The Opposite of The Velvet Underground is Steely Dan

by John Holbo on December 8, 2016

Just like dog is the opposite of cat.

Years ago – don’t know why I remember – I posted about how some bands are loved, some bands are popular, even influential, without being heavily imitated. I put forth Steely Dan as a paradigm of a popular, influential band that isn’t imitated. I posited that it’s kind of hard to imitate them. (By contrast, The Velvet Underground is the band that sold a thousand records and started 10,000 bands.) That’s why I was interested when Apple Music offered, this afternoon, a playlist of “Inspired By Steely Dan” tracks. Further, the list promises to pass over “the yacht rock years” – so you can just put 10CC “I’m Not In Love” back where you found it!

Joe Jackson, Kanye West, Phoenix. When Ian Dury and the Blockheads came on I almost laughed out loud.

Here’s the list. How do you rank them? Slickeriness is not necessarily next to Danliness. Just putting an ooze of lounge jazz sleaze in there is not sufficient either, is it? (But it’s kind of hard to say. It’s kind of like trying to be influenced by British music hall tunes from the 40’s without being influenced by the Beatles. Logically, it should be possible, but, in practice, is it?)

N.E.R.D. “Run To The Sun”
Joe Jackson “Steppin’ Out”
Daft Punk “The Game of Love”
Super Furry Animals “It’s Not The End of the World?”
Kanye West “Heard ‘Em Say” (feat. Adam Levine)
Everything But The Girl “Cross My Heart”
Phoenix “If I Ever Feel Better”
Ben Folds Five “Steven’s Last Night In Town”
Ian Dury and the Blockheads “Wake Up And Make Love To Me”
The Roots “Break You Off” (feat. Musiq Soulchild)
Destroyer “Downtown”
Scritti Politti “Absolute”
The Mountain Goats “Cry For Judas”
Minutemen “The Big Stick”
Ween “Freedom of ’76”

OK. Now that you have listened to them all: I’m 90% sure that The Minutemen were put on this list just to check that people were actually listening all the way through. They do not belong. Also, The Mountain Goats? I was very skeptical about The Roots, but the last minute of that track won me over. The 80’s stuff – Scritti Politti and Everything But The Girl? There seems to be a theory here that anyone playing up the light jazz side to a hazardous degree must be Danly. That seems a fallacy. Destroyer is a totally correct pick, however. Destroyer is a totally Danly band. They are awesome. But they also sound like The Velvet Underground. And so the circle is complete.



j.eel 12.08.16 at 7:15 am

The Ween pick’s an odd choice. Shouldn’t that be Pandy Fackler?


John Holbo 12.08.16 at 7:32 am

Just to be clear, I know The Minutemen covered “Dr. Wu”.


John Holbo 12.08.16 at 7:34 am

Ween seems like a good pick and I agree it should be “Pandy Fackler”.


Joseph Brenner 12.08.16 at 7:43 am

Yeah, I skimmed through the list until “Mountain Goats” & “The Minutemen”, that’s the real WTF point. Then I clicked through on the Destroyer to see if that “Downtown” was yet-another-cover of the Tom Waites song– there’s some really nasty schlock sax in there, I must say.

It is true that Steely Dan is an off in left-field/out on a limb of their own kind of band, and I wouldn’t be able to think in much of the way of “influenced by”s myself. Maybe that Gerry Rafferty song, “Baker Street”? But then, it doesn’t really suck badly enough: a true Steely Dan song should have no trace of emotion or soul in it…

They’re kind of like the jazz equivalent of “progressive rock” (oddly they’re not really “jazz-rock fusion”, are they?): an excellent example of why punk rock was necessary.

So maybe the Minutemen really were influenced by them, in a back-handed sort of way…


P O'Neill 12.08.16 at 8:58 am

Given the orientation of the list, a bit surprising not to see Stevie Nicks or Robert Palmer on there.


Russell Arben Fox 12.08.16 at 12:04 pm

The inclusion of the Ben Folds Five track is suggestive, though.


Phil 12.08.16 at 12:08 pm

Scritti – 0. Can’t see that at all; it just sounds exactly like mid-80s Scritti Politti
Roots – 0. Again, can’t hear any similarities at all, other than what sounds like fairly scuzzy subject matter (is he, perhaps, a fool to do her dirty work?) Oh, hang on, I didn’t listen to the last minute… no, still don’t get it.
SFA – 0. Not Dan at all; they’re in the 1966-7 Beach Boys/Beatles “pocket symphony” lineage, which is quite different.
Minutemen – 0. Even acoustic, I can’t see what they’re doing here.
Phoenix – 1. A bit of stylistic cool & lounge-jazz sheen, but no more than that
Daft Punk – 2. Cool, cool… cold
Mountain Goats – 2. Odd chord sequences and cynical lyrics aren’t enough – not without the cool, the arrangements, the vocals or the sound.
Dury – 3. The Blockheads did come out of the mid-70s jazz-funk scene – they were formerly the Loving Awareness band – but that’s as far as it goes.
EBTG – 3. Another (different) case of “same influences, different sleeve”

N.E.R.D. – 6. Very Dan, but a kind of bizarro-Dan with added sincerity – weird. Or it may just be that the chorus vocal sounds exactly like Fagen.
Ween – 6. Very Dan, apart from being skin-crawlingly irritating for some reason I can’t pin down. Sounds like an immature Dan, which is a fairly major flaw.
Kanye – 7. Another weird near-miss; everything about the track is reminiscent of Steely Dan except the lead vocal, which is a fairly important element.
Destroyer – 8. The Dan is strong in this one, but weedy & wavery vocals let him down.
Joe Jackson – 9. Very Dan – even down to that weird combination of passion and emotional cool (as well as stylistic cool, of course). You know the story about how they checked the final mix by dropping it to a cassette tape and listening to it in the car? While driving down the freeway, of course.
As for the Ben Folds track: some mistake here, as that actually is Steely Dan. No?


Jesse A. 12.08.16 at 2:03 pm

For what it’s worth, the Mountain Goats have covered FM. I suspect some members of this list are just people who have covered Dan songs, or who expressed their appreciation of the Dan in interviews.


F. Lengyel 12.08.16 at 2:43 pm

To my ear, Steely Dan and Steeleye Span are indistinguishable. I would have expected “Sails of Silver” to have made such a list.


David 12.08.16 at 2:57 pm

I think you’ve covered it in the first sentence. Some artists are influential because they open up avenues for others to follow. The Beatles wrote the rule book for modern popular music. Dylan opened the door for thousands of young singer-songwriters. Pink Floyd showed you could sell LPs with only two tracks, Clapton showed you could be a guitar hero. They were all widely imitated. By contrast, the Stones, though brilliant, were themselves derivative, following Cohen (RIP) was next to impossible, the Doors were a combination that could not be repeated etc. etc. Steely Dan (never my thing really) were a bit of a dead end. They could be imitated and copied but they didn’t actually map out any new territory.
And no, they are not the same as Steeleye Span, at least not in the early days.


The Modesto Kid 12.08.16 at 3:05 pm

Ultimate Steely Dan cover —


VeeLow 12.08.16 at 3:42 pm

I would say that “indie” and “Steely Dan” are incompatible; without a 1970s record industry and, uh, session cats, you can’t have Steely Dan.

That said, the Sea and Cake would have been a better choice than 90% of this list…


oldster 12.08.16 at 4:28 pm

Thank you, Modesto Kid–that was really delightfully excruciating.

I think the Apple algorithm is overemphasizing a couple of accidents while ignoring the essence. It is focusing on a certain kind of skittish beat (Bernard Purdie/ Steve Gadd) plus cheezy sax.

Those are accidents. The essence is…I don’t know: soullessness, masquerading as cynicism?


johnrobert 12.08.16 at 6:13 pm

Holy christ, that Donny and Marie cover was painful. Thanks(?), Modesto Kid.


Joseph Brenner 12.08.16 at 6:33 pm

David @ 10: “the Doors were a combination that could not be repeated etc. etc”

Well, there’s Patti Smith.

Speaking of bands that are influential without really being
imitated. There’s an old, oddly dismissive [1] write-up of Patti
Smith in “The Trouser Press” that declared she was “too
idiosyncratic to be really influential” except that it’s
abundantly clear she influenced people by showing that they could
be idiosyncratic.

[1] Actually, it’s often forgotten these days (now that she’s
effectively been lionized) how much of the reaction to Patti
Smith was dismissive back in those days… Greil Marcus (author
of the widely cited but phenomally bad “Lipstick Traces”) sneered
at her “hopelessly tough-chick” posturing on “Gloria”, though he
was later enthralled with Johnny Rotten’s snarling. I don’t like
to be too quick with accusations of sexism, but you know…

Greil Marcus on “Horses”, Village Voice:


anon/portly 12.08.16 at 6:48 pm

First off kudos to F. Lengyel.

Another way Steely Dan and the Velvets are opposites, perhaps, is that people who really prefer other types of popular music – older, jazzier stuff maybe – can appreciate Steely Dan but can’t really appreciate the Velvets. While “true” rock fans appreciate the Velvets but are probably not big Steely Dan fans; at least I’ve not known any.

One example I’m thinking of is Terry Teachout, who likes Steely Dan but who I don’t think ever mentions either the Velvets or any band influenced by the Velvets. (On his blog he does the “what I’m listening to” thing from time to time).

Of course who is a “true” rock fan? I don’t know. Perhaps it’s someone who saw this sentence in the Quietus and smiled at the ordering (i.e., speaking of opposites, Lemmy before Leonard):

….before David Bowie, Prince, Lemmy, Leonard Cohen, Pauline Oliveros, Alan Vega, Sharon Jones, David Manusco, Jock Scott and many other greats joined the silent majority in recent months.

Maybe I’m wrong, and maybe a Steely Dan fan could convince me to consider otherwise, but why would I listen to them when I could spend that time listening to things which are similar or achieve similar sorts of effects but are more interesting? What comes to mind immediately are Astral Weeks, Pentangle, Tindersticks, Portishead, maybe even Nina Simone or Joni Mitchell. And how about Stevie Wonder? Roy Harper maybe? Talk Talk?

Finally one way in which SD and VU were not opposites is that both were studio bands, essentially. On hearing the phrase “opposite of Steely Dan” I would have thought Grateful Dead….


VeeLow 12.08.16 at 6:52 pm

“The first Steely Dan album only sold 1,000,000 copies, but everyone who bought it ended up doing lines off a copy of Aja?”


Jimmy 12.08.16 at 7:04 pm

+1 to Jesse A. @ #8. Ben Folds Five also covered Barrytown.


b9n10nt 12.08.16 at 8:16 pm

Early jazz-rock Phish could’ve been included, too (musically, not lyrically).


M Caswell 12.08.16 at 9:16 pm

In pursuit of the essence of Danliness, I noticed the description of the Destroyer Youtube clip mentions “minor-seventh retro pop”. By this surprisingly music-theoretical locution, I take it they meant tonic minor seventh chords. These are only indeed often mellow, but not always, and don’t single out Danliness enough.

Poking around the web led me to the “Intro to the Steely Dan Songbook”, in which it is proposed that the key to their music is the “mu major chord”, or a major ninth with the second voiced right below the third. I quote:

“Without the µ major chord it would be impossible to achieve the airy, modern, almost jazzy quality that the sensitive listener can detect in just about every Steely Dan recording.”

Just screen pop songs for mu major- Danliness is proportional.


Guy Harris 12.08.16 at 9:40 pm

So how would people rate this song for Danliness?


lemmy caution 12.08.16 at 10:22 pm

Ween’s “Freedom of ‘76” is the only Ween song I know and I love it.


RichardM 12.08.16 at 10:22 pm

If you listen carefully to this Super Furries song, you may be able to spot the Steely Dan sample:

At one time it held the record for the most occurrences of the word ‘fuck’ in a song.


Phil 12.08.16 at 11:20 pm

Essence of Dan? Passion and cynicism, combined with ironic distance and superficial perfection in a way that makes it impossible to take the passion entirely straight or take the cynicism as entirely assured. (That was my problem with the Ween track – assured cynicism.) The vocals, in particular, have to sound (a) technically perfect (b) world-weary enough to be ironic about the whole damn thing and (c) utterly committed to… something, that might be transformative and life-changing or might just enable the singer to win a bet (and you might have a change of heart!). Plus silly chords and mad chops, obviously.


Harry 12.09.16 at 12:08 am

I’ve got to say this to anon/Portly. Roy Harper absolutely. I’d add Kevin Coyne. Leon Rosselson. Oyster Band. Albion Band. Thompson, Fairport. Gregson and Collister (live, the studio albums are too slick). June Tabor…. You get the idea… But… I love Steely Dan. And Steeleye Span. And they are alike. And I had NEVER noticed the similarity. Or the similarity of name. Now, how will I ever shake that off?


Joseph Brenner 12.09.16 at 12:15 am

anon/portly @ 16:

“Another way Steely Dan and the Velvets are opposites is that people who really prefer other types of popular music – older, jazzier stuff maybe – can appreciate Steely Dan but can’t really appreciate the Velvets. While ‘true’ rock fans appreciate the Velvets but are probably not big Steely Dan fans; at least I’ve not known any.”

I would put it a different way, being an old college radio music snob: fans of the Velvet Underground like *cool* music, and they may or may not be fans of “jazzier” music, but if they are it’ll
be stuff like Sun Ra, not Steely Dan.

(In case it isn’t clear, anyway you define the comparison, I want the VU on my side.)

“Finally one way in which SD and VU were not opposites is that both were studio bands, essentially.”

I don’t really see how that’s supportable. Point the first:
“The Exploding Plastic Inevitable”; point the second: even when in the studio, the Velvets played like a live band, drums and guitar amps blaring simultaneously in the room with live mics.

“On hearing the phrase ‘opposite of Steely Dan’ I would have thought Grateful Dead….”

Two different varieties of soporific 70s music…


Joshua Holmes 12.09.16 at 12:59 am

For modern bands, the most famous & Daniest is probably Chromeo, though they’re doing a lot of 80s musical cosplay, too. Lesser-known but really Dany bands? You could check out the Summarily Dismissed. Here’s them riffing on Pretzel Logic: h Orlando Quinones does a sort of Latin/Dan mash-up. Here’s his song “Held for Ransom”: My buddy’s band The Collingwood is Dan-influenced in theme, vocals, and passionate cynicism, though their instrumentation is far more spare:


Eric 12.09.16 at 3:02 am

There’s definitely some Danliness in Ben Folds Five, though I would have gone with almost anything from Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner, especially “Don’t Change Your Plans” or “Regrets”.


Alan White 12.09.16 at 4:45 am

Conversation circa 1980 in grad school:

Me to fellow grad student while listening to Steely Dan: “They’re good–smooth sounds.”

Fellow grad: “I really like Steeleye Span–listen to my words–NOT Steely Dan.”

Me: “Oh.”

I was behind the times even before I knew what the times were.


anon/portly 12.09.16 at 5:48 pm

But… I love Steely Dan. And Steeleye Span. And they are alike. And I had NEVER noticed the similarity.

Well, I just went and listened to Pretzel Logic for the first time, maybe the first time I’ve listened to one of their albums straight through, and I’m totally in the dark here! I don’t understand music at all well, but they seem dissimilar, not similar.

I can maybe see some vague affinities between Gregson & Collister era Thompson or Tabor and/or Oyster Band with Steely Dan, but not with Steeleye Span, or at least not with their first three albums….

I could almost imagine them covering “Charley Freak,” which is the song on PL that leapt out at me…. But if Span or Carthy were to rework something like “Rikki,” you’d never ever recognize it without the lyrics.

I’d never heard of Leon Rosselson, thanks. Bodies keep coming out of the 60’s/70’s Anglo folk revival woodwork. I’d never heard “Anthems in Eden” until a couple years ago, yikes. Or “The Transports,” which I think came from a recommendation here….

Final obligatory plug: Lisa Knapp, Alasdair Roberts, The Owl Service, the 2nd gen Watersons…. Et al. The Anglo folk revival is turning out some great stuff even now! As always, sales are coming slowly, I think, alas. Maybe some pop artists in the future will sample them and revive things a little.


T 12.10.16 at 11:36 pm

JB @27
Exactly. Sun Ra reference was spot on. On the rock front, the VU kids were headed toward the Ramones via the NY Dolls as the ’70s played out.


maidhc 12.11.16 at 2:32 am

I categorize as follows:

Steely Dan: bands whose name comes from William Burroughs.
also, Soft Machine

Steeleye Span: bands whose name comes from a Child ballad.
also, Silly Sisters


ZedBlank 12.11.16 at 7:32 am

I haven’t met an algorithm yet that had any kind of resemblance to actual taste (good or bad.) Although I rarely use them on music apps, if the few occasions where I do (YouTube sort of does this with its annoying autoplay feature) are any indication, they are reliably off-the-wall. So it’s no surprise that these other don’t seem particularly, or even remotely, Dannish. However, even post-singularity, I doubt any list would be much better; for reasons laid out in the OP and expanded upon downthread, the Dan is just that sui-generis.

I’ve never been able to adequately account for my liking them; I don’t like smooth jazz, despise cynicism in art (and usually in life), and their uber-cool, ultimate hipster swagger is, considered on its own, wholly lame. Somehow, they are more than the sum of their parts by orders of magnitude. The consummate musicianship is certainly part of it; not only can they play, they have tremendous taste in people who can play even better, and they have never had any problem highlighting the talents of their collaborators. And they can write pop songs with the very best of them.

Besides that, there is something about the absolute commitment to the characters they play, that very unique storytelling/commentary approach to lyrics and sonic atmosphere, which seems to have never wavered over the decades. I don’t know. It’s truly fascinating, and it keeps bringing me back.


mrearl 12.11.16 at 4:36 pm

Widespread Panic, “Blue Indian.” Yes, really.


chris s 12.12.16 at 10:34 am

@34: Agreed on the algorithmic thing. On Dan itself; it struck me a few times that they both came across as (at least since the late 80s/early 90s) very comfortable in their own skins, and it wondered if this translated into some quality that led to success.

.. and I don’t believe that the being a ‘musical dead end’ is a signifier of anything really (there are two completely opposed interpretations of what this means).

On recommendations themselves; Palumbo’s Cruel Shoes? The Breithaupt Brothers Monkey House?


JPL 12.13.16 at 6:56 am

I would expect Michael McDonald to have been influenced by Steely Dan, since he was part of the group, IINM, before he went to the Doobie Brothers and changed their sound. For another person with a similar sensibility, but coming more from the jazz-pop side, I might suggest Michael Franks (see & listen below). I’m not a big fan of Steely Dan (nor of Michael Franks), but they’re listenable because of the high level of musicality on their recordings, although to enjoy them I have to ignore the lyrics. To me, the interest of both of these artists is listening to what the band is doing, since both of them have an all-star cast of jazz/ pop-jazz session musicians behind them, sometimes the same musicians (e.g., Steve Gadd, Anthony Jackson, the Brecker brothers, Larry Carlton, etc.). “Hey nineteen”, from Gaucho is a good example. As for Franks, I liked his earlier things, like “The lady wants to know” and “Popsicle toes”, which had a weirdness factor, exemplifying a certain kind of response, you might say, to the jazz phenomenon. But yes, SD has a unique sound, with characteristic chord structures, and nobody is imitating that.

BTW, as antipodally opposite to SD as possible, and I’d never heard it before, but “Cross my heart” by Everything but the Girl is definitely a keeper. Now there you have an actual singer, beautiful vocals by Tracey Thorn, an expressive and accurate voice saturated with emotion, top notch. What is she doing these days? (The horns remind me of Ghanaian high life.)

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