Quantum Criminals: Ramblers, Wild Gamblers, and Other Sole Survivors from the Songs of Steely Dan
(University of Texas Press, 2023)
Has any band had a longer tail than Steely Dan? Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon has been a consistent seller for decades, but that’s more a murmur of rock in the steady state background of culture. Floyd were a global nova and their long commercial dissipation will continue.
Steely Dan on the other hand were both liminal and controversial during their seven-album heyday from 1972 to 1980, Can’t Buy a Thrill to Gaucho. Their singles and albums made the charts—“Do It Again,” track one side one on Can’t Buy a Thrill, hit No. 6 on the Billboard charts, the later “Rikki Don’t Lose that Number” (from Pretzel Logic) reached No. 4, and their 1977 Aja reached the top five and has sold over one million copies—and if you listened at all to the broad spectrum of rock radio in the seventies and eighties, you heard Steely Dan.
They were never critical darlings though. Sure, they had their promoters, but they were also panned by Dave Marsh in Rolling Stone, and at a show from the Paramount Theatre in Seattle in 1974—the last year they toured before the later, nostalgic comeback—the emcee introduces them by saying “Here by popular demand and at great expense to the management, you may like them, personally I don’t, from Los Angeles, California, Steely Dan!” Quite the mixed message.
Steely Dan themselves are a mixed message, and perhaps that’s part of their appeal and also what makes some uncomfortable. Songs this sarcastic and jaundiced are supposed to sound like punk or post-punk bands, right? But Steely Dan fits neatly into any playlist that also includes Toto and John Sebastian, so what’s going on? How can something so smooth and solid be so unsettling, and vice versa?
That’s what writer Alex Pappademas and the lovely and witty illustrations by Joan LeMay explain in Quantum Criminals. The book is as smooth and intriguing as Gaucho, a combination of sophisticated thinking, clear language, and a calm view of the dark interior of this band. All of it is told through a series of connected biographies that are based on each song that the band recorded—along with chapters on leaders Walter Becker and Donald Fagen—and that give the musicians involved, the cultural views accumulated, and Pappademas’s own journey, significant roles in what is a great and complex story.
The book will be terrifically satisfying to any and all Dan fans in the way that having one’s own experiences and perceptions acknowledged and validated is, but it goes far beyond hagiography. Pappademas is the kind of listener who for a time relied on the received wisdom of his era—for him it was The Spin Alternative Record Guide, published in 1995—and dismissed the band; “I treated that…book like a bible for years…I was primed to see Steely Dan as the enemy no matter what.”
That points to a suspicion that many who love Steely Dan for what it is have about both its past critics and many fans, which is that neither were really listening to the band. They were hearing the flow of the songs, the impeccable production, catching some of the hooks, but were never getting past the surface. Because just underneath all that is a collection that is rare in pop music. On the technical side, that’s not just the quasi-jazz gloss that is not really jazz but deep mastery of harmony, tiny details of intent that buttress whole songs—that hi-hat on the upbeat on “Peg”—and the kind of grooves and hooks that no other band could have imagined: the parallel motion of Fagen’s voice in three over the syncopated harmony in two on “Reelin’ In the Years” is so smooth that it obscures both how original and how hip it is.
Songs have lyrics, they’re about something. People have been singing song lyrics without quite getting the gist for years—e.g. “Sweet Caroline”—and the notion of Steely Dan as yacht rock, mellow grooves for suburban dads to luxuriate in, is laughable when you hear, and grasp, the band’s subjects and views. These include: post-apocalypse (“King of the World”); something near pedophilia (“Everyone’s Gone to the Movies”); Buddhism as fashionable bourgeois lifestyle (“Bodhisattva”); something that no one can figure out about the cult writer Rikki Ducornet (“Rikki Don’t Lose that Number”); and the entirety of The Royal Scam, with songs about dealing LSD, a spree killer/mass murderer, the deeply damaged relationships, and the exploitation of immigrants. That album came out in 1976 and captures an insane decade—Vietnam, Watergate, violence, cocaine, stagflation, disco, pornography, variety shows—like no other record. It’s my favorite Dan album and the one that is hardest to listen to.
The seventies were a weird, savage, abrading time, the scars linger, and the feeling of things being both on the brink and yet somehow peppy and optimistic is repeating this century. Steely Dan’s audience is growing again through younger listeners who are looking around, seeing how fucked up shit is, and finding a perspective on all this through these songs—the kids are not just alright, they’re listening. Having lingered on the airwaves and in the back of curious minds like that of Pappademas, the Dan renaissance is well underway.
Weird times demand weird responses and Steely Dan are weird in a very American, and very important, way. It’s not weirdness as public display, it’s the weirdness of the introverted observer, beholden to no tribe nor fashion, impervious to political slogans and unwilling to accept the bullshit. It’s the weirdness of the true hipster who stands outside of culture. Fagen and Becker were legacy babies of the long hangover of beatnik culture, with a firm and wary skepticism of the world around them and a drive to uncover a real and unsentimental sense of beauty (Fagen’s hybrid memoir/essay collection, Eminent Hipsters, is an essential inside view of the band’s intellectual and musical aesthetics). They made their way through untethered times, and Quantum Criminals shows us how to make it through again.