Steely Dan and The Doobie Brothers: What’s in A Name?


Here’s a quick trivia question: what two musicians have been members of both Steely Dan and The Doobie Brothers?

The answer is Michael McDonald and Jeff “Skunk” Baxter.  Of course, Steely Dan and The Doobie Brothers have much more in common than a couple of members.

Both bands enjoyed their zenith in the 1970s.  Steely Dan produced hits like “Do It Again,” “Reelin’ in the Years,” “My Old School,” “Peg,” and “Deacon Blues.”

Meanwhile, the Doobie Brothers gave us “Listen to the Music,” “Jesus Is Just Alright,” “China Grove,” “Black Water,” and “Takin’ It to the Streets.”

Steely Dan were the cynical, East Coast, anti-hippies.  While The Doobie Brothers played an accessible brand of rock that was widely embraced by salt-of-the-earth baby boomers.

The bands have another thing in common, they are currently touring together.  Their outing began May 10 and will end July 14 in Bethel, New York.

Look for the iconic bands in Denver on June 12, Kansas City on June 18, Toronto on July 2, and Mansfield on July 7.

There’s at least one more thing “Dan” and the “Doobies” have in common.  That is their current lineups are drastically different from their original lineups.

After the death of Walter Becker, the only original member of Steely Dan you’ll see this spring and summer is Donald Fagen.  I should mention that the band has been a duo since the mid-1970s.

The only original members of The Doobie Brothers are Tom Johnston and Patrick Simmons.

Fagen became “one against nature” on Sept. 3, 2017 when Becker died.  Five weeks later, Fagen was performing as Steely Dan in Thackerville, Oklahoma.

Becker’s widow sued Fagen saying Becker’s estate should control half of the band’s profits.  Fagen argued that 45 years ago the band agreed that if you left (by choice or by death) you relinquished shares to the remaining members.

Furthermore, Fagen wanted to drop the designation “Steely Dan” and perform under a different name, probably using the original nomenclature in some way.  He decided not to make alternations to the appellation after convincing from concert promoters.

The current Steely Dan and Doobie Brothers tour raises that age-old question of what’s in a name.  Can Fagen still use “Steely Dan?”  Can Johnston and Simmons still call themselves “The Doobie Brothers?”

Many think Journey without Steve Perry is not Journey.  Yet, Steve Perry was neither Journey’s first or second lead singer.

What about Van Halen?  Was Van Halen still “Van Halen” without David Lee Roth?  Was Guns N’ Roses “Guns N’ Roses” without Slash?

Bands that experience lineup changes are far more common than bands that remain intact.  For every U2 there are a dozen Deep Purples.

Isn’t there a threshold when a certain band stops being one thing and starts becoming something else?

Take the Rolling Stones for example.  In 1969, they lost Brian Jones, who was their leader during their formative years.  Yet, the Stones went on to make the strongest music of their canon.

The Rolling Stones would have been drastically different had Mick Jagger or Keith Richards left.

This argument is usually waged by adamant rock snobs who are super protective of a certain name.  Much like sports fans who don’t want to see their favorite athlete struggle at the end of his or her career.  Passionate fans don’t want to see the memory of their favorite band tarnished by an inferior incarnation.

These rock snobs have, to some extent, a valid point.  Attempts to cash in on the legacy of a rock band generally end in failure, or worse, a live album.

By his own admission, Fagen is using the Steely Dan name at the behest of promoters.  In other words, to make money.  The exact thing that rock snobs, as well as most casual fans, detest.

Looking past commercial aspirations, fans should embrace Fagen’s, Johnston’s and Simmons’ desire to perform and play their great music.

If they, and the other musicians they tap, can do that, then what’s the harm?  If you look at it that way, you can say that the current Steely Dan and Doobie Brothers tour is as close to the original as we can get in 2018 and much better than any tribute band.

What’s wrong with that?  I’ll definitely see a show like that.

Certainly, we’ll all agree that if any musician loses their ability, and their passion, to rock then they should immediately hang it up, regardless of the name they perform under.

Until that happens, Steely Dan and The Doobie Brothers should keep playing their music as loud as they can.