Steely Dan (2000)
By Beppe Colli
June 29, 2007

"People talk about those big screen TVs. Can you imagine, the commercial of Ajax taking over your living room. Your brain would turn to jelly." (Walter Becker, from: Steely Dan, by David Breskin - Musician magazine, issue #31, March 1981)

Well, we all know what happened with those big screen TVs - and with everything else, don't we? Whatever the reason(s), by now we are all well aware of the general atmosphere when it comes to - difficult? subtle? requiring one's full attention? - "art", whatever the specific Muse involved. So I really wonder what would I write today about Steely Dan, had I to write an "introductory profile" like the one that follows, which originally appeared in the Italian magazine Blow Up (issue # 23, April 2000), and which now appears in English for the first time.

Of course, when saying that the albums that appeared after the duo (the "brand", if you like) regrouped - Two Against Nature (2000), Everything Must Go (2003), and Donald Fagen's third solo album ever, Morph The Cat (2006) - were more or less "variations on a theme" (full of dignity, if not surprises) one would not be that far from the truth. But while this is of great importance for those who liked their original albums back in the day, the whole point appears to lose importance when compared to the widespread refusal to look into things with a certain amount of curiosity (and no, changing the object of one's attention every minute is not necessarily a symptom of curiosity), and with one's full attention intact.

Readers will be kind to take into consideration the fact that the profile that follows had to have a certain maximum length. There are things I would have liked to add, or give more space. Still, I think that the piece works in the way it was intended. Like the mustachioed Maestro said: "Ain't no great revelation, but it wasn't too long".


"Rarely have such glossy petals concealed such sharp thorns." (Robert Palmer - The New York Times, 1980)

Those albums released under the name Steely Dan are without a doubt one of the most original experiments ever carried out in the field of "popular music" in the United States: the introduction of complex and tortuous jazz harmonies in captivating pop songs sporting contagious grooves, almost perfect instrumental performances, and lyrics which can be defined as being sarcastic, enigmatic, and bizarre. From their first album, Can't Buy A Thrill ('72), up to Gaucho ('80) - the last chapter in the story of Becker & Fagen before the recent release of Two Against Nature - one can follow the deliberate development of a work-in-progress: listening to those records (all over again) will be a very interesting (and I'm not even gonna mention the pleasure factor) experience.

The music of Steely Dan is never really "difficult"; the great care they demonstrated when dealing with the "formal" aspects of music (arrangement, sound balance, timbre: all things that make this music also work as a "perfect background") is maybe the element that best explains the growing success of their albums, in parallel to their growing perfectionism made possible by their growing budgets: a factor that can explain, at least in part, their perennial popularity in the age of the digital re-release. Under the smooth surface one can find unusual elements, and different levels to be investigated; in this sense, well beyond the obvious differences in their compositional language, we could define Steely Dan as being "Beatles-like": referring to mid-period Beatles (Revolver and Sgt. Pepper), and not forgetting the fact that for Becker & Fagen the studio was a giant and extremely accurate "ear", a place where materials that had been performed were later assembled as "ideal performances".

The melodies of Steely Dan are always very captivating; as it's only natural when talking about formal innovations coupled with listening pleasure the obvious name that comes up is that of Burt Bacharach. But here we have quite obvious differences, as it's indirectly demonstrated by the fact that, in so differently from Bacharach's released work, no song by Steely Dan has ever become a standard: the "singability" of their songs, so apparent at the listening stage, is in fact an illusion; which in the first place is the result of a different compositional philosophy: while Bacharach's is more linked to the development of a horizontal line where melody is the most important feature, the one adopted by Becker & Fagen makes great use of maps derived by chord progressions - in this, being very "jazz-like". A hit like Reelin' In The Years (from Can't Buy A Thrill), with its Zappa-like irony, not a little misunderstood, offers a dynamic and involving chorus after a not so easy verse, which is just the opposite of what happens in what is maybe their greatest hit: Peg, from their hit album Aja; here the verse is very dynamic, with a funky and breeze attitude; but the harmonic progression of the chorus - while at the same time concealing the fact - is so impervious as to have one break one's legs.

Absolutely perfect when expressing sarcasm, bitterness and irony, but also a communicative but never rhetorical compassionate pathos, Donald Fagen's voice (one of the most original and versatile in rock) is the impossible to miss unifying element of all songs recorded by Steely Dan - together with the defining style which runs underneath their compositions, which possess a strong identity even in the light of the perennial revolving cast of musicians employed by the duo. Listening to the albums will tell of the enormous variety of moods and genres, from ballad to c&w, from reggae to jazz (on Pretzel Logic there's also a brilliant version of Duke Ellington's East St. Louis Toodle-oo, where the mimetic qualities of the guitars are very tasty); we also have some bizarre and impossible to classify mixes: check the Dylan-like voice in Rose Darling (on Katy Lied), singing a melody that's quite atypical for the climates it brings to one's mind; or the verse in Throw Back The Little Ones (Katy Lied again), whose melody sounds as if it came from an opera. And what about those marvelous songs derived from the blues? Pretzel Logic (from the album of the same name) hides an unorthodox progression under a very natural-sounding performance, but this comes to the fore at the time of the guitar solo; also natural-sounding, but quite atypical all the same, is the melody of Chain Lightning, on Katy Lied; while Black Friday, the opening track of the same album, offers a bridge rich with jazz chords which is the foundation of the strangest moment of the brilliant guitar solo by Walter Becker: while its timbre and "rawness" are in a "pure Chicago blues" style, some passages seem to come from another world.

Under the smooth surfaces of Steely Dan songs one won't find the superficially sentimental stories one would (maybe) expect, but a bizarre urban universe populated by weirdos, maladjusted and misfits, pictured in a way that's oblique and sometimes deliberately omissive, so that one has to get the stories by putting together the various pieces of the puzzle - or, at least, those in one's possession: many pieces are, in fact, missing. Becker & Fagen have always been fans of fine literature - in those days, they put names like Samuel Beckett and Vladimir Nabokov at the top of their personal charts, which is pretty unusual when talking about rock musicians - hence a way to conceive narration which makes great use of one's distance from the object. Since we are talking about eight years and seven albums any generalization would generate misleading results, but Charlie Freak dying of an overdose (Pretzel Logic); the atmosphere and those almost Chandler-like characters in Black Cow (Aja); the homosexual triangle in Gaucho: well, these stories would not be out of place on a Lou Reed album such as Sally Can't Dance (think: Baby Face), or Coney Island Baby, would they? But in the case of Lou Reed, there is an immediate (narrative?) link between the story and the narrator, with a different - and serious - tone which is often mirrored by the music. (And yes, it's obviously very difficult to picture Donald Fagen singing Kicks.)

Walter Becker and Donald Fagen met at the University - Bard College, New York - in '69. In many ways they were two classic misfits: the former being a guitarist, the latter a keyboard player, both being great fans of "old jazz" (Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Charlie Parker); even if their political sympathies went in a decidedly "liberal" direction, they were more than a bit out of place in the Sixties - a bit like Zappa, in a way. Having started their partnership, they tried to sell their compositions in New York, with no results. They got to know Gary Katz, who got them a contract as writers, went to California (a place they hated), but were faced with the same degree of (lack of) success. One of these songs, Any World (That I'm Welcomed To), appeared many years later on Katy Lied; it has to be noted that - the only drummer on the album being Jeff Porcaro - only for this track (with a perverse degree of accuracy) they called the legendary Hal Blaine, in order to give the track a perfect "California" touch. (Who's Hal Blaine? Well... let's mention Be My Baby (The Ronettes), Da Doo Ron Ron (The Crystals), Good Vibrations (The Beach Boys), Mr. Tambourine Man (The Byrds), California Dreamin' (Mamas & Papas). Maybe the drummer with the highest number of Top Ten songs in the history of music.)

Gary Katz got them a contract, becoming their producer (he'll stay); they assembled a band: two fine guitar players (Dennis Dias, possessing a highly individual style: he never "bends" the strings - he was a pupil of the legendary Billy Bauer; and Jeff "Skunk" Baxter, great when playing country, rock and blues); an adequate drummer; and a singer (!), Fagen having little faith in his own vocals. Can't Buy A Thrill is not excellent, mainly due to the vocal parts, but it features the hit Do It Again, with Dias playing the solo on a Coral electric sitar (the instrument invented by sessionman Vinnie Bell); Reelin' In The Years; and the pianistic Fire In The Hole. Then, the group had to go on tour, a thing that Becker & Fagen hated (as a distraction from composing). They released Countdown To Ecstasy, a better album: Bodhisattva, featuring those so different guitar styles; Razor Boy, with Victor Feldman on vibes and Ray Brown on double bass; the ballad The Boston Rag, with a nice guitar solo by Baxter; Show Biz Kids, with Rick Derringer on slide; the ironic My Old School, whose arrangement featured wind instruments. The third album - Pretzel Logic - is even better, though maybe a bit too varied, with a lot of sessionmen: on piano, Michael Omartian; on guitar, Dean Parks; on drums, Jim Gordon; there's the excellent single Rikki Don't Lose That Number; the ironic Barrytown; the blues Pretzel Logic; also East St. Louis Toodle-oo; the homage of Parker's Band; the very Doors-like Charlie Freak.

It's at this point that Becker & Fagen, tired of touring, dissolve the group, choosing to fully dedicating themselves to composition, and the albums. Katy Lied immediately benefits from this new concentration; besides the abovementioned tracks, I'll add Your Gold Teeth II, with a very fine guitar solo; and Doctor Wu, with Phil Woods on sax.

What starts here is the endless search for perfection though living in the studio that will soon make Becker & Fagen living legends. The Royal Scam is the apex of the guitar period, with a sound that's at the same time open and tense. Thematically, it's maybe their darkest record: the killer under siege (with a case of dynamite) on Don't Take Me Alive; the Owsley (the guy who made LSD for the Dead) character on Kid Charlemagne; the bad destiny awaiting the Puerto Rican immigrants on The Royal Scam (with a memorable vocal interpretation by Fagen), with its female chorus expressing gospel participation and mocking solemnity at the same time. Ironic moments are not missing, of course - see the quarrel in Everything You Did ("Turn up the Eagles, the neighbors are listening"). We have absolutely superb instrumental performances on drums (Bernard Purdie!) and keyboards (Paul Griffin, Don Grolnick), but this album it truly indispensable for those who love the heat of valve/tube distortion, and scales over difficult chord progressions - though I believe that the talk box solo on Haitian Divorce could become a part of anybody's Top Chart.

Aja became Steely Dan's most successful album: from "cult" group (on a US '70s scale: 500.000 copies each of their previous albums) to superstar: three million copies and an enormous influence on the "packaging" of a lot of music of this period. Aja is charming and multicolored, also unusual and mature, with a larger instrumentation: Deacon Blues, Peg, Black Cow, the Steve Gadd/Wayne Shorter duo on Aja, Victor Feldman's piano on Home At Last and I Got The News, those grooves by turn rubbery or dry (Jim Keltner on Josie). A group was assembled to tour, but at the last moment Becker & Fagen changed their minds.

With one of their most ironic tracks, FM, appearing on the soundtrack of the movie of the same name, Becker & Fagen entered the studio, coming out about two years later (!). Gaucho is an album that's hot and icy at the same time, where language gets simpler in order to better accommodate the groove, where the excellent and faithful engineer Roger Nichols surpasses himself: listen to the sound of the drums - Bernard Purdie - on Babylon Sisters, the keyboards at the start of the track and the relationship between the female vocals and Fagen's; a musical rapport that illuminates the meaning (also the moral?) of the "coca environment" on Glamour Profession and adds many layers to Gaucho. There are also Hey Nineteen, Time Out Of Mind, My Rival, and the closing track, Third World Man, with a superb performance by Steve Gadd on drums.

"Dangerously close to the valium-jazz that has enervated so much of today's pop music... Enjoy it as it goes down, but be ready for the aftereffects." (Richard Cromelin - L.A. Times, 1980)

Beppe Colli 2000 - 2007 | June 29, 2007