Monsters of Jazz-Influenced Rock
The 1970's funneled an unusual amount of liberal arts undergraduates into pretentious bands of every ilk. Most progressed no further than the standard issue uniform of corduroy pants and Earth shoes, a couple of gigs at a local college and a few arty black-and-white pictures of everyone holding their instruments and looking very serious. A few, however, managed to transcend mere douchebaggery and make a legitimate contribution to society.
At tiny Bard College, in even tinier Annandale-on-Hudson, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker decided to form a band because what the hell else was there to do in Wherever-on-Whatsit? They named the band Steely Dan, after an animated sexual appliance. The pair would later become known as a couple of sexual appliances for their notoriously difficult personalities and demanding studio perfectionism. Steeped in jazz and too many English lit courses, Becker and Fagen soon began producing their own unique brand of rock that was smart enough to make you occasionally have to crack a book in order to figure out what the hell they were going on about, but not so clever-clever that it made you want to poke them in the eye.
Beginning with 1972's Can't Buy A Thrill, Steely Dan established a signature sound that would be a mainstay of both the burgeoning FM radio format and inexplicably popular 1970's fondue parties. Complex rhythms, unusual chords, and distinct harmonies set Fagan, Becker & Co. apart from the rest of the post-hippie detritus that collected in record store bins at the dawn of the Me Decade.
Rock was experimenting with all sorts of different combinations throughout the Seventies. Overeducated Brits mixed in classical influences (King Crimson, Electric Light Orchestra, and Genesis before Phil Collins turned them into a random pop hit generator), while slackers in California were adding in country (Little Feat, The Eagles, et al). Steely Dan remained true to their jazz ethic, venturing even farther with 1975's Katy Lied with the inclusion of Phil Woods and Larry Carlton.
By the end of the decade, Steely Dan had gone from a band to mostly a collection of studio musicians. Ultimately imploding in 1980 after the release of Gaucho, Becker and Fagen went on to moderately uninteresting solo careers before reforming in the Nineties if for no other reason than to give me a decent stopping point for the first part of this piece.
Next month (or as soon as I get around to it), the influence of Our Music in Rock moves boldly into the Eighties with the Police, Danny Wilson, and a completely unrelated interlude where I spend three paragraphs traipsing down memory lane to no one's eventual benefit.
Till then, kids, exit to your right and enjoy the rest of AAJ.