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Steely Dan: 10 Essential Songs

In honor of the late Walter Becker, we look back at some of the sly jazz-rockers’ best

“It wouldn’t bother me at all,” Steely Dan‘s Walter Becker told Rolling Stone‘s Cameron Crowe in 1977, “not to play on my own album.” He was stating a fact – Steely Dan famously staffed their sessions with the finest studio musicians they could find – but he was also summing up the weird oblique approach to rock-stardom shared by him and his longtime songwriting partner Donald Fagen. From their earliest days as jazz-loving Bard College hipsters to their heyday as wry sophisto-pop aesthetes, the pair were always the strangest kind of hitmakers, cramming their tunes full of as many brainy chords, obscure references and off-color characterizations as possible. Yet, against all odds, they still carved out their own proud niche in the classic-rock canon. Following the sad news of Becker’s passing at age 67, we round up some of the pair’s most memorable oddball anthems.

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“Deacon Blues” (1977)

In one of their more tender odes to middle-class pretension, Fagen and Becker pay tribute here to a dude from the suburbs who’s dreaming of the freer, edgier life he might enjoy if he could only learn to play the saxophone. “The protagonist is not a musician,” Becker explained in the Classic Albums doc on Aja. “He just sort of imagines that that would be one of the mythic forms of loserdom to which he might aspire. And who’s to say that he’s not right in a thing like that?” In the same doc, Fagen called the song “about as close to autobiography as our tunes get,” maybe alluding to the way he and Becker had idolized jazz musicians when they were still suburban kids dreaming of escape. The Dan imagined the title as a sort of mascot for the would-be down and out: “If a college football team like the University of Alabama could have a grandiose name like the ‘Crimson Tide’ the nerds and losers should be entitled to a grandiose name as well,” Fagen once explained.

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“Babylon Sisters” (1980)

The perfect opener to Gaucho, the final album of the Dan’s initial run and the one that represented the peak of their studio perfectionism, “Babylon Sisters” might be the band’s single sleaziest song – not to mention their saddest. Our protagonist drives “west on Sunset” with a pair of hookers, chasing a dream of youthful Cali excess he knows is fading but can’t give up. “Well, I should know by now that it’s just a spasm,” Fagen sings over the song’s buttery-smooth lite-jazz groove, though it’s clear that the narrator’s midlife crisis might just be the death of him.

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“Hey Nineteen” (1980)

Gaucho is essentially a concept record about staying too long at the fair, and this track is its skeevy centerpiece. Steely Dan protagonists don’t come much more hilariously pathetic than the aging dude from this leisurely funk tune, who’s putting the moves on a 19-year-old. He brags about his frat exploits and tries to set the mood with some Aretha, only to find that his companion “don’t remember the Queen of Soul.” The song builds to perhaps the ultimate yacht-rock refrain, which many singing it back to the band live don’t seem to realize is pure satire: “The Cuervo Gold/The fine Colombian/Make tonight a wonderful thing.”

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“Cousin Dupree” (2000)

Becker and Fagen may have been all grown up when they returned with their multi-Grammy-winning 2000 comeback album, Two Against Nature, but they still couldn’t keep their minds out of the gutter. Case in point: this tale of a deadbeat dude’s futile attempts to seduce his younger cousin. As always, their portrayal of misguided middle-age lust was creepily spot-on: “Honey how you’ve grown/Like a rose/Well, we used to play/When we were three/How about a kiss for your cousin Dupree?” The song would later lead to a bizarre flap with Owen Wilson, when the pair claimed – facetiously or not, it was hard to say – that the premise for his 2006 movie You, Me and Dupree was lifted from the tune.

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