For the Casual Steely Dan Hater: 5 Classic Fagen/Becker Non-Hits You Didn’t Know You Were About to Fall Madly in Love With

You know the big hits from these California jazz-rock stalwarts, from “Reelin’ in the Years” and “Josie” to “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” and “Hey Nineteen.” Donald Fagen and Walter Becker started their career in Jay and the Americans. They left that band and moved to Brooklyn, New York, to write for other artists. But they found that their songs were too complex for others to play, so they started their own band to record them. Steely Dan—the band some love to hate and some hate to love—was born.

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Here are five beloved songs that, if you don’t fall in love with Steely Dan after giving them an honest, thoughtful listen, then…well, we don’t know what to tell you. You’re just on the wrong side of history.

1. “Bodhisattva,” from the album Countdown to Ecstasy

I’m gonna sell my house in town
I’m gonna sell my house in town
And I’ll be there
To shine in your Japan
To sparkle in your China
Yes, I’ll be there

About reaching enlightenment, just as the Buddha did. The idea of abandoning your physical existence but choosing to remain to help others. The Beastie Boys used the term in “Bodhisattva Vow” on Check Your Head while learning about Tibetan Buddhism.

2. “Any Major Dude Will Tell You,” from the album Pretzel Logic

Have you ever seen a squonk’s tears? Well, look at mine
The people on the street have all seen better times
Any major dude with half a heart surely will tell you, my friend
Any minor world that breaks apart falls together again
When the demon is at your door
In the morning, it won’t be there no more
Any major dude will tell you
Any major dude will tell you

This song was the B-side to “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number.” It was covered by Wilco for the soundtrack to Me, Myself and Irene. When they wrote the song, Becker and Fagen had moved to Los Angeles, and they were just getting used to people calling each other “dude.” A squonk is a mythical creature from the woodlands that dissolves in its own tears. 

[RELATED: Behind the Meaning of the Band Name: Steely Dan]

3. “Black Cow,” from the album Aja

I don’t care anymore
Why you run around, why you run around
Break away
Just when it seems so clear
That it’s over now
Drink your big black cow
And get out of here

A black cow is a mixture of Coca-Cola and chocolate ice cream. It can also include chocolate syrup or cream. In 1998, Lord Tariq & Peter Gunz sampled this song in “Deja Vu (Uptown Baby).” Becker and Fagen are listed as the songwriters on the track.

4. “Aja,” from the album Aja

Up on the hill
They think I’m okay
Or so they say
Chinese music always sets me free
Angular banjoes
Sound good to me

When all my dime dancin’ is through
I run to you

This interior monologue contains many Asian references. At the time, Aja was an obscure name in America, at best. Because of the song, many girls were given the name in the late Seventies and early Eighties. Compton, California, Mayor Aja Brown’s mother was a Steely Dan fan, and WNBA player A’ja Wilson told NPR’s Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me! that her father was a fan and named her after the tune.

5. “Dirty Work,” from the album Can’t Buy a Thrill

Light the candle
Put the lock upon the door
You have sent the maid home early
Like a thousand times before
Like the castle in its corner
In a medieval game
I foresee terrible trouble
And I stay here just the same

I’m a fool to do your dirty work
Oh yeah
I don’t wanna do your dirty work
No more
I’m a fool to do your dirty work
Oh yeah

Though technically a deeper cut, as it didn’t chart, this song generated some life for itself beyond the charts. It appeared on the band’s debut album in 1972, but was later used prominently in movies and television shows. It has been in two different episodes of The Simpsons, an episode of The Sopranos, and the movies American Hustle and The Suicide Squad. “Dirty Work” has been covered a ton, too, by the likes of Iain Matthews, The Pointer Sisters, Kenny Rogers and the First Edition, Songbird, Max Merritt, and Melissa Manchester.

Photo by David Pomponio/FilmMagic

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