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Steely Dan

From small acorns grow… as the saying goes, STEELY DAN – the name take from a steam-powered dildo in William Burroughs’ novel, Naked Lunch – reached out to any major dude with an ear for cool, sophisticated soft-rock with a twist of jazz. Throughout the 70s, and nominal parts of the 80s, 90s and the 00s, core members Donald Fagen (vocals/keyboards) and Walter Becker (bass) perfected their horizontal hook-lines in the studio, rarely performing live together from late 1974 onwards. Surrounded at first by a proper backing band, and, in turn, studio session players, New York-cum-Los Angeleans STEELY DAN eased their way into the hearts and minds of yuppie acolytes, happy to nod their heads to the irony-driven, FM-friendly classics: `Do It Again’, `Reelin’ In The Years’, `Rikki Don’t Lose That Number’, `Haitian Divorce’ et al.
While the ‘Dan formed in early ’72, one could trace their musical footsteps back to 1967, when the pair met at the Big Apple’s Bard College. While a short-lived venture in the Bad Rock Group with future comedy actor Chevy Chase proved fruitless, Becker (as Gustav Mahler) and Fagen (as Tristan Fabriani) struck up a Brill Building-like songwriting partnership.
At the turn of the decade, the pair toured as backing musicians with “oldies” circuit act, Jay & The Americans, as well as separately recording tracks – under the unlikely pseudonym of “The Original Soundtrack” for the Richard Pryor movie vehicle, YOU GOTTA WALK IT LIKE YOU TALK IT (OR YOU’LL LOSE THAT BEAT) (1971) {*5}. With their common denominator jazz and pop, the Kenny Vance-produced set took a world-view that was far too weary for its own good. It didn’t exactly set the universe alight, but it did save them from nostalgia-circuit oblivion, pairing Messrs Becker and Fagen with rhythm guitarist Denny Dias (then Diaz), and patenting the stylistic quirks of what would become STEELY DAN.
The most striking thing about it is how much the boyish wonders sound like an L.A. act before they’d even moved there. A Laurel Canyon ballad from the concrete canyons of New York, the Vance-sung `If It Rains’ could easily have slipped incognito amidst the FM harmonies of the ‘Dan’s first album. The near CSN-mellow `Roll Back The Meaning’ and the tumbling jazz-piano chords of `Dog Eat Dog’ likewise, expounding Fagen’s casually erudite cynicism as an opening gambit. In fact, anyone with a soft spot for easy rolling, early-period ‘Dan can welcome this record as a debut before the debut; most bands would have to consider themselves fortunate to be blessed with the talent incubating here. That the loose roots-pop occasionally gives way to quasi-quadrophonic indulgence like `War & Peace’ (it is a soundtrack after all) is about the only note of caution to be sounded in what has to rank as an essential addition to the already Mount Rushmore-strength STEELY DAN legacy.
Meanwhile, back on 110th Street (or thereabouts), attempts to hawk their songs to Big Apple publishers proved fruitless, and it was only through meeting independent producer, Gary Katz, that the duo found their way into a staff job at L.A.’s Dunhill-ABC imprint. Katz was also the catalyst for what would become STEELY DAN, a studio outfit comprising Fagen, Becker, Dias, vocalist David Palmer, ex-HOLY MODAL ROUNDERS guitarist Jeff “Skunk” Baxter and drummer Jim Hodder.
Although a non-album debut single, `Dallas’, made little impact, the simmering Latin-funk rock of `Do It Again’ cracked the US Top 10. It also introduced Fagen’s inimitable lyrical wit, a cynical DLYAN-esque worldview which mocked L.A.’s pretensions and would see STEELY DAN hailed as one of the most cuttingly accurate commentators of the 70s. The accompanying CAN’T BUY A THRILL (1972) {*8} nailed the point home with consummate ease, laying down the jazz-rooted, FM-slick blueprint that was endlessly tweaked, polished and perfected with each successive album. The enduring `Reelin’ In The Years’ was lifted as their third single and gave the group another major hit, the track’s searing guitar solo, as with `Kings’, provided by session man, Elliott Randall. If there was one critical niggle it was that blue-eyed soul man Palmer couldn’t always carry the subtle insinuations of the lyrics (the intimate `Dirty Work’ track, aside), but by the following year the problem had been solved when he bailed out, unhappy when the band took on a tour without much in the way of rehearsal.
Fagen and Becker subsequently took up the task themselves on sophomore set, COUNTDOWN TO ECSTASY (1973) {*8}, combining even more opaque themes with densely layered, immaculately executed musicianship. Without the help of a major hit single (`Show Biz Kids’ and `My Old School’ stalling under the 60+ mark), the record only just scraped into the Top 40, more or less due to the strengths and sophistication of others like opener, `Bodhisattva’, `The Boston Rag’ and `Razor Boy’.
1974’s `Rikki Don’t Lose That Number’ redressed the balance in fine style, a gorgeously lovelorn Top 5 hit inspired by a Horace Silver piano riff, and a track which formed the centrepiece of third album, PRETZEL LOGIC {*8}. More obviously jazz-influenced (included was a dinky cover of Duke Ellington’s `East St. Louis Toodle-oo’, while `Parker’s Band’ was a tribute to be-bop legend, Charlie Parker) yet more immediately accessible, the album further enhanced their reputation among rock/pop connoisseurs. The wordplay-fulness of `Any Major Dude Will Tell You’, the title track, `Charlie Freak’ and short-ish `Through With Buzz’, found the ‘Dan in vibrant mood, able to swing and bop with any chosen breeze.
And it was a reputation that mushroomed without the PR of touring, Becker and Fagen refusing to play live after 1974 – although a tour was planned to promote the forthcoming KATY LIED (1975) {*8}, the idea was abandoned in its early stages. With STEELY DAN now basically a studio entity, both Hodder and Baxter bailed, the latter joining The DOOBIE BROTHERS (ironically enough, an easy rocking, all-American, all-touring hit machine that was essentially the antithesis of the whole STEELY concept). Coincidentally, Baxter’s replacement was Michael McDonald, a silky-voxed future “Brothers” mentor whose harmony vocals helped sweeten the bite of the aforementioned “Katy”. `Black Friday’, one-that-got-away `Bad Sneakers’ and the seductive `Doctor Wu’ (in which the “Katy Lied” line appears), were freewheeling and swaggering, soothing and subtle without tipping the balance from heady jazz-pop into soft-rock.
THE ROYAL SCAM (1976) {*7} was even more scathing in its lyrical ferocity, taking no prisoners in its portrayal of American society’s inherent hypocrisy and monetary greed. But if the sentiments were getting darker, the music was getting slicker; the polish of `Haitian Divorce’ (their only UK Top 20 single), `Kid Charlemagne’ and `The Fez’, supported again by the likes of seasoned session men, Larry Carlton, Victor Feldman, Chuck Findley and the returning Denny Dias; Wilton Felder, Michael Omartian and Elliott Randall had all moved on to other projects. By this point, Becker and Fagen were employing the cream of the city’s session musicians, recording AJA (1977) {*8} in numerous different studios and endlessly remixing it prior to release. Painstakingly crafted but rarely overdone, “Aja” – for many fans and critics alike – remains the definitive STEELY DAN opus, its dense, lush arrangements rewarding repeated listening. It was also their best seller, a transatlantic Top 5 – at the height of punk/new wave in the UK – later plundered by hip hoppers DE LA SOUL (`Peg’); Scotland’s very own DEACON BLUE even taking their name from one of its tracks; closing piece, `Josie’, another highlight and US hit.
With A.B.C. Records coming under the auspices of M.C.A. (after the movie theme to `FM’ cracked the Top 30), legal problems led to a 3-year wait for what was to be the final album of STEELY DAN’s career, GAUCHO (1980) {*7}. Criticised for what many detractors saw as cloying slickness, the record was nevertheless another masterstroke of detached observation; the likes of `Babylon Sisters’ and `Glamour Profession’ were aimed squarely at the decadence of L.A.’s showbiz elite, while `Third World Man’, remains one of the most haunting STEELY DAN compositions.
After more than a decade of living in each other’s pockets, Becker and Fagen parted company; while the former went into production (for CHINA CRISIS, RICKIE LEE JONES, etc), DONALD FAGAN penned a solo masterpiece in 1982’s “The Nightfly”, trading in irony for surprisingly upbeat youthful reminiscences. The album’s critical and commercial success didn’t seem to spur him on to further glories, however, an incredible 11-year gap preceding a belated 90s follow-up, “Kamakiriad”. Fagen almost immediately returned BECKER’s production favour on the latter’s debut solo effort, “11 Tracks Of Whack” in ‘94, a hard-bitten affair borne of the kind of narcotic strife which would’ve finished a lesser talent.
After appearing live as part of the New York Rock and Soul Revue in the early 90s, Becker and Fagen finally re-formed STEELY DAN for a series of feverishly anticipated US live dates. Documented on 1995’s ALIVE IN AMERICA {*5} album, the tour was an unqualified success despite the duo’s misgivings.
As the success of the live shows might’ve predicted, fresh studio set TWO AGAINST NATURE (2000) {*7} was a comeback well worth waiting for. All the STEELY DAN trademarks – painstakingly crafted arrangements, luxuriant sonic textures, obliquely witty lyrics – were in present and correct, Walter and Donald sounding like their partnership hadn’t been interrupted for a single day, never mind two decades. Like almost all their works, this was also an album which rewarded the repeated listening necessary to uncover the manifold layers of subtle meaning, shading and tone. Opener, `Gaslighting Abbie’, drew from funk-driven jazz, while there was renaissance STEELY DAN courtesy of `What A Shame About Me’. The title track was pure R&B jazz, taking its cue from Shirley & Lee’s “Clapping Song” rhythm, and for lovers of angular diversions, the latter climactic half of `West Of Hollywood’ would’ve made jazzmen like COLTRANE and DAVIS come up for air.
Thankfully, fans didn’t have to wait another generation for the release of a second latter day studio set. Basically, EVERYTHING MUST GO (2003) {*6}, continued in a similar vein to its predecessor, albeit with a more relaxed vibe and production than any album in their immaculately crafted career. Becker even made his lead vocal debut, more than thirty years after starting the band, an interesting development even if it was never going to threaten Fagen’s still masterfully insinuating croon. With what seems like STEELY DAN’s final sale, both FAGEN and BECKER have continued individually, the former genius being the most commercial through “Morph The Cat” (2006) and “Sunken Condos” (2012), the latter via “Circus Money” (2008). Sadly, nearly a decade on, BECKER passed to the other side on September 3, 2017.
© MC Strong 1994-2006/BG-GRD/LCS / rev-up MCS Dec2012-Sep2017

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