First identified in New York in 1972, it's a stubborn condition and new cases emerge every year. Most often, it's hereditary - passed from father to son. There is no known cure, and few victims ever recover. The nature of this disease? Liking Steely Dan.
Formed by Donald Fagen and the late Walter Becker, Steely Dan were at their height in the '70s. Their music is complex, steeped in jazz, and made by a revolving cast of session players. The band took its name from a line of motorised dildos in William S. Burroughs' Naked Lunch. The only thing less likely than their original breakthrough is their continuing appeal. This is especially true because they released only two LPs after 1980.
And yet, Steely Dan continue to win new fans. A common thread in Danner conversion tales is initial revulsion at a young age. Via repeated listens in dad's car, disgust gives way first to curiosity, then to enthusiasm. Soon, the novice develops their own theory on the chronology of "Haitian Divorce". Next, they begin re-arranging a ranking of the best solos on Aja. Finally, there comes a time when they own more Dan albums than their parents. The virus has taken another soul.
How does this happen? Steely Dan were usually unfashionable and had opaque and cynical lyrics. Their precise production can make them sound like lift music to the uninitiated. Worse, some writers have filed them with embarrassing "yacht rock" and laughed at them. These are not the traditional elements of cult appeal, to be sure.
Some of the Dan's special characteristics have seen them through. Their aversion to interviews gives them a mysterious, outsider quality. Their focus on seedy or taboo subjects - incest, crime, age-gap relationships - singles them out. Most important of all, their cryptic lyrics and virtuoso playing reward repeated listens. Outside fixtures of rock radio like "Reelin' in the Years", Steely Dan may be the ultimate slow-burn band.
There's also something about Steely Dan that can seem timely today. Set in America's poles of light and dark, LA and NY, their songs focus on a cast of losers and outcasts. These vindictive rubes can seem ripped from today's headlines. The song "King of the World" depicts a bombed-out hellscape that looks more plausible all the time.
The meticulous, clean sound of Steely Dan is a product of skilled playing and production. What sounds simple at first is anything but, and masks the scathing cynicism of the lyrics. It's is a far cry from the safe, computer-generated blur of whatever's on the radio these days. In the '70s nobody liked a smartass, but they're welcome when the world's most powerful man is also the dumbest.
With every listen, these old records seem to grow, deepen, and become more relevant. Then again, that could be just another symptom.
Steely Dan: Five Favourites
"King of the World" (Countdown to Ecstasy, 1973) [Listen]
Featuring more synthesizer than usual for Steely Dan, the closer to the second LP is sung from the perspective of a lonely survivor after a (presumably) nuclear holocaust.
"Charlie Freak" (Pretzel Logic, 1974) [Listen]
The Danners could be sincere from time to time, as on "Charlie Freak". This wonderful but tremendously sad song, embellished with sleigh bells, is about a desperate junkie exploited by a passerby.
"Everyone's Gone to the Movies" (Katy Lied, 1975) [Listen]
A fun pop song which a great chorus, which is also one of the Dan songs which touches on the most controversial subjects - it might be about a guy who preys on neighbourhood kids.
"The Caves of Altamira" (The Royal Scam, 1976) [Listen]
Inspired by the famous cave paintings in Spain, this highlight from The Royal Scam has some of the cleverest Steely Dan lyrics - and that's going some.
"Peg" (Aja, 1977) [Listen]
Everything on Aja sounds fantastic, which is why it's long been useful to audio gear enthusiasts. The lovely "Peg" is the most accessible cut, and may be about the British actress Peg Entwistle - who jumped to her death from the Hollywood sign in 1932.