Steely Dan’s 30 Greatest Songs Ranked

MOJO’s major dudes put their heads together to select the cleverest band in rock’s finest tracks.

Steely Dan

by MOJO |
Updated on

WALK-ON PARTS FOR CHARLIE PARKER, the opera singer Cathy Berberian, and a basketball player called Jungle Jim Loscutoff. Location visits to Annandale in upstate New York and the caves of Altamira in Spain. A drinks menu stocked with kirschwasser, retsina, Cuervo Gold tequila and Tanqueray gin. A ride on the Wolverine train out of New York. And, most delightful of all, a Japanese dildo invented by William Burroughs – the “Steely Dan III from Yokohama”.

The world that Walter Becker and Donald Fagen evoke in the songs of Steely Dan resembles a connoisseur’s take on the American 20th century, at once snarky and affectionate, cynical and surreptitiously moral. Their songs encapsulate high art and low lives; their albums have the wit, heft, erudition and resonance of Great American Novels; their chops, of course, are consummate. Over nine studio albums, Steely Dan provided the perfect soundtrack for upwardly-mobile lifestyles, while simultaneously skewering the venality and pretension that at least some of their listeners aspired to.

A very smart trick, and few artists in MOJO’s pantheon have been smarter than Becker and Fagen. The pair met in 1967 in Annandale, students at Bard College who began playing with what Fagen called in his memoir “the funky grooves, the jazz chords and the sensibility of the lyrics which seemed to fall somewhere between Tom Lehrer and [Nabokov’s] Pale Fire.” Over the next half-century, with a vast supporting cast of gifted musicians and the odd solo hiatus, Steely Dan parlayed that undergraduate vision into subversion on a multiplatinum scale. Complexity becomes them to this day – as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Pretzel Logic and Fagen embarks on another season of touring with his current line-up – and consequently, the wisdom of ranking their songs seems a little gauche: one can imagine the late Becker’s droll contempt for such a folly.

Nevertheless: “You say it’s a crazy scheme,” to pluck a little wisdom from Deacon Blues. “This one’s for real…”



(from Donald Fagen, Kamakiriad, 1993)

Speculative friction, and a serendipitous reunion.

The gleaming future that never arrived as promised has been a constant source of disappointment for boomers. Odd, then, that so much of notorious cynic Donald Fagen’s solo work has revisited his teenage fantasies. Exhibit A: the syncopated pulse of _Kamakiriad’_s opening track, a be-bop sophisticate’s ideal of the perfect car (“The frame is out of Glasgow/The tech is Balinese”). So far, so smoothly transporting. But nestling in Trans-Island Skyway’s credits is an old friend destined to thwart the idealism: Walter Becker, producing, back alongside Fagen 13 bumpy years after GauchoJM



(from The Royal Scam, 1976)

A whole new identity, but at what price? Don and Walt aren’t saying.

In this futuristic crime saga, Fagen and Becker speak of reformative and escapist opportunities for an outlaw zombie. But what knocks this deep cut up to the Dan’s top shelf are the compelling zig-zagging melody, plus masterful accompaniment and solos by the late piano pro Paul Griffin and searing guitarist Elliott Randall. The latter’s modulated outro is utterly thrilling and kicked into the stratosphere by powerful horn charts, yet another example of Steely Dan’s singular musicality.  MSi



(from Two Against Nature, 2000)

The kings of smut-rock take on another taboo.

No doubt the only pop song addressing intrafamily sex to win a Grammy Award. When the protagonist tries to seduce his cousin while watching her “wax her skis”, she slyly scorns him, nailing “the skeevy look in your eyes” and “the dreary architecture of your soul”. Walter shines on a slinky guitar and a funky bass, reminding us again what a terrific instrumentalist he was, while Fagen’s stepdaughter Amy Helm whistles during the bridge – appropriately keeping it in the family. MSi



(from 11 Tracks Of Whack, 1994)

Sung by Walter Becker, co-produced by Fagen. Sounds like…

Tellingly, after Becker died in 2017, Fagen paid tribute by introducing (or, more accurately, re-introducing) one solo Becker track into the Steely Dan live set. It’s easy to see why it was Book Of Liars. Like the rest of the Fagen co-produced 11 Tracks Of Whack, it’s unashamedly Dan-esque, although more spartan, but it’s the album’s highlight. It glides majestically, Becker adds a touch of cynicism (“There’s a star in the book of liars by your name”) and the rest glows, albeit while glowering. JA



(from Everything Must Go, 2003)

More First World Problems from the poets of same.

Post-divorce, Fagen’s jaded avatar itemises the good things that have walked out the door (“the talk, the sex, somebody to trust…”) segueing drolly into the material losses (“the Audi TT, the house on the Vineyard…”) – superlative songcraft chops suggesting Cole Porter via Randy Newman in a tune as catchy as any the Dan ever wrote. In 2003, Fagen had been married to Libby Titus for a decade, and appears to remain so. Maybe he found his own song salutary. DE



(from Can’t Buy A Thrill, 1972)

Impossible dreams hit the buffers of merciless reality? Could be.

To a ’luded up, oddly rueful bossa amble, Fagen examines his nails, turns, and looks over his shades to reflect on utopia. From one angle, it seems to dismiss the hippy elite’s unrealisable Aquarian ideals and contempt for the bill-paying 9-to-5 schlub (one theory is it relates to Lennon at his white piano imagining no possessions). From another, the do-nothing cynic brigade is hoist by its own petard. A curious hint of murder, as the jazz guitars sparkle on the motel pool. IH



(from Countdown To Ecstasy, 1973)

Drivetime music, post-apocalypse style.

The grimly humorous lyric describes a survivor of a nuclear holocaust holed up for safety, re-reading bad news in “last year’s papers”, and trying to contact others via an old radio with intent to drive “through the ruins of Santa Fe”. It showcases early Dan as a cooking band, the interplay between Walter Becker’s ebullient bass and Jim Hodder’s limber drums matched by Jeff Baxter’s wah-wah chord work and Denny Dias’s fluid lead lines, while Donald Fagen’s synth melody adds a melancholic twist. MBa



(from Katy Lied, 1975)

Break out the popcorn with Donald and Walter’s skin-flick creep.

A percussive bromance between drum prodigy Jeff Porcaro, 20, and vibraphone veteran Victor Feldman, 40, the Dan’s queasy tale of underage corruption vastly improves upon both their 1971 demo and their inspiration Frank Zappa’s similar celebrations of sleaze. Despite darkly funny/ deeply triggering verses whose insinuating enticement to join Mr Lapage “showing his films in the den” is echoed in a snaky saxophone licking your ear, the chorus is singalong pop heaven. “Now we’re alone at last,” indeed. MSn



(from Gaucho, 1980)

The glory years of cocaine being good for you, spoiled.

To the most machine-smooth, lightest-stepping, jazz-disco production, a tale of coke dealing, from snorting ballplayer Hoops McCann all the way to cartel sales rep Jive Miguel, via showbiz parties, a smuggler’s yacht and, by inference, the heart attack emergency room. Best bit: when the old nose candy actually speaks, and declares “Hollywood, I know your middle name.” A towering, immaculate piece of we-told-yaso Dan snark, it makes the whole amoral mess sound alluring, and encourages speculation on the identities of the protagonists. IH



(from Katy Lied, 1975)

The Dan is dead. Long live The Dan

IN THE USA, the term ‘Black Friday’ currently connotes: 1) that November day after Thanksgiving when early Christmas shoppers traditionally score their best deals; 2) that fateful week in 1929 when the Great Depression kicked in; and 3) most notably, that notorious day back in 1869, when the price of gold fell by 20 per cent, the stock market crashed, and panic was, as always, widespread.

In related news, it’s also one of Steely Dan’s very best songs. The opening track of Katy Lied – the band’s fourth album, appropriately bearing a katydid, or bush cricket, on its cover – it marks the debut of Steely Dan the duo and the exit of Steely Dan the band. With the departures of guitarist Jeff Baxter and drummer Jim Hodder, and guitarist Denny Dias seemingly relegated to a minimal presence, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen would pilot their fully gassed-up car alone from that point forward. And significantly, with a host of exemplary musicians to choose from, Black Friday’s searing guitar leads (and bass) are provided by none other than Becker himself, and their howling fluidity and conciseness are remarkable even now. Who needed another guitarist?

It is a completely Dannian masterwork: quirky characters, quirky actions, and quirky afterthoughts.

It’s fitting that the first track unleashed post band would take up The End Of The World As We Know It as its subject matter: while panicked execs leap from high-rise windows, the song’s shady protagonist is announcing his plans to depart this world of high finance, fly to Australia, take off his socks and shoes and feed the kangaroos until the whole mess blows over. It is a completely Dannian masterwork: quirky characters (including an anonymous Archbishop), quirky actions (striking all “the big red words from my little black book”) and quirky afterthoughts (“I guess I’ll change my name”).

And one of Black Friday’s marvels is how very much it sounds like it was written just yesterday. The grey men “diving from the fourteenth floor” now evoke visions of the World Trade Center on 9/11. Hiding from civilisation in the outback could be someone’s legitimate Covid-avoidance strategy. Digging a hole and laying down in it until you satisfy your soul has been around since the Neanderthals. Some things never change.

Though there were technical issues in the recording of Katy Lied that would mar its making for the band and producer Gary Katz – it’s “not what we recorded,” Katz told me back in 1984 – sonically, it is a marvel.

And ‘Black Friday’? From its dual piano fade-in, courtesy of sessioneers David Paich and Michael Omartian, to the vocals provided by Fagen and vital new addition Michael McDonald, and the driving beat of drummer Jeff Porcaro, then just 20, Steely Dan the band may have broken up, but Steely Dan the recording artists had never sounded stronger. DD



(from Katy Lied, 1975)

Doctor Who, more like. Wu remains a cypher.

A personification of Katie’s dope habit? A shrink who abuses his power? The protagonist’s saviour when he was “halfway crucified”? Across the years, Becker and Fagen delighted in explanational obfuscation. Bell-tree shimmers and Phil Woods’ alto sax elevate the airbrushed elegance, Michael McDonald found his bv part thrilling, but challenging, and Katy’s denial (of her drug use? Of an affair with Wu?) provided the title of Steely Dan’s fourth album. Probably the only pop song to use the word “piaster”, too. JMc



(from Aja, 1977)

A cryptic break-up song. “Self-explanatory,” says Donald Fagen.

The music sounds like it could be playing in the bar where the narrator tells his partner he’s had enough of her infidelity. She downs her black cow – a coke float – before splitting, as the backing singers sweetly coo their commentary. This drama takes place over a doozy of a groove by drum maestro Bernard Purdie, known for bringing a sign into sessions proclaiming “You done hired the hitmaker.” Black Cow wasn’t a hit, but picked up plenty of FM airplay as the B-side of Josie. MBa



(from Pretzel Logic, 1974)

Mind the generation gap, please.

This could be the opening theme to a ’70s sitcom. That sporty piano figure. The throwback feelgood melody. A lyric that unfolds like a montage of some balding, middle-aged square shaking his head and fist at the hi-jinks of nextgen hipsters. Barrytown is near Bard College, Becker and Fagen’s alma mater. So maybe there’s some autobiography here? Fagen – who wrote this by himself – demurred, saying, “It’s fiction. I used the name because I liked the sound of it.” BD



(from Gaucho LP, 1980)

No fool like an old fool, argues the Dan’s longest-charting hit.

Over Rick Marotta’s puckered drums and aptly smug stabs of guitar, a song-cycle of characters in decline, Gaucho’s lead single featured a boomer realising that his most impressive status symbol, the much-younger girlfriend, is a poor fit. She doesn’t know who Aretha Franklin is. The pair can’t even dance together, a distance even copious amounts of “Cuervo Gold” and “fine Colombian” can only hope to bridge.  “Older-guy/younger-gal stories always make us laugh,” Fagen explained; another failed May-to-December tryst featured on Cousin Dupree. SC



(from The Royal Scam, 1976)

“Now we dolly back/Now we fade to black.” For who can bear to look?

The pukka skank; the toothsome allure of Dean Parks’ chewy talk-box spicing – here was an untypically tropical Dan sketching Babs and Clean Willie’s wham, bam, bust story with dazzling thrift. A verse in and they’re divorced; verse two sees Babs neck zombies and seduce a new fling. Alas, the uncertain paternity of the child she’s conceived will nix her and Willie’s verse three reunion. “If you can say ‘incompatibility of character’ in French you’re as good as gold,” claimed Fagen re actual divorce in Haiti. JMc



(1978, single)

A radio staple about how radio sucks.

“It just has to be about FM radio,” was the loose guidance from the Hollywood moguls who commissioned the theme to FM, which starred Martin Mull as a quixotic DJ taking a stand against The Man. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the song – cut during sessions for Aja – took a more cynical view of the DJ’s purpose, seeing them as purveyors of “funked-up Muzak” and noting “the girls don’t seem to care what’s on”. The movie was a flop, but the soundtrack went platinum. SC



(from Countdown To Ecstasy, 1973)

So disdainful, it can barely be bothered changing chords.

As simplistic as Steely Dan ever got. Jim Hodder’s metronomic groove – a cousin of Nilsson’s Coconut – is a skeleton through which Rick Derringer’s sizzling slide guitar blows inexorably. This time, the singer’s sitting targets – the cool, rich scions of Hollywood (clad in Steely Dan T-shirts, natch) – party “while the poor people sleepin’”. The pay-off – “They don’t give a fuck about anybody else” – repeated over 50 times in Super Furry Animals’ 1996 single The Man Don’t Give A Fuck, is about as satisfying a mantra as there is. DE



(from Can’t Buy A Thrill, 1972)

Working for Donald and Walter is a sordid business.

It’s a resigned lament, a freeway elegy sung by someone on their way to get fucked. By all accounts, Becker and Fagen didn’t like the song so they gave it to David Palmer. So when Palmer sings “I’m a fool to do your dirty work” against that funeral-parlour organ and second-line brass section he’s a weary free-for-hire gigolo but also Becker and Fagen’s rent boy. You hear that wretched cool in his delivery. He’s a fool to do their dirty work, but he’s the only one who can. AM



(from Gaucho, 1980)

The end of the line, so to speak.

A destination song heavy with oppressive polish. Narratively, it’s two guys driving west on Sunset to hook up with the titular “so fine, so young” siblings. But everything here – those muted noir horns, mocking backing vocals, Bernard Purdie’s stoned reggae shuffle, the slow rhumba of Randy Brecker’s flugelhorn, that Gatsby detail (“Distant lights from across the bay”) – tell us they’re never going to make it. It took 250 mixes to get this song ‘right’. You hear exhaustion in every perfect melancholy detail.  AM



(from Donald Fagen, The Nightfly, 1982)

A wary nostalgist finds his solo groove

PATHOLOGICAL SELF-CONSCIOUSNESS might have been key to Steely Dan, but personal honest y mostly seemed beneath them. For his first solo album, however, Donald Fagen tried out a different strategy. “I think it’s possible to be more personal and subjective when you’re working by yourself,” he told NME a few months after The Nightfly’s October 1982 release. To that end, the album came with a sleevenote promising, “The songs on this album represent certain fantasies that might have been entertained by a young man growing up in the remote suburbs of a northeastern city during the late ’50s and early ’60s, i.e., one of my general height, weight and build.”

The action of side two, track one takes place on the cusp of that revolutionary decade, informed by John F Kennedy’s speech to the Democratic Convention in 1960. “I’m asking each of you to be pioneers towards that New Frontier,” Kennedy proposed. “Can we carry through in an age where we will witness not only new breakthroughs in weapons of destruction, but also a race for master y of the sky and the rain, the ocean and the tides, the far side of space, and the inside of men’s minds?”

The song vibrated with possibility: sex, escape to the city, a transformed future.

Boundless optimism. Existential threat. Kennedy’s grand themes could reverberate in the most sedate environs, not least Passaic, New Jersey. It is here, or somewhere very like it, that the drama of Fagen’s New Frontier plays out. Our hero plots a “wingding” in his father’s fallout shelter, a date with a girl who will be seduced by his scholarly enthusiasm for Dave Brubeck. The song vibrates with possibility: sex, escape to the city, a transformed future, all potentially compromised by Cold War anxieties.

As in subject matter, so in sound. New Frontier, like the rest of The Nightfly, presents a stainless digital reimagining of how jazz, rather than rock’n’roll, could have underpinned the evolution of pop. “I think jazz died for me sometime in the mid ’60s,” Fagen told NME, but here it feels folded into what came next. It’s a song in constant forward motion: organic and programmed sounds in uncanny harmony; Larry Carlton’s guitar flecks like speed blurs on a never-ending freeway.

The candour is at least superficially overwhelmed by the dynamics, but even this degree of soul-baring proved traumatic for Fagen. “After delivering The Nightfly to Warner Brothers, I came apart like a cheap suit,” he wrote in his 2013 memoir, Eminent Hipsters. Panic attacks and depressive episodes would persist through most of the 1980s, followed by a suppression of autobiographical content on later records. By the time he returned in solo raiment with Kamakiriad in 1993, Fagen’s adolescent love of sci-fi had fashioned a tech-scape of supercars and sky ways – an idealised new frontier, untroubled by reality, into which the cautious world-builder could disappear completely. JM



(from Countdown To Ecstasy, 1973)

The hipster dharma according to Skunk and Denny.

The rock band as ultra-compacted Duke Ellington Orchestra, living out their fantasies in hyper-accelerated swing time. Fagen and Becker’s sarcastic take on the rich hippy quest for enlightenment is pointed, but it’s the Countdown-era quintet in full flow that makes Bodhisattva so remarkable, especially guitarists Denny Dias and Skunk Baxter trading harmonised riffs and solos. “Dias the Bebopper meets Baxter the skunk beneath the Bo Tree in this altered blues,” explained the sleevenotes, though comparing them to an uptown Duane Allman and Dickey Betts works, too. Has virtuosity ever sounded so exhilarating? JM



(from Pretzel Logic, 1974)

A dude abides and empathises.

Like Woody Allen and Neil Simon, Becker and Fagen used the ’70s comic trope of the New Yorker transplanted in Los Angeles, uncomfortably awash in sunshine and alfalfa sprouts. And in this song, the West Coast sobriquet of “dude”. The music is appropriately bi-coastal, Laurel Canyon feathery acoustics dovetailing with urban Wurlitzer stabs, as Chuck Rainey’s James Jamerson-like bass fastens it together. In one of a long line of fanciful/abstruse usages, there’s a reference to a mythical tear-dissolving creature that had the musicians whispering, “What’s a squonk?” BD



(from Countdown To Ecstasy, 1973)

Best buddies bemoan Bard bust.

Fagen and Becker first met at Bard College, a bohemian school in upstate New York. In 1968, the local fuzz busted dormitories of longhaired students for marijuana possession, including F&B. Furious at the school’s co-operation with the oinks, the duo wrote this catchy fuck-you. (The “Daddy Gee” namechecked was Assistant District Attorney G. Gordon Liddy, a future Watergate “burglar”.) Despite singing “I’m never going back to my old school,” Fagen returned in 1985, wryly explaining “I’m not one to hold a grudge.”  MS



(from Aja, 1977)

So much going on, but so subtly. A warm bath of a song.

After a lengthy separation, Aja the album marked Steely Dan’s divorce from rock, but its eight-minute centrepiece (the longest Dan song until West Of Hollywood) was their impeccably produced jazz-rock zenith. Lyrically a (sort-of) tribute to the sounds of Asia (“Chinese music always sets me free”), this was music to luxuriate in over the long distance. Beyond Fagen’s vocals and Denny Dias’s final Steely Dan moment, Steve Gadd and Wayne Shorter respectively delivered Michael McDonald’s memoir What A Fool Believes is published by Dey Street, May 2024. drum and saxophone solos of other-worldly quality.



(from Aja, 1977)

Of them all, this is the one that cuts deep.

Encapsulates all that Steely Dan excelled at: spotless and gorgeous playing, rich in the romance of jazz, and a lyric narrated by a character that is, sad to say, something of a loser. In this world, living the best life includes playing the saxophone, drinking Scotch whisky all night long, getting overly emotional while soloing, and then, inevitably, dying in a tragic car wreck. Unexpectedly, both lyric and music pierce the heart like few other songs ever have. DD



(from Pretzel Logic, 1974)

Dan get vulnerable and score their biggest US single –a coincidence?

Misanthropic Fagen stands down for this unrequited crush on writer Rikki Ducornet (wife of his Bard College professor), inspiring a mix of longing, urgency and even machismo (“you don’t wanna call nobody else”) draped in seamless folds of samba pop. Aluminous flapamba (something like a marimba) intro sets up a left-hand piano riff as-close-as-this to Horace Silver’s Song For My Father – Fagen thinks he filched it from Sérgio Mendes – but the trade-off between tender verse and escalating chorus is entirely Dan’s. PS: she never called. MA



(from Can’t Buy A Thrill, 1972)

No point hitting the road, Jack – you keep coming back.

Album one, track one: pulling your body one way, your mind the other, in seconds Steely Dan announce a career of ambiguity. Skinsmen Jim Hodder and Victor Feldman percolate an irresistible bossa nova while Fagen’s dark electric piano in G minor glowers with foreboding, his semi-desperate voice pitching scenarios of frontier revenge, cheated lover and gambling addict that show everyman Jack doomed to repeat his mistakes, the “wheel turnin’” with Buddhist fatalism. On Coral electric sitar, Denny Dias sizzles. MSn



(from The Royal Scam, 1975)

The downfall of a psychedelic Walter White.

The devil and the Dan are in the details. Here, it’s the “kerosene/kitchen-clean” rhyme. Never heard in a century's worth of popular song, yet perfectly chosen to encapsulate and foreshadow the rise and fall of what Becker called “an Owsley-esque figure, an outlaw acid chief of the ’60s”. Add in a groove that bubbles like a Bunsen-fired beaker, that rare falsetto flip from Fagen and a slalom guitar solo from Larry Carlton, and you’ve got one for the ages. BD



(from Aja, 1977)

The sweet spot between cool and abandonment

TALKING TO pianist Warren Bernhardt in 1993, Donald Fagen described Peg as a “major blues”, referencing the ’50s ballads of Ray Charles and Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland but pointing out that he’d added some Amen! gospel chords to the mix as well. ‘Major Blues’ is a pretty good description of Peg as a whole. A downer song turned bright, great and radical. There are enough books out there that will tell you that Peg substitutes plagal cadences for each of the standard three chords of a 12-bar blues and that the cadences don’t resolve strongly on downbeats, but all that really comes down to is “a major blues”, where the song’s harmony is at cross-purposes with its downbeat structure. And Peg is a song that is all about cross-purposes. Listen to that opening: bright, jaunty, layered, glossy; a complex jazz-rock structure passing itself off as casual FM groove.

It's a big day for someone, but not, you suspect, Peg herself.

Then listen to those lyrics: “I’ve seen your picture/ Your name in lights above it/This is your big debut /It’s like a dream come true.” It’s a big day for someone, but not, you suspect, Peg herself. That’s a complex person trying to pass themselves off as smooth and casual and suddenly, all that jauntiness starts to sound like false bonhomie. Speaking to The Wall Street Journal in 2020, Fagen said that Peg “takes place at a seedy photo shoot in LA in the 1950s. All of the lyrics are from the perspective of the jilted boyfriend, who [is] still hanging around with the starlet on the way up.” This boyfriend is also that buoyant insistent melody; he isn’t going anywhere and you are not going to get rid of him.

As with all the best Steely Dan songs, no one telling the story here is reliable, not the boyfriend, not Fagen, not the music that soundtracks the narrative. As Fagen says elsewhere in that WSJ interview, “[Walter Becker and I] like creating the sensation of a story through word fragments that [aren’t] too literal”, and as with Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 film Rashomon, Peg is a shady tale told from different perspectives. Beyond Becker and Fagen’s lyrics, beyond its bright compact packaging, multiple dark interpretations are being given. You can hear it from the off, in the slightly uneasy blend of Paul Griffin’s Fender Rhodes and Don Grolnick’s clavinet; the surreptitious oily slaps of Chuck Rainey’s bass; the dry synth-generated melancholy hook of Tom Scott’s Lyricon; different voices of slick unease. Most striking in that respect are Michael McDonald’s backing vocal harmonies – a tight, echoing excess of simpatico suavity that feels almost claustrophobic – and Jay Graydon’s rough-assed Polynesian-style ascending guitar solo, which brings what Fagen now refers to as a “Stravinsky-like” anarchy to the airless closed set order of the Peg narrative. But, as De La Soul proved, what remains is that melody, Tom Scott’s jaunty Lyric on hook and those words, those sinister words, the chorus as karmic curse: “Peg, it will come back to you.” JI



(from Can’t Buy A Thrill, 1972)

Shortly after Can’t Buy A Thrill was released, Denny Dias, the guitarist who’d once placed an ad in the Village Voice looking for a keyboard and bass player and had it answered by Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, foretold something to a reporter: “I may be a perfectionist but [this] is the worst album we’ll ever make.” Of all their records, it may indeed be the group’s most hurried, least focused – what with its three lead vocalists – but there’s something elementally satisfying about Steely Dan’s first utterance that makes it a perfect entry point for new fans. Dias said he stopped writing songs when he first heard Don and Walter’s work – “like hearing The Beatles with jazz chords” – but even he was taken aback when the record he considered comparatively scrappy yielded two huge hit singles, both of which remain reliable crowd-pleasers half a century later.

In this case at least, perhaps he was right to be surprised. For such an iconic song, Reelin’ In The Years is a curious confection when you get up close. It opens with a 30-second guitar solo, the verse lyric is overcrowded, almost rap-like in its tumbling flow (producer Gary Katz rated Fagen’s ability to make it sound easy: “I would dare anyone to sing a verse of Reelin’ In The Years”), the double chorus is laid over an unusual chord sequence (Bm, D, A/C#, Bm, Em7, Eb dim, Dm, A /C#), its second half decorated with strikingly prominent guitar harmonies. After the second chorus section there’s another display of guitar fireworks. Another full verse and chorus follow and then yet more soloing with a bluesy improvisation going into the fade out. It all amounts to a flamboyant demonstration of chops, almost vulgar in comparison to future Steely Dan recordings. There’s a breathlessness and urgency uncommon in their catalogue (Bodhisattva is perhaps its nearest equivalent). They come ripping out of the traps and pelt the entire length of the track.

It set the tone for the sounds filling FM airwaves, luxury pop with an awareness of jazz.

Getting that opening solo right foxed the band’s second guitarist, Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter, but it was nailed by visiting New York buddy Elliott Randall, whom Baxter had invited to Village Recorders in LA to ‘say hi to the guys’ then offered a chance to try something over the intro. Randall plugged his 1963 Fender Stratocaster into an Ampeg SVT bass amp (not his chosen set-up, but it worked) and pealed out a stinging solo – using the chorus melody as his starting point – which everybody instantly loved. Unfortunately, the engineer hadn’t recorded it. So Randall did it again. That second take is the one you hear, subsequently nominated by Jimmy Page as his all-time favourite guitar solo, marking it “12 out of 10”.

A year or so later, Becker and Fagan told New York broadcaster Alison Steele – whose show on WNEW, The Nightbird, may have been a key inspiration for Fagen’s The Nightfly – that this song started as a recorded jam, its lyric conjured later. Which may be why the words feel jammed in. But that pushiness is relevant. In a 1974 article for Creem, writer Wayne Robins mentioned that he’d known Becker and Fagen to nod to at Bard College, the upstate New York school they’d all attended. He judged Reelin’ In The Years “the best song ever written about the pseudo-poetic, preppie-hippy assholism that dominated Bard and other joints of its kind”. The lyric sees its narrator being baffled by his college girlfriend dumping him: “After all the things we’ve done and seen you find another man/The things you think are useless I can’t understand.” Don and Walter understood deluded hipsters.

Fagen’s youth occurred when pop was all Pat Boone and Tab Hunter, white-bread chart-fodder that held no appeal for him, so his musical cravings were satiated by jazz radio and he didn’t graduate to pop until things like Bob Dylan’s It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue and the Lovin’ Spoonful’s Do You Believe In Magic caught his ear. Becker made a similar downstream journey via the blues. Their pop epiphanies coincided with their years at Bard, so as everyone else was just getting pretentious at college, Don and Walter were emerging from their beatnik phase and starting to loosen up. A process that effectively became the recipe for Steely Dan – finding the sweet spot bet ween cool and abandonment: “We can and should do anything, but it has to be right.” Pursuing that rightness saw them becoming more rarified and subtle over time, but on Reelin’ In The Years they just lay it all out there.

Some commentators have credited the song with kick-starting a new kind of musicality in American rock, as if it gave a new generation of players permission to blow. That may be overstating its impact, but it certainly set a tone for the sounds that started filling FM air waves, luxury pop with an awareness of jazz – Joni Mitchell’s Court & Spark, Weather Report and so on – blowing a grittier East Coast current into the sound of the West Coast. Lyricism striped with cynicism.

In subsequent interviews, Becker and Fagen were sniffy about their early work, calling their first releases at best “immature”, at worst “humiliating”. The best compliment Fagen could muster for this song was “dumb but effective”. Becker went further, saying, “It’s no fun.” But they softened, Becker eventually noting to Musician magazine in 1982 that “Do It Again is a fucking good record. Reelin’ In The Years is a good record.” “I’d agree with that,” said Fagen.

It was as self-congratulatory as they ever got. JI

Compiled by: John Aizlewood, Martin Aston, Mike Barnes, Stevie Chick, Bill DeMain, Dave DiMartino, Danny Eccleston, Ian Harrison, Jim Irvin, Andrew Male, James McNair, John Mulvey, Michael Simmons, Mat Snow.

Photo: Chris Walter/Getty

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