Most fans are probably aware that a sex toy from the novel ‘Naked Lunch’ by William Burroughs inspired keyboardist Donald Fagen and guitarist Walter Becker to name their group Steely Dan. Some might even know that ‘Kid Charlemagne’ was inspired by the misadventures of LSD chemist Owsley Stanley. So, let’s dig deeper for 20 lesser-known facts about Steely Dan:
Fagen and Becker were jazz fans who had no use for rock until they heard the Beatles. For Fagen, it was ‘Ticket to Ride’; for Becker, ‘No Reply.’ Becker still doesn’t like rock if there aren’t enough chord changes.
In the late ‘60s, the songwriters worked at New York’s Brill Building. The first song they ever had recorded was ‘I Mean to Shine’ by Barbra Streisand. The royalties were signed over to their previous manager, says Becker, “to escape from his clutches.”
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Becker and Fagen met at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson in upstate New York. The school, and the town, served as the setting in ‘My Old School.’
Comedian Chevy Chase also attended Bard and played drums in Becker and Fagen’s band, the Leather Canary.
Less than two miles from Annandale is Barrytown, which became the title of a Steely Dan tune. It’s home to the headquarters of Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church. Becker and Fagen referred to Rev. Moon’s followers, the Moonies, when they sang, “But look at what you wear / And the way you cut your hair / I can see by what you carry that you come from Barrytown.”
Becker and Fagen were the bass and keyboard players in the touring band of Jay and the Americans in the late ‘60s. Fagen used the pseudonym Tristan Fabriani; Becker was Gus Mahler. They played on the group’s last Top 20 hit, ‘Walkin’ in the Rain.’
Walter Becker sang on many of their early demos. “I sang a lot of the songs because I sang much louder,” Becker says, but that ended when “I realized what a great singer he was and what a s—ty, out-of-tune singer I was.”
Fagen, who never felt comfortable as a lead singer, could not find anyone else with the “smirky feel” the music requires. At one point Loudon Wainwright III was asked to join as vocalist but declined.
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David Palmer was an early member of Steely Dan who sang lead on ‘Dirty Work’ and ‘Brooklyn.’ Palmer sued the band in early 2014, claiming he was cheated on digital performance royalties.
When ‘Do It Again’ was released in 1972, it was credited on the sleeve as a traditional song even though it was written by Becker and Fagen. “You should never believe anything it ever says on a Steely Dan record,” says Fagen. “It’s mostly a bunch of lies and bulls— that we write just to confuse the listener.”
‘Pretzel Logic’ is about time travel. “When it says, ‘I stepped up on the platform / The man gave me the news,’ we conceived the platform as a teleportation device,” Fagen says. “And there are other key lines like ‘I’ve never met Napoleon but I plan to find the time.’ What we’re actually saying is I plan to find the time in that he lived in.”
After losing a sports bet, one of the pair had to wear a paper clamp on stage during every show for ten years. Becker says, “I’m not going to tell you who won the contest, but that was a mistake.”
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When Michael McDonald joined Steely Dan in 1975, providing background vocals and keyboards, Fagen voted to make him lead singer but was vetoed.
Becker and Fagen were inspired to write satirical songs by reading science fiction as kids. “Writers like Alfred Bester, Fredric Brown and Robert Heinlein,” says Fagen. “They were mainly writing satire under the guise of science fiction.”
Even Becker and Fagen don’t know what some of their obscure expressions mean. “Walter and I enjoy making up our own slang,” says Fagen. “In ‘Josie,’ a street gang uses a weapon called a ‘battle apple.’ I don’t know what that is, but it sounded better than anything else we could come up with.”
The songs Becker and Fagen are most tired of playing: ‘Rikki Don’t Lose That Number’ and ‘Reelin’ in the Years.’
As ‘Black Cow’ begins, Fagen sings, “I saw you in Rudy’s / You were very high.” He’s referring to Rudy’s Bar and Grill, an old school dive on Ninth Avenue in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen.
Asked about the lyric, “They call Alabama the Crimson Tide / Call me Deacon Blues,” Fagen said, “Walter and I had been working on that song at a house in Malibu. I played him that line, and he said, ‘You mean it’s like, ‘They call these cracker a–holes this grandiose name like the Crimson Tide, and I’m this loser, so they call me this other grandiose name, Deacon Blues?’ And I said, ‘Yeah!’ He said, ‘Cool, let’s finish it.'”
Steely Dan had decided to reject Kanye West’s request to sample ‘Kid Charlemagne’ for his ‘Champion’ track. After West sent a heartfelt letter saying that the song was written about his feelings for his father, Becker and Fagen allowed it.
Fagen likes to make fun of the aging hippies who attend Steely Dan concerts. Fagen has written that “Tonight the crowd looked so geriatric I was tempted to start calling out bingo numbers. By the end of the set, they were all on their feet, albeit shakily, rocking. … So this, now, is what I do: assisted living.”
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