Q&A: DIRTY WORK: What’s the meaning of the Steely Dan song “Dirty Work”?

James O'Connor:

The song, "Dirty Work," is from Steely Dan's 1972 debut album Can't Buy A Thrill and is likely the most pop feeling song on the record, featuring an almost Philly Soul sound that stood in contrast to the more Jazz/Rock style of the rest of the LP. David Palmer was the lead vocalist on this track and "Brooklyn," contributing backing vocals on the rest of the record.

"Dirty Work" is a simple, but emotional tune about a man who has been meeting with a married woman whenever her husband is away. She isn't going to divorce her husband, so she cuckolds him with her undercover lover, who knows that sometime or other they're going to have to pay the piper for their fun.

The song was dropped from their live repertoire after 1973 when Palmer left the band and has had a couple of brief returns to popularity when it was first used in 2001 in a driving scene in "The Sopranos," where Tony sings along, then again as the opening track of the film "American Hustle" in 2013. It could not be included in the soundtrack release due to legal issues with the band and David Palmer over the vocal rights to the song.

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