Steely Dan

Steely Dan is an American rock band; its core members are Donald Fagen and Walter Becker. The band’s popularity peaked in the late 1970s, with the release of seven albums blending elements of jazz, rock, funk, R&B, and pop.[1] Rolling Stone magazine has called them “the perfect musical antiheroes for the Seventies.”[2]

The band’s music is characterized by complex jazz-influenced structures and harmonies played by Becker and Fagen along with a revolving cast of rock and pop studio musicians.[1] Steely Dan’s “cerebral, wry and eccentric”[1] lyrics, often filled with sharp sarcasm, touch upon such themes as drugs, love affairs,[3][4][5][6] crime,[6] and their true-to-life “contempt of west coast hippies.”[5][6] The pair are well-known for their near-obsessive perfectionism in the recording studio,[7][8] with one notable example being that Becker and Fagen used at least 42 different studio musicians, 11 engineers, and took over a year to record the tracks that resulted in 1980’s Gaucho — an album that contains only seven songs.[9]

Steely Dan toured from 1972 to 1974, but in 1975 became a purely studio-based act. The late 1970s saw the group release a series of moderately successful singles and albums. They disbanded in 1981, and throughout most of the next decade, Fagen and Becker remained largely inactive in the music world. During this time, the group steadily built and maintained “a cult following.”[1] In 1993, the group resumed playing live concerts; the early 21st century saw Steely Dan release two albums of new material, the first of which earned a Grammy Award for Album of the Year. They have sold more than 30 million albums worldwide and in March 2001, were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.[10][11][12]

“Rikki Don’t Lose That Number”

Donald Fagen and Walter Becker met at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, in 1967. Fagen was passing by a cafe called The Red Balloon when he heard Becker rehearsing the electric guitar.[13] He would later recount the experience during an interview: “I hear this guy practicing, and it sounded very professional and contemporary. It sounded like, you know, like a black person, really.”[13] He immediately introduced himself to Becker, and asked him “Do you want to be in a band?”[13] They quickly realized that they enjoyed similar music, and even listened to the same jazz radio stations; not long after, they began writing songs together.

The two soon began playing in local groups. One of these bands, first known as The Bad Rock Group and later as The Leather Canary, included future comedy star Chevy Chase on drums. They played covers of songs written by The Rolling Stones (“Dandelion”), Moby Grape (“Hey Grandma”), and Willie Dixon (“Spoonful”) along with a handful of originals.[13] Terence Boylan, another Bard musician, remembered that Fagen immediately took to the Beatnik lifestyle while attending college: “They never came out of their room, they stayed up all night. They looked like ghosts — black turtlenecks and skin so white that it looked like yogurt. Absolutely no activity, chain-smoking Lucky Strikes and dope.”[13] Fagen himself would later remember it as “probably the only time in my life that I actually had friends.”[14]

After Fagen graduated in 1969, the two moved to Brooklyn and tried to peddle their tunes in the Brill Building in midtown Manhattan. Kenny Vance, a member of the pop group Jay and the Americans, who had a production office in the building, took an interest in their material that led to work on the soundtrack of the low-budget Richard Pryor film You’ve Got to Walk It Like You Talk It or You’ll Lose That Beat in 1971. Becker later spoke bluntly of the soundtrack: “We did it for the money.”[15] A series of demos made between about 1968 and 1971 are available in bootleg form.[16] This collection features approximately twenty-five tracks, and is notable for its stripped down production and decidedly lo-fi nature (many songs are just Fagen and his piano), in contrast to future Steely Dan works. Although some of these songs (“Caves of Altamira,” “Brooklyn,” “Barrytown”) were re-recorded for Steely Dan albums, the majority of them were never officially released.

1973 “Reelin’ In The Years”

Becker and Fagen joined the touring band of Jay and the Americans for roughly a year and a half.[17] They were at first paid $100 per show, but partway through their tenure the band’s tour manager cut their salaries in half.[17] The group’s lead singer, Jay Black, dubbed Becker and Fagen “the Manson and Starkweather of rock ‘n’ roll,” referring to cult leader Charles Manson and spree killer Charles Starkweather.[17]

1973 “Do It Again”

They had little immediate success after the move to Brooklyn, although Barbra Streisand recorded their song “I Mean To Shine” on her 1971 Barbra Joan Streisand album. Little other significant headway was made by the pair until one of Vance’s cronies, Gary Katz, moved to Los Angeles to become a staff producer for ABC Records. He hired Becker and Fagen as staff songwriters and they flew to California. Katz would produce all their 1970s albums with a collaboration with engineer Roger Nichols.

After realizing their songs were too complex for other ABC artists, at Katz’s suggestion they formed their own band with guitarists Denny Dias and Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, drummer Jim Hodder and singer David Palmer, and Katz signed the band to ABC as recording artists. Being fans of Beat Generation literature, Fagen and Becker named the band after “Steely Dan III from Yokohama,” a strap-on dildo referred to in the William S. Burroughs novel The Naked Lunch.[18][19] The addition of Palmer as a second lead vocalist was due to a combination of Fagen’s resistance to singing in front of an audience and the label’s feeling that his voice was not “commercial” enough. Fagen lacked confidence in his voice and was known to have suffered from occasional bouts of stage fright.

In 1972, ABC sent out promotional copies of Steely Dan’s first single, “Dallas,” backed with “Sail the Waterway.” It is unclear if “stock” copies were ever released to the general public, and if they were, the single sold so poorly that promotional copies are more abundant today (whereas the reverse is true for most releases). The two songs were re-released on vinyl a handful of times as b-sides and on EPs throughout the 1970s and 1980s; as of 2009, “Dallas” and “Sail the Waterway” remain the only officially released Steely Dan tracks to have not been reissued on cassette or compact disc. Becker and Fagen would tell an interviewer in 1995 that the songs hadn’t been reissued because they felt the tracks were “stinko.”[20]

Their debut album, Can’t Buy a Thrill, was released in 1972 and made an immediate impression with the hit singles “Do It Again” and “Reelin’ In the Years,” reaching #6 and #11 respectively on the Billboard singles chart. Those and the Palmer-sung “Dirty Work” eventually became staples on classic rock radio. “Reelin’ In the Years” also features an acclaimed guitar solo by Elliott Randall.

Because of Fagen’s reluctance to sing live, David Palmer handled most of the vocal duties on stage. During the first tour, it became apparent to Katz and Becker that Palmer’s interpretation of the material wasn’t having the same impact, and eventually convinced Fagen that he was the one who best conveyed the attitude and meaning of the songs. Palmer quietly left the group during the recording of the second album, soon hooking up with Carole King, with whom he wrote the 1974 #2 hit, “Jazzman.”

“Hey Nineteen

Steely Dan
Charlotte, NY 8/12/2006
Donald Fagen – Keyboards and Vocals
Walter Becker – Guitar
Keith Carlock – Drums
Jon Herington – Guitar
Carolyn Leonhart-Escoffery – Backing Vocals
Michael Leonhart – Trumpet
Cindy Mizelle – Backing Vocals
Jim Pugh – Trombone
Roger Rosenberg – Baritone Sax
Freddie Washington – Bass
Walt Weiskopf – Sax
Jeff Young – Keyboards and Backing Vocals

The lineup of Can’t Buy a Thrill and its follow up, Countdown to Ecstasy, was very band oriented. Denny Dias handled the rhythm guitar as well as the famous electric sitar solo on “Do It Again,” and Jeff Baxter handled lead guitar duties. Jim Hodder played drums as well as singing on one track, “Midnite Cruiser.” As for Becker and Fagen themselves, Becker played bass and sang some sparse backup vocals while his partner Fagen played all keyboards (piano, electric piano, organ) and sang lead on every track but three.

Countdown to Ecstasy, released in 1973, failed to match the level of commercial success of the first album. Becker and Fagen blamed this on having to rush-record the album between tour dates and the fact that they weren’t entirely happy with some of the performances on the record. The album’s singles included “Show Biz Kids” (curiously chosen for release as a hopeful hit) and “My Old School,” both considered “classic” Steely Dan by fans and critics alike, but failing to make any significant impact on the charts. However, “My Old School” (and, to a lesser extent, “Bodhisattva”) did become a minor FM Rock staple as years passed, and remains so to this day. “Bodhisattva” was also notable as the only readily available live recording of Steely Dan for many years (as the B-side of the 1980 single “Hey Nineteen”).

Steely Dan returned with their third LP Pretzel Logic in early 1974, a diverse set that produced “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number“, which reached #4 on the Billboard chart. It also included their note-for-note transcription of Duke Ellington and James “Bubber” Miley‘s “East St Louis Toodle-oo”. This is the only instrumental ever done by Steely Dan, the only Steely Dan song to feature a banjo, and the only song on which Donald Fagen is credited with playing the saxophone (he also plays the piano solo). Album cuts “Any Major Dude Will Tell You” and the title track would go on to be fan favorites.

During the tour for the previous album, the band had added Sonny & Cher‘s young session drummer Jeff Porcaro, and also added vocalist-percussionist Royce Jones and vocalist-keyboardist Michael McDonald.[21] Porcaro and McDonald would become prominent on this and future Steely Dan recordings and would illustrate the duo’s increasing reliance on session musicians. For example, “Parker’s Band” features both Jim Gordon and Porcaro playing drums. This album also marks the first time Walter Becker would play guitar on a Steely Dan album.

A rift between Becker-Fagen and the other members of the group (particularly Baxter and Hodder) began to develop when the latter two seemed more intent on touring. Becker and Fagen disliked touring and wanted to withdraw from the road to concentrate solely on writing and recording. The other members also felt discouraged by their diminishing roles in the studio and gradually left the group, although Dias stayed on for some Aja tracks and McDonald continued to contribute vocals up to the 1980 Gaucho; Baxter left to join The Doobie Brothers, where he was later joined by McDonald. The band retired from touring after a July 4, 1974 concert at the Santa Monica Civic Center in California.[22] A recording of the show’s opening track, “Bodhisattva”, would later be released as a B-side.

The 1975 LP Katy Lied saw the duo using a diverse group of session players, including Porcaro and McDonald, as well as guitarist Elliott Randall, jazz saxophonist Phil Woods, saxophonist/bass-guitarist Wilton Felder, percussionist-vibraphonist Victor Feldman, keyboardist (and later producer) Michael Omartian, and guitarist Larry Carlton, with only Dias remaining from the original group. The album went gold on the strength of “Black Friday” and “Bad Sneakers,” but Becker and Fagen were so dissatisfied with the sound of the album (caused by a faulty DBX noise reduction system) that they publicly apologized for it (on the album’s back cover), and for years refused to even listen to it in its final form.[23] Often considered a “transitional album,” it also included “Doctor Wu” and “Chain Lightning”.

“Kid Charlemagne”

The Royal Scam was released in May 1976 on ABC Records and is the group’s most guitar-oriented record, in part due to Carlton’s contributions, and it also features session drummer Bernard Purdie. Like Katy Lied, it sold well without the strength of a real hit single, although “Kid Charlemagne” and “The Fez” (in which keyboardist Paul Griffin earned a rare co-writing credit) would become two fan favorites. Also popular in Dan circles as well as at modern Steely Dan shows are the hard rocking “Don’t Take Me Alive”, the shuffling “Sign in Stranger”, and the ethereal “Caves of Altamira.” “Haitian Divorce” became a surprise minor hit in the UK.

Their sixth LP, the jazz-influenced Aja saw Becker and Fagen employing the services of a wide array of top-notch jazz and rock musicians. Aja won several awards, shot into the Top Five in the U.S. charts within three weeks of release, and was one of the first American LPs to be certified ‘platinum’ for sales of over 1 million albums.[24][25] The first single off the album was “Peg,” which featured Michael McDonald’s backing vocals and peaked at US #11. Other singles included “Deacon Blues” (#19) and “Josie” (#26). The album cemented the duo’s reputation as songwriters, as well as their reputation for studio perfectionism. The story of the making of the album has been documented in an episode of the popular TV and DVD series, Classic Albums. The album features such jazz and fusion luminaries as guitarists Larry Carlton and Lee Ritenour, bassist Chuck Rainey, saxophonists Wayne Shorter, Pete Christlieb, and Tom Scott, drummer Steve Gadd, and ex-Miles Davis pianist/vibist Victor Feldman. It also featured Becker’s trademark clean, jazzy guitar leads as a prominent solo voice where they had only appeared sporadically in prior releases.

Soon after the success of Aja, Becker and Fagen were asked to contribute the title track for the movie FM. The movie was one of the year’s worst box-office disasters but the song was another hit, barely missing out on the Top 20 in the US and was another minor hit in the UK. The group still performs it today.[26]

Becker and Fagen took most of 1978 off before beginning to write songs for the follow-up to Aja. The project would become plagued by technical, legal, and personal problems and ultimately cost them their partnership for many years.

“My Old School”

In March 1979, ABC was bought by MCA Records, and for most of the next two years they were caught in contractual problems that prevented them from releasing the album. Becker and Fagen had planned on leaving ABC for Warner Bros. Records and wanted to release the next album on it, but MCA claimed ownership of the material, blocking Fagen and Becker from putting it out on any other label.

The first track completed for the album was “The Second Arrangement.” The song was a favorite of producer Gary Katz and engineer Roger Nichols.[27] In late December 1979, after weeks of working on a particular recording of the track, approximately 3/4 of the song was accidentally erased by an assistant engineer who was performing maintenance on the studio’s tape machines.[27] It was Nichols who broke the bad news to the band;[27] Fagen walked out of the studio without saying a word when he was told about the song.[27] Attempting to re-record “The Second Arrangement” proved to be too discouraging, and the song was eventually abandoned.[27] However, a handful of demo and outtake recordings of the song exist in bootleg form.[28]

Becker was also having personal difficulties. His girlfriend at the time, Karen Stanley, died of a drug overdose in their shared Upper West Side Apartment. Becker was hit with a $17 million wrongful death suit, later settled out of court in his favor, but he was shocked by the accusations and the tabloid press coverage that followed. His own substance abuse problems made matters worse. Not long after, Becker was struck by a taxi while attempting to cross a Manhattan street, shattering his right leg in several places and forcing him to use crutches. His sense of humor was evident in his statement to Rolling Stone magazine that he and the taxi were in breach of the laws of quantum physics, trying to occupy the same space at the same time.

Another lawsuit dogged the band, this time regarding the title track for the album. Jazz composer Keith Jarrett claimed that the song had been based on one of his own compositions, entitled “Long As You Know You’re Living Yours”. Fagen later admitted he’d loved the song and was strongly influenced by it.[29] Jarrett sued for copyright infringement and eventually settled for a sum of approximately one million dollars, the deal stipulating that Becker and Fagen keep the songwriting credit. Fagen later told the press that maintaining their reputations as songwriters was an important factor in the decision to settle for such a substantial sum. Gaucho was finally released in November 1980 and, despite the problems that had gone into recording the album, it was another major success. The first single, “Hey Nineteen“, peaked at #10 on the pop chart in early 1981, and “Time Out of Mind” (featuring Mark Knopfler from Dire Straits on guitar) became a moderate hit in the spring. “My Rival” was featured in John Huston’s 1980 Film Phobia. The album subsequently received a Grammy award for “Engineer – Best Engineered Recording – Non-Classical.”

Becker and Fagen announced the hiatus of their partnership in June 1981. Becker subsequently moved to the Hawaiian island of Maui with his family where he became an “avocado rancher and self styled critic of the contemporary scene.”[30] Becker also stopped using narcotics around this period, a problem he had been struggling with throughout most of Steely Dan’s original run.[31][32][33] Fagen released his 1982 solo album The Nightfly, which went platinum in both the U.S. and the U.K. and yielded the Top Twenty hit “I.G.Y. (International Geophysical Year).”

The two tried writing together again in the mid-1980s but were unhappy with the results. Fagen later contributed both the score and a song to the soundtrack of Bright Lights, Big City but generally did little or no music writing or recording for several years. He occasionally did production work for other artists, as did Becker; one notable credit was British group China Crisis, who were strongly influenced by Steely Dan.

Fagen and Becker took the first steps toward reconciliation in 1986, when Gary Katz oversaw the production of Zazu, an album by the former model Rosie Vela. Both Becker and Fagen are featured on that album, and it is believed to be the first time they performed together since the breakup.[34] On October 25, 1991, Becker attended a concert of the New York Rock and Soul Revue, co-founded by Fagen and producer/singer Libby Titus (who was for many years the partner of Levon Helm of The Band and would later become Fagen’s wife). 1993 saw Becker’s production of Fagen’s second solo album Kamakiriad. Fagen later said it was the most satisfying recording experience of his career. Returning the favour, Fagen co-produced Becker’s solo album 11 Tracks of Whack in 1994.

During the same year, MCA released Citizen Steely Dan, a boxed set featuring their entire catalog on 4 CDs, plus 4 extra tracks: “Here at the Western World” (originally released on 1978’s “Greatest Hits”), “FM” (1978 single), a 1971 demo of “Everyone’s Gone to the Movies” and “Bodhisattva (live)”, the latter recorded on a cassette in 1974 and released as a B-side in 1980. These events finally led to a reformation, and the mounting of a U.S. tour in 1993 to support Fagen’s album (which sold poorly, even though the concerts were extremely well-reviewed). With Becker now mainly playing lead and rhythm guitar, they put together a band that included an additional keyboard player and lead guitarist, a bassist, three female backing singers, and a four-piece horn section. During this tour, Fagen introduced himself as “Rick Strauss” and Becker as “Frank Poulenc“. They toured to great acclaim during 1993-96, performing mainly songs from the later Steely Dan albums plus a selection of re-arranged Dan classics, and they released a live CD compiled from recordings of several 1993 and 1994 concerts, Alive in America in 1995. In 2000, they released their first studio album in twenty years, Two Against Nature. It was not only a return to form but proved to be one of the surprise successes of the year, and in February 2001, it earned them four Grammy Awards. They won in the categories for Best Engineered Album – Non-Classical, Best Pop Vocal Album, Best Pop Performance by Duo or Group with Vocal (“Cousin Dupree“), and Album of the Year. Their win for Album of the Year came as a shock as they defeated Eminem and his highly controversial album The Marshall Mathers LP. In the summer of 2000, they took to the road for another US tour followed by an international tour later that year. A DVD was also released under the same title, which is essentially a live-in-the-studio concert performance of popular tunes from throughout Steely Dan’s career. In March 2001, Steely Dan was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.[10][11] In 2003 Steely Dan released another album, Everything Must Go, and toured America thereafter. Becker and Fagen went for a looser approach in the studio and attempted to capture a more live feel. Walter Becker contributed his first lead vocal on a Steely Dan studio album on the song “Slang of Ages” (he had sung lead on his own “Book of Liars,” on Alive in America). Also, it is the first Steely Dan album since 1973 to feature the same drummer (Keith Carlock) on every track; Jim Hodder was the sole drummer on 1972’s Can’t Buy a Thrill and 1973’s Countdown to Ecstasy. This album also showed a return to form for Becker and Fagen’s playing: Becker plays bass and lead guitar on every track while Fagen adds piano, electric piano, organ, synthesizers, and percussion on top of his vocals. The band embarked on a 33-date tour in the summer of 2006, a tour that followed Donald Fagen’s tour in spring of 2006 in support of his first solo album in 13 years, Morph the Cat.[35] Also featured on the bill was former collaborator Michael McDonald and his band. McDonald also sat in with Steely Dan during their encore, taking lead vocals on a jazzy version of “Do It Again” and filling out the band further on keyboards. The name of the tour is an homage to the fictional “inventor of the blues” presumably created by Becker and Fagen.[36] The website, Fab-Originees.com, was simply a mirror of SteelyDan.com. The band’s Heavy Rollers Tour began May 5, 2007, at the Beale Street Music Festival in Memphis, TN. The tour included North America, Europe, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand, making it both the largest and most exhaustive Steely Dan tour ever. The tour took its name from lyrics in the song “Gaucho” (“We’ve got heavy rollers, I think you should know”) from the album of the same name.[37] In early March 2008, Steely Dan announced on their website that they would be playing the Montreal Jazz Festival in July. This was then revised into a full summer tour, named Think Fast. Dates were selected mostly in the United States, with a few concerts in Canada. In early March 2009, Steely Dan announced they would be performing live in the summer. The tour was completed at a sold out show on November 28 in Montreal, Canada.

Sources: Wikipedia, NNDB.com, IMDB.com, steelydan.com

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3 Comments

  1. Vincent’s favorite band!

  2. It amazes me how few of the players in Steely Dan were actually members of the band. Don’t get me wrong, I love Steely Dan’s work for the first eight years of their career. But this group was dependent on outside talent to give flavor to their best songs.

    http://eightrackmind.wordpress.com/2010/07/25/a-band-of-session-players-steely-dans-catalog-p-1/

    • I credit Steely Dan not only for the first eight years of their career but also for having the foresight to include “outside” talent in order to keep their sound current. A lot of bands and groups collaborated with other well known and sometimes not so well know musicians to create their best songs. In the end, I think most of us would agree that it was the music we got to listen to that mattered and not so much who in the group was playing it.


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