Steely Dan is still one of the best acts to have ever sardonically skewered popular culture. Despite having a hippie-like appearance, the group—led by Donald Fagen and the late Walker Becker—offered far more fluff than well-known counterculture groups. Steely Dan created distinctive and endlessly absorbing music by fusing humor, misanthropy, and musical skill. They have the durability to appeal to a range of generations because of this synthesis of the elements. Given that Fagen and Fagen got their influences from the legendary Frank Zappa, the maestro in this sector, it is not surprising that they found such success.
One of the first to combine difficult music with biting humor was Frank Zappa. He first found success with the Mothers of Invention in the middle of the 1960s, after which he went on to have an extraordinarily successful solo career. During this time, he tore into the counterculture and other musicians, battled PMRC censorship, and even succeeded in having a statue of himself built in Lithuania.
Frank Zappa showed how to go against the grain and succeed by combining his music with a weaponized understanding of humor. This innovative approach opened the path for Steely Dan and many other bands. When Fagen and Becker were developing what would eventually become their signature sound, they paid particular attention to this wickedly humorous tendency.
Fagen was asked by New York magazine in 2006 what other genres besides science fiction served as Steely Dan’s sources of inspiration. He mentioned writers like Kurt Vonnegut, Philip Roth, and Vladimir Nabokov, saying: “That certainly influenced the lyric writing. We also liked comic songwriting, like Tom Lehrer. He was a piano player and songwriter who wrote these grim, funny songs. And then we were both fans of Frank Zappa and the Fugs.”
The Steely Dan frontman was then reminded of a time when he said that Zappa was “the only model for the comedy” of his group. He stated: “The only comic rock and roll I remember was Frank Zappa, really. The Fugs were comic also, but their music was so primitive. I remember the Fugs used to play free in Tompkins Square Park in the sixties, and at one point they were really the kings of the Lower East Side.”
In answer to a question from Rolling Stone in 2021 about whether or not his band and the Grateful Dead have any parallels, Fagen expressed his admiration for Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention. He reiterated that Zappa and the Mothers would have been Steely Dan’s “any models” at the time of their beginning.
Fagen remembered, “When we first started, if we had any models, first of all, there was Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention. We got to see a bunch of shows when they spent a summer at the Garrick Theater on Bleecker Street in the Village. In the afternoons, you could go in for nothing and watch them rehearse. And we both loved all that stuff. We loved what he was doing on stage and the humor, like a combination of Lenny Bruce and the hippie, counterculture humor.”
Although Zappa was open about his disdain for some of his contemporaries’ music, he was a huge fan of Steely Dan, which is undoubtedly one of their best achievements. He admitted to Rolling Stone in 1974 that they were one of his favorite bands.
He also said, “I like their modality, their melodicism. Their lyrics aren’t bad in that vein they’re working, that downer surrealism. As relaxing listening music, I’d give it a 98. One person in our band, Ruth Underwood, would give them about a 120. She really fetishes them. She’s usually got their cassette rammed into her ear.”