Tunes with Thomas: Steely Dan

Steely Dan, your cool uncle’s favorite band, should be your favorite band too

Thomas DeLapp

More stories from Thomas DeLapp

Swing and a Miss
May 10, 2023

I am delighted — ecstatic — to have entered the phase of my life where I listen to and genuinely love Steely Dan. I think that this makes me a father. Or just old. 

Younger readers may not have a single clue who Steely Dan is, and that’s a tragedy, really. According to everything I know about Gen-Z, Steely Dan should be trendy; they’re the epitome of “Dad music” and practically invented the “uncool-cool” aesthetic.  

A pop-rock-jazz-fusion duo who dominated the radio waves of the 70s and 80s, Steely Dan set the bar for funk and swagger with masterpiece albums like “Can’t Buy a Thrill,” “Pretzel Logic,” “Aja” and “Gaucho”.  

“Once upon a time,” Steely Dan’s website bio begins, “there were two boomers, Donald and Walter, who both grew up in slightly different parts of the Greater New York Metropolitan Area.” 

Donald Fagen and Walter Becker met at Bard College, hit it off, and began to play in bands together. SNL alum and “Community” star Chevy Chase was a member of an early iteration, playing drums.  Fun fact.  

They haven’t put out a new album since 2003, and Becker died in 2017, leaving Fagen as the only main member of Steely Dan.  

Steely Dan modeled a meticulous, passionate production process that hasn’t been replicated since.  Attention is paid to every detail on their albums. Instruments and vocals are balanced, thought-through and nothing overpowers anything else. No one else rocked a studio like the boys Becker and Fagen.  

You could listen — and I do — to one Steely Dan song on repeat and find a new detail each time. They made some of the smoothest, most satisfying tunes ever. For extra complexity, try figuring out the lyrics. They’re baffling. I mean, their songs are about the wildest, darndest things.  

Time Out Of Mind” sounds like a fun, funky, fresh and innocent tune, but it’s actually about heroin. Other songs get even darker, but sound just as pleasant and nice. It’s wild.  

To achieve the ideal Steely Dan listening vibes, I suggest donning a pair of slick shades, hopping on the bus and just riding around Eau Claire. It’s the closest we can get to a New York City subway.  

Recently, Steely Dan has seen a resurgence and it’s time for you to get ahead of the trend curve so you can be cool in front of all your friends in six months when “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” is topping the charts.  Trust me on this one.

This Steely Dan renaissance might be thanks, in part, to comedians John Mulaney and Nick Kroll, who made plenty of Steely Dan jokes and references in their web series, broadway show and Netflix special “Oh, Hello.”  

So please, gang, the next time you’re on aux, be bold. Put on “The Caves Of Altamira” or my all-time favorite “Peg” and just watch to see if your friends don’t start movin’ and groovin’ along with the sweet, radical bops of Don Fagen and Walter Becker.

As Mulaney aptly put in an interview with Billboard:

“There hasn’t been any good music since Steely Dan.”

DeLapp can be reached at [email protected]