Punk Attitudes Make Steely Dan and Elvis Costello Logical Tourmates

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Steely Dan and Elvis Costello & the Imposters will perform together tonight at Red Rocks. Perhaps today, the pair share a status as FM radio rock legends from another era, making them reasonable playlist companions. But they still seem to occupy very different musical worlds. Steely Dan has come to represent — for many people — the ultimate in soft rock, uncool, jazz-nerd music. Elvis Costello, on the other hand, was affiliated with English punk, in many minds, and famously got banned from Saturday Night Live when he stopped playing “Less Than Zero” and went into the scathing “Radio Radio.”

Steely Dan and Elvis Costello are now considered mainstream, and certainly both have courted collaboration with mainstream artists. They've also both scored hits with some very unlikely music, should one choose to delve a little deeper than how catchy the songs often are. And despite their differences, Steely Dan and Costello are tied together in deeper ways than one might think. 

Could anything sound less punk than Steely Dan? Aja is about as chill an album that has ever been released, and Gaucho may be even more so. But let's consider how Steely Dan named itself after “Steely Dan III from Yokohama,” a dildo from William S. Burroughs' classic novel Naked Lunch. Burroughs might be considered the godfather of what punk came to represent, which was a subversion, and even rejection, of mainstream culture. Patti Smith was among the many musicians influenced by Burroughs, and Burroughs' stark aesthetic has proven an enduring influence not just on punk but on post-punk artists like Sonic Youth and Pere Ubu.  

Donald Fagen and Walter Becker showed their affinity for the forbidden and the darkly yet subtly wickedly humorous by naming their band after an absurd Burroughs reference. It's perfect for people whose spirit was punk even if their music wasn't as obviously part of the genre.

Both Steely Dan and Costello seem to have a soft spot in their heart for classic pop and old rock and roll, before the spirit of it got tarnished sometime in the 1960s and early 1970s. For Steely Dan, some of that was obvious in the lyrics from its early albums. The same was true for Elvis Costello. His earliest single, the aforementioned “Less Than Zero" — as well as his stage name — embodied an embrace of a time that was simpler, though he never romanticized it.

Steely Dan may reference Brubeck and older popular culture artifacts, but its own bemused treatment of nostalgia and looking back to fetishize what has come before proves that Becker and Fagen could never truly be pegged as retro artists. Nor could Costello, whose own aesthetic was very much part of what became “New Wave.”

Like many punk bands, Steely Dan and Costello both stripped back ideas generally about what music could be about and rebuilt their own way of commenting on life and society. They both played on the nostalgia of listeners with words, sounds and sentiments in a subversive and creative way that might have come off as too clever or smart for some people, but both artists also seem obvious in their dry humor and sublime sarcasm if you're open to it.

It's strange to think that Aja came out in 1977, because it sounds timeless, and its production values come across as very modern. The album has long been considered the band's masterpiece and the pinnacle of its recorded output. The mixture of jazz lingo and contemporary imagery was truly the musical equivalent of Beat literature. It also has the distinction of having songs on both classic rock and easy listening radio. Few bands with any cachet of cool can make a similar claim.

The same year, 1977, Elvis Costello's debut album My Aim is True hit the streets. Both albums came in the wake of Sex Pistols early singles but before the October 27, 1977 of Nevermind The Bollocks, Here's The Sex Pistols. All three albums commented bitterly on the downside of their respective cultures and used sarcasm to artfully dismantle sacred cows with varying degrees of subtlety. All three records are important in the history of rock music. But Steely Dan and Elvis Costello more deftly infiltrated mainstream culture, while the Sex Pistols blew the doors down and paved the way for future pop music gatecrashers Nirvana to come out of seemingly nowhere to turn a bloated music industry on its head.

These days, audiences are bit more savvy about what music is about and more aware of subtext than they were in the '70s. And Steely Dan and Elvis Costello have emerged intact as both artistically and intellectually respectable artists who use refined sounds to express dark, stark truths about life and society. Elvis Costello once said something about how he was never an angry young man — he was always an angry old man. Was he serious? Or was that another bit of wry humor? It's difficult to say exactly, and that is also some of the enduring appeal of Costello and Steely Dan — they never dumb it down for you and by not doing so encourage an audience that is a little sharper and hipper than it probably knew it could be.

If you'd like to contact me, Tom Murphy, on Twitter, my handle is @simianthinker.

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