← Back to portfolio

Crossing that Fine Line: How Steely Dan Defied the Trends and Complicated the 70s with "Deacon Blues"

Published on 30th March 2017

If one were to ask the average American to sum up the 1970’s, it is not altogether unlikely that a derisive rant involving disco, mood rings, and bad cars would ensue. For many, it is a lost decade, void of the political, social, or cultural import of the halcyon 1960s or the transformative 1980s. Historian Bruce Schulman sums up attitudes about the decade when he quotes a critic as saying that “The perfect Seventies symbol…was the Pet Rock, which just sat there doing nothing.”[1] The pervasiveness of this stereotype is, like many stereotypes, unfortunate and damaging. Countless examples abound to explain why the 70’s were not such a simple time of negativity and, hidden beneath the shag carpet veneer of disco balls and pet rocks, lies a complex and rich culture hinting at a far more complicated decade than many would suggest. One such example exists in the music of Steely Dan.

Music is often an excellent, though not wholly inclusive, indicator of culture. The simple reason for this is that music is culture, but as the above paragraph suggests, reality is anything but simple. In accordance with this, Steely Dan and their exploits serve as a cultural indicator of the times in which they operated. This is not to say, however, that such an indicator is all-encompassing. Rather, it means just the opposite. Their music, with its structural and lyrical complexity, combined with the nature of its creation, serves as a foil to ideas of the simplistic 1970’s, ideas that were largely held to be true then as now. One could pick and choose from any one of the six albums that the band produced during the decade, but a pristine showcase of the band’s counter-simplistic and counter-stereotypical sound can be found in the group’s 1977 single, “Deacon Blues.”

Steely Dan, in the words of Jamie Dickson, were “less a band than a movable feast presided over by founders Donald Fagen and Walter Becker---but what a feast.”[2] Their bedrock was laid in 1967, with the joining up of bassist Walter Becker and multi-instrumentalist Donald Fagen at Bard College, in Annandale, New York.[3] Soon enough, they had a producer in ABC’s Gary Katz, a new scene in Los Angeles, and a new band composed of guitarists Denny Dias and Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, drummer Jim Hodder, singer David Palmer, and themselves. In 1972, they released their first album, Can’t Buy a Thrill.[4] Right off the bat, it shows its uniqueness, opening “Do it Again” with a Latin beat and an electric sitar solo. This was a time when 60’s folk and soul still ruled the airwaves.[5] When the album became a hit, the group went right back to work recording a second one, armed with more resources, and, by 1973, produced Countdown to Ecstasy, which continued the band’s penchant for experimentation, even while popular music generally was dominated by pop groups such as Wings. The albums features diverse tracks such as “Showbiz Kids,” with its rhythmic, repetitive baseline vocals that either say “lost wages” or “Las Vegas.” “My Old School” is another prominent song which offers a rare pointed statement by Fagen about his experiences at Bard College, but its in-your-face horn section is what truly makes it unique in an otherwise blues-oriented album.[6]

By 1974, the band was resembling a static group less and less. They began adding session musicians, such as a young Michael McDonald, and losing permanent members like Baxter. The main change came when, in July, Becker and Fagen decided to stop touring live and focus completely on studio work, which would only serve to stimulate the band’s creative sound.[7] The same year, they released Pretzel Logic, a witty and playful album more influenced by Tin Pan Alley than anything else. The songs are experimental and quick, none going too far over 3 minutes in duration. Many of the tracks also change styles within themselves. “Rikki don’t Lose that Number” opens with marimba, only to transition into piano-influenced pop. “Night by Night” features a bop style that transitions into a fluid and harmonic chorus. “With a Gun” is quick and energetic, heavily featuring acoustic guitar, while “Charlie Freak” is almost melancholy. “East St. Louis Toodleoo” shows the band covering a Duke Ellington standard, with liberal use of the wah-wah pedal.[8] Furthermore, ask anyone to decipher what any one of the album’s tracks are about, and one is likely to receive a veritable cornucopia of answers. The lyrics in each are tight and playful, but make no real sense. Pretzel Logic, then, is a monumental experiment, a talented group making music for its own sake, rather than social or personal statements.[9]

All of this, plus their two mid-seventies albums Katy Lied and the Royal Scam, were really a build up to Aja, the 1977 work that is widely considered to be a masterpiece and a “a genuine landmark in jazz rock.”[10] The effort undertaken just to produce the album was titanic. It required over 30 session musicians, including stalwarts like Weather Report’s Wayne Shorter and the Doobie Brothers’ Michael McDonald, 10 engineers, and hundreds of takes. The core duo of Fagen and Becker were notoriously meticulous and recordings were grueling undertakings for all. When it was finished, however, it paid dividends (literally.) In the words of Don Breithaupt, it was “the album that made Steely Dan a commercial force…a multiplatinum Grammy winner.” He also posits that this was “odd, then, that it was conceived as the apotheosis of its creators’ anti-rock, anti-band, anti-glamour aesthetic.”[11] This is largely accurate, as the main takeaway from the songs is that they are impossible to pin down or pigeonhole into a single genre, nor should they be. It would be improper to classify the album under any genre, and its songs are complex, ever-evolving tracks that go from slow to fast, pop to jazz, and simple to complex effortlessly.

This fluid musical nature is even more impressive when taken in context with the times, those times being the 1970s. Pop at the time was being largely simplified and 9 of 1977’s top 10 charting songs discussed the theme of relationships and love, with such tracks as Rod Stewart’s “Tonight’s the Night” and the Emotions’ “Best of My Love” being prominent among them.[12] Punk rock was also beginning to take hold, first as protest music in the United Kingdom, then in the United States. Punk rock was characterized by its paeans to 1950’s rock and roll, and volume was the most important aspect. Its songs had a distinct and unmistakable message and served more as musical delivery systems for that message than as actual songs. Songs like the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the U.K.” and the Clash’s “Career Opportunities” bandy little with musical whimsy, nor are they designed to. This musical landscape only serves to make Aja stand out all the more as a gutsy album that showed that the decade was not as whitewashed with pop, punk, and disco as people thought.  The diversity of the tracks shows this. “Peg” is exciting, triumphant even, with McDonald’s backing vocals adding a unique element of grandiosity. Even so, it does not have a true structure, as the chorus and verses are seemingly all over the place. This uniqueness though, is exactly what makes it stand out in the late 70’s and, indeed, people to this day are still attempting to find out just what Peg’s “favorite foreign movie” is. “Josie,” too, is exciting but extends almost into funk territory. The title track is an opus in itself that volumes can and have been written on. It is on “Deacon Blues,” though, that the culmination of all of the band’s efforts of the decade come to fruition.[13]

“Deacon Blues” is a long song, clocking in at 7 minutes and 37 seconds. In music, this is an eternity within which to weave a tale, and the Showbiz Kids[14] weave well here. The personnel, firstly, are as diverse as the song itself. It features the original duo, Becker and Fagen, on bass and synthesizer/vocals respectively. They also bring in the talents of many session musicians on this track, as is their wont. Larry Carlton on guitar, Dean Parks on acoustic guitar, Pete Christlieb on tenor saxophone, Victor Feldman on the electric piano, Bernard Purdie on the drums, and Clydie King, Sherlie Matthews, and Venetta Fields on backing vocals all come together to create a complex track that feels alive as it goes along. Fagen and Becker wrote the song but, as the Classic Albums documentary series relates, there was very much a team effort in the actual production of the song. Larry Carlton states that “they would give me their demo tape and it would have those wonderful piano parts on it…and I was the one who would fill in the blanks when they weren’t sure of what they wanted to be played, and….I would be the person who was familiar with the song out in the studio with the studio musicians.”[15] This shows just how monumental an effort the track was. Many bands, when they make albums, have been together for some time and know each other’s strengths and weaknesses as musicians quite well. Exhibit A of this is the Beatles. But Steely Dan had to bring together a group of musicians, many of whom had never even met each other. In his recollection of his time recording the song, sax soloist Christlieb has stated that he went to the studio and “I met these two guys and they played this thing for me and I didn’t know what tune it was…I think I did one take…You really know you’ve done something when you can hear yourself in every airport bathroom in the world.”[16] So, the centerpiece solo on the song that took a dozen musicians and a dozen engineers took one take by a guy the band had no experience with. This sense of ad-hoc complexity in the studio was a hallmark of the band and colored the entire production of “Deacon Blues.

The lyrics are seemingly nonsensical at first listen, with references to “the expanding man” and the Alabama Crimson Tide. This has led some to interpret the song to be about football or just random words jumbled together in a rhythmic fashion. It is the listener’s prerogative to interpret the song the way they want and, indeed, this may be the band’s preference. Even so, “Deacon Blues” tells a powerful tale that is instantly relatable, especially in the unsure and pessimistic climate of the late 70’s, characterized by President Carter’s pleas for “limits” and oil shortages leading Americans to trade in their Chryslers for Corollas. In its lyrical layout, the song starts out:

“this is the day/of the expanding man./ That shape is my shade/ there where I used to stand./ It seems like only yesterday/ I gazed through the glass…You call me a fool/ you say it’s a crazy scheme./ This one’s for real, I already bought the dream./ So useless to ask me why/ throw a kiss and say goodbye./ I’ll make it this time./ I’m ready to cross that fine line.”

There are many ways to interpret this first verse, but the allusions show that it is about progress. “That shape is my shade” indicates that the narrator has moved forward from where he “used to stand.” The next line shows him reminiscing about “gazing through the glass,” a reference to seeing things that one cannot have. Next, he defiantly states that his plans at progress are “for real” even though others call him “a fool.” This defiance is brought to a head when he states that it is “so useless to ask me why,” and creates a purpose in claiming that he is “ready to cross that fine line.” So, in this, one can see a tone of defiance and dreaming about the future already in one verse. A principal reason why many struggle to determine this message is the music itself, which is ethereal, featuring fluid guitar and synthesizers that remind one of chimes. This is by design. The song is made of contradictions. It is confusing because it is confused, as is human nature.

The chorus serves to exacerbate this theme of hopeful determination laced with confusion. The background singers (all female) come in and Fagen declares:

“I’ll learn to work the saxophone./ I’ll play just what I feel./ Drink Scotch whiskey/ all night long and/ die behind the wheel./ They got a name for the winners in the world,/ I want a name when I lose./ They call Alabama the Crimson Tide,/ Call me Deacon Blues.”

From the verse to the chorus, the listener is exposed to the culmination of the narrator’s defiant desires. He wants to be a famous musician, replete with all the lascivious trappings of fame that go along with that. The lyrics connote a desire for freedom and choice. The narrator wants to “work” the saxophone, which shows his immaturity. He then explains his desire for reckless abandon, including “drinking scotch whiskey” and dying “behind the wheel.” He knows that these are bad decisions, but his point is that they are his decisions to make. In Breithaupt’s analysis, “he seeks a fresh start, but chooses a path of certain ruin.”[17] He culminates with possibly the most memorable line of the song in his reference to Alabama. In the 1970s, Paul “Bear” Bryant’s Crimson Tide were the pinnacle of popularity in America. Fagen is explaining that he acknowledges what the status quo of “cool” is meant to be (Alabama football) and then with “I want a name when I lose,” he flatly rejects it. Thus, the protagonist’s self-titling of “Deacon Blues” is both an ideal and a contradiction in itself, to match the song’s theme of confusion and contradictions. It underlines “the narrator’s own confusion.”[18] Further, as Becker states, “the protagonist is not a musician, he just sort of imagines that that would be one of the mythic forms of loserdom to which he might aspire, and who’s to say that he’s not right?”[19]

The lyrics throughout the rest of the song follow in this pattern, demonstrating both an ambitious and hopeless narrator, but an independent one. The last verse is perhaps the most telling in this regard:

“This is the night/of the expanding man./ I take one last drag/ as I approach the stand./ I cried when I wrote this song./ Sue me if I play too long./ This brother is free./ I’ll be what I want to be.”

In the opening line of this final verse, he brings the song full circle from the “day” to the “night of the expanding man.” At this point, the listener feels like a partner through the narrator’s journey of hopeless ambition and, even after it all, he has the daring to claim that “this brother is free.” When he claims that he “cried when I wrote this song,” the listener gets a distinct vibe that Fagen is now speaking autobiographically to his audience, and this is believable. Funny then, that a song that may write off as a gibberish pop tune about football can actually be an autobiographical lament and, as Fagen explains, “some kind of escape, really, from where we found ourselves.”[20]

As often as people praise and criticize the lyrics of Steely Dan and “Deacon Blues,” neither could exist without the music. The band has a penchant for having their lyrics and their music spin alternate tales at the same time. This is highly evident on tracks like “Reelin’ in the Years,” off of Can’t Buy a Thrill. The song is largely about disappointment and lost opportunities, but the music is fast paced, with lively guitar. In fact, Fagen’s vocals go so fast at one point that he fits more words into each measure than would go with the rhythm, making it seem frenetic and exciting. Breithaupt explains that “it’s the quintessence of Becker and Fagen’s wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing technique. The more soul-searching the words, the more sprightly the setting.”[21] “Deacon Blues” is no exception to this. In fact, Breithaupt continues his analysis by explaining the band’s avid adherence to harmonic prosody, which is when the musical underpinnings of a song “should not simply be wallpaper on which the melody notes are hung, but a distinct real-time stream with meaning of its own.”[22] This lends itself to “Deacon Blues”’ complexity, as not only do the lyrics get displayed prominently, but each instrument also has its own highly important niche. As such, if one were to remove all the other pieces, each instrument could function on its own and sound like a bona-fide solo, showing that “harmony isn’t a mere framework: it’s the thing itself.”[23]

As alluded to previously, the song starts off ethereally, effectively estranging listeners from their lived-in environment to bring them into that of the song. It is only then that Fagen begins to tell his story. Along with his lyrics, there is a distinct feeling that each instrument is jamming on its own, and that they just happen to come together in a constructive way, with the guitar ebbing in and out of the foreground. In the second verse, the horns are introduced, adding more fluidity and estranging the listener even more until, by the time of the chorus, there are layers of electric guitar, acoustic guitar, keyboard, horns, and bass, all woven together as independent but interlocking parts. Then, in the chorus itself, the background singers add an element of soul to the mix, evoking the smoky jazz clubs that the narrator longs to play in. Also in the chorus are a series of descending chord changes that accompany Becker’s steady and sublime bass, but when the other parts are stripped away, the listener realizes that Becker was the one initiating the progressions. The music chromatically descends by half-steps as the narrator describes his own personal descent. That is the essence of prosody, and it simply was not a part of the popular lexicon in 1977, partially due to the aforementioned desire for simplicity and message over musical form.

The music experiences some clear changes as first Fagen’s vocals, and then horns are introduced. However, there are many more subtle changes as well. Within the verses themselves, the band switches between pop and jazz chords, starting with the former. “The difference is hard to quantify, but let’s say the second pair of changes is 33 percent bluer.”[24] Things change again with the addition of the background singers, and, in the second verse, the horns come into their own with their melodic arc.

One of the song’s greatest triumphs and most iconic spots is Christlieb’s tenor sax solo, which unexpectedly interjects into an otherwise subtly smooth song. The solo gives the musical antihero narrator a voice and shows the ideal that he wishes to achieve. Further, the solo itself fits into the chromatically complex landscape of “Deacon Blues” seamlessly, which is a truly jaw-dropping feat, considering it was done in one take by a session musician from “The Tonight Show” who had never even met Becker or Fagen. Nonetheless, his solo becomes the heart of the song. The ad-hoc nature of his solo gives the song an improvised authenticity, affirming the song’s rooting firmly in jazz, and it separates the song both from the raw punk and the synthesized pop of the time. Even while it sounds improvised, it is all part of a master plan, as explained by guitarist Dean Parks: “We would work past the perfection point, until it became natural, until it sounded almost improvised in a way.”[25] This was and remains a rare strategy. Furthermore, the solo is not descending, melancholy, or particularly smooth. It does not have rounded edges. It is a rough, somewhat in-your-face, but perfectly at home middle finger to “the winners of the world.”

After careful dissection, it is evident that “Deacon Blues,” though a chart-topper and Grammy winner, is not just another pop song that happens to have some horns in it, complete with gibberish lyrics and something to do with Alabama football. It is the lamentation of a loser who wants to be something else. It is optimistic and fatalistic at the same time. It is funky, yet serene. It is easy to sing along to, but difficult to understand. In short, it is quintessential Steely Dan, featuring a musical landscape and lyrical story that are at once independent and interwoven in harmonic prosody. Both sides can exist on their own, but it is only together that they tell a story. This serves as a stark contrast to what many have assumed to be the musical makeup of the 70’s, and those who posit such assumptions are not automatically wrong to do so. There was a move during the decade towards genres that featured simpler lyrics and rhythms, spoke to a more self-centered populace, and pushed their message loudly, as evidenced by Patti Smith’s landmark use of the word “fuck” in a major song.[26] Even so, Steely Dan and their music serve as a lighthouse in the storm, a signpost that tells people that the 70’s were much more than one might think. Their music challenges the listener. It is complicated and difficult to grasp, the exact opposite of what 70’s culture is believed to be. Fagen and Becker hold no hands. They take their listeners on a ride and it is up to those listeners to decide whether they want to wear a seatbelt or not. This is made crystal clear on  Aja. Within that “Deacon Blues,” with its complex tale of contradictions, autobiographical underpinnings, and juxtaposed chord progressions, serves as a perfect foil to preconceived notions of the 1970’s, showing that music of the decade could be audacious and bold, “intertwining without regard for anything except ending up with a complex, beautiful result.”[27]

Bibliography

Bell, Mike. 2015. "From the Tonight Show Band to Steely Dan, Veteran Sax Player Pete Christlieb has had a Varied Career." The Calgary Herald, June 5, 2015.

Breithaupt, Don. 2007. Aja. New York: Continuum International Publishing.

Dickson, Jamie. "Aja." In 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die: Revised and Updated Edition, edited by Robert Dimery, 380. New York: Universe Publishing, 2014.

Classic Albums: Steely Dan-Aja. Directed by Alan Lewens. Performed by Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, October 21, 1999.

Schulman, Bruce J. The Seventies. Cambridge: Da Capo Press, 2001.

Steely Dan. Aja. ABC Records, 1977.

Steely Dan. Can't Buy a Thrill. ABC Records, 1972.

Steely Dan. Countdown to Ecstasy. ABC Records, 1973.

Steely Dan. Pretzel Logic. ABC Records, 1974.

"Steely Dan Biography." The Rolling Stone. http://www.rollingstone.com/music/artists/steely-dan/biography. 2001. Accessed February 21, 2016.

 "The Hot 100-1977 Archive." Billboard.com. http://www.billboard.com/archive/charts/1977/hot-100. Accessed February 21, 2016.

[1] Bruce J. Schulman, the Seventies (Cambridge: Da Capo press, 2001), xii.

[2] Jamie Dickson, “Aja,” in 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, ed. Robert Dimery (New York: Universe Publishing, 2014), 380.

[3] This is the basis for 1973’s “My old School,” off of Countdown to Ecstasy.

[4] Fagen was painfully self-conscious about his voice, and Palmer consequentially did all the early on-stage singing.

[5] Steely Dan, Can’t Buy a Thrill, ABC Records, 1972.

[6] Steely Dan, Countdown to Ecstasy, ABC Records, 1973.

[7] “Steely Dan Biography,” the Rolling Stone, last modified 2001, http://www.rollingstone.com/music/artists/steely-dan/biography.

[8] This would be the only cover the band would ever do.

[9] Steely Dan, Pretzel Logic, ABC Records, 1974.

[10] Dickson, “Aja,” 380.

[11] Don Breithaupt, Aja (New York: Continuum International Publishing, 2007), 3.

[12] “The Hot 100-1977 Archive,” Billboard.com. http://www.billboard.com/archive/charts/1977/hot-100.

[13] Steely Dan, Aja, ABC Records, 1977.

[14] The name of their 1973 single soon became synonymous with the band.

[15] Alan Lewens, “Classic Albums: Steely Dan-Aja,” October 21, 1999, http://www.veoh.com/watch/v242044pCWxESzH.

[16] Pete Christlieb, interview by Mike Bell, The Calgary Herald, June 5, 2015. http://calgaryherald.com/entertainment/music/from-the-tonight-show-band-to-steely-dan-veteran-sax-player-pete-christlieb-has-had-a-varied-career.

[17] Breithaupt, Aja, 39.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Lewens, “Classic Albums.”

[20] Ibid.

[21] Breithaupt, Aja, 40.

[22] Ibid., 43.

[23] Ibid., 48.

[24] Ibid., 45.

[25] Lewens, “Classic Albums.”

[26] Patti Smith, Horses, Arista Records, 1975.

[27] Breithaupt, Aja, 97.

Close