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About Steely Dan
With their jazz-schooled chops and studio-crafted elegance, Steely Dan symbolized the softening of rock throughout the '70s. But though their music projected an air of affluence, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker were more interested in lyrically interrogating the era’s decadence, staging each song as a swanky high-society party infiltrated by prostitutes, gamblers, and other wayward souls desperate to make a dollar. Upon forming in New York in 1972, Steely Dan projected more of a streetwise edge on early standards like the Santana-esque “Do It Again” and “Reeling in the Years,” whose arpeggiated guitar hook anticipated the twinned-lead solos of Thin Lizzy. But like The Beatles before them, Fagen and Becker stopped touring to reinvent Steely Dan as a studio-based, session-player-powered entity, pursuing a more finessed fusion of jazz, rock, and soul that achieved its apotheosis on 1977’s immaculate Aja. And yet, as their music became more sophisticated, Fagen’s lyrics turned more seedy and cynical, lacing the proto-disco groove of “Peg” with suggestive casting-couch intimations, while using the smooth strut of “Hey Nineteen” to catalog the dysfunctional relationship between an older man and his teenage lover. After splitting in 1981, Steely Dan enjoyed a surprise second act beginning with 2000’s Two Against Nature, proving they’re still the only band that can write a breezy song about incestual desire (“Cousin Dupree”) and get Grammys in return. The 21st century saw Steely Dan become a more active touring act than ever before, and Fagen kept the show on the road even after Becker’s death from cancer in 2017. All the while, Steely Dan continue to cast a long shadow over the contemporary musical landscape, through the forward-thinking rappers (Kanye West, Wiz Khalifa) who’ve sampled their supple arrangements, and the indie iconoclasts (Mac DeMarco, Father John Misty) who embed illicit ideas in soothing songs.
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