Steely Dan has been more of a conceptual framework for inventive music-making than a typical rock band. Spearheaded by a pair of resourceful musical auteurs Donald Fagen and Walter Becker - they have done nothing by the books since launching Steely Dan in 1972. The band’s very name is a scatological reference from a novel by Beat Generation anti-hero William Burroughs. Though Steely Dan recorded prolifically for much of the Seventies, they toured for only a brief spell early in that decade, deciding they much preferred the studio to the road. This allowed them to craft a wry, nuanced and hyper-literate series of albums - seven in all, released from 1972 to 1980 - that are highly regarded by connoisseurs of pop hooks, jazz harmony and desiccating wit.
Beneath the highly polished surface of Steely Dan’s music, astute listeners could hear a visceral love of and identification with the very soul of jazz. Fagen and Becker referenced Duke Ellington, Stan Getz and Horace Silver at least as much as any rock-oriented source material. Even so, there was a certain accessible quality to songs like “Reelin’ in the Years,” “Do It Again” and “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” that allowed Steely Dan to connect with rock fans, especially those who were college-aged and "educated.
Co-founders Donald Fagen and Walter Becker met in 1967 while attending Bard College in upstate New York. After serving as touring musicians with Jay and the Americans and trying their hand as staff songwriters, they formed Steely Dan in Los Angeles as an outlet for a growing backlog of offbeat, original material that no one else seemed inclined to record. In the beginning, Steely Dan was an actual band with a lineup of Fagen, Becker, guitarists Denny Dias and Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, and drummer Jim Hodder. This configuration cut the albums Can’t Buy a Thrill, Countdown to Ecstasy and Pretzel Logic. Though Dias remained on board through 1977’s Aja, Steely Dan were almost completely Fagen and Becker’s fiefdom by the time of Katy Lied, their fourth album.
On record, the duo recruited the cream of L.A.’s jazz-pop studio scene, including Michael McDonald, Victor Feldman, Jeff Porcaro, David Paich, and jazz stalwarts like David Sanborn, Tom Scott, Michael Brecker, Larry Carlton, Chuck Rainey, Bernard Purdie, Phil Woods and Wayne Shorter. Producer- engineer Gary Katz, who worked on every album through 1980’s Gaucho, was a vital member of the Steely Dan brain trust whose input was critical to the perfectionist, audiophile quality of the group’s recordings. The A-list musicians provided a glossy top coat to Steely Dan’s agreeably sleek music - an ironic vehicle for their cutting, urbane and often black-humored lyrics.