The Return Of Steely Dan
Once upon a time, they were the odd couple in rock. They wrote songs that featured knuckle-knotting chords and brain-twisting lyrics. They welded jazz and rock into an alloy so smooth and shiny it was impossible to tell where the one ended and the other began. They gave up on live performance a decade before it became commonplace. They sneered at the world from a position of bohemian priority so rarefied it was hard to tell exactly where it was situated. They routinely ran rings around interviews. They haven’t changed.
Separately, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker can be charming, witty, imaginative, accommodating, the most fulsome of interviewees. But put them in a room together and something else takes over: the synergy that brought forth Steely Dan still operates its acid magic on the duo. Ask them a question – any question – and they’ll bat it around for a few moments, testing it for comic potential, before volleying it back over the net, largely unanswered. Faced with the prospect of an in-depth interview to promote their new album, ‘Alive in America,’ they immediately put up the psychic barriers.
Walter Becker: We’ve been doing these interviews now all week. Because it’s a live album with all these old songs on it, interviewers have used that as a pretext to ask questions about things that happened years and years ago. So we’ve rehashed things that we barely remember now to a point where we’re becoming increasingly alienated from anything that could be said to resemble the truth.
Donald Fagen: So you’ve come on the scene at the perfect moment.
MOJO: Stylised lies is exactly what I’m after.
Fagen: We call them ‘Stylies,’ for short.
Becker: I think the important thing is to try and stay in the present and not have any painful sorties into the distant past. If you find yourself wanting to ask something about the Brill Building, or questions like “Why did you decide to go out on the road again after 19 years?”, stuff like that, I think we’ve heard that one a few times too many, haven’t we?
Fagen: See, you don’t even have to ask any questions!
MOJO: Well, I think that’s the first four pages of my questions gone.
Becker: There’ve been journalists in here all week that have already gotten better answers to these questions than we could possibly give you, due to repetition. Maybe Gail [a PR] could hook you up with one of those guys, and you could just download what they got?
MOJO: On the other hand, your answers would be more finely honed now, where before they would have been rough drafts….
Becker: Thus putting the lie to the concept that you can’t polish a turd!
MOJO: You’ve got a new, or newish, live album coming out….
Fagen: That’s ‘newish’ in the sense of distinguishing ‘Jew’ from ‘Jewish’, is it?
Becker: This is beginning to remind me of the joke where the guy from Oklahoma goes up to a New York cabbie and says, “Excuse me, could you tell me how I can get to Times Square, or should I just go fuck myself?”
MOJO: Indeed. Has anyone ever suggested you might be difficult to interview?
Becker: Yeah, that has been suggested, and as I say, it has to do with overload. Y’know: the horror, the horror!
Fagen: The guys who came round Monday thought we were, like, sweethearts. But the last couple of days, no.
Becker: Also, we had to film our EPK [Electronic Press Kit] over two days.
MOJO: Oh. And what kind of stuff was in that?
Becker: Shit. Utter shit. It as kind of like another rehash of the same questions….
Fagen: ….that we hired someone ourselves to ask!
Becker: They’d ask us these things, then we’d decide maybe we should do it indoors, and they’d ask us again, then we actually went to the Brill Building – “So, here we are at the Brill Building”….
Fagen: At one point the director wanted us to read some stuff as we were walking down some stairs, and he said, “Say this as though it’s stuff the record company is making you say, and try to say it with a mocking tone.” Assuming that everything we’d said previous to that wasn’t in a mocking tone.
MOJO: Have you ever thought you might be in the wrong business?
Becker: Yes, through most of the ’80s.
MOJO: Rock music is at least partly about communication, after all….
Becker: Not in our case it’s not.
Fagen: Actually, our new album is going to be called Stand-Up Rock ‘n Roll.
SO HERE WE ARE AT THE BRILL BUILDING, IT’S THE LATE ’60S AND THESE
two sullen, nondescript youths, fresh out of college, are hustling their songs around the various music publishers in the building. One has wire-rimmed spectacles, shoulder-length blond hair, and looks a bit like River Phoenix. The other is thin to the point of emaciation.
They troop into an office. The thin one sits at the office piano and opens an exercise-book of songs. Together, they sing on for the man behind the desk. It’s about androids discovering they’re alive, a bit like in that Philip K. Dick book. They sing another. It’s about Charlie Parker, and is full of odd, show-offy changes. A third, a put-down of some place called Barry Town, makes good use of the spiteful undertone in the thin one’s voice, but is too nasty. A fourth appears to be about a dildo – it even mentions that Japanese one from the William Burrough’s book. The man behind the desk sits there, nonplussed. What are these two kids thinking of? No-one wants to hear songs like this. Do they?
They troop out of the office, up the stairs and into another office.
“This was before cassettes, so we would just play and sing,” explains Fagen. “We met a lot of people in the Brill Building. We met Jerry Leiber, which was great, because he was an idol of ours: and there were still some other great songwriters there, like Jeff Barry. We knew about the scene and we were into the craft of the thing. We wanted to become great songwriters. It was almost over then, but at 1650 Broadway there were still some things happening. The Lovin’ Spoonful. Buddah Records had an office there, and there was a lot of one-shot soul stuff coming out of there.”
“I don’t think we were trying to imitate any of the top songwriters,” says Becker, “except, in a roundabout way the very arty songs But Bacharach had written for Dionne Warwick. Those were an immense source of inspiration for us, but we weren’t trying to copy them: his pieces had these formal, Stravinskyesque angularities that were reminiscent of 20th century classical music. We were impressed by how far out he was able to get and still make it sound sort of like pop music. At one point our demo was played for Leiber & Stoller, who had an office upstairs. Jerry Leiber’s comment was that it reminded him of some German art songs brought into the contemporary style. We subsequently learned that it was better to have our songs pass a pop songs and then have whatever else we wanted in them afterwards.”
Fagen, a jazz fan from Passaic, New Jersey, had already put in a good few years developing an anti-social personality when he met Becker at Bard College. Influenced by the hipster humour of stand-ups and monologuists like Lenny Bruce and Gene Shepard, and by Paul Krassner’s magazine The Realists, Fagen hated the New Jersey suburbia, and would take off to Manhattan on the weekends to see the likes of Monk, Rollins, Miles, and Mingus at Greenwich Village clubs like the Village Vanguard. When he was bought his first piano at the age of 12, his main influence was Red Garland, from Miles Davis’s great Quintet.
At Bard, Fagen studied literature, graduating in 1969 with a thesis on Hermann Hesse, but spent much of his time running a band which went under various names – The Leather Canary, The Don Fagen Jazz Trio, The Bad Rock Group – according to the gig. He ran into Becker, two years his junior, playing loud blues guitar in a college rehearsal room. Becker, it transpired, had learnt his blues licks from a young neighbourhood kid. Randy Wolf, who later found fame as Randy California, prodigal guitarist with Spirit. “Randy’s uncle in LA owned a folk and blues club called The Ash Grove,” he explains, “so Randy had learned to play blues stuff from these old guys who had played his uncle’s club. He also knew Taj Mahal, and had learned all these techniques. The first time we played, I had just gotten this electric guitar, but hadn’t figured out shit about how to make it sound like these guys. Randy took the guitar, plugged it in, turned the amp all the way up, and started bending the strings and using a bottleneck and all this stuff. It just sounded exactly like B.B. King record, and I learned how to do that from him. I was always attracted to that style of playing. Jazz guitar is tame by comparison.”
Discovering a shared affection for the improvising skills of Paul Desmond, Dave Brubeck’s sax player, Becker & Fagen became firm collegiate chums, and were soon writing songs stuffed with jazz allusions and black humour. Becker having flunked out of college after three terms, the duo relocated to New York after Fagen graduated, determined to make it as songwriter. By this time, the Tin Pan Alley era was as Fagen says, all but over, swamped by a tide of hippy bands who wrote their own material, rendering the specialist songwriter sector redundant. But the Brill Building was still the songwriting mecca for smart-pop disciples like Becker & Fagen.
“There was a lot of scurrying around,” recalls Fagen. “A lot of the business took place right out on Broadway outside, and in the City Squire Hotel next door, and there were all these weird characters in the Brill Building itself. During the late ’60s, the Brill Building had been converted so that the offices now had all these shag rugs on the walls, this sort of cheesy drug-era stuff – everyone had gumball machines. It was very amusing.”
“We knew that we were only pretending to be something that belonged there,” says Becker, “because the kind of songs we were writing didn’t fit in anywhere – there was no artist out there looking for this particular kind of song, put it that way!”
Becker: We live in the past, y’know…the Brill Building, Beverly Boulevard. Don and I like to sit around and rehash, talk about the good old days. Like the Golden Boys.
Fagen: We were there when they invented digital recording, y’know.
Becker: In fact, Donald was actually in the studio the night that Debbie Reynolds recorded Abba-Dabba-Honymoon. That’s a little-known fact!
MOJO: And a little-known song.
Becker: You had to be there….
MOJO: Barbara Streisand recorded one of your songs, didn’t she?
Fagen: The first song we ever had recorded [I Mean to Shine]. Not a good song, but at least she recorded it.
MOJO: What kind of royalties did you see from it?
Becker: The royalties from that song were actually signed over to our previous manager, to escape from his clutches.
MOJO: Which manager?
Becker: One of the previous managers.
MOJO: You had several?
Becker: Well, the tradition is to have a succession of previous managers. Like suitors at a gang-bang, y’know?
“I REMEMBER ONE DAY,” SAYS FAGEN, “WE WERE AT THE BRILL
Building and there was a big convention going on, so there was hardly anyone left in the building except for this one production company called JATA, which it turned out stood for Jay And The Americans. We knocked on the door and there was someone there – in fact, it was one of the Americans! – and we did our usual rap: “Hi, my name is Donald Fagen, this is my partner Walter Becker, we have this song…” And we went through a few of our numbers, and they started paying us $50 per song, and tried to help us out.”
Kenny Vance, the man from JATA, became one of the duo’s first managerial suitors, and promptly had them record some rough demos of their songs, which subsequently appeared under variety of titles like Berry Town (sic) and Sun Mountain. They also recorded a soundtrack for a low-budget movie a friend of his was making, called You’ve Got To Walk It Like You Talk It Or You’ll Lose That Beat – the album of which, likewise, also magically appeared, prominently bearing their names, once Steely Dan became a bankable prospect.
Becker remains philosophical about the situation. “It’s embarrassing, but if people are that interested in it, I guess it’s OK,” he says. “My son got hold of it, and he liked it better than any of the Steely Dan records! ‘Dad, I love that song Android Warehouse!’ I thought, Holy shit, what does he think this is?” Despite this welter of activity, though, the duo were making little headway in the songwriting business, and welcomed the offer of a paying gig as pianist and bass-player for Jay And The Americans, despite the anachronistic nature of music.
“It was fun,” says Fagen. “We toured the East Coast, and we’d go to Florida in the wintertime, and do a lot of those oldies shows in Madison Square Garden where they’d have, like, 40 acts. We toured for a while opening for The Four Seasons, who were really a good band. It was a great job for us – we were straight out of college, and we got paid in cash!”
In typically droll fashion, they adopted the stage-names Tristan Fabriani and Gus Mahler, though Jay Black had a rather more acid handle for the smartass duo, dubbing them “the Manson and Starkweather of Rock.”
“That was Jay’s little joke,” recalls Becker. “We got involved with Jay And The Americans via one of the more forward-looking members of the group, who had actually noticed that the ’60s had happened: Jay never did – for Jay it was still Blackboard Jungle. He had made the leap from juvenile delinquency to organised crime fandom, so to suddenly find two guys like me and Donald in his band was a little baffling to him. But he was extremely tolerant, and I liked him a lot.”
“Some of Jay’s friends were the same guys from Good Fellas – they were not all fictional characters. I think what his life was like – he was married to the niece of one of the guys, which I think was a survival move: he was levering himself up into a position where he could be forgiven some debts. We would see them once in a while around the office. Some guys would come in and say, ‘Hey Jay! Whyn’t you get these guys to take a fuckin’ haircut?’ Or they’d come backstage after show and say, ‘Hey Jay, your voice sounded beautiful, but that drum, that fuckin’ drum’s givin’ me a headache! Can you tell ’em to turn down that fuckin’ drum?!'”
Fagen: See, now you can’t help talking about this stuff, it’s like you’re in a groove…
Becker: I know. I’m programmed. It’s like The Manchurian Candidate. In fact, I’m thinking of going over to Elsa Lanchester’s house after the interview!
Fagen: How about a game of solitaire to pass the time?
Becker: Good idea! I’m thinking of catching the Senator’s speech later, down at the Press Club. Wanna come with me? You can carry some of my stuff. See, I’ve identified with my captors now – I’m thinking of going into journalism.
MEANWHILE, BECKER & FAGEN HAD MET SOME RATHER MORE
sympathetic musical spirits by answering a Village Voice ad for a bassist and keyboard player with jazz chops. “No assholes needed apply,” warned the ad. Denny Dias, who had placed it, was immediately impressed by the pair’s abilities, and particularly by the fact that they already had a whole stack of original material. Demian, Dias’s band, was just trying to broaden its set beyond the Top 40 covers and R&B numbers that were the staples of the day, and this new source of songs, he could tell, was of high quality. “They were sophisticated,” he says, “something more than your typical pop song; they were musically interesting.”
Before only, Becker & Fagen had effectively taken over the group, replacing the drummer with one of their own acquaintance, John Discepolo, and steering the set in their own direction. Kenny Vance recorded a batch of demos with this line-up, including Becker’s ingenious setting of The Mock Turtle Song, from Lewis Carroll’s Alice Through The Looking Glass, and a striking six-minute number sung by Fagen in a weary, Dylanesque drawl, called Brooklyn (Owes The Charmer Under Me). These too would obtain a belated release (as Walter Becker/Donald Fagen – The Early Years), but proved just as ineffectual as their earlier demos in arousing record company interest.
Help was at hand, however, in the form of Kenny Vance’s chum Gary Kannon, an independent producer who had previously worked with Richard Perry and Bobby Darin, and was building a name for himself in the music business. He introduced them to some musicians he’s met in Boston – drummer Jim Hodder, from a band called The Bead Game (named, as was Dias’s band, after a Hermann Hesse novel), and session guitarist Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter, from the late and largely unlamented Ultimate Spinach. More importantly, he also persuaded Richard Perry that a Becker & Fagen song, I Mean To Shine, was just right for a Barbara Streisand album that Perry was recording (Barbara Joan Streisand), thus acquiring the duo their first proper song sale.
Shortly after, Kannon was offered and A&R job at ABC Records in Los Angeles, where he dropped his pseudonym and reverted to his real name of Katz. One of the first things he did upon taking up his new position was to persuade his employers that they really needed to hire these cool songwriters he knew back in New York. It was the smartest move he ever made, though for a while it seemed as though it may have been a mistake. Becker & Fagen were offered a position as staff songwriters at $125 a week, this being an advance against any song royalties they might earn. They didn’t need asking twice.
“For cynical wiseass kids from New York like us, going to Los Angeles was an endless source of amusement,” says Becker. “I’m sure you’re familiar with the characterisation so sunny, air-headed optimism in glitzy LA and dense, rye-bread, cynical, intellectual New Yorkers. I had never been there before in my life when I moved there lock, stock, and barrel – we didn’t know how to drive or anything! Gary Katz had an apartment in Encino, and we just went there, then picked out our apartments from this newly-finished block and started taking driving lessons. Until we’d learnt, Gary had to drive us back and forth to ABC.
“It was our first real job in the music business, for a real record company, so there was the shock of that, too: the bullshit factor soared another 1000 per cent. The reason ABC had signed Gary and us was they’d decided they wanted to make more, quote, ‘underground’ records: they only had bubblegummy hits – and the Impulse jazz label. One of the first few days we were in LA, Gary took us to and A&R meeting in some hotel, and we drove over Laurel Canyon, which we’d heard about from all these Frank Zappa records, and went into this room where Roger Nichols had set up this PA for a playback.
“There were all these record executives there: at the head of the table was Jay Lasker, president of this company, in this Hawaiian shirt, and the other guys in their hokey records, then Ed Michel puts on this Alice Coltrane record – their first quad recording! – and Ed’s got the speakers in the corners of the room, and he turns it up real loud, and it’s Alice Coltrane’s harp, and Rashied Ali playing no discernible beat of any kind, and finger-cymbals and all the other space-jazz conventions of the day, and just to watch these guys try and groove along with this was great!
“By the time we got there, the great days of Impulse were over, John Coltrane was dead and they didn’t do much else from that point on, but of course they had made all those neat records in the ’60s. They had their little mastering studio next to the recording studio, and we’d see the masters for A Love Supreme hanging around out in the hall. I thought, These guys aren’t taking care of this stuff – I should take it home to my house! But I never did…”
MOJO: What did being staff writers entail?
Fagen: We were supposed to write pop songs for the other artists on the label, which included at that time Three Dog Night. The Grassroots and John Kay And Denny Doherty from The Mamas & The Papas. John Kay actually recorded a song of ours, but other than that we were complete failures.
MOJO: Which one was that?
Becker: It was a song called Giles Of The River.
[Sniggers] Fagen: That’s the reaction the artists tended to have too. As Gore Vidal once said, “Shit has its own integrity.” We didn’t have that kind of integrity, though.
MOJO: What was it about your songs that made them different?
Fagen: They had some of the irony that became the lingua franca of the ’80s, to some degree.
MOJO: That’s not a very American thing, is it?
Becker: Well, my friend from high school, his mom had that Flanders & Swann record, and my father had a few English friends, y’know?
Fagen: Yeah, and we used to listen to those Brecht/Weill songs…
Becker: So we were kind of suave and continental, at least on the intellectual level, if not on the haberdashery level.
Fagen: At least compared to, say, Freddy Fender.
Becker: On the haberdashery level or the intellectual level?
Fagen: I’m not sure. He may have it over us on the haberdashery level!
Becker: Even Freddy Fender had us aced! Also, we were interested in the black humour tradition in literature, that was highly charged with this sensibility.
Fagen: We were both fans of William Burroughs…
Becker: …Nathanael West…
Fagen: …Bruce Jay Friedman, Philip Roth, Vladimir Nabokov…
Becker: …Kurt Vonnegut, Terry Southern, Thomas Pynchon…
Fagen: They were very big in New York at the time.
MOJO: Fairly big in England, too.
Fagen: Well, you guys invented irony, so…!
Becker: When you’ve lost the Empire, what are you gonna say? They got a great Empire, they see it slipping away – here comes your irony!
Fagen: We can sense that happening here too. The end of the American Empire. We can see it coming.
GARY KATZ MANAGED TO GET A FEW BECKER & FAGEN COMPOSITIONS
placed on albums he was working on – notably Thomas Jefferson Kaye’s First Grade – and he put a little session work their way, but it was obvious to all that as songwriters their material was too eccentric and personal to fit most other artists’ styles.
“We realised even before we were doing it that we would have to do these songs ourselves,” says Becker. “We could see that nobody was going to come along and pick up on them because they were too odd, too out of context for the day. On the one had, they expressed an odd sensibility lyrically and in their overall musical thing: and they were so musically unusual that even people who later wanted to record some of our songs had a hard time, because the jazz elements or other harmonic elements were hard to pull off.”
“They have to be performed with a certain attitude,” adds Fagen, “and we couldn’t find the right singer when we started. I became the singer by default because I was the only one with the right attitude, essentially, even though I didn’t consider myself a singer at the time.”
Covertly, the three New Yorkers began assembling a band, calling Denny Dias, Jim Hodder, and Jeff Baxter over from the East Coast, and using ABC’s money to buy equipment. Eventually, the label realised what was happening, but had enough faith in them to give the project the nod, especially since Becker & Fagen weren’t exactly proving a raging success as staff songwriters. A deal was signed, in typical music-biz fashion.
“We were like most people,” says Becker. “When you start out, you get some horrible little deal, that no matter how many records you sell you could barely eke a living out of it: and when you get more successful you gradually negotiate improvements in that deal. Our lawyer in the deal we originally signed with Jay Lasker was someone who had worked for Jay until a few weeks before – he was in there with his boss, and he came out and said, ‘I gotta tell you, guys, I got killed in there. This is a terrible deal, they didn’t give me anything, and they say you can either sign it or get the hell out of here!’ So we signed it.”
“It seemed OK at the time,” adds Fagen. “We were only kids, y’know?” The first product by Steely Dan – the name was taken from that of a dildo in William Burrough’s book, The Naked Lunch – hit the stores in June 1972. A single, Dallas, featured drummer Jim Hodder on lead vocal, Fagen still having qualms about his own capacities in that respect. The album which followed five months later, Can’t Buy A Thrill, even featured another vocalist, the prissy-voiced David Palmer, on a couple of the softer tracks. More importantly, it also included two hits, both of which established Fagen’s nasal sneer as the band’s trademark. The slinky mambo rhythm and electric sitar solo of Do It Again proved surprisingly irresistible over the airwaves: entering the singles chart in the last week of the year, it eventually peaked at Number 6, swiftly followed by the rockier Reelin’ In The Years, which reached Number 11. Buoyed by the singles, the album hit the Top 20. All of a sudden, at long last, Becker & Fagen were a success.
Success, though, brings its own obligations. People want to see hit bands. More to the point, record companies want to see hit bands promoting their records, and the only way to do that effectively is to pack your bags, climb on board a bus, and traipse around playing gigs in places like Dogbreath, New Jersey.
For a while, it’s fun. The camaraderie of the road, the in-jokes, the last-gang mentality, the acclaim and, of course, the music. But then it all starts to a little sour. Denny Dias, for one, recalls touring with Steely Dan as “kinda like going to war: hours of boredom, followed by seconds of terror.”
In the beginning, though, those seconds of terror brought their own reward: the follow-up album Countdown To Ecstasy, widely considered the group’s best, profited greatly from the weeks spent honing the new material on the road. “That was the only album where the songs were developed on the road, in rehearsal and onstage,” explains Fagen. “We were playing them before the album was recorded, so it had a more live, blowing feel about it.”
“Before we did the first album,” says Becker, “we had written the songs and pretty much finished arrangements at the point where we presented them to the musicians: in the case of the second album, the musicians got to hear the songs and participate in developing the arrangements at an earlier stage. Because we knew what the band sounded like, we had a more developed conception of it, and it became a more integrated framework.”
Consequently, where their debut album had seemed rather like a prefabricated pop marvel, this one presented Steely Dan as a great band, bursting with energy and chops, with the rare ability to build on each other’s parts in a way that took the material to new heights. Not that ABC saw it that way, mind.
“When we finished that record,” recalls Dias, “a number of executives came to the studio to hear it played back for the first time, and nobody seemed to like it. They were so unhappy about it that there was hardly any promotion for it, and it was disappointing commercially. We were trying to go higher and better, and they were looking for something more saleable. They were used to AM pop stuff, and what they heard was a little more sophisticated, and they didn’t know what to do with it.”
They didn’t like the sleeve illustration either. A painting by Fagen’s girlfriend of the time, it featured three forlorn humanoid forms sitting on chairs. Since there were five members in the band – David Palmer having by this time been issued with his P45 – the record company felt there should be five figures on the cover. Two extra figures were accordingly added, though in ghostly, insubstantial form. Few of the band realised it at the time, but this was to prove something of an omen.
MOJO: Why were early songs like Charlie Freak and Parker’s Band on your third album, rather than your first?
Becker: See, that’s touring for you. We did our first record, boom, they threw us out touring. We managed to get through our second record with mostly new songs, I think, but by the time we had to go into the studio for our third record, we had to go through the files and pull out a bunch of old songs to fill out the record.
MOJO: You didn’t tour for very long, did you?
Becker: Well, we didn’t make any money touring. The only reason we could tour England was because the record company kicked in some money: it was a money-losing proposition, and we were beating our brains out. We felt if we kept on doing this we would burn out very soon.
Fagen: And of course, The Beatles had not long before set the example of concentrating on records and not touring, and we were arrogant enough to follow their example.
MOJO: But shortly after that they split up, didn’t they?
Fagen: Well, we split up shortly after too. We were following their example to the letter! And now we’re back together, just like they are. We never make a move without consulting the Beatle Chronology.
THOUGH ITS INNER GATEFOLD-SLEEVE FEATURES A PHOTO OF THE
same band as that on Countdown To Ecstasy, by the time the third album Pretzel Logic came to be recorded, Steely Dan was all but finished as a group. The LP was largely recorded using session players, with the actual group being used to present the songs live. Unfortunately, even that involvement didn’t last much longer. A tour of Britain in 1974 was abruptly curtailed when Fagen fell ill, and that was that.
“Touring interfered with recording,” explains Becker, “because you’d go out and trash your voice and your chops and everything, and all the hear would be wrecked. Back from a tour, we wouldn’t have any songs because we couldn’t write on the road. That’s why we broke up the band – the other guys in the band couldn’t for the life of them see why we didn’t want to go out and tour and have the good times that they had been having: we weren’t particularly having a good time, but they were!
“That’s one of your big Rashomon situations there – in rock ‘n roll bands everybody sees a slightly different version of what’s going on, depending on their position in the organisation. And because they’re all kids, usually you haven’t developed your empathy to the point where you realise that the other guy’s got something else that he’s dealing with. I think musicians in general are childish – in all the best and the worst possible senses of that term.”
MOJO: What did the other guys in the band think when you started to bring in session players to play parts they might have played?
Becker: A mixture of bitterness and, er, hatred. Betrayal, a feeling of betrayal. Desire to strike back , to get even, perhaps. Actually, they were good sports about it, to the extent that they didn’t quit or throw a screaming shit-fit right there on the spot, but it didn’t really make sense to them that we wanted to do that. It was like, contrary to the ethical understanding they had of the band.
MOJO: From their point of view, they probably thought they’d be able to tour the album once it was made.
Fagen: Yes, we could see that there was just too much of a lie involved at one point, so they had to go. It was too uncomfortable. They put two years in, and we tried to be fair with them financially – they’ve always gotten full royalties from albums they’ve played on, and so on. So we’ve not had bad relations with them since.
AND SO, ALMOST AS SOON AS IT HAD STARTED, STEELY DAN THE BAND
was finished. Guitarist Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter and Michael McDonald, who the band had drafted in as a support vocalist, took a free transfer to The Doobie Brothers and all the fame and gigs they could handle: drummer Jim Hodder disappeared to Northern California, where nothing was heard of him until his death by drowning in June of 1990.
Denny Dias hung in longer than the rest, a reflection of his closer relationship with Becker & Fagen: unlike the other members of the band, who had been introduced to them by Gary Katz, Dias was the duo’s own choice.
“Denny was a very specialised kind of musician,” explains Becker, “because he was neither a jazz guitarist nor a rock guitarist – he had the technical ability and training of a jazz guitarist, but he understood how to apply that to play over our chords. And there wasn’t much else going on that he was a logical candidate for.”
“He was very devoted to our music,” adds Fagen. “He’s been asked many times to join various groups, and when we stopped touring, he just wasn’t interested.” Since ceasing work with the Dan, Dias did a little low-key music work with jazz pianist Hampton Hawes, but spent most of his time doing systems-level programming for database development environments: he now, however, confesses himself disenchanted with the corporate nature of computer software world. When the Dan played Los Angeles’ Greek Theatre on their reunion tours of ’93 and ’94, Dias sat in with them for a few songs, and professes is the most fun he’s had in years. “I just decided I had to get back into music,” he says, “so I got a hard-disk recording system which I hooked up to my computer, and I’ve been writing and recording, trying to develop a concept for a record of my own.”
For their part, Becker & Fagen holed up in studios for the rest of the decade, developing perfectionist LPs and a reputation to match. They became studioholics: Becker recalls trying to get an English engineer to work on Boxing Day, and being told in no uncertain terms that that was not an available work day. “We both liked recording studios,” he admits. “As much as anything else, it was just the coolest place to be on a hot afternoon, sitting on those couches or wheeling around behind a console.”
They had already found themselves struggling against the limitations of their own and their band’s abilities: as early as the first album, they had called in session players such as guitarist Elliott Randall, who played the solo on Reelin’ In The Years: while on the second album, dissatisfied with Hodder’s less-than metronomic pulse on Show Biz Kids, they had had to improvise and eight-bar loop of two-inch tape which ran from the tape machine to an idler wheel outside the control room, in order to achieve the hypnotic effect they wanted. At every turn, they were determined to use the best and the most cutting-edge, whether that meant bringing in Bernard Purdie and Chuck Rainey to lay down a groove, or using the earliest digital recorders.
“In the ’80s,” reflects Becker, “hand-crafted, hand-played music was being overtaken by this increasingly mechanical, perfectionist machine music, and we were just trying to get there first. They had all these disco records that were just whack-whack, so perfect, the beat never fluctuated, and we didn’t see why we couldn’t have that too, except playing this incredibly complicated music, and the drummer would go and play a great fill or something and come exactly back at the perfect beat at the same tempo, y’know? It seemed like a good idea.”
Gradually, the Steely Dan sound grew more and more refined, and by the time of Aja had come to be recognised as the very epitome of rock sophistication. “We were interested in a kind of hybrid music that included all the music we’d ever listened to,” explains Fagen. “So there was always a lot of TV music and things in there. It was very eclectic, and it used to make us laugh: we knew something was good if we would really laugh at it when we played it back. We liked the sort of faux-luxe sound of the ’50s, there was just something very funny about it. I grew up in a faux-luxe household, and it was a very alienating world, so for me it has the opposite effect: muzak is supposed to relax you, but it makes me very anxious. So in a way, I think I get it out of me by putting some of it in my songs. Then I start to laugh at it when I hear it.”
“In some ways, the early, rougher ones sound better now than the later ones,” believes Becker, “whereas at the time it seemed like we were ever rising towards the light. I think because of the kind of music we were doing, it seemed to us that it should be real seamlessly put together and have a high level of polish to make it work. We didn’t want it to sound like kids trying to play jazz – which I think it did pretty much sound like sometimes, and which now I kind of like the sound of. But at the time we thought what we were doing was so different to other things that were going on, and our own harsh appraisals of our talents dictated to us that we work harder to make it really smooth and flawless.”
In Los Angeles – and in New York, when they returned there to make The Royal Scam – Steely Dan sessions took on a certain cachet among the session community: whose members were, in the main, relieved to be given the opportunity to stretch their talents a little further than the average soap-powder commercial. Sometimes, though, Becker & Fagen could be the most infuriating of taskmasters.
“A lot of times we didn’t know what we wanted,” admits Becker. “Donald and I would write a song on piano, or piano and guitar, and sometimes we’d have a very primitive demo, but often as not we’d go in the studio and we’d be hearing the song played by a band for the very first time. And sometimes it didn’t sound like what you’d thought it would sound like, and you had to try and figure out why that was, whether your conception of the song was wrong, or who could change their part, or how to rethink what you were doing to make it work. So a lot of times we didn’t know exactly what it was we needed to do at a given moment to get things to be the way we wanted them to be.
“Other times, we just wanted it to be better, so we’d keep trying for another take. We kept adjusting our standards higher and higher, so many days we’d make guys do 30 or 40 takes and never listen to any of them again, because we knew none of them were any good: but we just kept hoping that somehow it was just going to miraculously get good.”
MOJO: Who was the most difficult session player to work with?
Becker: To me, the most difficult guys – without getting down to specific names – would be jazz players who, if it wasn’t a jazz date, would treat it just like another gig. They’d have a kind of contemptuous attitude, and they didn’t like the fact that these young kids were running these sessions and trying to tell them what to do.
Fagen: It only happened a few times: guy wanted the gig for the bread, but didn’t like the music, essentially. ‘Specially in the early ’70s, ‘cos there was still a lot of deep snobbism about rock ‘n roll…
Becker: …and we assumed that because we had these chord changes and everything that we’d be able to impress these guys, and in some cases that didn’t turn out to be so. It was all still bullshit as far as they were concerned.
LIVING HARD WILL TAKE ITS TOLL, THOUGH, AND BECKER IN
particular was living hard, making full use of the recreational drug opportunities afforded by the Los Angeles celebrity lifestyle. The city held little other appeal for them, however, and by the time they finished their most sophisticated, jazz-inflected album so far, Aja, they had both relocated back to New York. Keen to switch labels, too, they signed up with hotshot manager Irving Azoff, who used his industry muscle to make Aja their most successful album yet.
This, however, only served to put greater pressure on the duo to top its success with the follow-up, Gaucho. But a series of delays and disasters combined to slow its progress to a crawl. The New York musicians were not as used to their methods as the LA musicians had become, and Becker was becoming less reliable because of his drug problem. Then, at the end of 1979, the first completed track for the album, a song called The Second Arrangement, was accidentally wiped by a studio engineer. The following month, Becker’s long-time girlfriend, Karen Stanley, died in their New York apartment from a drug overdose suicide. “I could barely understand what was going with her, really,” he recalls. “If you’ve ever known anyone that’s chronically depressed like that, it’s hard to appreciate what’s going on: you’re looking straight at it and you still don’t get it because you’ve never gone through that.”
As if that weren’t enough, in April 1980 Becker was knocked over by a taxicab, fracturing his right leg in several places. Luckily, recording had all but been concluded, but the mixing sessions for Gaucho were severely complicated by the injury. By the time the album was released to mixed reviews in November, all concerned were thoroughly sick of it. It was time, they realised, to pull down the curtain on Steely Dan.
“Working together as long as we did,” says Becker now, “Donald and I followed a certain line of thinking to its logical conclusion, and then perhaps slightly beyond – that was what we realised when we’d finished Gaucho: it was not as much fun…It wasn’t fun at all, really.”
TWO YEARS ON FROM THE DEMISE OF STEELY DAN, DONALD FAGEN’S
solo debut “The Nightfly” was released, to widespread acclaim. Far from heralding a career rebirth, however, it seemed to put the cap on the entire Dan story. The follow-up, “Kamakiriad”, would not appear for another 11 years.
“I really put everything I knew into that album,” says Fagen of The Nightfly. “I wanted to do an autobiographical album. And after that I really wasn’t inspired to do anything. I fell into a bit of a depression for a while, and I started going to therapy. I think that like a lot of artists, especially in the music business, I was successful and young, and I was basically still and adolescent. I was trying to get out of that with The Nightfly, it was kind of self-examination of my childhood. It took me a long time to go through a kind of transformation. Until around ’86, ’87, I felt I had some energy and some new things to write about. I worked every day, but I didn’t like what I was doing, I’d play the songs back next day and didn’t much like them.
“I basically had to figure out how to have an actual life – I was a workaholic ’till the end of The Nightfly, the only life I had was in the studio. A lot of it had to do with my not wanting to address certain things that I had to address personally, and working gave me the chance not to do any kind of self-examination. I’m very introspective person as it is, so always working is a kind of therapy in itself.”
While Fagen was having his mid-life crisis in New York, Becker had made what seemed a strange jump, moving to the Hawaiian island of Maui, where he cleaned himself up, drug-wise, and set about rebuilding his life.
“The last few years of the ’70s got a little out of control around my place, and it really wasn’t that much fun,” he recalls. “The career was a good organising principle for something that was pretty chaotic in other ways. But eventually that didn’t work either. and when the dust had settled its was 1980 and it was time to clean up my act, so I ended up coming here because I wanted a complete change of pace – and I must say I had a pretty good time of it: my son was born, I got married. So I spent a couple of years not doing any music or anything, just here in Hawaii trying to get healthy and adjust to the new regimen I was setting up for myself.”
As the old Steely Dan LPs were given a new lease of life on CD in the ’80s, providing a steady source of revenue, both men tried their hands at alternative, music-related jobs: Becker built a studio on Maui and became a producer for such artists as China Crisis and Rickie Lee Jones, and for new age/jazz labels Triloka and Windham Hill. Fagen, meanwhile, wrote a little film music, for the movie of Bright Lights, Big City, and for a while became the film-music correspondent of Premiere, the US film magazine. Then, in the early ’90s, they hooked up again to produce each other’s solo albums, Kamakiriad and 11 Tracks of Whack.
“When I was about to go into the studio, I got kind of nervous about handling everything myself,” says Fagen, “especially the idea of doing vocals and having to come in and listen to them myself. I realised I was really lonely in the studio by myself, without someone to bounce off. So I thought, Why break in someone else – if that’s even possible – I’ll just call in Walter. He was more than a producer, really, he was a collaborator as far as some of the music went. Especially in playing: he ended up playing all the bass parts, and the lead guitar parts as well.”
From there, it was short jump to reconstituting Steely Dan, at least as touring entity: 1993 and 1994 saw them taking an expanded band on tour in America and Japan, the highlights of which are about to appear on their first live album, Alive in America. As slick and meticulous as you’d expect, the album features a broad selection of material, the old songs sometimes rearranged in the style of the later Dan records – most notable a Reelin’ In The Years reupholstered with a spiffing horn arrangements. And while it’s at a very early, tentative stage yet, there is actually talk of a new Steely Dan studio album in the works. Wheel turnin’ round and round…
MOJO: So…Why did you decide to go back out on the road after 19 years?
Becker: Well, clearly it was a mistake. We see that now.
Fagen: Yeah. I’m gonna rescind the whole thing. Can we recall the summer tours of ’93 and ’94?
Becker: We’re gonna send all the money back. In fact, anybody who has been to one of our shows in the past two years, if you would be willing to send a stamped, self-addressed envelope to the offices of our business managers, we will cheerfully refund the price of your tickets.
There is a hundred-dollar filing fee associated with our book-keeping costs, so make sure you include that.
Obviously, Steely Dan didn’t like the perspective of becoming an underground band – huge commercial success was a CRUCIAL plan of their musical career, you know. Without huge commercial success, how could Mr Becker and Mr Fagen really carry out their design to make utter dunces of the general American record buying/coke snorting/Playboy posing/life enjoying public? Thus, even if their musical instincts were drawing them towards the drawn-out lengthy jazzy jam thing, they had to compromise this time, and release an album of short three-minute songs – none of the eleven numbers on Pretzel Logic run over four.
Furthermore, by now they have learned to hide their sarcastic lyrical message even deeper than before; no more blunt lines like ‘don’t give a fuck about anybody else’ this time, in fact, without an accompanying annotated lyrics sheet you’ll have a really hard time trying to guess what lies under the surface. I mean, if the rumours about the title track being an anti-totalitarian swipe (pretzel = swastika) are true, this easily explains lines like ‘I have never met Napoleon, but I plan to find the time’; however, without that hint you’ll never even begin decoding the message in the right direction.
Thank God this is one of those – rare – Steely albums that could easily survive on musical merit alone. It’s probably their most diverse effort, both due to the larger number of the songs and, I guess, the very wish to make it diverse. There’s pop, R’n’B, blues, jazz, even hard rock (‘Monkey In Your Soul’), and although the Steely Dan production formula kinda neutralizes the differences between styles, it’s still very much listenable throughout without getting the impression that they’re the kind of guys who never went further than the first twenty pages of whatever musical handbook they’re using.
It’s telling that the record’s biggest number, “monster” hit single and pretty much the song that is most associated with Steely Dan, ‘Rikki Don’t Lose That Number’, can be regarded as one of the consciously worst on the album, with a liquidy-liquidy soft-rock melody, uninteresting lyrics and pretty much all the ‘hook power’ included in the vocal line that leads from the verse to the chorus (‘but if you have a change of hea-aart!…’).
There’s also the famous four-note piano riff, of course, but it sounds so consciously stupid and primitive I can’t get rid of the feeling that Steely Dan were just pandering towards the lowest common denominator of the epoch for that song. Don’t get me wrong – I do enjoy the song as part of the ‘general strategy line’ of the band, but I guess if I had to make my introduction to the band based on that song, I’d probably hate the Danners forever, just as so many general radio listeners do.
However, just bypass ‘Rikki’ and you’ll find out that the album consists almost entirely of winners. ‘Night By Night’ gives us the first taste of Steely Dan the funk outfit – I have a feeling they took a few hints from Stevie Wonder and his ‘Superstition’-style use of synths, so just listen to the chugga-chugga of that line and to the cold mechanical preciseness of the brass section and get in the groove. ‘Any Major Dude Will Tell You’ is a rare moment of consolation and optimism in the Dan catalog, another radio-ready classic but somewhat more valid than ‘Rikki’, with that wonderful riff linking the chorus back to the verses and stuff. (Trivia question: what’s the exclusive link between the song and post-Gabriel Genesis? Ready, steady, go!).
There’s also ‘Barrytown’, a shameless “triple rip-off” of the Byrds/Beatles/Dylan (doesn’t anybody else recognize ‘If I Needed Someone’ in the verses, not to mention typical Bobster’s Blonde On Blonde vocal intonations?) which nevertheless comes ’round as expressive, catchy and well-recorded. Some single it out as the true highlight of the album, but that would be just a little too directly derivative for me – besides, we don’t single out ‘If I Needed Someone’ as the best song on Rubber Soul, do we? – and that honour I’d rather give to the album’s instrumental composition, the cover of Duke Ellington’s ‘East St Louis Toodle-oo’, jazz done as has never been heard previously and a really rare experimental moment in Steely’s generally non-experimental approach.
The substitute of a talking-box enhanced guitar instead of a sax is nothing short of genius, and the short guitar/synth/piano/brass solos that interchange with each other makes up for some really inspired listening – the tune never really threatens to become boring, in fact, it’s rather short for me, I’d say.
On the contrary, ‘Parker’s Band’ has hardly anything to do with Charlie Parker, but its rocking rave-up and catchy chorus more than make up for it. It is then rapidly followed by ‘Through With Buzz’ (more memorable pop hooks, this time with a bunch of strings in the background, but they’re all right), the title track (enhanced standard blues number, the kind of which would be later improved on with ‘Black Friday’, but still effective), the folksy ‘With A Gun’ (great acoustic rhythm track, furious delivery), the music-hallish ‘Charlie Freak’ (minor song with a prominent piano line that makes it distinguishable), and the bass-heavy ‘Monkey In Your Soul’, with a lot of fuzz put on the four-string to make a Led Zeppelin impression or something.
None of these songs will shake your booty to its foundation, but the more you listen to them, the more they actually get impressed inside yourself. You know that feeling, when a particular song doesn’t seem to logically possess any unique hook, but you can remember how it goes even after several years of not listening to it? That’s the case.
So the album gets the 10 from me, ripping it from Countdown To Ecstasy after a long battle… I’ll play the easy-goin’ guy here, but really, in case you’re not aware, I’ve heard EVERY single Steely Dan album ever released, apart from Two Against Nature, being hailed as their best by at least one or two listeners (yes, even Gaucho), so take this particular 10 with a grain of salt. It’s just the most commercial album of Steely’s ever – after they solidified their reputation among the general public with that one, they obviously found it easier to follow a less compromised path.
Aja was the best album produced by the Steely Dan. With the sixth album by the group, driven primarily by keyboardist and vocalist Donald Fagen and bassist Walter Becker, the songs became more sophisticated and oriented towards the individual songwriters. In fact, Fagen and Becker never really intended to have a band at all, just a songwriting team for ABC Records and producer Gary Katz. But when it became apparent that the duo’s songs were too complex for the average ABC artist, they enlisted four more musicians and formed Steely Dan (named after a sex toy in William Burrough’s poem “Naked Lunch”) in 1972. Although Katz and engineer Roger Nichols would produce all their classic albums in the seventies, the musicians surrounding Fagen and Becker would change rapidly. In fact, by 1974 the band had ceased touring and concentrated on studio work.
For Aja, Fagen and Becker decided to utilize the vast amount of session musicians available in the Los Angeles area, especially top-notch jazz and rock musicians. In all, nearly forty musicians would perform on the seven-song album, including six different drummers, seven different guitarists, and eight to ten vocalists. Fagen and Becker were sonic perfectionists, not compromising on their envisioned sound. With the musicians, they obsessively employed a two step process that involved first perfecting their part and then getting beyond to where it sounds improvised and natural. For most of Aja they accomplished this well.
The album became the group’s best-selling album and their first to go platinum. It also won a Grammy Award for Best Engineered Non-Classical Recording in 1978 and has become regarded by most as Steely Dan’s finest work. Last April (2011), the album was added to the United States National Recording Registry and deemed to be “culturally, historically, or aesthetically important”.
The album crashes in with the simple bass and key groove of “Black Cow”, modern sound by 1977 standards. But with the introduction of the fine chorus made of multiple voices, it is clear this is Steely Dan. The song gradually builds through a vibraphone lead by Victor Feldman, later swelling into some fine brass which adds a much more jazzy touch to the already upbeat tune. Although the writers claim a “black cow” is simply a milkshake from their childhood days around New York City, it may be a jazz metaphor on 1970s nightlife. The main riff of the song was reused for the hip hop “Deja Vu (Uptown Baby)” by Lord Tariq & Peter Gunz.
The title song “Aja” follows as a progressive jazz suite that hops skips and jumps all around the musical palette. It incorporates elements of Caribbean music, progressive rock, and swing within the eight minute epic, which incorporates pieces of older, unreleased songs. The song is the longest and most musically complex song that Becker and Fagen ever attempted and it features several virtuoso performances, including those by drummer Steve Gadd, guitarist Denny Dias, and tenor sax by Wayne Shorter that is the purest jazz Steely Dan ever recorded.
“Deacon Blues” is the absolute pinnacle of the Steely Dan sound. It is built of complex piano chord patterns that never really seem to repeat and flavored with just the right amount of brass, laid back at some intervals, forceful and pulling at others. There great vocals throughout, starting with the perfectly delivered lead by Fagen and the ensemble of backing vocals during the choruses. The drum beat by legend Bernard “Pretty” Purdie is perfect, a guide rail along the tour that keeps all moving at a constant pace despite the ever changing sonic surprises throughout the song’s duration. Becker described the lyrics as “close to autobiography”, about suburban kids looking for some king of alternative culture, imagining what it is like to be a jazz musician or beat poet in the city. The song contains the memorable lyric;
“They’ve got a name for the winners in the world, I want a name when I lose
They call Alabama the Crimson Tide, call me Deacon Blues…”
Here they use the analogy of college football success (Alabama Crimson Tide) and failure (Wake Forest Demon Deacons) in the 1970s, stressing their desire to be with the losers, the outsiders, the alternative. “Deacon Blues” was also a rarity in being a complex and extended piece which also became a popular hit, peaking at #19 on the Top 40 charts.
Walter Becker and Donald Fagen in 1977The biggest pop hit from Aja is “Peg”, which contains a funky guitar riff, lead horns, slap bass, and layers of jazzy vocal harmonies led by Doobie Brother Michael McDonald. Even this relatively simple song, has a jazz oriented edge and an uncanny melody. Ever the perfectionists, the song’s guitar solo was attempted by seven different session guitarists before Fagen and Becker agreed that Jay Graydon‘s version was the best. Still, Graydon worked on it for about six hours before they were satisfied.
“Home At Last” is a nostalgic look back at New York after Fagen and Becker relocated to California. The song once again features Purdie on drums (doing his famous “Purdie Shuffle”) as well as Chicago blues-man Larry Carlton on guitar. “I Got the News” follows as a typical mid seventies Steely Dan tune, perhaps the most uninspired on this album.
The album concludes with “Josie”, the most rock-oriented song on the album, albeit heavily funk oriented. In fact, the album’s liner notes refers to the song as “punkadelia”, a fusion of funk with a more sardonic lyric. The recording features several more studio innovations ranging from the incorporation of synthesizers to the inclusion of a garbage can lid by drummer Jim Keltner.
Aja is a measured and textured album, filled with subtle melodies and lush instrumental backdrops. On this album Steely Dan would reach heights that they could not replicate in the future, as they would release only one album (1980′s Gaucho) over the following two decades. Aja was Donald Fagen and Walter Becker at their finest.
Steely Dan is the most improbable hit-singles band to emerge in ages. On its three albums, the group has developed an impressionistic approach to rock & roll that all but abandons many musical conventions and literal lyrics for an unpredictable, free-roving style. While the group considered the first album, Can’t Buy a Thrill, a compromise for the sake of accessibility, and the second, Countdown To Ecstasy, to emphasize extended instrumental work, the new Pretzel Logic is an attempt to make complete musical statements within the narrow borders of the three-minute pop-song format.
Like the earlier LPs, Pretzel Logic makes its own kind of sense: On a typical track, rhythmic patterns that might have worked for Astrud Gilberto, elegant pop piano, double lead guitars, and nasal harmony voices singing obscure phrases converge into a coherent expression. When the band doesn’t undulate to samba rhythms (as it did on ‘Do It Again’, its first Top Ten single), it pushes itself to a full gallop (as it did on ‘Reelin’ in the Years’, its second). These two rhythmic preferences persist and sometimes intermingle, as on ‘Rikki Don’t Lose That Number’, which jumps in mid-chorus from ‘Hernando’s Hideaway’ into ‘Honky Tonk Women’. Great transition.
Steely Dan’s five musicians seem to play single-mindedly, like freelancers, but each is actually contributing to a wonderfully fluid ensemble sound that has no obvious antecedent in pop. These five are so imaginative that their mistakes generally result from too much clever detail. This band is never conventional, never bland.
And neither is its material. Despite the almost arrogant impenetrability of the lyrics (co-written by the group’s songwriting team, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker), the words create an emotionally charged atmosphere, and the best are quite affecting. While it’s disconcerting to be stirred by language that resists comprehension, it’s still difficult not to admire the open-ended ambiguity of the lyrics.
But along with Pretzel Logic’s private-joke obscurities (like the made-up jargon on ‘Any Major Dude Will Tell You’ and ‘Through With Buzz’), there are concessions to the literal: ‘Rikki Don’t Lose That Number’ makes sense as a conventional lover’s plea, while ‘Barrytown’ takes a satirical look at class prejudice. But each has an emotional cutting edge that can’t be attributed directly to its viewpoint or story. As writers, Fagen and Becker may be calculating, but they aren’t cold.
As the group’s two foremost members, Fagen sings, plays keyboards and leads the band; Jeff Baxter, a brilliant musician on guitar, pedal steel and hand drums, powers it.
As a vocalist, Fagen (who looks like a rock & roll version of Montgomery Clift) is as effective as he is unusual. With a peculiar nasal voice that seems richer at the top of its range than in the middle, Fagen stresses meter as well as sense, so much so that his singing becomes another of the group’s interlocked rhythmic elements. At the same time, there’s a plaintive aspect to his singing that expands the impact of even his most opaque lines.
Baxter, an expert electric guitarist with a broad background in rock & roll and jazz, draws on these influences with pragmatic shrewdness. Even on these short tracks he’s impressive. On one of the band’s more conventional songs, ‘Pretzel Logic’ (a modified blues), he improvises on the standard patterns without referring to a single ready-made blues. And he does things with pedal steel that have nothing to do with country music. At one point – in the vintage ‘East St. Louis Toodle-oo’ – he duplicates note-for-note a ragtime mute-trombone solo. His command of technique is impressive, but it’s his use of technique to heighten the dynamic and emotional range of the group’s songs that makes him Steely Dan’s central instrumental force.
When Fagen, Baxter and the rest can’t give a track the right touch, they send out for it. The exotic percussion, violin sections, bells and horns that augment certain cuts are woven tightly into the arrangements, each with a clear function. Producer Gary Katz provides a sound that’s vibrant without seeming artificial. The band uses additional instrumentation in its live sets as well as on record, traveling with a different array each time they tour. For the current one, they’ve added a second drummer, a second pianist (who also sings) and a vocalist, so that now there are four singers and every instrument but bass is doubled. I don’t think any of their records can equal this band on a good night.
While Steely Dan for the most part succeeds in its efforts to force its character into the strict limitations of the short pop song, the music would benefit from more elaboration. Here they can only begin to convey the moods and textures that made Countdown To Ecstasy their most impressive album. But at the very least, ‘Rikki …’, ‘Any Major Dude …’, ‘Barrytown’ and ‘Through With Buzz’ are fine oddball pop songs, any of which would make a terrific single.
In a short time, Steely Dan has turned into one of the best American bands, and surely one of the most original. Their only problem is the lack of a visual identity to go with their musical one – as pop personalities, they’re practically anonymous. But with music as accessible and sophisticated as Steely Dan’s, no one should care.
There are those who bemoan the apparent lack of sophistication in contemporary pop music, although there are plenty of examples proving that it’s not all about ‘dumbing down’ for the masses. Steely Dan—the rock group that emerged in the 1970s as a collective but ultimately whittled itself down to its two songwriting components, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen—has demonstrated it’s possible to write contemporary songs that have commercial appeal but, at the same time, possess the kind of harmonic depth that make them more than simple pop confections of the moment.
Though Becker and Fagen’s pre-Steely Dan stint as staff songwriters for ABC/Dunhill in Los Angeles was more in line with their aspiration to be professional songwriters (as opposed to performing musicians) a la New York’s The Brill Building, producer Gary Katz’s suggestion that they form a band to record their songs ended up turning them into a group with an identity. Still, after Steely Dan’s tour in support of Pretzel Logic (MCA, 1974), the group was disbanded and Steely Dan became a studio-only group, with Becker and Fagen developing a reputation as perfectionists who were prepared, after conducting sessions with a particular line-up, to discard the sessions entirely and start again from scratch.
Subsequent Steely Dan albums, most notably the outstanding triptych of The Royal Scam (MCA, 1976), Aja (MCA, 1977) and Gaucho (MCA, 1980), may have been created from lengthy sessions with a seeming cast of thousands, but what made them so successful and, thirty-plus years on, so enduring, is how they combined sharp lyrics, uncompromisingly sophisticated music that had as much to do with jazz as it did pop, and undeniable groove. One can accuse Becker and Fagen of being perfectionists, and the music certainly sounds flawless; but equally, there’s none of the sterility one might expect from work of such consideration and detail.
The Dan disbanded after Gaucho—though it would reconvene for tours with various line-ups in the 1990s, releasing Alive In America (Giant, 1995) and studio records beginning with the Grammy Award-winning Two Against Nature (Giant, 2000). But in the intervening years between Gaucho and Alive In America, Fagen released two albums under his own name—the critically acclaimed The Nightfly (Warner Bros., 1982) and less well-received but equally superb Kamikiriad (Reprise, 1993). In the midst of revived Dan activity, Fagen released his last album, Morph The Cat (Reprise) in 2006, winning a Grammy for Best Surround Sound Album. While it was well-deserved, it’s a shame the disc was recognized for how good it sounded rather than how good the music was.
While there’s really nothing conceptual to link Fagen’s three solo albums together, there are differentiators that distinguish the music from Steely Dan. The sleek production values are similar and, while Fagen’s pencil could hardly be called anything remotely resembling dull, a defining characteristic of Steely Dan’s lyrics has always been an acerbic and, at times, idiosyncratic wit. Fagen’s lyrics are no less cryptic, but there’s a greater romanticism, even as he continues to demonstrate a unique way of turning a phrase.
But what makes Fagen’s albums not Steely Dan records (despite the participation of Becker on Kamikiriad as producer, bassist/lead guitarist and co-writer of one tune), and ties them together as a small but significant body of work, is an even greater jazz-centricity than found on most Steely Dan albums, making the bringing of the three titles together as The Nightfly Trilogy a logical move.
Those who already own the three albums may wonder what this box set can possibly offer. By making each of the three releases a double-disc set—one disc a traditional CD, the other an MVI (Music Video Interactive) DVD disc with 5.1 surround and uncompressed PCM Stereo mixes, bonus audio and video tracks, complete lyrics and more—plus an added CD with all ten bonus audio tracks from the MVI discs, The Nightfly Trilogy represents the definitive versions of all three discs, plus nearly fifty minutes of additional music including demos, live material and songs found in film soundtracks.
The MVI discs also feature complete liner notes, including newly-written material by Fagen, complete track-by-track musician credits, ringtones, photos, and 192Kbps files that can be downloaded in seconds for use with an MP3 player. In a time where illegal downloads are taking a chunk out of CD sales, with MVI the label is clearly aiming to provide a wealth of features that wouldn’t be available otherwise. The individual discs have no printed liner notes or credits, so the only place to get the information is on the MVI disc. And with portable DVD players becoming more prevalent along with home theater sound systems, the MVI versions of the albums become very attractive. It’s an intriguing approach; only time will tell if it’s one that will draw at least some percentage of the music listening public back to hard media.
The only complaint is that the CD versions of the music (which are clearly the source for the MP3 download format) are not remixed, remastered or even sonically equalized across the box. This means that if you grab the MP3 files and pop them onto your MP3 player, the bonus tracks at the end of each release (three on The Nightfly, four on Kamikiriad and three on Morph The Cat are at significantly different levels, though in order to flow together on the bonus CD, the levels of the extra tracks are normalized. The best approach is to rip the audio files from the bonus CD and have them as a separate album on your MP3 player. There will still be level differences from one disc to the next, but at least there will be consistency within each.
While there are certain markers that date most albums—in particular, production values including how drums are recorded and period-specific synthesizer tones—listening the The Nightfly it becomes clear just how undated the album is, with the same applying to Kamikiriad and Morph The Cat. Fagen’s music, rather than sounding of any particular time, seems to feel comfortable in any post-1970s period, but its especially true of The Nightfly, with its avoidance of the cheesy synthesizer tones that now dates so many 1980s albums.
There are some who believe that the best pop music is played by musicians with a jazz background, and there’s plenty of support for that on The Nightfly. Fagen has always made astute choices, picking some of the best jazz/session players of the time, and there are some remarkable performances here. The line-up includes bassists Anthony Jackson, Abraham Laboriel and Marcus Miller, drummer Jeff Porcaro, a horn section featuring trumpeter Randy Brecker and saxophonist Michael Brecker, and guitarists Larry Carlton and Steve Khan. Carlton, by this time, had already established a reputation for concise solos, making only a few bars mean far more than an extended solo ever could. His fills and solos on the bright “Green Flower Street” and “New Frontier,” and the funkier title track, are marvels of economy and construction, as relevant today as they were a quarter century ago.
The Nightfly’s conceptual premise is a look back to the culture—popular and political—of the 1950s, with the title track’s tender look at the importance of radio now especially poignant, given that medium’s decreasing importance in getting new music heard. The lyrics represent a departure for Fagen in terms of content; but the music—while recognizable as coming from the Steely Dan space—is still distanced. “Walk Between Raindrops” swings in a way The Dan never has, “The Goodbye Look” has an unexpected Caribbean vibe, and “Maxine” is a pure jazz ballad, albeit one with a backbeat that features some of Fagen’s most lush vocal arrangements, and a brief but soulful tenor solo from the late Michael Brecker.
The three bonus tracks help complete the picture of 1980s Fagen. “True Companion,” from the soundtrack to the movie Heavy Metal (1981), is a largely instrumental track that features a terrific performance by Steve Khan on both acoustic and electric guitars. “Century’s End,” from the soundtrack to Bright Lights, Big City (1988), is a piece of greasy funk that features the same synth harmonica that Fagen uses on The Nightfly’s opener, “I.G.Y.” A live version of “Green Flower Street” is taken from Fagen’s New York Rock & Soul Review album, Live At The Beacon (Giant, 1991), and while Fagenâ’s group of the time didn’t have the star power of the musicians who played on the studio version, it proves he had the ability to put together a top notch live band—and that he’d gotten over the aversion to live performance that turned Steely Dan into a studio band for most of its career during the 1970s.
The MVI disc also features videos for “New Frontier” and “Century”s End.”
Kamikiriad also had a concept, this time looking into the near future rather than the near past. The songs revolve around a road trip in Fagen’s new titular car and, while it didn’t get the same critical reception as The Nightfly, time has proven it to have its own unique charms.
With Walter Becker in the producer’s chair, in addition to playing bass and lead guitar, one significant change from The Nightfly is the presence of a core group that, with the exception of the drum chair being shared by Leroy Clouden, Christopher Parker and Dennis McDermott, remains consistent throughout the album’s eight tracks. Another is that the tracks are, on average, longer—none less than five minutes and one, the ballad “On the Dunes,” over eight. Longer solo sections and lengthier fades could be criticized as excessive, but the grooves are so compelling that none of the songs ever overstays its welcome.
Harmonically, Kamikiriad may be even more complex than The Nightfly, with sharper horn and vocal arrangements. While there’s nothing about any Fagen (or Dan) album that could be considered raw, and it’s an exercise in futility to try counting the number of individual tracks used on any song, Fagen’s ability to create arrangements rich in texture but never cluttered is in sharp contrast to others, for whom the infinite possibilities of the studio result in “kitchen sink” albums, where it’s clear that they simply throw ideas at a track, hoping some of them will work.
The Kamikiriad MVI disc features twenty minutes of bonus tracks. “Big Noise New York” is a demo from 1994, originally written for filmmaker Spike Lee. It’s a window into Fagen’s writing process, with only Fagen layering synthesizers, drum programs and vocals. If his demos are this complete, it’s no surprise that finished songs on his albums sound so full. “Confide In Me,” a lively shuffle, is a publishing demo from 1994, but this time with a group of live players who were be part of the Live At The Beacon group—organist Jeff Young, guitarist Drew Zingg, bassist Lincoln Schleiffer and drummer Dennis McDermott. “Blue Lou” is an instrumental written for the film Glengarry Glen Ross (1992), with the Frank Roccisano Orchstra and ace session saxophonist Lou Marini. “Shanghai Confidential,” another instrumental, was written for a dance troupe directed by Marianne Bachmann. A rare occasion where it’s dated by the drum program, it’s still a solid feature for guitarist Steve Khan, with a band that also includes bassist Marcus Miller and percussionist Manolo Badrena.
Videos of “Tomorrow”s Girls” and “Snowbound” are included, along with a promotional audio interview with Fagen from 1993, for the release of Kamikiriad.
AAJ has already published a number of reviews of Morph The Cat, but in context of The Nightfly and Kamikiriad, it’s important to note that, like Kamikiriad, it features a consistent core group, this time with keyboardist Ted Baker, guitarists Jon Herrington and Wayne Krantz, bassist Freddie Washington and drummer Keith Carlock. Sonically it’s the best of the three, no surprise given it’s a recent recording, but still, the sound literally leaps out of the speakers. it’s no surprise that it won the Grammy for Best Surround Sound.
The three bonus tracks include an outstanding, groove-heavy version of Al Green”s “Rhymes,” for a planned revue that never materialized with Todd Rundgren as musical collaborator and co-producer. Technologically it demonstrates just how far drum programming has evolved, with a sound so natural and flexible that it’s hard to believe it’s not being played by a live drummer. “Hank”s Pad” is a swinging retake of Henry Mancini”s “Pete”s Pad,” but with added lyrics by Fagen. “Viva Viva Rock “n” Roll” is, not surprisingly, a hard-rocking live track from Fagen’s tour in support of Morph, with an uncharacteristically raw vocal performance from Fagen. A World CafÃ© interview with Fagen, promoting the album, is also included.
Assessing Fagen’s three solo albums, the additional album’s worth of bonus material, and his ongoing work with Becker in Steely Dan, there are two lasting impressions. With rare exception, The Nightfly, Kamikiriad and Morph The Cat are all remarkably enduring and fresh; with songs that will continue to sound relevant—and of no particular time—well into the future.
But perhaps most important, these albums, along with the Steely Dan catalogue, represent the craft of songwriting at its best—well-conceived songs with harmonic sophistication and polish far above most pop fare, while not losing sight of a visceral physicality. While there are many fine songwriters at work today, in the realm of popular song there are few writers—with the exception of his partner in Dan, Walter Becker—who embody the spirit and soul of Tin Pan Alley and the Brill Building as well as Fagen; honoring the tradition while bringing it forward into the 21st Century.
Donald Fagen’s new album, the Steely Dan co-founder’s first since 1993’s Kamakiriad, is a funky suite devoted to post–9-11 conundrums. His song cycle is framed by “Morph the Cat,” a lazy-gaited pop-jazz groove that serves as the collection’s title, opening tune, and ending reprise, and which Fagen—who in liner notes writes a brief synopsis of each track—describes as follows: “A vast, ghostly cat-thing descends on New York City, bestowing on its citizens a kind of ecstasy.”
This act of the imagination is a fanciful yet brutal inversion of intentionally caused smoke that was the result of enormously less innocent sources. In “Morph the Cat” Fagen’s New Yorkers experience not fear but profound entertainment. The environmental joy is there whether these New Yorkers look at the sky or encounter the phenom in their “wiggy pads” as the cat-thing “oozes down the heating duct” or “swims like seaweed down the hall.” And “Chinese cashiers,” “grand old gals at evening mass,” “young racketeers,” “teenage models/Laughing on the grass”—they all react this way.
Within the frame of this song and its conceit—as whimsical in the song as it is harrowing in its actual political basis—Fagen offers more grand and low-down tunes; the music is as free as birds and as constrained by reality as the Times. A guy late to LaGuardia falls for a security inspector, her sweeping wand and crooked smile in “Security Joan”; “Search me now,” he begs. The woman in “The Night Belongs to Mona” has become a Manhattan nocturnalist, although since “the fire downtown” she doesn’t go out clubbing but rather optionlessly stays home, dresses in black, plays her CDs, and dances alone; sometimes she telephones Fagen’s narrator to discuss all this “grim and funny stuff.” The couple in “The Great Pagoda of Funn” want their relationship to protect them from the cable-TV-fueled daily realm of “poison skies and severed heads.” In “Mary Shut the Garden Door”—”Paranoia blooms when a thuggish cult gains control of the government,” Fagen’s synopsis runs—the perception of public tragedy boils down to exhausted, droll reporting: “They won/Storms raged/Things changed/Forever.”
All of this would be of impressive but still limited achievement if Fagen’s music weren’t alluring. And the music—melodic angles dissolving into dulcet straight lines and circles, Mensa harmonies skillfully made super-vivid by ’90s Steely Dan sessioneers, lapidary lead vocals gliding in deep-skull cashmere, often decorated with tiny yet plush backup chorales—refines further Fagen’s singular pop-r&b-jazz. It remains the painstaking music of a man who once pointed out to an interviewer that since computer keyboards overtook the instrumentation of most pop productions, records have gone out of tune, and that generations of listeners now take the fatally unforgiving temperament of those tunings as pitch-perfect. So is Fagen’s music good? Unfashionable, yet wicked good. And as David Geffen once famously said, there’s never a bad time to be good.
Morph the Cat has smashing tunes about death as expressed by W.C. Fields (“Brite Nitegown”), Ray Charles’s sexual genius (“What I Do”), and an eccentric old band (“H Gang”); each occupies Fagen’s sequence well but less programmatically. The music wields the musical-literary focus of The Nightfly, Fagen’s 1982 solo debut, where he held court like J. D. Salinger as a jazz hipster. And it also offers the sonic kicks, if appropriately cooled off, of Kamakiriad.
But Fagen’s triumph of rendering post–9-11 New York most recalls how perfectly Steely Dan caught LA on 1980’s ‘Gaucho.’ Nothing in pop music outdoes Patti Austin’s and Valerie Simpson’s background voices there, floating through and dramatizing the maybe horrible ease and questionable unblemishedness of the money and sex and drugs and surgery of West Coast high life. Similarly, Fagen’s narrator urging that security chick to “Search me now” cinches, effortlessly, the current world of ongoing monumental worry and this afternoon’s missed flight.
Upon first listen, it may be difficult to actually pin down why Aja is considered to rank among the best albums that the legendary decade of the 1970’s has produced. Being best described as “easy listening” music, not many things immediately stand out. All the different sounds, styles and influences are being blended into one simple, easy digestible package which sets the mood perfectly for a moment of peace and content.
This is an album of zero extremes: you won’t find fast riffage, long-winded guitar solos, frenetic drumming or a bombastic wall-of-sound. Lyrically, deeply personal thoughts or screams against the establishment are also absent. Again, why is it then that Aja is considered to be an absolute 70’s classic?
The answer is: just because of the very things it omits. Seemingly living on its own isolated musical island, separated from the continents of glam rock, punk and proto-metal, Aja resulted from Steely Dan’s deep love for all things jazz. Although early albums already hinted at that love, they went to the next level on this record. Donald Fagen and Walter Becker (the only constant members of the group) recruited a whole army of guest musicians, all masters in their respectable fields, to make sure the combination of those jazz influences with their already established brand of soft-rock would be nothing less than magical.
Although they played live shows in their early days, in essence, Steely Dan were a studio band. The studio was their natural habitat, their playing ground. Both Becker and Fagen were classically trained musicians, who put equal parts knowledge as heart and soul in their music. Practically nothing you hear on the record results from improvisation, and every guest musician that was given a spot, was selected after a long series of auditions.
If you look at the production notes, you’ll also rarely see the same two musicians appearing on different tracks. That knowledge and technicality may come off as very sterile and it may seem as if the album would be a very boring accomplishment as a result, but in fact it’s what gives Aja such a timeless character.
What further amplifies this, is that the replayability of this record is unbelievably high. Smooth guitar licks are rapidly and seamlessly followed up with extremely funky bass lines, organs straight out of that crimi TV series, which was popular in the day, and piano parts which complement perfectly with that whiskey you just ordered in that shady bar downtown. The lyrics are splendidly sardonic, but also paint a canvas of vivid imagery in your head.
What at first listen seems to be a fairly simple but enjoyable listen, evolves with each consecutive listen into a real treasure hunt for small delights scattered across these seven tracks: the perfectly harmonized vocals on the opening track “Black Cow”, for example, and the buildup to the brilliant chorus in “Peg”, followed by the legendary guitar solo of Jay Graydon. Or the tempo changes, xylophone melodies and, ultimately, the utterly beautiful saxophone moment, provided by none other than Wayne Shorter!
In the hands of lesser gods, this would all have probably turned out very disjointed and gimmicky, but Becker and Fagen’s studio wizardry has made Aja a very cohesive album, in which the whole is still better than the sum of its uniformly quasi-perfect parts. It also should come as no surprise that the production and sound quality of the songs here is downright excellent. Although the description of jazz-meets-pop would make many a purist jump out of their skin of rage, this is not at all a case of the style being dumbed down for the masses. In fact, over the years, the record has gotten its fair share of critical acclaim, even from the jazz world and rightly so.
Aja is very close to being the perfect pop album, being both enjoyable for people seeking a lighthearted tune and music enthusiasts in search of unpredictable and amazingly executed compositions. But most of all, it’s a testament to all the great studio bands, who spend years trying to achieve perfection through countless hours of hard labor and gallons of blood, sweat and tears, and proves that such a process actually can result in a true masterpiece.
Listening to Pretzel Logic, the third disc from the brainchild of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, that was the big question I found myself asking. Despite the inclusion of one of their biggest hits, this outing features tracks that sound like works in progress rather than the finely-polished gems that the collective was known for.
The one hit that you’ll instantly recognize (after the brief lead-in of what sounds like a faint jungle rhythm) is “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number.” Okay, so it’s overplayed on classic rock radio. I can’t help it, I still love this song, no matter how many times I’ve heard it.
In a sense, it’s kind of hard to explain just what makes this track succeed. Is it the catchy refrain that goes from a samba-like beat to a full-blown chorus? Is it the gentleness of the verses that clashes with the more intense guitar solo? I’ll let others argue those points.
In fact, a good portion of the first half of the disc, while not as powerful as either of Steely Dan’s two previous efforts, still evokes enough hope for the listener to make them think that the whole album will turn the corner on the very next track. Songs like “Any Major Dude Will Tell You” and “Barrytown” hold out those glimmers of hope — if only they delivered the goods afterward.
For the bulk of Pretzel Logic, though, Steely Dan turns into a band without a solid song behind them. Jumping from an almost ragtime band style (“East St. Louis Toodle-oo”) to what sure sound like mere fragments of songs (“Through With Buzz,” “Parker’s Band,” “Monkey In Your Soul”), it’s almost like Becker and Fagen just put out these concepts in order to insure they had a disc in the stores each year.
I’ve seen it argued that Becker and Fagen were railing against the outcry over the richer instrumentation on Countdown To Ecstasy; maybe this is so. But by lopping off the instrumental development of their songs, they essentially neuter the creature of Steely Dan that they created. Whatever the case, it’s a bad mix.
Props do need to be given to the title track, even if it too does not count among the strongest efforts that Steely Dan recorded in their history. There is something about this track that feels like a backhand slap against — well, everything, almost as if Becker and Fagen are tired of being told that everything they do is wrong. Their response in this track seems to be, “The hell with you all, we’ll do it the way we want to.” Fine and dandy, boysâ€¦ just don’t expect everyone to like the end result.
Daring to call Pretzel Logic anything but a masterpiece in this day and age almost invites the masses to pull out the tar and feathers against the blasphemer. Yet if one steps back and compares this disc to a lot of the material that Steely Dan recorded in their history, one can’t help but see it as a disc with half-finished ideas almost begging for closure. Had they only been granted that wish.
As Walter Becker and Donald Fagen themselves have noticed (check the interview that’s part of the cover story in the June 2003 issue of Down Beat magazine), “their second album in twenty-two years” doesn’t sound quite as sexy as “their first album in twenty years”. Hence, the decidedly reduced attention given by music media to Everything Must Go, their recently released CD, when compared to Two Against Nature: an album which got much (well-deserved) acclaim, conquered four Grammys, but whose sales – in industry parlance – can be described as “respectable” but definitely not “earthshaking”.
Which is a pity, given the fact that Everything Must Go is at least equal to its predecessor, in fact maybe better in a couple of departments, not the least on the technical side. Steely Dan albums had always sported an accurate engineering work and an excellent sound, but somehow Two Against Nature’s digital sound had appeared somewhat working against our enjoyment of the recorded material. Of course, this immediately rekindled the eternal dispute called “analogue vs digital”, even if some very qualified observers had commented on how the real culprit seemed to be an ancient version of digital, not digital itself. Anyway, Everything Must Go has a beautiful round sound that’s typically “analogue”.
What’s more important, the rhythmic base of the comeback album offered a mechanical/quantized aspect that not a few regarded as rigid and inexpressive – a real rarity for a group that had always employed the best available musicians in the most intelligent way, i.e. keeping a tight rein but letting them semi-loose when the moment was appropriate. It’s true that, starting from Gaucho (1980) – the last album recorded by the duo before their long hiatus – the duo appeared to choose a very dry, “sequenced” feel – just check Hey Nineteen or Time Out Of Mind – and things had proceeded in the same way in the albums they had recorded separately: Fagen’s The Nightfly (1982) and Kamakiriad (1993), Becker’s 11 Tracks Of Whack (1994).
But if the latter’s more guitaristic approach – and its being less harmonically complex than his former partner’s albums – was a somewhat better match to the “mechanized” approach, the results on Two Against Nature were not entirely satisfactory, even when the obvious practical reason for that – to build the record “from the ground up” – was taken into consideration.
It was also apparent that the duo’s stylistic co-ordinates had been left pretty much unchanged – were we expecting otherwise? That “sound” – those melodic developments that are so natural that they appear to be simple, those intricate harmonic moves that one could notice – or not, those cryptic but very musical sounding lyrics – is the fruit of a deliberate choice.
An impartial observer, however, couldn’t help but notice that Becker’s solo album had not got that many reviews that were perceptive of its (considerable) merits – this reviewer bought the CD in question as “used/brand-new” not too long after its release date. And it has to be noticed that, as reported, fans chose Becker’s unreleased solo song to “refresh themselves” during that tour.
Quite peculiarly, the duo seemed to me a bit too anxious to explain themselves during the press sessions for Two Against Nature – sometimes it made me nostalgic for those “cryptic times”. What’s more, the new songs seemed to be quite more lyrically direct than the old ones.
Well… complex harmonies, intricate melodies, excellent musicianship – hey, what’s more à la mode today? (It’s difficult not to believe that when Fagen sings – in Green Book, on the new album – “(…) I love the music/ Anachronistic but nice” he’s also talking about his own.)
Everything Must Go is as rhythmically dry as the previous album – a drum roll here is “front page news” – but the fact that the core of the group recorded at the same time (Walter Becker is always on bass) takes away some of the mechanical aspect. Fagen’s voice is obviously not what it was – and sadly missing is the ironic venom so present in many of the old songs – but the decision not to use one of those pitch-shifting software devices so common in nowadays music that we don’t even notice them anymore is to be lauded. Nor melodies have been simplified.
It’s “business as usual” when it comes to those original group traits as “singing in character” and coupling dark lyrics with serene music – wonder how many people are equipped today to notice such things. As usual, female voices are wonderfully used, with a lot of variety when it comes to timbres and approaches. Again with us are Walter Becker’s bluesy guitar solos, so distant from the be-bop scales of the Larry Carltons of yesterday, and those tasty reed charts and solos – a baritone, a tenor. Very nice-sounding keyboards, too: clavinet, organ, Wurlitzer and Rhodes electric pianos, a couple of pungent synth solos by Fagen.
Quite a lot has already been said about a certain post 9/11 atmosphere that seems to define this album, which is bookended by two songs with a strong sense of “closure”. But sharing this impression is by no means necessary to talk about this album, which is defined by a sense of loss and of bitter events – see (the very communicative) The Last Mall, the melancholic (and so full of shades) Things I Miss The Most, the contagious Blues Beach.
The songs that occupy the central part of the album are to me the newest-sounding and the most stimulating. Godwhacker has a tense and sinister (diabolical?) air. Slang Of Ages has a good vocal interpretation by Walter Becker – his first solo performance for the group – and it’s nice to hear the opposition of the verse to the vistas of the chorus. Green Book (virtual sex?) is deep into a seedy atmosphere.
Then we are back to Steely Dan as usual: Pixeleen – highly contagious, it’s maybe the most classic-sounding song here, Lunch With Gina, the beautiful Everything Must Go.
For better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That’s why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
“Donald and I followed a certain line of thinking to its logical conclusion, and then perhaps slightly beyond—that was what we realized when we’d finished Gaucho: it was not as much fun…It wasn’t fun at all, really.” — Walter Becker in Mojo, 1980.
You can’t have a comfortable relationship with someone who has a knife at your tit and you can’t have a comfortable relationship with Gaucho. What you could and even might have with both is something better than comfort, something more hilarious, more thrilling in its ambiguities, and ultimately more rewarding.
Consummate critics in their own right, Walter Becker himself nails Gaucho above. It wasn’t the peak of their sound, it was more like its implosion: a spotless album not only portraying and mocking, but literally embodying the shellacked vapidity of their Los Angeles lifestyles and the escape—a fantasy of breezy opulence—that their music offered to their fans. Even the band had a shitty time making it. As if matching bitter, poetic cynicism with freewheeling jazz-rock wasn’t enough, with Gaucho, Fagen and Becker approached anti-music in the same way that plastic surgery approaches being anti-human: somehow, shreds of the same ideals are in tact, but they’re pushed to queasy extremes. Plastic surgery remembers beauty, but it always makes people ugly.
There’s a prevailing air of snobbery surrounding Steely Dan that hasn’t ever really seemed to square with the fact that they’re megastars. This was something that had first occurred to me at Christmastime. I was visiting my Aunt and Uncle in Pennsylvania; my Aunt was sitting in the kitchen, calmly mixing salad, when A Decade of Steely Dan came up on their five-disc changer—“The girls don’t seem to care tonight, as long as the music’s right.” Was she listening at all? A zen koan: can someone hear the sound of someone else talking over them?
Robert Christgau, writing about Gaucho in the Village Voice, said, “Craftsmen this obsessive don’t want to rule the world—they just want to make sure it doesn’t get them.” Christgau didn’t like the album, but I do; my response to him would be to say that in fact, Gaucho proves that the world had already gotten Fagen and Becker. People like my Aunt and Uncle—well-meaning, wonderful, culturally-sensitive people—had already consumed the band’s aesthetic and made it a part of their suburban living rooms and vacation soundtrack. (Incidentally, I haven’t been able to broach the subject of their relationship to Steely Dan since it started bothering me a couple years ago.) I mean, this is a famous rock band—surely they’ve seen more half-wits, hopeless hopefuls, market-bound bloodsuckers, quirky assholes, pussy, and lawyers than most people on the planet. These are the people that constitute the world. Furthermore, cocaine—drug addiction, how human!—had preoccupied Walter Becker. The world had swallowed them up. If anything, Gaucho is like a suicide bomber, and that’s why it’s poignant: it couldn’t have taken down a myth so powerful without having lived it first.
Everyone on Gaucho is a loser. Everyone. The protagonist of the first single, “Hey Nineteen,” is a 30-something trying to pick up a 19-year-old. That in itself isn’t pathetic or grotesque: there’s no suggestion that he’s bald, fat, unattractive, or particularly lecherous (any more than the situation would already imply). What is, is that he doesn’t care enough to bother “closing the deal”—to employ what I’d assume to be his own lingo, or his own lingo from his Gamma Phi days. Instead, he trails off: “The Cuervo Gold, the fine Colombian make tonight a wonderful thing.” He’s got drugs, money, memories; you think that showing a co-ed a glimpse of orgasm makes any difference anymore? He’s beyond that, he’s numb. The booze makes him impotent anyway. He might be in A&R; he’s the world that got to Steely Dan. The girl? Oh right, I forgot: she’s 19 and dancing with a man 10 years her senior who couldn’t fuck her even if she wanted him to. They just hang out and she watches him glide towards unconsciousness.
And he, or his type, is driving the car in “Babylon Sisters,” a limp reggae song about an interracial affair. Even in the confines of his convertible, cruising westward, he asks her—right off the bat—to “turn that jungle music down, just until we’re out of town.” Jungle music. The closest he could take to “jungle music,” is, well… it’s “Babylon Sisters” by Steely Dan. He doesn’t give in to the taboo, he struggles with it.
If the humor of “Babylon Sisters” and “Hey Nineteen” is opaque on first listen, it’s hard not to laugh the first time you hear the sly, squirming disco of “Glamour Profession.” Drug trades and jet-setting unfolds in the evening time: “6:05 outside the stadium, special delivery for Hoops McCann / Brut and charisma poured from the shadow where he stood.” Once that line hits, well; it’s a line delivered with a disgust that veers so close to complete mockery that you can hear Fagen’s lip curl when he says it. In a Musician interview with the band, Walter Becker said that “Everytime someone’s in the next room when we’re writing a song they’d say, ‘Don’t tell me you’re fucking writing songs in there, you’re not working, ’cause you’re fucking screaming and laughing in there.’”
“My Rival” is a relentlessly tepid seabreeze number about a guy, ravaged by paranoia, who hires a private detective to spy on his lover’s new beau, who is more or less described as a pirate with a hearing aid. And as a wry testament to the incredible feeling of feeling nothing at all, the most energetic track on the album is “Time Out of Mind,” a song about the existential release of heroin.
“Gaucho” and “Third World Man” are the funniest, most depressing, and most moving tracks on the record; for me, they embody what Gaucho is about. Most readings suggest that the title track is about a love triangle. A wealthy man takes the Gaucho, but when his lover discovers them, the Gaucho is incredulously kicked out—his best offer is a ride to the edge of the highway. He sticks out—“standing there in your spangled leather poncho and your elevator shoes”—as a ridiculous character, but we can assume that there’s something about his difference (not only in style and class, but again, in race—gaucho: Spanish for “cowboy”) that makes him desirable. He’s found his way to the top of the Custerdome. We don’t know what the Custerdome is, exactly, but some people belong there and some don’t; and the cuckold even uses the language of money to shoo him off: “We’ve got heavy rollers, I think you should know, try again tomorrow.” Sax kicks in like it’s Saturday Night Live, cologne-stink wafts through the penthouse, a chorus of backing singers are forced to hold steady and intone who is the Gaucho, amigo?; take the line alone and you might think it’s Ween, it’s that funny.
But it’s not funny. None of it’s funny, really. It’s not funny, because they’re completely broken. The white picket fence, or penthouse, or whatever, isn’t enough to bring any glint of feeling into the couple’s lives; in fact, when wealth and perfection fail to bring them happiness, their spirit immediately faces a huge void. It’s Steely Dan having no fun at all, painted into their own tableau. The man, surrounded by granite countertops stacked with luxury goods, sort of wants someone real—the Gaucho. The Gaucho wants to escape his own drift. The third man tries to play up the Gaucho’s absurdity because he’s heartbroken, he’s been genuinely threatened; his partner has taken another man. Nobody wins. And Steely Dan plays it with cadences like an after-school special; there’s nothing.
And then, alchemy—there’s everything. And that’s what I hear when I listen to the record: a series of assholes puckered so tight that they ultimately burst, leaving the shit of human emotional existence to just pour out. An irony so thorough that it loses all distance on its subject. You’re surrounded by waste and all of the sudden, feeling nothing has just turned into feeling unbelievably terrible. Somehow, the disgusting weight of all of Gaucho’s losers—Fagen and Becker, included—ruptures the album’s sterility. It’s exhausting and it’s remarkable.
Gaucho isn’t for everyone. I’ve tried forcing the album on friends who reply simply by saying “It’s slick, it’s boring, it’s stupid. If there’s something there, I don’t get it and I don’t want to wait around to figure it out.” And I don’t know what to tell them, frankly; in that moment, my own responses somehow feel like perversities, though I know I’m not alone in how I feel about the album. And while I hate to challenge their reactions, I always get this feeling that people are just afraid to open up to Gaucho. Fagen’s sneer is too much to handle, the music is somehow too dead to ignore, the stink of contempt—for their surroundings and themselves—makes for an experience that upsets the most fundamental virtues of pop music; I’m not talking about “expression” or “emotion,” I’m talking about the relationship between musicians and their creation, between a band and their fans. If Fagen and Becker had actually liked making the album—whose raw materials were scrutinized so repeatedly in the studio as to wear the oxide off the magnetic tape, whose sessions had over forty backup singers—then we could accept it. As it is, Gaucho just sits in front of us, disturbingly perfect and relentlessly pathetic, emotionally radical and—in some restoration of irony—absolutely without peer.