This song is about a guy who is being used for sex by a wealthy married woman who has no intention of keeping him around. His clandestine visits make him feel dirty, but he does it nonetheless.
Steely Dan called their music "smart rock," and this song is a great example why. In just over three minutes, it conveys a feeling of helplessness as the guy feels dirty and used even though he's getting commitment-free sex, something to be celebrated in most "dumb rock."
If you didn't peg this as a Steely Dan song when you first heard it, you're to be forgiven. The lead vocal is by David Palmer, whom group leaders Donald Fagen and Walter Becker brought in midway through making the album. He sang lead on just two Steely Dan songs: "Dirty Work" and "Brooklyn (Owes the Charmer Under Me)." On most of their later work, Fagen handles the lead vocals.
"Dirty Work" wasn't released as a single, but endured as a favorite on soft rock radio. It was part of Steely Dan's first album, Can't Buy A Thrill
, whose two singles were "Do It Again
" and "Reelin' In The Years
Like many Steely Dan songs, there's a jazz influence in "Dirty Work," with some unusual instrumentation going on. The track is built around an organ and electric piano (likely a Wurlitzer) played by Donald Fagen. Snooky Young added flugelhorn and Jerome Richardson played tenor sax. Both are notable jazz musicians.
Steely Dan wasn't the first to use the phrase "dirty work"
in a song about cheating: Little Joe Blue did it in his 1966 blues track "Dirty Work Going On
The phrase was coined by the American sociologist Everett Hughes in a 1962 essay called "Good People and Dirty Work," which examined how the German populace (the "good people) was able to reconcile the atrocities of the Nazis (the "dirty work"). The phrase proved malleable, and while Steely Dan used it in reference to infidelity, it was later used to describe the kind of job that most people didn't want to think about, like working at a slaughterhouse or in a sewer.
The song's vocalist, David Palmer, toured with the band until 1974; when he left they mothballed the song. When Steely Dan started touring again in 2000 after a long hiatus, they put "Dirty Work" back in their setlist with a new arrangement, sung by their female backup singers.
"Dirty Work" is one of the most-covered Steely Dan songs. The short-lived all-female rock group Birtha were the first, releasing their version in 1973. It was later covered by José Feliciano, Melissa Manchester, The Pointer Sisters and many others.
This song shows up in various TV shows and movies when some underhanded business is going on, most famously at the beginning of the 2013 movie American Hustle and in the 2001 Sopranos episode "Mr. Ruggerio's Neighborhood," where Tony Soprano sings along to it while he's driving. Other uses include the movies Mask (1985) and The Kid Stays in the Picture (2002), and these TV shows:
Minx ("Relaying news of a wayward snake" - 2022)
The Simpsons ("You Won't Believe What This Episode Is About - Act Three Will Shock You!" - 2022, "Dad Behavior" - 2016)
Euphoria ("Trying to Get to Heaven Before They Close the Door" - 2022)
The Morning Show ("No One's Gonna Harm You, Not While I'm Around" - 2019)