Major Dudes: A Steely Dan Companion
(Overlook Press, 2018)
Steely Dan played the Paramount Theatre in Seattle on the first of July, 1974—there's a live recording—and the MC introduced the band thus: "Ladies and gentlemen, here by popular demand and at great expense to the management, you may like them—personally I don’t—from Los Angeles, California, Steely Dan!"
When I first heard this, I had a feeling that Donald Fagen (who in turn introduced himself to the crowd as “yours truly, Mary Tyler Moore”) and Walter Becker might have enjoyed that. After reading Major Dudes, I’m convinced they did.
Steely Dan is one of those bands that sharply divides opinion. Their fans tend to be musicians or, at the opposite end, people who just want some adult-sounding pop music. That’s the demographic for their major hit from 1977, Aja—sophisticated in ways far beyond almost every other pop/rock album in existence, gorgeously produced (it was heavily used as a stereo demonstration record during the LP/hi-fi era), and very much a lyrical puzzle.
What is incongruous about the Seattle gig is why this cynical MC didn’t dig the Dan when clearly they were sympathetic thinkers, cynics in a credulous era. The bounciness of the decade's pop culture—fueled by the volatile and fleeting mixture of cocaine, disco, and commodified self-improvement (EST, TM, body-building, running)—was as flimsy as colored cellophane wrapped around a package of narcissism, cynicism, and paranoia.
That was ultimately the decade—it began with a treasonous cynic in the White House, worked it’s way through the Weathermen, The Conversation, Three Days of the Condor, Dog Soldiers, Snowblind, and ended with Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism. To be “with it” nowadays, we’re supposed to see the 1970s as the age when punk was born, and we should because the Sex Pistols were about as cynical a marketing ploy as it gets. As Johnny Rotten asked the audience in San Francisco at the end of their notorious 1978 tour, “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?”
There was a temporary window when the grail of American culture—high-brow and low-brow working together in a multiracial society—seemed possible. It was a great decade for American film, the Top 40 (as Don Breithaupt points out in his smart 33-1/3 book on Aja) gathered together Cher, Chic, the Ramones, Jackson Browne, Parliament, Kiss, Chuck Mangione, Lynryd Skynyrd, and Steely Dan. What has endured, though, has been AOR, the mainstreaming of pornography, the Media-Political Industrial Complex, and Philip K. Dick’s schizophrenic paranoid.
And Steely Dan, like Randy Newman—another great survivor from then—saw the rottenness of the era ahead of time and staked a claim to a land that we would all eventually occupy. (As I write this, Spotify switches over from the abrading The Royal Scam to Moondance, and Van Morrison is the one who sounds cynical and insincere, while the Dan appear positively as Antisthenes, using criticism to smash obstacles in the way of a virtuous life.)
The Dan's velvet-wrapping cushioned songs about the post-apocalypse, "King of the World” about watching 8MM porn—the sprightly, tropical “Everyone's Gone to the Movies”—shallow religious trends, “Bodhisattva,” and middle-aged men fooling themselves—“Babylon Sisters” and “Hey Nineteen,” the opening two tracks on Gaucho. Then there’s The Royal Scam, perhaps not their greatest record but their toughest, with songs about cooking up LSD, radical terrorism, cuckoldry, economic exploitation. The only thing darker in their discography is “Deacon Blues,” on Aja, a song about suicide. This is Steely Dan, so it sounds nothing like Billie Holiday or Joy Division; it’s a major-key, mid-tempo ballad with a great hook.
Chris Welch describes the Dan in Melody Maker as: “Really [Fagen and Becker’s] orchestra, designed to present the songs on stage and record in the best way possible.” The two were jazz fans though not quite jazz musicians, and as professional songwriters before starting the band, they reached back to popular song forms from before the 1950s for their values and models.
That’s been a tough sell since Elvis hit the airwaves, but the Dan somehow pulled it off, a royal scam in itself. But how? Major Dudes doesn’t quiet explain it, but it does go a long way toward filling in the picture. There are essentially two different things collected within the book: contemporaneous record reviews and interviews/profiles. Major Dudes covers Donald Fagen’s solo albums and ends with David Cavanagh’s obituary of Walter Becker, published in Uncut in November of last year. For a Dan fan, it’s fascinating to read about what the critics were hearing, which was a combination of baffled satisfaction, baffled ambivalence, and baffled displeasure. One thing that is consistent, especially from the British writers, is how different the Dan sounded from everything and everyone else they were hearing.
Hoskyns has judiciously gathered a lot of perceptive thinking, especially admirable because of how unmusical most rock critics are and how complex the Dan’s music is. What’s understandably missing is the specific perspective of the art song, the “prosody” of music that Breithaupt puts his finger on. The Pop song form is mostly even, repetitive chunks structured in blocks, with the singer on top. Steely Dan songs not only explode that form, but use complex harmonies (from Jazz and the Great American Songbook) to both mirror the lyrics and to undercut them, offering different meanings, making the singer into an unreliable narrator, whether or not he’s aware of that. Their music isn’t Don Giovanni, but it works in the same manner.
It’s commonplace to praise their studio wizardry, but they had none, as any single attentive listen will reveal. They used the same gear and engineering techniques as everyone else. What set them apart and made their reputation in the studio was their attention to detail and their perfectionism. For the first, listen to “Peg.” Key in on the hi-hat and remember that it took up to eight guitarists and hours of takes to produce the solo that Fagen and Becker wanted. For the last, read Robert Palmer’s Rolling Stone profile, “Disaster and Triumph in the Custerdome,” which begins by describing a four-hour mixing session spent on the less than six minutes of “Babylon Sisters.” The Dan wanted their records to sound great, meaning they wanted to give their listeners something good. Despite their reputation for inscrutability, that’s as open and honest as it gets.