Just to be clear, this is not an interview with them (I wish it was, though ;))
I hate the fact that there was this group (At least at one point it was a group) that I have only had very patchy information about for many years, that I’ve only had a limited amount of access to, that had little airplay on the station I used to have on all the time (I used to listen to WPLJ in New York for my rock, but I think they mostly just played “hits” by Steely Dan, whereas WNEW-FM was a far superior station that had an unlimited playlist that made me question whether that station even had one at all), to the point where I believe that I simply didn’t get it. I was too busy getting into why groups like Styx sounded so incredible, but I guess the version of “incredible” you have an impression of at the age of 12 is not quite the one that you get when you’ve heard the most incredible jazz performance for the first time and you’ve already gone through the hard-rock phase.
When I did hear songs from the 1977 LP Aja on the radio, I noticed that there were these jarringly beautiful strange chords (Ones which I can’t even begin to decipher what they are) on almost all the songs on that album (“Peg,” “Aja,” “Deacon Blues,” “Black Cow” particularly). How do you notice things like this when you’re me and you’re not an avid fan of the group (not yet anyway), and you can’t even read music (I was just learning piano at that time)?
I did notice that there was much progression in the Dan’s music when I heard eariler songs as well. It is believed that the group was formed because Fagen and Becker’s songs were too complex for the other artists at ABC Records (The label that they were on and that they were originally assigned to as staff writers) so the ambition was always seemingly there.
When I met my friend Scott Parker in the early ’90’s, he let me join his band, and we had discussed a lot of favorite bands and artists, many of which were the same. Along with being a hard buff of Frank Zappa, he was also the first person I met that was a huge fanatic of Steely Dan. He had ALL the albums, and he even knew things I didn’t, like the trivia about the Gaucho outtake “The Second Arrangement”, the song that was accidentally erased by an assistant engineer and was tried again to no avail (What is believed to be a completed alternate take exists on bootlegs and on YouTube; see below). He also knew about the drug habits of Becker and Fagen (Scott knew a lot of things I didn’t, but I chalk this up to the fact that he loved reading and sought research where needed; He writes books now, so this is not such a shock), and other little-known facts I hadn’t heard before. It was great to run into another walking-Rosetta-Stone-of-music-trivia to hear this from.
I’ve noticed that Steely Dan still have a huge influence on musicians today, perhaps not so much on pop music but absolutely on hip-hop as they have been sampled by quite a few hip-hop artists like De La Soul, Lord Tariq and Peter Gunz, and Kanye West.
I guess the nicest effect that Steely Dan have left is on the students of Becker and Fagen’s alma mater Bard College. How else can you explain that another one of its alumni, cellist Ashley Bathgate was getting into them while she was a student there? I don’t think it was a coincidence.
And I have to say, thank the lord for YouTube and other resources online for letting us all take in Steely Dan in volumes unthinkable back in the day. It’s a even bigger blessing to hear them now, especially since they still sound the same, look better as they age, and are, and have always been a timeless act.