In an eight -year recording history stretching from 1972 to 1980, Steely Dan earned a reputation as perfectionists. Each of their seven albums is like a highly polished diamond, created by a thinking man’s band, with finely crafted compositions that weave back and forth between jazz and rock, and lyrics loaded with irony and cynicism. This unique approach has won them admirers and yet also turned off many a listener who felt their approach too cold and calculating. “Think of the Dan as the first post-boogie band: the beat swings more than it blasts or blisters, the chord changes defy our primitive subconscious expectations, and the lyrics underline their own difficulty—as well as the difficulty to which they refer—with arbitrary personal allusions, most of which are ruses,” explained Robert Christgau in Christgau’s Record Guide.
The nucleus of the group, or rather the duo, is Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, two musicians who met at Bard College in upstate New York in 1967. The two played in amateur bands (with names like Bad Rock Group) during school and afterwards hit the road as
Band formed in the early 1970s by vocalist and keyboard player Donald Fagen (born in Passiac, N.J., in the late 1940s) and Walter Becker (born in New York City, in the late 1970s).
Duo signed with record producer Gary Katz, of ABC/Dunhill, in Los Angeles, Calif., in 1972; toured 1973-74; first Top 10 single “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” in 1974, followed by “Peg,” and “Hey Nineteen.” The single “FM (No Static At All)” written for manager Irving Azoff’s movie, FM; signed with Warner Bros, in 1980, but no collaborative work has been released under the Steely Dan name.
Addresses: Record company —MCA Records, 70 Universal City Plaza, Universal City, CA 91608.
backup musicians for Jay and the Americans from 1970 to 1971. In the meantime they enjoyed little success in pedaling their own tunes to various labels; the most notable being “I Mean to Shine” which found its way onto a Barbara Streisand LP.
While touring with the Americans, Becker and Fagen befriended Gary Katz, who had recently joined the staff at ABC Records in California. The two relocated to Los Angeles at the insistence of Katz and were soon working at ABC themselves rewriting songs. They recorded their own compositions when studio time was available and ran the product by their bosses. “We had zero expectations,” Becker told Rolling Stone. “In fact, we were amazed that ABC bought the album at all. It was like a dream come true.” 1972’s Can’t Buy A Thrill yielded two substantial hits for the duo, “Do It Again” and “Felin’ In The Years.” Katz produced the LP, while Jeff Eaxter and Denny Diaz played guitars and Jim Hodder handled the drumming. Lead singer David Palmer soon left the group and Fagen took over on vocals the following year for their second album, Countdown to Ecstasy.
That album relied heavily on extended soloing and studio techniques but produced the fine cut entitled “My Old School” with slide guitar courtesy of Rick Derringer. Steely Dan (named after a female sex tool from William S. Burroughs’s novel, The Naked Lunch) was pushed into a touring blitz by then-manager Joel Cohen to support their records. But that would only last one more album for Becker and Fagen were not enticed by the road or any of its cliches. The band played their last live show in 1974 after the release of Pretzel Logic, which included another hit, “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number.” The two leaders decided to devote their energies solely toward producing excellent albums, while the other band members, who still wanted to tour, moved on.
“It was 1974 and the mystique of rock was starting to fade, certainly as a cultural item,” Fagen told Robert Palmer in Rolling Stone. “The concert scene seemed sleazy to us, and we weren’t satisfied with the way the band was clicking. It was taking a tremendous psychic and physical toll on us. Basically, we couldn’t hack it; we just didn’t want to live that way anymore.” Jeff Baxter and keyboardist Michael McDonald quit to join the Doobie Brothers and Becker and Fagen decided to dip into the rich pool of studio musicians to create their songs. Fagen said in Rolling Stone, “If we can’t find a studio musician who’s comfortable with a particular feel, then we’ll haul out our instruments.” Becker added, “It wouldn’t bother me at all not to play on my own album.”
Apparently it didn’t as their next LP, 1975’s Katy Lied, relied on studio veterans Larry Carlton, Hugh McCracken, Chuck Rainey, Jeff Porcaro and David Paich, as did their follow-up, The Royal Scam, which included four excellent tracks, “Kid Charlemagne,” “Don’t Take Me Alive,” “The Royal Scam,” and “The Fez.” Diaz was the only original member left by Katy Lied, and after that Carlton took over and produced guitar solos that influenced a whole generation of six-stringers who sought to duplicate his sound.
Becker and Fagen had found a vehicle for creating and ignored critics who found their music formulaic. “We’ve real charts and everything,” Becker countered in Rolling Stone. “It’s more productive. The musicians enjoy getting asked to do something that’s challenging. We like working with an overview, too. It’s difficult, but it’s fun. It’s not stupid music.” As for their employees, Fagen told the same publication, “That cold stigma about studio hacks is nonsense. You can get studio musicians to sound exactly like a rock and roll band.”
In 1977 Steely Dan released their first album to break into the Top 5, Aja, “a particular favorite of fanatics who savor Becker’s and Fagen’s Gordian Knot of oblique losers, dopers, ravaged lovers and doomed optimistics,” wrote Cameron Crowe in Rolling Stone. Of their lyrics, Becker said to Stone’s Richard Cromelin, “We’re writing about people who are more or less at the end of their proverbial tethers. There’s nothing more boring than affluence and a stable, effortless existence. There’s not much to say about that anyway. That’s Paul Simon. We’d be walking into his dangling conversation.”
Once again expert sidemen were utilized, like Wayne Shorter, Victor Feldman, Bernard Purdie, and Lee Ritenour, to name but a few. The LP contained only seven cuts, which may or may not have been beneficial, according to one’s taste. “Whole songs like ‘Josie’ and ‘Aja’ are structured around solos by sidemen,” wrote Ken Tucker in the Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll. “For all the technical complexity, every tune is inevitable after the first chorus.” Becker and Fagen were relying on the players more and more, but their audience didn’t seem to mind. Steely Dan scored a major hit in 1978 with “FM (No Static At All)” for their new manager, Irving Azoff, and his motion picture, FM.
A greatest hits album was released in 1978 and shortly after, ABC was absorbed by MCA. The band had already decided to switch to Warner Brothers but owed one more album under their contract. Shooting immediately into the Top 20 in 1980 was Gaucho, which Ariel Swartley in Rolling Stone described as having “perfected the aesthetic of the tease. Their sound is as slippery as their irony.” Guitar virtuosos Mark Knopfler (now of Dire Straits), Rick Derringer, and Hiram Bullock were called in for duty this time around. Bullock described to Tad Lathrop in Guitar Player the process that occurs in the recording of a Steely Dan record. “They are as meticulous as everyone says. I think we worked a week on one song. At one point we worked nine hours on one fourbar insert. You know, you just do it. They wanted perfectionism, and I could understand what they were doing … they have these sort of crystalline compositions, like little jewels. They don’t want you to imprint your personality over their music; they want you to get inside their music and use your talent to bring their song to life.”
Steely Dan, for all their popularity, still may have been ahead of their time. Artists like Sting and Sade shined during the 1980s with music crafted in very much the same vein where Becker and Fagen left off. Maybe the vast majority of contemporary music fans finally grew up and favored a sound that broke out of the three-chord syndrome. Style and taste were things Steely Dan exuded but sometimes felt they had to hold back. “I think a lot of people in the audience are unaware that anything unusual is happening harmonically, and so much the better, because there are people who are offended by that sort of thing, who think it’s Ed Sullivan pop. Broadway show music,” Becker explained to Rolling Stone. “For the benefit of that portion of the audience, we try to make these things work so that they don’t stick out.”
Can’t Buy A Thrill, ABC, 1972.
Countdown to Ecstacy, ABC, 1973.
Pretzel Logic, ABC, 1974.
Katy Lied, ABC, 1975.
The rayal scam, ABC, 1976.
Aja, ABC, 1977.
Greatest Hits, ABC, 1978.
Gaucho, MCA, 1980.
Christgau, Robert, Christgau’s Record Guide, Ticknor and Fields, 1981.
The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll, edited by Jim Miller, Random House/Rolling Stone Press, 1976.
The Rolling Stone Record Guide, edited by Dave Marsh with John Swenson, Random House/Rolling Stone Press, 1979.
Guitar Player, November 1976; December 1980; January 1987;September 1988.
Rolling Stone, June 17, 1976; December 29, 1977; February 5, 1981.
—Calen D. Stone
As the split personality of rock and roll, duo Steely Dan defied classification. With the help of studio musicians and assorted others, the two released a modest one dozen albums over a 30-year period from 1970-2000. The nebulous recording group is anchored solidly by the independent song-writing pair of Walter Becker on melodies and Donald Fagen on lyrics. Yet the mystique of Steely Dan persists in that vocalist Fagen rarely took the microphone; likewise Becker, an accomplished guitarist, was heard rarely on tape.
Individually, Becker and Fagen grew up not too far apart, Fagen hailed from Passaic, New Jersey, and Becker from New York City. The two came together over their mutual love of music, and the relationship congealed over time and became firmly cemented by their equally mutual dislike for performance. They collaborated intensely for approximately one decade before moving their separate ways, only to reunite in the mid-1990s and resume their musical relationship, seemingly without missing a beat.
Fagen, the son of an accountant and a former cabaret singer was born on January 10, 1948. He took guitar lessons briefly at age seven, on a rented guitar that
Members include Donald Fagen (born on January 10, 1948, in Passaic, NJ; son of Joseph and Eleanor Fagen; married Libby Titus. Education: Bard College, 1965-1969); Walter Becker (born on February 20, 1950 in New York City, NY; married; one son, Kawai; one daughter, Sa; divorced. Education: Bard College, 1966-1969).
Recorded for ABC Records (later MCA Records), 1972-1980; release Can’t Buy a Thrill. ABC Records, 1972; Countdown to Ecstasy, ABC, 1973; Pretzel Logic, ABC, 1974, (included “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number;” Katy Lied, ABC, 1975; The Royal Scam, ABC, 1976; Aja, ABC, 1977; Gaucho, MCA, 1980; signed to Giant Records, 2000; released Two Against Nature, Giant Records, 2000.
Awards: Founder’s Award, American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers, May 22, 2000.
Addresses: Record company —Giant Records, 3500 W. Olive Ave., Suite 600, Burbank, CA 91505.
was in grave disrepair. At age 11 he became enamored by jazz while he was simultaneously engrossed in learning to play an old piano, that his parents had purchased. He became virtually obsessed with the piano as he had been with music all along, and often played into the night, taking respites only to listen to jazz radio. Despite his fixation with music, he refused to take formal piano lessons. He was annoyed by the structured environment of formal training, and learned instead to play by ear. Outside of music and a casual interest in stamp collecting Fagen’s interests were limited. He was quiet overall and very introverted as a child.
A brief foray into Little League ended abruptly when he became aware of the political machinery that controlled the sport; his membership in the Boy Scouts was equally short-lived because he developed a severe allergy to poison plants. Instead he spent his summers swimming in the family pool and reading books. As he entered adolescence, his obsession with music lured him into weekend outings in New York City where he gravitated to the shows at the Village Vanguard. As his visits to the Vanguard increased in regularity, he developed friendships among the club staff members and even, on occasion, with the musicians. In his enthusiasm at the Vanguard he sometimes lost track of the time on those boyhood excursions. On more than one occasion, having missed the last bus, he found himself stranded at the bus station where he slept contentedly on a bench until the early bus arrived the following morning.
In 1965 Fagan moved to Annandale-on-Hudson in upstate New York where he attended Bard College, initially with plans to major in the theatre arts. He soon abandoned that goal, realizing that he disliked the intrinsically exhibitionist nature of the discipline. Instead he turned to the local music scene for amusement. In 1966 he met Walter Becker, and it seemed to Becker that Fagen was a member of virtually every local band on the campus of Bard.
Becker, whose German father was in the business of importing heavy machinery from Europe, was born on February 20, 1950, and was the product of a broken home. He was raised mostly by his father and grandmother, living alternately in Queens and in Scarsdale, and back in Queens. Becker was only 16 when his father died suddenly from a heart problem while away from home on a business trip. Becker, who was very close with his father, took the loss very hard.
Shortly before his father’s death, when Becker was 14, he began to learn blues guitar from a neighborhood friend. Becker went on to Bard College in 1966 where he met Fagen and a friendship gelled. Becker and Fagen bonded readily, given their mutual fascination with music and extreme affinity for jazz and blues styles. The friendship solidified as they played together in amateur bands. They also spent time writing their own music. Becker, who completed his studies under an accelerated program, finished his curriculum before Fagen, who had started one year earlier, and by 1969 both musicians had completed college. Afterward the pair moved into a Brooklyn apartment, where they began writing songs in earnest.
Eventually they secured a position writing material for a 1960s rock band called Jay and the Americans (JATA). The creative efforts of Becker and Fagen resulted in few compositions of note during those early years, although they penned one song in particular, “I Mean to Shine,” that attracted some attention from Barbra Streisand. She included the song on one of her albums, and thus brought a modicum of legitimacy to the two songwriters. As for their background work with JATA, they were eventually hired as performing musicians with the band. The future Steely Dan cohorts learned quickly however that they were essentially expendable to the group, and they found themselves discarded as quickly as they were hired. It was their unique and independent approach to music that created a wedge between JATA—which subscribed to the formula-based musical contingency that governed 1960s rock and roll—and the rebellious inclinations of Becker and Fagen. Some of Becker and Fagen’s nascent songwriting efforts, written mostly during their JATA years, were later released on compact disc as retrospectives called Android Warehouse and Becker and Fagen, the Early Years.
The duo next joined a band led by Denny Dias. Dias had advertised for band members in the Village Voice, and he, like Fagen and Becker, was a musical nonconformist in the pending tradition of Steely Dan. The Dias band rarely performed, yet they collaborated incessantly, wrote songs, developed styles, and practiced new sounds.
Becker and Fagen moved to Los Angeles, California, in 1972 at the urging of producer Gary Katz of ABC Records. Katz hired the pair to perform studio rewrites and to create song arrangements. As always, Becker and Fagen spent their free time developing their own original creations. Soon Dias joined them in California, and once again the three musicians fused. They added new band members and performed in quartet, although performances were not the focus of their efforts. After the release of their first album—with guitarists Jeff Baxter and Denny Dias, Jim Hodder on drums, and David Palmer on vocals—the group went on tour, only under pressure from their record producer, ABC, which insisted that they tour to promote the new record.
They performed with big-name stars including Frank Zappa, the Beach Boys, and Chuck Berry, but always as the opening act and never as a headline attraction. Becker and Fagen in particular disliked the tour circuit because it was demanding, exhausting, and usurped precious time from their writing interests. Their fellow band members, in contrast, embraced performance and eventually became anxious and unsettled in the shadow of Becker and Fagen’s reticence. Ultimately the Steely Dan members disbanded, leaving only Becker and Fagen, and on occasion Dias, to guide the group through its evolutionary journey.
All together between 1972-80, Steely Dan released seven albums; each displayed a high degree of professionalism and polished performances on every track. The group earned respect among aficionados of every musical taste, both for the intellectual lyrics of their tunes and for the intriguing post-boogie rhythm styles. By the release of their third album, a recording called Pretzel Logic, Becker and Fagen had settled into a pattern of working primarily as a production duo and hiring studio musicians to perform on the recordings, a situation that suited the taste of the Steely Dan duo conveniently. The lack of a formal assemblage of musicians precluded the possibility of persistent touring, and Becker and Fagen were gratified. Each on occasion contributed guitar or vocals to the Steely Dan records, but only on an as-needed basis whenever the studio band sound failed to meet with expectations. Indeed on the 1975 release, Katy Lied, neither Becker nor Fagen contributed a single note to the final tape. Steely Dan’s 1978 album, Aja, was the first of the group’s albums to break into a top five position on the music charts. The memorable recording featured performances by some of the jazz world’s well-honed artists, including Wayne Shorter, Victor Feldman, Bernard Purdie, and Lee Ritenour; it sold over one million copies.
In 1980 Steely Dan released what would be its final album for over a decade. Unaffected by the success, Becker and Fagen went each their separate ways, and the unique jazz/rock band ceased to exist for over a decade. As Steely Dan dissolved into temporary retirement, the duo left a legacy as a precursor to rock and roll classicists such as Sade and Sting. Their final recording, Gaucho, marked the end of their ongoing contract with ABC Records (MCA by that time) and earned a slot among the top 20.
As Gaucho went into the editing stages, a series of tragedies beset Walter Becker, beginning with the suicide of his girlfriend and followed by a debilitating car accident that left him with a substance dependency. Fagen, as a result, single-handedly prepared Gaucho for release, then undertook a series of musical projects on his own. He recorded a well-received solo album, called Nightfly and then wrote an off-Broadway score called Gospel at Colonus. He also wrote movie soundtracks and contributed articles to Premiere. Becker, who abandoned virtually all vestiges of his musical career, moved to Hawaii to recuperate. He was married for a time while in Hawaii and has two children, a son named Kawai and a daughter named Sa. In 1994 he released a solo vocal recording, 11 Tracks of Whack, including a track dedicated to his son, called “Little Kawai.”
Fagen eventually married singer and songwriter Libby Titus, also a Bard College alumnus, and together the couple collaborated and produced their own musical review. In the early 1990s Fagen and Titus successfully lured Becker from his self-imposed seclusion and back to New York City and into the studio where he assisted in the production of Fagen’s 1992 album, Kamakiriad. The reunited Steely Dan members recommenced their collaboration, and Becker and Fagen became cognizant that Steely Dan might have taken an hiatus, but the spirit never died. In 1993 and 1994, the pair toured with a backup band as the Citizen Steely Dan Orchestra, and in 2000 they released a comeback album, Two Against Nature, filled with classic Steely Dan nonconformity. Rolling Stone’s David Wild said of the Giant Records release, “As always in Steely Dan’s … world, we often don’t know what … people in the songs are actually doing, but we’re pretty damn certain that they shouldn’t be doing it at all.”
Wild went on to christen Becker a “reluctant guitar god” and likewise praised Fagen, along with the studio musicians including session drummer Vinnie Caliuto, Rickey Lawson, and Sonny Emory. Longtime Steely Dan cohort Dias said of the pair that, “Walter and Donald are one person with two brains;” Dias was quoted by Alec Wilkinson, who went on to characterize Fagen as, “[A] cross between Abraham Lincoln and Al Capone.” Descriptively, critics concur that the two are highly intelligent perfectionists—an impressive tribute to a duo that named itself after a literary illusion to a dildo.
“Do It Again,” ABC, 1972.
“Reelin’ in the Years,” ABC, 1972.
“Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” ABC, 1974.
Can’t Buy a Thrill, ABC, October 1972.
Countdown to Ecstasy, ABC, July 1973.
Pretzel Logic, (includes “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number) ABC, 1974.
Katy Lied, ABC, 1975.
The Royal Scam, ABC, 1976.
Aja, ABC, 1977.
Greatest Hits, ABC, 1978.
Gaucho, MCA, 1980.
Two Against Nature, Giant Records, 2000.
Nightfly (Fagen), 1982.
Kamakiriad (Fagen), 1993.
11 Tracks of Whack (Becker), 1994.
Contemporary Musicians, volume 5, Gale Research, 1991.
Rolling Stone, March 16, 2000, p. 72; March 30, 2000, pp. 33-38.
“The History of Steely Dan,” FAQ, http://www.steelydan.com/faq.html(May 29, 2000).
Formed: 1971, New York City
Best-selling album since 1990: Two Against Nature (2000)
Hit singles since 1990: "Cousin Dupree"
Steely Dan, Walter Becker's and Donald Fagen's thirty-year vehicle, first appeared at the crossroads of the 1960s and the 1970s, when pop's optimistic bloom had taken on a darker, more serious tone. The group's composers embodied that trend with admirable skill, wedding hummable tunes to probing lyrics that touched on the underbelly of the American urban dream. Their characters are outsiders from dime-store paperbacks—drifters, losers, barflies, forgotten jazz players—all evoked in immaculately turned musical arrangements.
Steely Dan's output hardly fits a conventional template. Their barbed wit recalls Frank Zappa at his more acerbic, yet their arrangements, constructed with legendary zeal, often owe much to the big-band tradition. New Yorkers transplanted to California, they began as long-haired composers when hippiedom was in vogue, yet they never subscribed to the utopian visions of the West Coast. Their home terrain appeared to be the subterranean jazz cellar of the 1950s, where saxophones interwove with beatnik verse. Despite these seemingly esoteric inspirations, Steely Dan has enjoyed hits on the pop charts and has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
From Writing to Performing
Becker and Fagen began as jobbing tunesmiths at the end of the 1960s, part of that fading tradition of songwriters who turned out work on demand for a producer, publisher, or artist who required it. As the 1970s dawned, their quirky approach to songwriting—they always sought an original twist in the words, tune, or tempo—saw them move toward writing material that they liked and wanted to record with a band of their own. It took a while to convince anyone that the Becker-Fagen credit had real credibility or commercial punch, but when they teamed with producer Gary Katz to make the album Can't Buy a Thrill (1972), the writers' belief in their own songs began to bear fruit; they linked with the guitarists Jeff "Skunk" Baxter and Denny Dias, the drummer Jim Hodder, and the vocalist David Palmer. But it was Fagen's singing tones that stood out on the set's two most memorable pieces, "Do It Again" and "Reelin' in the Years."
The group seemed capable of delivering potent pop melodies in a highly sophisticated setting. Their tunes had an instant accessibility that recalled the work of the wall-of-sound creator, Phil Spector, or the Beach Boys' resident genius, Brian Wilson; their arrangements had a sleek gloss born of the expertise of jazz session players. Unravelling the meaning behind the songs was a challenge from the start. Even "Do It Again," seemingly an infectious, Latin-flavored jamboree, hides an enigmatic message in its words, "In the mornin' you go gunnin'/ For the man who stole your water."
The 1970s saw almost annual outings of new Steely Dan material. Notoriously reticent as touring musicians, Fagen and Becker saw their first batch of sidemen quickly drift away in search of live performance opportunities. Yet Baxter stayed long enough to deliver a sensational solo on "My Old School," a key moment on the second album, Countdown to Ecstasy (1973), before joining the Doobie Brothers. The album also included the sardonic "Show Biz Kids," in which an insistent, razor-sharp guitar riff accompanied a satire on the record business, including a self-reflective reference to "Steely Dan T-shirts".
Buoyed by the arrival of the singer Michael McDonald and the percussionist Jeff Pocaro, Pretzel Logic (1974) sustained Steely Dan's momentum. "Barrytown" is its sweetest track; "Parker's Band" shows swing affinities and pays homage to the jazz groups of the 1940s. "East St Louis Toodle-Loo," the band's only cover, brings a Duke Ellington classic to a rock audience.
The album Katy Lied (1975), despite the rolling thunder of the opening track "Black Friday," marked time as illness dogged Fagen's voice. But The Royal Scam (1976) features some notable gems: the soap opera sentiments of "Haitian Divorce," the slight but haunting enticements of "The Fez," and the Wild West saga of "Don't Take Me Alive": "I crossed my old man back in Oregon / Don't take me alive."
Yet it was Aja in 1977 that seemed to draw the best from the group's writing duo and producer Katz. The mysteriously named album featured extraordinarily stylish and sleek music. Now able to draw a stable of the very best session players—the saxophonist Wayne Shorter and the drummer Steve Gadd among them—Becker and Fagen fully indulged their musical vision: a rich mix of exquisite pop harmonies and virtuosic jazz playing. "Peg" and "Deacon Blues" proved to be masterpieces of melodic and lyrical construction.
The story appeared, however, to have run its course. Although the album Gaucho emerged in 1981, the circumstances surrounding its delivery were traumatic. Becker was mired in personal difficulties: drug problems, a fractured leg sustained in a road accident, and the suicide of his girlfriend. Steely Dan's dissolution ensued shortly after the release of the album. The split did not slow either man's productivity, however: Fagen recorded the acclaimed solo album The Nightfly (1982), and Becker eventually took the producer's chair for Rickie Lee Jones and the British group China Crisis.
During the 1990s Becker became active in the New York Rock and Soul Revue and appeared on their album Live at the Beacon (1992); in 1993 Fagen released his much-anticipated second solo outing, Kamakiriad, which drew on Becker's production talents and sparked speculation about a possible resurrection of Steely Dan. The album, a concept affair with sci-fi overtones, features eight interconnected works relating the story of a journey in a dream car set in the near future.
The following year Becker issued the underrated and self-deprecatingly named album 11 Tracks of Whack (1994), a collection which hinted at some of Steely Dan's more melancholy moments and featured Fagen at the studio controls. Artistically, it even over-shadowed Kamakiriad with a string of edgy, bitter pieces like "Junkie Girl," "This Moody Bastard," and "Cringemaker." This positive rush of solo activity after more than a decade of collaborative silence prompted the duo to discuss the return of the band that had made them famous.
Reuniting on Tour
Initially, and uncharacteristically, Steely Dan stepped from the shadows as a live combo, touring in 1994 and reprising their extensive body of hits. To the widespread interest of critics and the delight of their patient fans, their 1995 album, Alive in America, captured some of the on-stage excitement that had been largely missing from the group's earlier history. But such developments suggested that new material might also be in the cards, and the group eventually lived up to expectations with the release of Two Against Nature (2000), produced this time not by Gary Katz but the two songwriters themselves.
With the typical irony Becker and Fagen chose a title that implied they had survived despite the onset of age, extended absence, and the ever-changing whims of the popular music landscape. Yet their 2002 recording was carved from the same stone that had made their 1970s output so distinctive—the jazz voicings of the chords, the displays of vocal and instrumental virtuosity, and a string of new, typically oblique melodies that hinted that they'd never really been away.
They seemed lighter at times, a little less world-weary and cynical. "What a Shame about Me" appears to be more tongue-in-cheek than wallowing misery, and "Cousin Dupree" is a charming comedy of family manners. But the somber, minor-key tunes "Almost Gothic" and "West of Hollywood" still see life through sepia-tinted glasses. Two Against Nature won both critical plaudits and a Grammy for Best Pop Album.
Steely Dan has managed to combine melodic invention and lyrical sophistication, delivering music in a diverse range of styles—rock and soul, jazz, and Latin—while still retaining a pop sensibility in some of the best American songwriting of the post–Elvis Presley era.
Can't Buy a Thrill (MCA, 1972); Countdown to Ecstasy (MCA, 1973) ; Pretzel Logic (MCA, 1974); Katy Lied (MCA, 1975); The Royal Scam (MCA, 1976); Aja (MCA, 1977); Gaucho (MCA 1980); Two Against Nature (Giant, 2000). Solo, Donald Fagen: The Nightfly (Warner Bros., 1982); Kamakiriad (Reprise, 1993); Solo, Walter Becker: E 11 Tracks of Whack (Warner Bros., 1994).
B. Sweet, Steely Dan: Reelin' in the Years (London, 2000).
Steely Dan, songwriting duo and popular nontour-ing group. membership:: Walter Becker, bs., gtr., voc. (b. N.Y., Feb. 20, 1950); Donald Fagen, kybd., voc. (b. Passaic, N.J., Jan. 1, 1948).
Although posing as a group, Steely Dan was essentially a studio duo comprised of songwriters Walter Becker and Donald Fagen. Composing musically sophisticated, lyrically erudite and oblique songs, Steely Dan immediately came to prominence with their excellent debut album, Can’t Buy a Thrill, and its two hit singles, “Do It Again” and “Reeling in the Years.” Admittedly more influenced by jazz than rock, Becker and Fagen persevered through 1980 as one of the most popular nontouring groups since the Beatles. They scored their biggest artistic and commercial success with their 1977 album, Aja, their acknowledged masterpiece. During the 1980s the two pursued a variety of low-key independent endeavors, reuniting in 1993 for one of the most anticipated tours of the year.
Walter Becker and Donald Fagen met while attending Bard Coll. in upstate N.Y. in 1967. Fagen had studied jazz piano in high school, whereas Becker played bass and guitar. The two decided to form a composing team, and after Fagen’s graduation and Becker’s dismissal, the duo unsuccessfully attempted to sell their songs around N.Y. They formed a short-lived group on Long Island with guitarist Denny Dias and composed and performed the score to the obscure underground movie You Gotta Walk It Like You Talk It. Fagen and Becker next joined the backup group for Jay and the Americans and toured with them in 1970 and 1971. Through that group’s producer, Gary Katz, they secured employment as staff songwriters for ABC-Dunhill in Los Angeles, but their failure to write hits led to the formation of Steely Dan as a vehicle for their songwriting.
Formed in 1972, Steely Dan was initially comprised of Becker, Fagen, Dias, lead vocalist David Palmer, guitarist Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, and drummer Jim Hodder. Their exceptional debut album, Can’t Buy a Thrill, featured the disdainful “Dirty Work” and the vaguely political “Change of the Guard” and yielded near-smash hits with “Do It Again” and “Reeling in the Years.” Touring infrequently, Steely Dan recorded their second jazz-inflected album without Palmer, as Fagen assumed the lead-vocalist role. Pretzel Logic produced a smash hit with “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” but following their 1974 tour, Becker and Fagen dismissed their band, with Baxter soon joining the Doobie Brothers. They retained Denny Dias while recording subsequent albums with session musicians. However, neither Katy Lied nor The Royal Scam yielded a major hit.
Released in late 1977, Aja became Steely Dan’s best-selling and most highly regarded album. It ultimately yielded three major hits, with “Peg,” “Deacon Blues,” and “Josie.” They also scored a major hit with “FM (No Static at All)” from the movie FM in 1978. The group’s next album, Gaucho, did not come until 1980, yet it produced two major hits (their last) with “Hey Nineteen” and “Time Out of Mind.”
By 1981, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen had parted company. Becker retreated to Hawaii, where he built his own recording studio, while Fagen recorded the autobiographical solo album The Nightfly, which yielded a major hit with “I.G.Y. (What a Beautiful World)” and a minor hit with the caustic “New Frontier.” During the 1980s Fagen composed songs, wrote a movie column for Premiere magazine, and contributed to the soundtrack of the movie Bright Lights, Big City. Around 1989 Fagen began performing in clubs around N.Y., later organizing an touring with the N.Y. Rock and Soul Revue in 1991 and 1992. Beckerand Fagenreunited to coproduce Fagen’s second solo album, Kamakiriad, in 1993, and the duo assembled an 11-piece band for their first tour in 19 years. Although the tour sold out, the performances served more as cultural events than as music renaissance. In 1994 Walter Becker recorded his first solo album, 11 Tracks of Whack, and Steely Dan toured onceagain.
Can’t Buy a Thrill (1972); Countdown to Ecstasy (1973); Pretzel Logic (1974); Katy Lied (1975); The Royal Scam (1976); Aja (1977); Greatest Hits (1978); Gaucho (1980); Gold (1982); Gold (expanded edition) (1991); A Decade of S. D.(1985); Citizen S. D.: 1972–1980 (1993); Alive in America (1995); Two Against Nature (2000). FAGEN/BECKER/DIAS: You Gotta Walk It Like You Talk It (1971). DONALD FAGEN: The Nightfly (1982); Kamakiriad (1993). walter becker: 11 Tracks of Whack (1994).