Art crimes: the making of three Steely Dan album covers
Photographer and art director Ed Caraeff shares his memories of working on Countdown to Ecstasy, Pretzel Logic, and The Royal Scam.
No one can accuse Steely Dan of caring too much about appearances. When Walter Becker and Donald Fagen moved to Los Angeles from New York in the early 1970s, they were made queasy by what Fagen once described as California’s “much more visual culture.” Even the most forgiving Danboy would have to concede that the band’s aesthetic choices over the years were a bit … uneven.
Take the album art. One can immediately be seduced by the sleek-looking cover of Aja. But the dopey humanoids of Countdown to Ecstasy? The blurry backyard nature photography of Katy Lied? A fondness for images as random and anodyne as these can only be acquired through extended exposure over long periods. This is simply an immutable law of the Daniverse. For their part, Becker and Fagen, often their own harshest critics, once called The Royal Scam “the most hideous album cover of the seventies, bar none (excepting perhaps Can’t Buy A Thrill).”1
Most musicians have made questionable album-cover decisions at one time or another. What’s so fascinating about Steely Dan is the infinite, unchanging gulf between how much Becker and Fagen obviously cared about the sound of their records and how little they seemed to care about how those records were packaged. I’ve always assumed that after surviving their own harrowing process of recording and mixing and mastering, they had little energy or patience left to attend to the business of marketing their music. That theory was recently confirmed when I spoke to Ed Caraeff, who was Steely Dan’s go-to photographer and art director for a good chunk of their 1970s run.
“I want to stress that the Steely Dan album covers were all last-minute assignments,” the 73-year-old said of the apparent capriciousness of the band’s iconography. “I would get a phone call from Donald Fagen, he would give me the album title, and he would say, ‘Do you have anything?’ I would then ask, ‘When do you need it?’ And he would always say, ‘Later today or tomorrow.’ Every fucking time.”