The guitarist, bassist, and cofounder of the pioneering jazz-rock band Steely Dan died Sept. 3 at age 67. Below, Grammy-nominated producer Ricky Reed — known for his work with Jason Derulo, Halsey, Lizzo, and others — reflects on the band’s influence on both his career and modern pop music.
My memories of Steely Dan go way, way back. Literally one of my first childhood memories in general is being 4 or 5 and pulling out my mom’s vinyl records off the shelf like a little kid making a mess. I remember pulling out this terrifying piece of artwork: Skyscrapers with cobra heads looking down on this man who appears homeless in this dark scary city. Of course, that’s the album cover for The Royal Scam. My mom had that one, Pretzel Logic, and Aja, which would go onto be my favorite. She really introduced me to them at a young age.
I grew up passively listening to Steely Dan until I was in high school, when I started producing records. I was just starting to wrap my head around arranging and coming up with interesting chord progressions and melodies, so I reopened Aja, and it was all over for me. It was so well made. For me, Aja and Michael Jackson’s Thriller are the two greatest pop records of all time. I started to look into who the players were on the album, and then I bought all the classic albums and the DVD documentary about the making of Aja. I was digging through the catalog learning every song, every album inside and out.
Some of the most interesting soulful guitar solos on the band’s work were made by Walter Becker, but in true Steely Dan nature, there’s a bit of mystery. You don’t fully understand what the secret sauce is between him and co-founder Donald Fagen. It’s not like Lennon-McCartney: This is a John song, this is a Paul song. For somebody like myself, who has had periods in my life where I was full-on obsessed with them, I still don’t know what exactly Donald did and what exactly Walter did behind closed doors and how the genius came to be. I honestly think that’s something that’s so cool about them.
If you make records or are a musician, you learn so much stuff from listening to Steely Dan, even with just one song: how the drummer is playing, the weird take of the guitar solo they chose, some sardonic lyric you don’t connect with for the first 38 times and then you finally get it. Their attentiveness to arrangements and production has had a huge influence on me as a producer. They’re noted studio perfectionists, but they knew how to go beyond perfection so the music felt good, felt fun, even felt dangerous at times.
Steely Dan wrote the book on producing the pristine pop song: capturing all the instruments in a way where they don’t fight, and everything is clean. If you listen to a Steely Dan production from the ‘70s, the sound quality of what they were doing was so ahead of its time. And honestly, it’s no less perfect in quality than records that are being made today and records that will be made tomorrow. I don’t think anyone will ever be able to top them.