Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Secrets of Subversion: Steely Dan's "Reelin' in the Years"

One night in the late Seventies, on their network television show, Donny and Marie Osmond decided to perform a nostalgic tribute to the glorious days of our youth. Decked out in spangles and bell-bottoms, the duo picked a contemporary pop standard they believed caught the mood of nostalgia. As they began, they traded lines of the song as if exchanging precious memories:

You're everlasting summer
You can see it fadin' fast
So you grab a piece of somethin'
That you think is gonna last
Well, you wouldn't know a diamond
If you held it in your hand
The things you think are precious
I can't understand.

Despite the bitter and acrimonious tone of the lyrics, the siblings' performance was upbeat and grossly energetic. They exchanged smiles, tossed individual lines to each other and reached out their hands as if eagerly anticipating their high school reunion. By the time they reached the chorus and were singing in harmony, their mood turned curiously exuberant:

Are you reelin' in the years
Stowin' away the time
Are you gatherin' up the tears
Have you had enough of mine?

You probably recognize the song they selected as their tribute to the past: Steely Dan's 1972 hit "Reelin' in the Years." Hardly conceived as a bouquet of roses to the good ol' days, "Reelin' in the Years" was in fact a viciously satiric attack on those who do get misty over a walk down memory lane. But Donny and Marie responded only to the effervescent bounce in the melody. It was a common mistake people made with this band. When I worked on the CBC radio program Prime Time, in the early Nineties, our executive producer Dave Downey was a huge Steely Dan fan. And he got no end in grief for being one. While most of the other producers on the show found it easy to revel in the post-punk sounds of Radiohead, they actually missed the covert rebellion lurking within the smooth jazz arrangements of these Jewish songwriters; composers who are as sardonically ironic as the Coen brothers are in the world of film.

Walter Becker & Donald Fagen
In 1972, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker were two pretty frustrated tunesmiths from New York who tempered their frustrations by forming a band. It helped that the pair had a kindred history. They originally met in 1967 at Bard College, discovering a mutual love for both black jazz and black humour while the rest of the college was grooving to Vanilla Fudge. Once Fagen graduated (and Becker got booted out), they decided to enter a partnership as songwriters. They first sought out the Brill Building, where they sold a few songs, including "I Mean to Shine" (covered by Barbara Streisand). But they soon found their sardonic sense of humour made it impossible to continue writing pop ballads designed to be hit records. In 1970, the duo abandoned songwriting and acquired employment as roadies for Jay & the Americans. But life on the road soon bored them, and they began writing songs at ABC Records, a label that took interest in them and encouraged Fagen and Becker to record their own stuff.

They quickly assembled a band from studio musicians they liked and called themselves Steely Dan, after a dildo coined by William Burroughs in his novel Naked Lunch (1959). Nobody seemed to get that little joke, so they took the prank further by composing obtuse, acerbic songs adorned by crisp and commercially friendly melodies. Underneath Steely Dan's smooth jazz arrangements though lay some pretty deranged comic stories. "We think of our records as comedy records to some degree," Fagen told The New York Times in 2003. "There wasn't really any model for that sort of thing, with the possible exception of Frank Zappa. But when we first started, people thought our style belied the actual content of the lyrics. So they thought we were just sort of sincere California band. I guess that's the secret of subversion." In Avant Rock: Experimental Music from The Beatles to Bj√∂rk (2002), Bill Martin writes: "What really makes the Steely Dan vision...is a synthesis of jazz-rock with a sound from the first decades of the 20th Century, a sound that I associate with Cole Porter, the Gershwin Brothers and Duke Ellington – I would call this sound 'music deco.' As with the art deco movement in design and architecture, music deco is innovation developed from popular materials. And, as with art deco, there is a definite Jewish side to music deco, or a synthesis of Jewish and African-American influences."

While incorporating such influences, Steely Dan also became masters of disguise and believers in the untrustworthy narrator (a trait they shared with songwriter Randy Newman). Besides the neatly veiled but anti-nostalgic "Reelin' in the Years," from Can't Buy a Thrill (1972), the band produced a number of deceptively perverse songs that miraculously found their way onto the radio. "Show Biz Kids," with its funky, catchy melody, took a well-aimed shot at the Hollywood rich and poor – not to mention their own fans. Look closely, and "Rikki Don't Lose That Number," which borrowed its seductive jazz melody from Horace Silver's "Song for My Father," is really about a transvestite. Likewise "The Fez," with its exotic dance rhythms, is actually a light-hearted advisory about wearing condoms. "Pretzel Logic," which accurately describes the swastika, takes on (at least in part) the subject of Adolph Hitler. "Any World (That I'm Welcome to)" is a sly critique on social alienation with a melody so beguiling you can sometimes hear the song playing, as I once heard it, in the most conventional places – like a supermarket.


Subversion and its secrets sometimes comes in the form of a Trojan Horse. But we have grown so used to seeing and hearing rebellion in its loudest, most demonstrative forms, we tend to miss the kind that sneaks in our door. As for Steely Dan's curmudgeonly view of human nature, it comes disguised as popularly accepted music. In "Reelin' in the Years," there is also a wicked devilry in their populist daring.

– Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa). His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. With John CorcelliCourrier is finishing production on a radio documentary for CBC Radio's Inside the Music called The Other Me: The Avant-Garde Music of Paul McCartney to be broadcast on December 30th.  

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