Why Steely Dan Belongs at Coachella
An early incarnation of Steely Dan
MCA/ABC Records (file photo)
So Coachella announced its 2015 lineup earlier today, and as usual, the Internet went bazonkers. Why the furor this year? Was it over the presence of a Malcolm Young-less AC/DC? Jack White's first appearance as a solo artist? Reunion shows by Ride and Drive Like Jehu? The general consensus (which happens every year) that this year's lineup sucks?
Nope. We lost our collective shit over the fact that Coachella booked Steely Dan.
In a way, we get it. Over the years, The Dan has been tarred with every dismissive put-down known to hipsters, heshers and everyone in between. They've been called jazz rock, soft rock, dad rock and yacht rock. That's a lot of baggage to bring to the coolness parade that is Coachella — even in a year when Steely Dan is on the lineup flyer next to Alesso, one of the most uncool EDM DJs on the planet.
Steely Dan's greatest sin, it seems, was in reimagining the rock band as studio project: a rotating cast of hired guns operating at the behest of the band's two auteurs, singer/keyboardist Donald Fagen and guitarist/bassist Walter Becker. For decades, they didn't even tour, preferring instead to turn out perfectly crafted (and famously expensive) artifacts from their ivory-tower studio, like their 1977 masterpiece, Aja. To rock & roll purists, it all smacked of inauthenticity and self-indulgence.
Such criticism completely misses the point, of course. Steely Dan achieved greatness precisely because they were a brilliant feat of carefully orchestrated production, arrangement and musicianship over the old (and often bogus — plenty of studio musicians, often uncredited, played on records by The Beach Boys, The Beatles and others) model of the insular, freestanding rock band. Becker and Fagen were so dedicated to their endless pursuit of The Perfect Take that they would often replace their own parts with the work of more skilled hands. Fagen's sneering vocals — admittedly, an acquired taste — were the only constant.
The endless elasticity of Steely Dan's "lineup" allowed them to dabble in a dizzying array of styles, from rock and blues to jazz and R&B. Even country and reggae were not beyond their grasp: Check out Jeff "Skunk" Baxter's gorgeous pedal steel work on "Pearl of the Quarter" or the gently skankin' groove of "Sign in Stranger."
See also: Top 5 Steely Dan Songs About L.A.
Regardless of genre, everything The Dan touched got their distinctive, sophisticated sheen, thanks to certain Becker/Fagen songwriting tricks like mu chords, which add a jazzy extra note, and
Fagen's the duo's genius at penning sardonic lyrics that mixed the cryptic with the hyper-specific. People hate them for that sophistication, too, criticizing the band's songs as overly fussy and opaque — always conveniently ignoring, when they make this argument, such pure pop confections as "Peg," which was famously sampled by De La Soul.
Which brings us to the other reason why it's high time Steely Dan found their way to Coachella. Your favorite rock/pop/electronic/hip-hop act? Likely influenced by The Dan. Even within the small sample size of this year's Coachella lineup, their sleek, soulful echoes can be heard everywhere: Toro y Moi's glossy chillwave, Fitz & the Tantrum's blue-eyed soul, St. Vincent's angular art-rock, even Ratatat's cheeky dance beats and multi-tracked guitars. Don't be surprised if during their set, you see a who's who of musicians watching from the wings.
So Steely Dan is here, Coachella. Get used to it. And get ready to hear this conversational exchange several hundred times in the parking lot: "Is there gas in the car?" "Yes, there's gas in the car."
Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Donald Fagen as sole author of Steely Dan's lyrics. Actually, as pointed out by Kelly Dwyer via Twitter, both Fagen and Becker wrote lyrics. We regret the error.
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