Jazz licks, dildos and Tony Soprano: In defence of Steely Dan

Steve Albini wants to make sure that everyone knows just how punk he is. How punk is that, you ask? The Shellac frontman and storied producer, probably best known for his work on Nirvana’s 1993 classic ‘In Utero’, took to Twitter this week to announce that he “will always be the kind of punk that shits on Steely Dan”. How much more punk could Albini be? None. None more punk.

After all, shitting on Steely Dan is much more than just a long-standing punk tradition: it’s baked into the very origins of the genre. When punk rock first emerged in the mid-70s, its DIY ethos and unvarnished sound was a deliberate rejection of the perceived excesses of the cocaine-fuelled, middle-of-the-road soft rock personified by Steely Dan’s Walter Becker and Donald Fagen. Half a century on Albini is still fighting that same war against jazz licks and smug musical competence, like the Japanese soldier who spent three decades in a jungle in the Philippines refusing to believe that World War II was really over. Albini isn’t out of ammo yet. “Christ,” he added disparagingly. “The amount of human effort wasted to sound like an SNL band warm up.”

Albini’s one-man offensive soon exploded into a full-on social media skirmish, with a swathe of musicians taking up arms on one side or the other. Those agreeing with Albini’s dismissive view of “the Dan” included Laura Jane Grace (who bemoaned Steely Dan’s “terrible fucking music”) and Jason Isbell, who joked that his wife Amanda Shires hates the band so much that she’s starting a fan group called the “Albini Babies”. On the other side of the great divide, both St. Vincent and Jenny Lewis shared that they “fucking love Steely Dan” – a sentiment that spurred Ben Stiller to add: “Me too.” Elsewhere, Semisonic frontman Dan Wilson called Steely Dan “one of my favourite bands” before adding that he “can’t quite understand why people would hate such beautifully and lovingly made music. Is it a ‘try hard’ thing?”

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