Deep track deep-dive: Glamour Profession, by Steely Dan
It’s disco. It was never a hit. And yet it’s one of the most interesting songs in all of Steely Dan’s catalogue.
“Glamour Profession,” the third track on Steely Dan’s 1980 album “Gaucho,” represents the best of Donald Fagan and Walter Becker’s band: musical perfectionism, sarcastic humor and mockery, and deeply layered metaphors—musical and lyrical. It all combines to make interpreting the song’s messages fun and difficult.
The pressure was on for Steely Dan following the success of 1977’s “Aja.” That pressure—combined with the band’s legendary perfectionism—swirled into a gravity well that threatened to keep the follow up album from ever taking flight. Ultimately, it took Fagan and Becker three years and a million dollars to complete Gaucho, which was released in November of 1980.
Why did it take so long to finish Gaucho?
Perfectionism: It took Becker, Fagen, engineer Roger Nichols and producer Gary Katz more than 55 attempts just to agree on a satisfactory mix of the 50-second fade-out to ‘Babylon Sisters,’ Gaucho’s first track.
Technological innovation: Steely Dan invented the drum machine while recording. Donald Fagen recalls:
" … one of us said something like 'It's too bad that we can't get a machine to play the beat we want, with full-frequency drum sounds, and to be able to move the snare drum and kick drum around independently.
”Roger [Nichols] replied 'I can do that.' This was back in 1978 or something, so we said 'You can do that???' To which he said 'Yes, all I need is $150,000.'
”So we gave him the money out of our recording budget, and six weeks later he came in with this machine and that is how it all started.”[...]"This was in the days when digital was still very primitive … he had to type all these bytes out, huge lists of numbers, which took him 20 minutes, and at the end he would hit return, and we heard this one snare a beat. It took so long.”
Tragedy: During recording, Walter Becker was hit by a taxi and did much of his work from a wheelchair, using a telephone. Later, his girlfriend, Karen Stanley, died of a drug overdose in his apartment. Becker, already struggling with heroin, spiraled further into drug use after Stanley’s passing.
It was all too much, and Becker and Fagan’s straining partnership imploded. After “Gaucho,” the pair went their separate ways—Fagan to a successful solo career, Becker to an avocado farm. The pair wouldn’t reunite until touring together in 1993. Twenty years after “Gaucho,” Steely Dan returned to the recording studio, nabbing a Grammy for Album of the Year for “Two Against Nature.”
Becker and Fagan continued to tour and write music until Becker’s death in 2017. Fagan still tours under the Steely Dan name today.
The lyrics of Glamour Profession
With real-life references veiled in metaphor and misdirection, “Glamour’s” lyrics drive impassioned interpretive discussions amongst critics and fans, And, more practically, the lyrics create a shield against lawsuits from the subjects of the song’s ire.
Glamour Profession is rife with drug references. “Local boys will spend a quarter, just to shine the silver bowl,” is a reference to addicts paying $250 just to get the drug residue from a cocaine serving bowl.
But the song’s tories betray the glamour of the song’s title. Steely Dan revealed the dark side of LA’s drug culture.
Across three verses, the song tells the story of three different LA characters. The short stories might be told from the viewpoint of a drug dealer, or even of cocaine itself.
Many have speculated on the famous subjects of the three verses, and even 40 years later, Donald Fagan isn’t telling. But we can surmise some good guesses.
The song opens outside a basketball arena, where an aging basketball star receives a drug delivery to fuel his on-court success.
6:05, outside the stadium
Special delivery for Hoops McCann
Brut and charisma poured from the shadow where he stood
Looking good, he’s a crowd-pleasing man
One on one, he’s schoolyard Superman
Crashing the backboard, he’s Jungle Jim again
When it’s all over
We’ll make some calls from my car
We’re a star
But is Steely Dan really referring to a basketball player? Many have speculated the lyrics refer to Magic Johnson, but the timing doesn’t work. Magic was a rookie in the 1979-80 season. A deeper dive reveals a dose of Steely Dan’s misdirection:
6:05 - Outside the stadium” refers to Pittsburgh Pirate Dock Ellis’ no-hitter against the San Diego Padres on June 1, 1970.:: Supposedly he had flown to LA to try LSD and came back STILL under the influence at 6:05**, when the game started at San Diego Stadium. The basketball references are there to obscure just WHOM Steely Dan are talking about. And Dock Ellis was a high school basketball star in Gardena, California.
One line in the verse delivers the brutal takedown:
“Brut and charisma poured from the shadow where he stood.”
The athlete, like the city he lives in, is struggling to live up to the image he casts. He needs drugs to keep the illusion going, but ultimately the image he projects is as etherial as his shadow.
The second verse first takes us on a maritime adventure before a night on the town:
All aboard the Carib Cannibal
Off to Barbados just for the ride
Jack, with his radar, stalking the dread moray eel
At the wheel with his Eurasian bride
On the town, we dress for action
Celluloid bikers is Friday’s theme
I drove the Chrysler
Watched from the darkness while they danced
I’m the one
Who is Jack? Maybe Los Angeles radio personality Russ O’Hara:
Russ O’Hara was a popular DJ for LA radio station KROQ and well known for introducing stars as they went onstage at local LA concerts. In 1978, he met Jack Carlton Reed and started flying for Jack in a Piper Navajo for “adventure”. At one point in 1980, he even quit being a DJ to work full time for Jack and Carlos, flying drugs into Norman’s Cay. Russ got the full ‘Norman’s Cay experience’, even videoing Carlos and company having fun on the island.
After testifying against Carlos Lehder and Jack Reed, O’Hara went back to spinning records - in 1981 at KRLA.
Again we see the band mixing stories and names to obscure the facts.
The third verse opens with a quick lyrical interlude:
(Hollywood, I know your middle name
Who inspires your fabled fools?)
That’s my claim to fame
This could be a reference to Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson, the former Dallas Cowboys star who was later arrested for cocaine use and trafficking.
Or, the interlude may simply set the scene for what is to come:
Jive Miguel, he’s in from Bogota
Meet me at midnight at Mr. Chow’s
Now that the deal has been done
I’m the one
Who is Jive Miguel? Here’s my favorite guess:
In 1980, former Paramount movie executive Robert Evans, his brother Charles Evans and his brother-in-law Michael (“Jive Miguel”) were set up in an FBI sting to buy and traffic cocaine. Robert ended up making an anti-drug commercial funded by Charles as part of his sentencing.
The Music of Glamour Profession
Glamour’s music works on two levels. Over the top, a glitzy disco beat drives the song forward. But running underneath—and prominent in the bridge—are haunting keyboard and piano melodies that deliver a creepy funhouse vibe. Hipness and elegance may shimmer at the surface, but something dangerous and sinister lurks underneath.
Glamour Profession’s place in Steely Dan’s history
“Glamour Profession” is divisive amongst Steely Dan fans. Some fans hate its disco beat, a rare tactic in the band’s catalog. Why did Fagan and Becker make a disco song? The pair were perfectionists, but also explorers. It’s only natural they would explore the music trends of their era.
The is one of my all-time favorites from Steely Dan. It’s rich layers—lyrically and musically—chip away at the false elegance of late 1970s Los Angeles, revealing the danger and despair underneath. The lyrics mock its subjects, through irony, great storytelling and just enough misdirection to keep the libel and slander lawyers at bay.
“Glamour Profession” is song that reveals something new about itself—and about the cutler and people it mocks—with every listen.