This song has the curious chorus line of:
They call Alabama the Crimson Tide
Call me Deacon Blues
At the 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 seven 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." In the Classic Albums documentary on Aja, he said: "The protagonist is not a musician, he just sort of imagines that would be one of the mythic forms of loser-dom to which he might aspire. And who's to say that he's not right?"
Fagen added: "'Deacon Blues' is about as close to autobiography as our tunes get. We were both kids who grew up in the suburbs, we both felt fairly alienated. Like a lot of kids in the '50s, we were looking for some kind of alternative culture, an escape from where we found ourselves."
When asked about the line, "They call Alabama the Crimson Tide, 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" his 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.