Look, Steely Dan is not for everyone. Let’s face it, it’s sort of a weird band that’s too jazzy to be progressive rock, and too rock to be considered jazz, that was slotted into the slosh pit of the classic rock space by Clear Channel some 35 years ago, and asked to fend for itself among legacy AC/DC and Lynyrd Skynyrd cuts. If your life’s purpose is to throw up the devil horns every chance you get, when a song like Steely Dan’s “Peg” comes on, you don’t know what to do with yourself. At least it’s not Elton John, I guess.
And so the legacy of Steely Dan was cemented for millions of Americans through the classic rock radio format, whether you grew up listening to the records when they were first released, or got introduced to the band later in life. Like it does for every band, classic rock radio condensed what was otherwise a quite involved and diverse musical legacy down to a few select tracks that it summarily shoved down your throat for decades and decades until you loved to hate it, but for some sadistic reason couldn’t stop listening, possibly because it still was better than Top 40, or the country format after the Class of ’89, and Pandora and Spotify were still decades away.
So there you were being force fed “Reelin’ In The Years” and “Do It Again” over and over again with no recourse, and telling your fellow classic rock buddies how much Steely Dan sucked. After all, the band is named after a freaking dildo, and have you seen photos of Donald Fagan and Walter Becker? These guys aren’t cool. Why are they even being played on the classic rock station?
Maybe you had a sense that behind the scenes, among the population of musicians themselves, there was a much higher regard for Steely Dan because of the way they were able to slither complexity into pop and rock music in a way that allowed the population to be receptive to it. Maybe you knew that despite the narrow playlist on the radio, Steely Dan had even better deep cuts, or hadn’t stopped recording in the 70’s, despite the radio ignoring it. You didn’t know what exactly it was you didn’t like about Steely Dan. Maybe it was Donald Fagan’s high pitched voice, or the sort of quasi disco sound of “Peg” and others. But you didn’t like it.
That is, until you did.
At some point you started craving those guitar licks on “Reelin’ In The Years.” “Deacon Blues” seemed to encapsulate a depressed mood better than most. Maybe it even angered you when they played the shorter radio edit version of “Do It Again” that eliminated the keyboard solo. All of a sudden, despite the continued coolness of bagging on Steely Dan and Supertramp as the denizens of uncool on the classic rock format, you began to understand why they were essential. In some ways, they helped legitimize it. They were like The Band. They could have been huge, but they decided to soldier forth with their music via less trodden paths that purposely hung to the side of popularity so as not to corrupt the sentiments they were trying to covey. They were popular despite themselves, because they were just too good to be ignored, even if they were often misunderstood.
But you still held your appreciation for Steely Dan close to the vest. You didn’t want anyone else to think you were uncool, like Steely Dan. And the radio kept playing them, because that’s what classic rock radio does.
I remember seeing Clint Black on an episode of Austin City Limits back in maybe the early 2000’s, and randomly Clint and the band decided to launch into a straight, uninterpreted version of Steely Dan’s “Josie.” It was even one of those Steely Dan songs that veers uncomfortably close to funk or disco. Yet that was the first time I realized it could be cool to like a Steely Dan song, even as a country fan.
The death of Steely Dan’s guitarist and founding member Walter Becker has classic rock fans reminiscing on the band’s legacy, and others reconsidering it. Steely Dan is a weird band. It’s not for everyone. But it shouldn’t be uncool to like their music. Because Steely Dan was cool. It was just uncool to like them. Until it wasn’t.