In addition to Becker's bass and Fagen's vocals and keyboards, the band's arrangements have been filled out with a constantly varying assortment of session musicians. The band's heyday was in the 1970s, when they released a half dozen consummate albums, which flirted variously with jazz, rock and roll, funk, pop, and everything in between. Characterized by complex structures, an easy sound, and unparalleled musicianship, Steely Dan's albums are found by fans to be satisfying on many levels.
Musically, their sound is full of energy, though not an energy of aggression or speed. This comes partly from the tightness of the musicians. Becker and Fagen were known as perfectionists, and often listened to musician after musician and take after take before selecting the one to go on the album. It also comes partly from the structure of each song, which will often contain counter-melodies and solid rhythm to keep the listener interested. It also comes from the sound of each instrument. Each instrument is recorded in a way that appeals to the ear and mixed such that all are heard and none are given priority. For example, in the song Parker's Band, two drum kits are used. This gives the song an unexpected drive, without overpowering the sound; it is not even immediately apparent.
Lyrically, the songs are about a wide range of topics. The band have said that in retrospect, some albums have a feel of either New York or Los Angeles, places where Becker and Fagen lived and operated (see below). Characters appear in their songs that evoke these cities. Themes of sex, drugs, and rock 'n roll appear, but never in a straightforward manner, neither encouraging or discouraging. Other more intriguing themes are also present, such as prejudice, growing old, failure, and poverty. The lyrics are usually challenging and interesting, and can attract the mind's attention alongside with the music.
The band's name (like a number of others) is derived from the works of William S. Burroughs: Steely Dan is the name of a dildo that appeared in Naked Lunch. Fagen once explained, "We just wanted to give the band a little more thrust than most other bands."
Brief HistoryBecker and Fagen met at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York in 1967. After Fagen graduated in 1969, the two moved to Brooklyn. After a while doing small jobs gotten with help from Kenny Vance from the band Jay and the Americans, they met Gary Katz, who soon became a staff producer for ABC Records in Los Angeles, California. He got Becker and Fagen jobs as staff songwriters. They flew west to Los Angeles. After realizing their songs were too complex for other ABC artists, they formed their own band with Denny Dias, Jeff "Skunk" Baxter, Jim Hodder, David Palmer, Victor Feldman, Jerome Richardson, and Snooky Young. Produced by Katz and recorded by Roger (The Immortal) Nichols at The Village Recorder, they released their first album, Can't Buy A Thrill, in 1972. The band went on to release a string of hits. After the release of Gaucho in 1980, Becker and Fagen had grown tired, and agreed that they had reached their peak with the release of Aja in 1977. The band broke up in June 1981.
Fagen and Becker continued to work, sometimes writing songs together and producing each others' albums. On October 25, 1991, Becker was noticed in the audience at a performance by Fagen. After much effort, the crowd convinced Becker to join Fagen on stage. The band soon began recording and touring again.
In December 2000, it was announced that Steely Dan was being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, with ceremonies scheduled for March 2001. In February 2001, the group won four Grammy Awards for their album Two Against Nature.