Jazz licks, dildos and Tony Soprano: in defence of Steely Dan

As Steve Albini and St. Vincent take up opposing sides in the Steely Dan debate, here's why the yacht rock superstars are more punk than you’d think

Steve Albini wants to make sure that everyone knows just how punk he is. How punk is that, you ask? The Shellac frontman and storied producer, probably best known for his work on Nirvana’s 1993 classic ‘In Utero’, took to Twitter this week to announce that he “will always be the kind of punk that shits on Steely Dan”. How much more punk could Albini be? None. None more punk.

After all, shitting on Steely Dan is much more than just a long-standing punk tradition: it’s baked into the very origins of the genre. When punk rock first emerged in the mid-70s, its DIY ethos and unvarnished sound was a deliberate rejection of the perceived excesses of the cocaine-fuelled, middle-of-the-road soft rock personified by Steely Dan’s Walter Becker and Donald Fagen. Half a century on Albini is still fighting that same war against jazz licks and smug musical competence, like the Japanese soldier who spent three decades in a jungle in the Philippines refusing to believe that World War II was really over. Albini isn’t out of ammo yet. “Christ,” he added disparagingly. “The amount of human effort wasted to sound like an SNL band warm up.”

Albini’s one-man offensive soon exploded into a full-on social media skirmish, with a swathe of musicians taking up arms on one side or the other. Those agreeing with Albini’s dismissive view of “the Dan” included Laura Jane Grace (who bemoaned Steely Dan’s “terrible fucking music”) and Jason Isbell, who joked that his wife Amanda Shires hates the band so much that she’s starting a fan group called the “Albini Babies”. On the other side of the great divide, both St. Vincent and Jenny Lewis shared that they “fucking love Steely Dan” – a sentiment that spurred Ben Stiller to add: “Me too.” Elsewhere, Semisonic frontman Dan Wilson called Steely Dan “one of my favourite bands” before adding that he “can’t quite understand why people would hate such beautifully and lovingly made music. Is it a ‘try hard’ thing?”

Steve Albini
Steve Albini of Shellac performs on stage during Primavera Sound 2022 on June 03, 2022 in Barcelona (Picture: Jim Bennett/WireImage)


While Albini seems determined to keep old school musical tribalism alive, the truth is that these days most self-respecting music fans are more than happy to enjoy great tunes from across the musical spectrum. That even includes punk originals like Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones, who told The Telegraph last year: “I never really listen to the Pistols’ music any more. I’m fucking tired of it, to be honest with you. I’d rather listen to Steely Dan.”

A younger generation of Dan fans, meanwhile, have been won over by the band’s undeniable ability to write irresistible hooks, wry lyrics and timeless tunes. In an NME cover story in December, prolific producer and musician SG Lewis recalled being inspired by the “yacht-rock” of Steely Dan and Hall & Oates after becoming obsessed with their back catalogues during lockdown. “It started off almost ironically, and then it became completely not ironic. We were like, ‘This music is incredible!’” Lewis told NME. “I mean, even the name ‘yacht rock’ sounds like a joke name. But within that genre there’s a lot of music, writing and chords that are just incredible, so I started to draw on a lot of that and wanted to try it out.”

Lewis is far from the first artist to be influenced by Steely Dan’s impressive, progressive body of work. Hip-hop pioneers De La Soul sampled their 1977 hit ‘Peg’ on their own brilliant 1989 single ‘Eye Know’, while in 1996 Super Furry Animals took a single line from the Dan’s ‘Show Biz Kids’ (“You know they don’t give a fuck about anybody else”) and looped it 50 times to create their acid techno classic ‘The Man Don’t Give A Fuck’. Other notable fans include Tony Soprano, who memorably sung along to their 1972 banger ‘Dirty Work’ while driving his SUV. You don’t get a more gangster seal of approval than that.

While Albini might still think of Steely Dan as avatars of all things self-indulgent and perennially uncool, in reality the highly polished sheen of the band’s meticulously produced music has helped obscure just how outré they really are. This, after all, is a band who took their name from “Steely Dan III from Yokohama”, a steam-powered strap-on dildo referred to in William S. Burroughs’ seminal novel Naked Lunch.

The band’s ability to fly under the radar of censors and smuggle transgressive ideas into the mainstream caught the attention of the cyberpunk author William Gibson. He wrote in 2000 about hearing ‘Hey Nineteen’ playing over the tannoy while he was shopping for groceries. “Do the people who program these supermarket background tapes have any idea what this song is actually about?” asked Gibson (hint: an aging lothario’s attempt to woo the titular 19-year-old). “On this basis alone I have always maintained that Steely Dan’s music was, has been and remains among the most genuinely subversive oeuvres in late 20th-century pop.”

Sex Pistols, Sopranos and cyberpunks all agree: Steely Dan are a band worth your time. They’ve been shat on by sneering critics for 50 years, and haven’t even released an album in 20, but somehow have managed to remain so contentious that both their fans and detractors feel they’re still worth going to war over. What could be more punk than that?


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