‘Suicide Squad’ Trailer Turns Steely Dan’s Bedraggled Ballad ‘Dirty Work’ Into a Web Hit, Five Decades Later

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Chris Willman
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Although Donald Fagen and Walter Becker certainly did not write “Dirty Work” with the idea of it being about reluctant mercenaries — let alone costumed antiheroes and anthropomorphized sharks — the song’s theme of reluctant conscription somehow perfectly and comically fits the “Suicide Squad” concept. That helps explain why the 49-year-old album track suddenly found itself as one of the most-searched songs of the day after the trailer for the franchise’s first sequel hit the web.

The song appears at length throughout the trailer, with the original electric piano- and horn-driven version from Steely Dan’s 1972 debut album “Can’t Buy a Thrill” bookending the mayhem. In the middle of the coming attraction, though, appears some freshly minted music more akin for a superhero or action movie… which quickly morphs into a “Dirty Work” on steroids, before things settle back down again at the end.

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Trailer sound designer and composer Adrian Nicholas Valdez was responsible for transmuting “Dirty Work” into something that malleable. It’s the kind of thing he’s done lately on a regular basis: For the “Godzilla vs. Kong” trailer, he produced a pumped-up version of rapper Chris Classic’s song “Here We Go”; for the trailer for the latest iteration of the “Call of Duty” videogame, he came up with a more “cinematic” remix of White Zombie’s “More Human Than Human.” But those were a lot more aggro to start with, and thus had a shorter version to travel, versus Steely Dan’s funny, oddball tale of a tired, somewhat cuckolded, illicit lover who’s come to accept that he’s just a gigolo.

“This one was a little more challenging,” says Valdez, who works with the publishing company Phoenician Order. “The client said, ‘Hey, yeah, we know the song is pretty chill; we know the song is laid back. We need to make it driving.’ That was the challenge we had, so we needed to add percussion, strings, guitar” — albeit virtual versions inside his laptop — “and all the things that make the song more energetic. It was a lot of work.”

(Watch the trailer below… but be prepared to click on more than one screen to vow you’re an adult, since the preview is red-banded.)

“Our client’s client, which is Warner Bros., were in love with” “Dirty Work,” Valdez says. “And then they were maybe trying to think, ‘Okay, should we use “Dirty Work” for the whole song? Or should we use another song for the first part and then end it with “Dirty Work”?’ So they put another song first — a punk song; I think they wanted to start the trailer very hyped — and then we did another version with the punk song and ‘Dirty Work’ just at the end. But then the client-client-client — which is James Gunn, the director — said, ‘No, I really want “Dirty Work”! This is the perfect song for the movie. This is the funniest thing I could ever get for my film.’

“So we stuck with it, doing a new version just using ‘Dirty Work’ from the beginning to the end, starting with the song how it is, very organic, before we go into a cinematic superhero, DC-style type of music with the song. We sent it to Warner Bros,, they loved it and the director loved it. We got confirmation yesterday” that it was being used, “and it’s awesome, man. Sometimes in this trailer music industry, it gets weird and they get a different composer working the same pitch for the same project, and they use the best one, so you never know. But we won this pitch and we’re pretty excited.”

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When Gunn posted the trailer Friday, he got a response on Twitter from fellow director Rian Johnson, who said, “For about 10 years ‘Dirty Work’ was my phone’s default ringtone, so this was disconcerting and I think you now owe me money? Is that how this works?”

Responded Gunn: “Fuck. I think that is how it works.”

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“Dirty Work” has shown up in pop culture in odd spots before, like when James Gandolfini sang along to it on an episode of “The Sopranos”; it was also associated with crime in the film “American Hustle.”

It occupies an odd place in Steely Dan history in that it was one of the few songs ever not sung by Donald Fagen. It was passed along to David Palmer, who left between the first and second albums. Some have said farming out the song to his more melodious chops was due to the record company wanting a hit, though it was never issued as a single in the U.S. or UK.

But just as good a rationale is that the song somehow becomes funnier in the hands and voice of someone singing it so sweet and straight-faced. Perhaps not everyone has found the humor in it over the years, but it’s essentially a role-reversal song in which the singer is lamenting how he’s being used for sex by a woman who keeps him a secret and only wants him for his body… which is why it becomes even funnier when the dad-rockers of the world belt it out.

The song was long retired from Steely Dan’s road act after the core of the band got quickly whittled down to Fagen and Becker. But in the 2000s, they revived it… still without Fagen taking the lead, though, as he passed it off to a trio of female background singers to deliver.

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