William Gibson called them “the most genuinely subversive” band in late-20th Century pop. Bryan Cranston sneaks winking references to them into Malcolm In The Middle and Breaking Bad episodes. Ice Cube sampled them and The Roots play them on Jimmy Fallon. Who are they? The gold standard in rock and roll pretentiousness, Steely Dan.
What I have in common with all of these guys is that I, too, have a fanatical love of The Dan. We call ourselves “Danfans” — amazing, right? — and we'll quickly kill half an hour jawing your ear off about the virtues of this act, primarily a two-person collaboration between Walter Becker and Donald Fagen with a rotating cast of session musicians. The Dan formed when Denny Dias, founder of The Dan, placed an ad seeking bass and keys, admonishing “no assholes need apply.” Thankfully Becker and Fagen ignored the warning. In a few years they had ousted Dias from his own band. What a couple of pricks.
Danfans are the silently hip minority of rock fandom. We don't hang out in the parking lot and drop acid before a show. We gather over fair trade coffee and artisan beers at the local brew pub to discuss interpretations of song lyrics.
Let us tell you: Listening to the Dan is akin to reading novel. You need a liberal arts degree to get it. Trust me, kids, it's not that you don't like Steely Dan, it's that you don't get it. It requires some formal humanities training to truly grasp the brilliance of a mellotron solo in the middle of a song about nuclear genocide. The lyrical nuances of a song like “Everyone's Gone To The Movies” are easily lost when you haven't spent four years critically analyzing texts. Yep, Katy Lied is a lot closer to Ulysses than Exile On Main Street.
There I go again. Oh, and in case you didn't get it from the title of this post, Danfans are, by and large, insufferable pricks. But it shouldn't be surprising that Steely Dan have the world's most arrogant, elitist assholes for a fan base. New York beatniks who moved to Los Angeles, the Dan hated hippies and loved cocaine, dark sarcasm and subtle wordplay.
Their sound mashes up every bit and bob of black music to come down the pike since rhythm and blues, including jazz, funk and even reggae. Whereas other bands prided themselves on energy and excitement, the Dan were all about musicianship — and not just musicianship, studio perfectionism. In the 1970s the group, who never liked performing live, abandoned the live show altogether. Some acts are all about giving the fans what they want. Steely Dan couldn't give a shit.
The band eventually started playing again. In the meantime, however, a dense network of rabid fans formed. Dandom provides Internet forums for lyrical analysis and general fanboy banter. In 2001, the site handed out awards (called, what else?, “Dannys”) for categories such as “Danfest Attendee Who Best Embodied a Steely Dan Character or Album Cover” and “Most Inclement Weather at a Danfest.” The site also acts as a planning forum for Danfests, a place for Danfans to get together and revel in smug college-educated self-satisfaction.
So yes, despite protests to the contrary, Danfans are following in the footsteps of their rock heroes. It's just that the essence of the Dan isn't a ripped t-shirt or a haircut, it's self-conscious, middle-class hipsterism of the pre-emo type. It's an alcoholic saxophone player sleeping off a coke hangover in the trunk of his Cadillac, dreaming about what it would be like if he'd made it. I should know. I'm Danfan number one.