This song has the curious chorus line of:
They call Alabama the Crimson Tide
Call me Deacon Blues
At the same time, the University Of Alabama was a football powerhouse, winning the National Championship in 1973 and losing just one game in each of their next two seasons under the direction of their famous coach Paul "Bear" Bryant. Alabama is known as "The Crimson Tide," a grandiose name that Steely Dan's Walter Becker and Donald Fagen found amusing.
The "Deacon" is often thought to be the Wake Forest University "Demon Deacons," whose football team struggled for much of the '70s, winning just 7 games from 1972-1975. According to Fagen, however, that name came from Deacon Jones, a star football player with the Rams and Chargers who got a lot of attention in the media because of his aggressive play and outsized personality. The name fit well into the song, with "Deacon" matching up sonically with "Crimson."
The song is about a guy who Becker describes as a "Triple-L loser." He told The Wall Street Journal: It's not so much about a guy who achieves his dream but about a broken dream of a broken man living a broken life."
Fagen added: "Many people have assumed the song is about a guy in the suburbs who ditches his life to become a musician. In truth, I'm not sure the guy actually achieves his dream. He might not even play the horn. It's the fantasy life of a suburban guy from a certain subculture. Many of our songs are journalistic. But this one was more autobiographical, about our own dreams when we were growing up in different suburban communities—me in New Jersey and Walter in Westchester County."
When asked about the line, "They call Alabama the Crimson Tide, they call me Deacon Blues," Donald Fagen told Rolling Stone magazine: "Walter and I had been working on that song at a house in Malibu. I played him that line, and he said, 'You mean it's like, 'They call these cracker a--holes this grandiose name like the Crimson Tide, and I'm this loser, so they call me this other grandiose name, Deacon Blues?' and I said 'Yeah!' He said, 'Cool, let's finish it.'"
The Scottish rock group Deacon Blue, who enjoyed seven Top 20 UK hits between 1988 and 1994, took their name from this song.
Regarding the opening line, "This is the day of the expanding man," Donald Fagen cites the 1953 sci-fi novel The Demolished Man, by Alfred Bester, as an influence. The book finds the main character "expanding" is mind and thinking of all the possibilities in his life.
When our hero is "ready to cross that fine line" in this song, that's the line between being a loser and being a winner, a line that according to Becker he has tried to cross before, but without success.
Musicians on this track are:
Lead Vocals, Synthesizer: Donald Fagen
Bass: Walter Becker
Drums: Bernard Purdie
Electric Piano (Fender Rhodes): Victor Feldman
Guitar: Larry Carlton, Lee Ritenour
Tenor Saxophone: Pete Christlieb
Backing Vocals: Clydie King, Sherlie Matthews, Venetta Fields
The 12-second intro on this track is one of the most distinctive openings in rock. It was created by having guitarist Larry Carlton and piano player Victor Feldman play the same chords, which were layered together with drummer Bernard Purdie's cymbals.
When this song was near completion, Becker and Fagen decided they wanted a sax solo, and they had a very specific sound in mind: the tenor sax that played going to commercial on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. They tracked down the sax player in the Tonight Show band, Pete Christlieb, who recorded his part after a taping of the show. There are many tales of musicians being asked to do take after take during a Steely Dan session, but Christlieb was done in 30 minutes, and it was his second take they used. His part, and the rest of the horns, were arranged by Tom Scott.