Steely Dan is dad rock. That’s not meant to be disparaging. On the contrary, anyone with any musical knowhow will tell you that Steely Dan rules. But it’s also the exact kind of stuff you’d expect to hear blaring out of a beat-up old boombox while your old man works in the backyard. So, why do dads everywhere feel drawn to Steely Dan as if they were a comfortable pair of New Balance sneakers? The newest video essay from Polyphonic proposes that, while other bands of the era were driven by the individual personalities of their members, Steely Dan spent years meticulously crafting a unique aesthetic and sought out the best musicians available to bring that aesthetic to life.
At its core, Steely Dan is two guys: Donald Fagen and Walter Becker. But, while the duo took on the bulk of the songwriting duties, they surrounded themselves with a team of talented musicians, each of which brought his or her own flavor to the blend of jazz, rock, and R&B the two were constructing. From their debut album Can’t Buy A Thrill onwards, warm, airy instrumentation and sardonic lyrics played over grooving, latin-inspired beats became the band’s signature sound. To this day, Steely Dan remains one of those bands that you can recognize as soon as you hear it.
As the years went on, the band’s roster changed regularly, with Fagen and Becker occasionally taking the backseat to whichever legendary studio musician they had in the booth that week. This prioritizing of the group’s sound over their individual stardom is what helped Steely Dan produce some of the most lauded tracks in rock history. And this seemingly effortless combination of wailing jazz fusion guitar, toe-tapping R&B shuffle beats, and witty lyrics about sex and drugs appealed directly to one demographic in particular: Dads.
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