The Meaning Behind “FM (No Static at All),” a Song Where Steely Dan Mocked the Airwaves that Helped Make Them

Steely Dan’s smooth grooves often helped to mask acerbic lyrical sentiments. In the case of their 1978 single “FM (No Static at All),” they managed to take some subtle jabs at the radio format that had helped propel them to the heights in the ’70s, all while doing so in an airtight package that indeed sounded fantastic beaming in from radio stations across the nation.

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What is the song about? How did the approach by Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, Steely Dan’s mainstays, differ just a bit for this song? And how did some old musical sparring partners contribute to the proceedings? Let’s find out all we can about “FM (No Static at All).”

Soundtrack Work

Steely Dan were riding high in 1977 as one of the most successful rock acts of the decade. And they were about to get even bigger, as they were in the midst of recording Aja, which would be a massive record for them when released in September of that year. That’s when Donald Fagen and Walter Becker received a phone call. Fagen picks up the story from there in an interview with American Songwriter:

“There was a film called FM and we were asked to do the title song. And I said, ‘Does it have to have any specific words?’ And they said, ‘No, it just has to be about FM radio.’ We wrote that very quickly, I remember, in one or two days. And we also recorded it very quickly, too. Johnny Mandel came in and did the string chart. It was fun to meet Johnny Mandel.”

Johnny Mandel was a notable arranger known for his work with legends like Frank Sinatra. Having strings was a bit unusual for Steely Dan, but they though it would suit the song when it was played on the big screen. The song was also relatively unique for the duo in that they handled most of the instruments themselves, with the exception of Jeff Porcaro on drums, Victor Feldman on percussion, and Pete Christlieb on saxophone.

The Eagles Have Landed

In the past, Steely Dan had engaged in a somewhat playful songwriting back-and-forth with the Eagles. Steely Dan started it out by mentioning the Eagles in their ’76 song “Everything You Did,” before the Eagles came back with their famous reference to steely knives in “Hotel California.” There clearly weren’t any bad feelings between the outfits, however, as Don Henley, Glenn Frey, and Timothy B. Schmit add backing vocals to “FM.”

It’s notable that Fagen and Becker had the leeway to write whatever they wanted about FM radio. That allowed them to throw in some caustic commentary about the state of FM at that point. While they had once stood out for their freeform, independent nature, the FM airwaves were becoming increasingly corporate and homogenized by the time the song became a single in 1978.

As for the movie that featured the song? Well, FM the film could only be characterized as a flop, with poor box office and rough reviews. (A Los Angeles Times critic summed it up as “fairly mediocre.”) As such, it will largely be remembered for its killer soundtrack, a two-LP set featuring some of the leading lights on the rock scene at the time.

What is “FM (No Static at All)” About?

The basic premise of “FM (No Static at All)” is both listeners and programmers are to blame for the poor state of the airwaves. Listeners who settle for music that’s easy and unchallenging will get the generic stuff they deserve, not that it bothers them anyway: The girls don’t seem to care what’s on / As long as they play ’til dawn.

As for the programmers, they simply lock into the same old formats for fear of stirring things up, as immortalized by the song’s most famous lines: Nothing but blues and Elvis / And somebody else’s favorite song. The second verse’s reference to Muzak is particularly pointed, since Fagen and Becker seem to be suggesting that the FM radio had become glorified elevator music.

In that context, the line No static at all can be read as both a blessing and a curse. Yes, everything can be heard just fine, but is it worth hearing in the first place? That’s what Steely Dan was insinuating on “FM (No Static at All),” although, with a groove so seductive, it managed to brighten up the airwaves about which it was complaining in the first place.

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Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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