Wheels Turnin’ ’Round And ’Round: The Rare Sophistication Of Steely Dan

Few recording outfits have created an ambience of such refinement and individual style as the outfit founded by Donald Fagen and the late Walter Becker.

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Steely Dan circa 1973. Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Steely Dan circa 1973. Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

When Steely Dan burst onto the album rock scene in late 1972 with the remarkable Can’t Buy A Thrill, it not only signaled the arrival of one of the great debut LPs but a new standard in sophisticated pop-rock. Through many changes, and frequent diversions for their own projects, the torchbearers of the group were the longtime friends from New York state, Walter Becker, born on February 20, 1950, and Donald Fagen, born January 10, 1948.

Becker’s sad passing on September 3, 2017, has not diminished the group’s unique place in the history of music-making of the highest quality, nor indeed did it signal their end as a touring entity. Steely Dan’s 2018 datebook saw them co-headlining with the Doobie Brothers on a two-month North American itinerary from May to July entitled The Summer Of Living Dangerously. 

Fronted by Fagen, the touring group played a 2019 UK tour, with distinguished guest Steve Winwood. In a normal touring schedule, May 2020 would have seen them back on the road for dates postponed from late the previous year. September 2021 saw the release of Northeast Corridor: Steely Dan Live! as well as Fagen’s The Nightfly Live.

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That debut 1972 release and others from the decade such as Katy Lied and The Royal Scam had the group pursuing a relatively mainstream sound. But as the collective personality of Steely Dan developed over the ensuing years, an ever-greater jazz influence became evident, alongside Becker and Fagen’s love of old-school soul, resulting in the glorious mélange of records such as Aja and Gaucho.

“The most exciting new band to break from the States this year is Steely Dan,” wrote Penny Valentine in Sounds, three months after Can’t Buy A Thrill made its US chart debut.” Andrew Tyler noted in Disc: “It’s fair to say that Steely will have a place on the nation’s turntable for as long as they produce music of this magnitude.”

With their most recent studio project, Everything Must Go, now as long ago as 2003, it may be that the band’s days of new album work are behind them, but their creativity certainly isn’t. As mentioned, Steely Dan continue to perform live extensively. In the autumn of 2016, for example, they treated fans to ten nights of their The Dan Who Knew Too Much show at the Beacon Theater, and their legacy lives on even in Becker’s sad absence.

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With a virtuosity that few could match, but in keeping with their recent tradition, each night was focused on a particular album, be it Gaucho or Aja or Countdown To Ecstasy, with the addition of other “hits,” a word they use with appropriate irony. “The Dan boys can still rock the house with an incredible band and singers,” wrote one happy fan.

Listen to uDiscover Music’s Steely Dan Best Of playlist.

“The typical Steely Dan song,” said Fagen in Melody Maker in 1973, “would include a penetrating verse, a rousing chorus, an inspired bridge and, of course, a no holds barred instrumental of some sort. Pop songs with some kind of structure that’s interesting and can be developed.

“We’re actually pretty traditional in that way, but the chords are usually more interesting than most rock and roll, we think.”

Buy or stream The Very Best of Steely Dan.



  1. david

    October 2, 2017 at 10:34 am

    ‘With their most recent studio project, Everything Must Go, now as long ago as 2003, it may be that the band’s days of new album work are behind them’
    With the sad passing of Walter Becker I’d definitely say the band’s new album work is behind them, unless they have something hidden in the ‘vaults’, maybe more unheard outtakes from their imperial 1970’s era.

  2. Thomas Peacock

    October 23, 2017 at 2:18 pm

    U cant think if a more accomplished band live or recorded.

  3. Frank Woods

    November 23, 2017 at 6:13 pm

    The best sounding cds ever,especially Aja and Gaucho. I sold high end car audio for several years and those two were my demo discs.

  4. Robert

    December 29, 2017 at 7:10 pm

    Had the great fortune of seeing them perform at the New Orleans Jazz Fest a few years ago and Michael Macdonald joined them onstage for a few numbers. After 5 or so “Hits” Becker said to the crowd “You like those songs?” to which the crowd roared, He then said, “We’ve got some songs” and they continued to count off song after song from their extensive catalogue. What a treat.

  5. Robert Moehle

    March 25, 2018 at 8:29 pm

    I’m going to open myself to a flood of hate mail, possible. BUT I don’t thin Steely Dan is so great. Their main fault is they they are so studied, so tightly laced in their composition and playing that there is no room for them to breathe! I come fromm a jazz and blues background, and the freedom and looseness of good improvisation is missing. Technically Steely Dan are very good, just not my cup of tea.

    • hans altena

      September 6, 2018 at 9:22 am

      Why hate mail, you are entitled to your taste, and you point out something that has been a concern for the band. Yet I think that, no matter how much perfection there has been in their playing, and intellectual approach of the chordal and modal progressions, improvisation was always part of it, and by no means a small one, this tension makes their music unique. One listen to Aja, wrongfully maligned for its sheen in my opinion, reveals how great their solo’s were (and not only because of the presence of Wayne Shorter). I wish that their whole back catalogue would be remastered on vinyl, the way Fagen rereleased his terrific solo albums with a great sound that leaves the cd’s in the dust.

    • david

      February 21, 2020 at 10:41 am

      Are you really going to pick it apart because it sounds so good?
      Hell, I listened to punk, hard rock and disco at the time Aja came out, it didn’t matter to me that it was technically well played, all that matters is whether you like the songs and/or the music, does it sound good to your ears?, if it doesn’t, leave it alone, go listen to something else.
      The difference between Steely Dan and a lot of the music around today is, the Dan’s music was played by expert musicians,it had feel and soul, that cannot be created by a computer programme.

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