ecently a friend reluctantly admitted (his words) that he doesn’t like Steely Dan.
Though I understand, I don’t get it.
Moving from album to album can be confusing. Aja is slickly polished radio play through and through. Countdown to Ecstasy is ignoring-you-to-talk-to-ourselves rambling fusion jazz rock. Can’t Buy a Thrill is more radio-ready pop and rock, but rougher, simpler.
Certainly, Donald Fagen’s voice is an acquired taste. Nasal, whiny, angry. His keyboard playing is very very jazz, as is the Dan’s songwriting style. Sometimes.
There’s where the confusion comes from, on both sides. Steely Dan is a fusion of jazz and rock, with some songs leaning strongly one way or the other, and some so commingled it’s hard to sort which is where with whom.
The Boston Rag, for instance, from my favorite Dan album. All the elements of regular old rock: electric guitars and drums all played loud, a simple verse/chorus song structure, one of the aforementioned guitars doing a meandering solo—yup, it’s rock.
Except, the guitar solo comes after a strangely organised jazz instrumental break of piano, bass, and drums that sounds like a rumba or some such fancy dance. The harmonies are every so slightly discordant. Even the opening notes of the song are two guitars in discord, not harmony. So, it’s jazz.
This is why we all talk about jazz-rock and all those other hyphenated genre. Which is fine with me. I like weird combinations; electric bluegrass, progressive rock, Mark O’Connor’s Concerto for Fiddle and Orchestra.
Right now I’m listening for the ten thousandth time to King of the World, a perky jazzy longish ramble about a survivor of the nuclear holocaust broadcasting a plea for someone, anyone, to answer so he knows he’s not alone, despite the fact that with luck, he might live ’til Saturday. With an almost joyful keyboard solo and witty sarcastic lyrics, it doesn’t feel much like a sad song. During the instrumental outro, I can see them dancing. They seem to be making fun of someone, someone who probably doesn’t get it.
You can ‘not like’ Steely Dan all you want. I like ’em just fine.