Few bands achieved their fame as amazingly as Steely Dan. They weren’t rock star handsome, stopped touring after their third album, and rarely spoke to the media (and were often ruthless with their interviewers). Then there were the songs, filled with biting elliptical lyrics, intricate harmonies, and played by one of the best guitarists of all time, that were light years away from the folk, blues, and country traditions that gave rise to rock and roll.
Reelin’ in the Years – Elliot Randall
The first cut of Steely Dan’s debut “Can’t Buy a Thrill” set the tone that this was a band that would try anything and had the chops to pull it off. Elliot Randall’s guitar lines float all over the song and it was definitely rock and roll. The listening public agreed, and the song reached No. 11 in the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
Kid Charlemagne – Larry Carlton
Steely Dan’s fifth album, 1976’s ‘The Royal Scam’, is seen simplistically as a transition from the jazzy pop songs of its first four to the more complex musical ideas of ‘Aja’ and ‘Gaucho’. But that overlooks the album’s harder, funkier beats, best exemplified on the guitar solo. The rhythm section of Paul Griffin (clavinet), Chuck Rainey (bass), and Bernard “Pretty” Purdie (drums) do their best impression of the music from the mind of Stevie Wonder at the time, and Larry Carlton lets loose with a wicked solo. of guitar And yes, this one is about drugs too, with Owsley Stanley serving as the inspiration here.
Rikki Don’t Lose That Number – Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter
Steely Dan didn’t write too many ballads; his songs, even his prettiest tunes, had too many spines to be sentimental. But ‘Rikki’ is an exception, and it turned out to be his highest-charting hit, reaching No. 4 in 1974. Built on the riff of Horace Silver’s 1965 jazz classic ‘Song for my Father’, ‘Rikki’ it is a poignant attempt by the narrator to recapture the object of his affections.
Bad Sneakers – Walter Becker
Steely Dan discovered five-time Grammy winner Michael McDonald when they were looking for a backup singer/second keyboardist for their tour behind ‘Pretzel Logic’. He and Baxter soon launched into the Doobie Brothers, for whom Dan opened for but occasionally called him in to sing harmonies. Here, they add the distinctive soulful voice to a beautiful “Katy Lied” tune and launched one of the best guitar solos by Walter Becker.
Peg – Jay Graydon
The first single from Steely Dan’s best-selling album, 1977’s double-platinum “Aja,” opens with a jazzy call-and-response between keyboard and horns. It then seems to settle into a modified 12-bar blues before taking a left turn for the chorus, which features some more killer harmonies from McDonald’s. Jay Graydon honors lead guitar here, all in support of typically teasing lyrics about a rising star.