prospective clients’ less savory desires (“Or maybe you would like to see the show / You’ll enjoy the Cafe d’Escargot.”)
The second verse does kinda go on and on, and the bridge ain’t B&F’s finest, but I like it anyway. And the big-brass instrumental coda rises up out of nowhere to suggest a happy ending, or at least a dead-end paved in gold.
8. “Aja.” A stone beautiful piece of music; the usual quotient of abstruse-but-memorable lyrics, with a gently Eastern tinge; and a couple of marvelous individual performances, most notably by Steve Gadd on drums. This glows like a sapphire.
9. “Deacon Blues.” The tale of a loser who’s decided he’s tired of watching the victors write history.
I find this more mournful than hopeful — do you really think the narrator’s going to find what he imagines when he crosses that fine line? — but brilliantly affecting in any case.
10. “Babylon Sisters.” Another flavor of shuffle here (it’s the wonderful Bernard Purdie on drums, IIRC) — polished and malevolent, with a Rhodes navigating a dark, snaky series of changes on top.
The mood eventually brightens, a little, but the whole thing sounds driven by energies, desires and situations that are untenable over the long term — lavish parties, younger women, general debauchery. Turn this one into a screenplay, and the narrator’s floating in a pool at the end.
(The Santa Ana winds are the perfect natural phenomenon to include here … and what is that weird sax-or-voice thing that rises up like a cobra at 3:21?)
So why is this tawdry offering one of my 10 favorite Steely Dan songs? Because, having spent the Seventies combining sunny exteriors with questionable interiors, Becker and Fagen had come pretty close to perfecting it at this point. If “Aja” shines like a sapphire, “Babylon Sisters” gleams like gunmetal.