Steely Dan Sunday: Songs That Got Us Hooked on Steely Dan

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We’re all Steely Dan fans here, that much is clear. And like most lifelong love affairs with a band, it all started with one song. A single track that hit us just so, turned the light on and got us well on our way to Steely Dan fandom.

Preston Frazier, Nick Deriso, John Lawler and S. Victor Aaron reminisce about that magic moment when their minds were blown away by the artful brilliance of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker. Click on nested links within the song titles to read even more about ’em…


And I’m going insane
And I’m laughing at the frozen rain
And I’m so alone
Honey when they gonna send me home
Bad sneakers and a Piña Colada
My friend
Stompin’ on the avenue
By Radio City with a
Transistor and a large
Sum of money to spend…

There are many Steely Dan lyrics which have moved and inspired me in my childhood but none which touched me in my early Steely Dan journey as much as these from the song “Bad Sneakers” from the 1975 album Katy Lied. Katy Lied was not my first Steely Dan album, that honor going to the 1978 Greatest Hits release; however, it was the first one I was to hear along with Pretzel Logic. Both albums were 8 track tapes in my brother’s collection. On both of those albums there are many classics (as there is on every Steely Dan album), but “Bad Sneakers” forever placed the Steely Dan monkey in my soul.

The late Hugh McCracken’s rhythm guitar with its angular grace gets things started, accompanied by Jeff Porcaro’s tight rim work. Chuck Rainey enters on the act with his sly bass work while Donald Fagen delivers elegant verses in rapid succession. Hard to believe Fagen didn’t want to be Steely Dan’s lead vocalist as his performance on “Bad Sneakers” is the best performance up until this point. Michael Omartian provides moments of brilliance with his Bosendorfer piano flourishes but a new star rises in the second chorus of the song. Former touring keyboardist (and future Doobie Brother) Michael McDonald provides a multitracked background vocal which is unparalleled in Dandom.

These elements alone are enough for a classic rock song but Walter Becker contributes a guitar solo which is beyond classic. His bluesy guitar run matches the emotion of Fagen’s and McDonald’s vocal delivery and also mirrors the taste and elegance of the vibraphone fills of percussionist Victor Feldman.

Amazingly, the song failed to chart for the band but “Bad Sneakers” is still a concert favorite by Steely Dan and an important fixture in my musical journey.

NICK DERISO: “FM (No Static At All)”

I knew Steely Dan, or at least I knew the songs. Well, I thought I knew the songs. For years, I was certain that “Do It Again” was by Santana. Nobody could convince me it wasn’t, until a trip to Stan’s Record Shop. We pulled out Can’t Buy a Thrill, and there it was — “Do It Again,” the lead-off track. Stan must have thought we were idiots.

OK, but I knew Steely Dan, in that I knew Donald Fagen was the lead singer. Another argument at Stan’s, this time over “Dirty Work” from the same album. Not Fagen. In fact, it was somebody named David Palmer. Stan was getting to know us, by then. Oh, I knew Steely Dan, in that I knew Skunk Baxter was the guitarist. I’d seen it in one of the music magazines belonging to my friend Jamie down the block. Another argument, this time over “Peg.” Who in the hell is Jay Graydon? Another chuckle from Stan. What I wouldn’t have done for the internet back then.

Actually, I didn’t know anything about Steely Dan. To that point, for whatever reason, I’d never been moved to buy one of those albums from Stan, meaning I’d yet to experience Aja as a song cycle. In truth, I was really just a consumer of Steely Dan via their odd intersections with Casey Kasem — until “FM (No Static At All),” then, as now, my favorite Steely Dan song.

It opened up their whole catalog for me, became my personal countdown to ecstasy. I worked backward to everything that made them great, but only after playing my “FM” 45 in the summer of ’78 until the grooves were smooth. “Man,” I said to my buddy, “SKUNK IS KILLING THIS.” Back to Stan’s, we went.

JOHN LAWLER: “Green Earrings”

The Siren that beckoned to the world of Steely Dan was coy and canny. She offered tasty taffy in the form of that extended, odd Doors-like “Do It Again” cut. “Reelin’ In The Years” stormed the spring and summer of ’73. While a young lad, our next door neighbor tempted us with the Can’t Buy a Thrill opus, and I was quickly drawn to the powerful hipster hooks of “Midnite Cruiser.”

We thought that Steely Dan might be African-American, and upon gazing on the inner sleeve lined with bronzed bodies, we still weren’t sure. Yet I remained tied to the mast. The following summer “Rikki Don’t Lose that Number” was seductive in its jazzy chassis and an emotive solo from Skunk Baxter.

There was nary a peep in our neck of the woods from Katy Lied, but when I first heard “Kid Charlemagne” on the radio. I stopped the car. Yes, I stopped the car and pulled over. Who put that nasty, turbo clavinet funk into Steely Dan? Who made a major deposit of musical Benjamins into the Bank of Badass? A buddy had the new Royal Scam album, and on first listen the clarity of the dark vision was revealed: a twisted tribute to the underbelly of America’s bicentennial year. Something equivalent can be heard in another 5-1/2 years with the Police’s Ghost in the Machine.

I flip over to side two and a sinister refrain ushers in the tale of a sociopathic, sophistical jewel thief. Paul Griffin orchestrates the entire heist and there it is, the triple play of Carton, Dias, and Randall straight dirty guitar solo sequence! I was hooked as “Green Earrings” became the gateway drug the following day in purchasing Katy Lied, Pretzel Logic, and Countdown to Ecstasy, and a warmup to that shimmering, glossy black covered gem in the Fall of ’77.

S. VICTOR AARON: “Black Cow”

Sure, I knew about radio staples “Do It Again,” “Reelin’ In The Years” and “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” and while I liked ‘em, I wasn’t even aware they were all from the same band. But the day my older brother Chris brought home Aja one weekend home from his freshman year at college in late 1977, everything changed.

Listening to Aja for the first time was like going through life thinking that a Fleetwood was a nice ride and then stepping inside a Silver Shadow. The level for sophistication on a rock album was astounding and so obvious. Odd chord changes and not a single note played out of place. The instruments worked together in cool new ways that seemed to combine to form a new instrument.

Chris had also turned me on to the Crusaders around the same time and I quickly noticed that two or three of those guys were appearing on the credits for this record. Here I first realized that this Steely Dan band took very seriously the personnel they used on their records and it made such a difference in the finished product.

“Black Cow” isn’t necessarily the best song on Aja, but it begins the classic album in high-steppin’ fashion. Larry Carlton’s two-note tweet at the beginning of the bar, Joe Sample’s moaning clavinet tracing Chuck Rainey’s flawless bass line was a revelation of how delectably nuanced a groove can get. And then there’s those smooth metropolitan lyrics amid horn arrangements that traces back to the genius of another era: Duke Ellington.

I was enthralled by that entire album (still am), but good first impressions lead to second dates, and before long I was digging into the back catalog of those first five albums, rediscovered the hits and found so many deep tracks that my favorite songs and favorite albums changed by the mood. Even today I can listen to “Black Cow” and discover something cool about it I didn’t pay much attention to before. The quest for finding the depth of Steely Dan songs hasn’t ended, and I hope it never does.


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