After we started this discussion I mentioned that I think Steely Dan has to be considered in any discussion of great American rock ‘n’ roll bands. In response my friend JV asked — with some incredulity — “Are they really a rock’n’ roll band?” I think it is a fair question, but I also think the answer is yes. The difficulty is that Steely Dan was so different that they are difficult to categorize, with lyrics that were as opaque as you can get and musical styles that varied widely from one album to the next. Nevertheless, the songs clearly fall within the broad spectrum of rock ‘n’ roll, even if they hit different points on that spectrum. Reelin’ In The Years is one of the best guitar songs ever recorded, and Bodhisattva isn’t too shabby, either. Black Friday and Dirty Work are very strong keyboard compositions. Then you have a song like Do It Again, which has an almost jazzy, Afropop feel to it, and The Fez, with its memorable chorus . . . if you were working in a record store in the 1970s, where would you have put the new Steely Dan album, other than in the rock section?
I admire the way Steely Dan kept looking to new musical styles and sounds, all the while staying true to their trademark tight harmonies, catchy melodies, and extraordinarily cryptic lyrics. You had to listen carefully to their songs to try to figure out what the hell was going on, and even then you always felt like you were missing out on the joke or the rest of the story. What was it about Guadalajara that wouldn’t do, and who were Gino and Daddy G? Why was it relevant that people call Alabama The Crimson Tide? Why wouldn’t you do it without the fez on? Was the 19-year-old being plied with Cuervo Gold? These were intriguing questions to ponder on a lazy college afternoon.
Steely Dan easily was one of the most influential bands of the 1970s, and albums like Aja and Can’t Buy A Thrill were played repeatedly on the 101 W. 8th Ave. stereo system. Appropriately, the band’s songs are well represented on the Ipod. The selections include FM, Do It Again, The Fez, Reelin’ In The Years, Black Friday, Dirty Work, My Old School, Deacon Blues, Hey Nineteen, and Only A Fool Would Say That.
Edited to add: Time to Vote for your choice for Best American Band!