American rock band Steely Dan influenced an entire generation of music with their eclectic style. They fused rock, pop, and jazz to create some of the greatest hits of their time.
But many fans wonder where the group got its name from. While it’s not the strangest of band names, it is a curious one.
We did some digging to discover how they decided to call themselves Steely Dan. The answer might surprise you.
Let’s get into it!
The Story of Steely Dan
Donald Fagen and Walter Becker met in 1967. Both attended Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York. Becker was playing guitar at a cafe on campus, and his skills impressed Fagen enough to approach him about collaborating.
The two began writing music together and moved to Brooklyn, NY, soon after. They performed local gigs and even made the soundtrack for a low-budget movie featuring Richard Pryor. However, they didn’t have much success.
Gary Katz, an associate of their producer, moved to Los Angeles and became ABC Record’s staff producer. He invited Becker and Fagen to join him in L.A. as staff songwriters.
The band Steely Dan officially formed in 1972. Their debut album, Can’t Buy a Thrill, featured some of their most popular hits like Dirty Work and Reelin’ in the Years.
The duo performed with a steady lineup of musicians for several years. But in 1974, they stopped touring and instead focused on recording with different session musicians.
Despite their hiatus from live performances, their popularity continued to rise. They released several hit albums during this time.
In June 1981, the band went their separate ways. But they reunited eight years later for a U.S. tour. Steely Dan went on to release a box set of their entire catalog.
Two Against Nature was the first Steely Dan album released in 20 years and was a smash hit. The record also won four Grammy Awards.
Sadly, Becker died in 2017, but Fagen still plays with a revolving team of musicians.
Steely Dan’s Best-Known Songs
Steely Dan’s wildly successful run has resulted in some of the greatest hits of a generation. With influences from jazz to pop, their style was unique but also popular with mainstream audiences.
We’ve picked three of our favorites to give you a taste of their impressive portfolio.
Reelin’ in the Years
Reelin’ in the Years was one of the band’s earliest hits. The song is about a man who breaks up with his girlfriend, lamenting the passage of time.
Elliot Randall, a friend of band member Skunk Baxter’s, stopped by during the recording session and ended up playing the song’s catchy guitar solo. While the tune reached #11 on Billboard’s Hot 100, it was one of the band’s least favorite songs to play. Fagen thought it was corny, saying, “It’s dumb but effective.”
Rikki Don’t Lose That Number
Rikki Don’t Lose That Number was Steely Dan’s most commercially successful hit. It landed at #4 on the charts in 1974.
This rather straightforward song was actually subject to much interpretation. Some speculated that the number in question was a reference to drugs.
However, this song is about Rikki Ducornet, Donald Fagen’s love interest at Bard College. The two met at a party, and Fagen gave her his number, despite the fact that she was both married and pregnant.
For what it’s worth, we don’t think Rikki ever made the call.
Do It Again
Do It Again was the first hit single from Can’t Buy a Thrill. It was #6 on the U.S. charts. Waylon Jennings, Tori Amos, Falco, and Smash Mouth all went on to cover the song.
Not as straightforward as Rikki Don’t Lose that Number, this tune is thought to reference addiction and the hand of fate.
The radio cut of Do It Again was a bit different than the album version, which features a longer intro, outro, and a substantial organ solo.
What Was Steely Dan’s Best Album?
Steely Dan’s 1977 album Aja is arguably their greatest work. Nearly 40 musicians participated in its recording.
Aja was the peak of experimentation for Steely Dan. The album fused pop, rock, and jazz into an eclectic auditory experience.
It initially received unfavorable criticism because it was such a departure from the commercially palatable music many people knew them for. However, it would eventually be hailed as the early influence of yacht rock.
The album was later inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame and was included in the U.S. National Recording Registry for its cultural and artistic significance.
Where Did the Name Steely Dan Come From?
The name Steely Dan came from a surprising source and gives a bit of insight into the minds of Becker and Fagen.
Both men were fans of famed beat writer William S. Burroughs. Burroughs’ most famous book, Naked Lunch, was a psychotropic fever dream of a novel. It followed the unreliable narrator through a pan-continental trip and numerous drug-induced trips.
In the novel, there’s a reference to “Steely Dan III from Yokohama.” This was a steam-powered, strap-on dildo worn by one of the characters in a particularly explicit sex scene.
That’s right, folks! The band who rose to such commercial fame had unsuspecting fans uttering the name of a sex toy whenever they said “Steely Dan.”
We can’t help but think Becker and Fagen had a good laugh when they made that decision.
A Name to Make Someone Blush
Steely Dan’s discography is full of hit songs that have stood the test of time. Their mass appeal has them riding the airwaves to this day. And it seems Becker and Fagen managed to rebrand Steely Dan from an obscure sex toy to one of the most influential bands of a generation.
While their name may have a silly history, the music they make is definitely serious. We can’t get enough, which might also be what someone who used a Steely Dan said once or twice!
Do you have a favorite Steely Dan song? Let us know in the comments below.