Walter Becker (1950-2017)

September 6, 2017 at 6:40 pm (Life & Politics, Music, Steely Dan)

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Steely Dan – “Gaucho” (1980)

April 25, 2014 at 7:45 am (Music, Reviews & Articles, Steely Dan)

This review comes from Stephen Holden, from The New York Times, dated Jan. 18, 1981…

The Sardonic Style of Steely Dan

Nearly three years in the making, Steely Dan’s Gaucho (MCA-6102) is as refined as pop music can get without becoming too esoteric for a mass audience. Though it consists of only two men, Steely Dan must be counted one of the most influential rock ”groups” of the past decade. Founded by the songwriting team of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen eight years ago, they started out as a touring sextet. With Becker, the bassist, and Fagen on lead vocals and keyboards, the group had a string of hits including ”Do It Again,” ”Reeling in the Years,” and ”Rikki Don’t Lose That Number.” After 1974, they stopped performing and made the recording studio their artistic base, using a shifting array of session musicians instead of fixed personnel. Over the course of seven albums, they’ve evolved an unusually subtle and literate brand of pop-rock that blends modal jazz harmonies, fusion instrumentation and funktinged polyrhythms within extended pop structures. Though other rock groups like Blood, Sweat & Tears and Chicago have enjoyed commercial success blending jazz and pop, none has come close to matching Steely Dan in sophistication and taste. They helped inspire rock singers like Joni Mitchell to explore jazz and paved the way for the Doobie Brothers’ brand of pop-funk. Even stylistically unrelated groups like the Eagles were influenced by Steely Dan’s carefully blocked arranging style.

But more than their studio craftsmanship, what distinguishes Steely Dan is their songwriting. Becker’s and Fagen’s specialty is the cryptically sardonic vignette. Gaucho‘s seven extended studio set pieces are also interrelated short stories. The main characters are would-be hipsters who define themselves in terms of style rather than feelings or ideas. Steely Dan’s sour-sweet pop-jazz style with its modal harmonics and dips into polytonality illustrates both the comedy and the pathos of trying to keep your cool in even the most dire circumstances. Though the melodies are always heading toward sentimental resolutions, somewhere along the way they get short-circuited. And the painstaking construction of the arrangements mirrors the characters’ desperate maintenance of appearances.

Gaucho is a word for Latin-American cowboy, but Fagen and Becker also use it as a pun on the French word gauche. All seven songs on the new album puncture cultivated mystiques. The ”bodacious cowboy” of the title song wears a spangled leather poncho and is a social embarrassment to the friend who brings him to a party at the mysterious ”Custerdome.” The narrator of ”Glamour Profession” is a cocaine dealer who wears Brut cologne and boasts about the telephone in his Chrysler. In ”Hey, Nineteen,” a thirtyish man dating a teen-ager realizes that they have nothing in common beyond the booze and dope that will make the evening ”wonderful.” ”Babylon Sisters,” ”Time Out of Mind,” ”My Rival,’ and ”Third World Man,” look askance at swingers, gurus and sexual and political paranoia.

Gaucho‘s satire is so oblique that the songs avoid sounding snidely hip in the manner of Frank Zappa, one of Steely Dan’s obvious influences. Their humor is compassionate, for they see the struggle to stay cool as noble in addition to farcical. Instead of delivering broadsides, they sidle up to the scenes they describe and pick out oddly telling details. Their perspective is at once far-sighted and clinically fascinated. It’s also emotionally double-edged, for despite its coolness, the music is quite beautiful. With its crystalline keyboard textures and diaphanous group vocals, Gaucho contains the sweetest music Steely Dan has ever made.

Stephen Holden

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Steely Dan – “Aja” (1977)

April 24, 2014 at 7:55 am (Music, Reviews & Articles, Steely Dan)

This review of Steely Dan’s masterpiece comes from Jon Pareles in the December 1977 issue of Crawdaddy…

Steely Dan Sings for Lovers?

Normalcy can be the most dangerous trap of all – seductive because it has its uses. A good conman needs to act normal; a counterfeit $20 bill had better simulate legal tender. When the conman starts to believe his own act, though, he’s in trouble. Ant that bogus twenty may be a master of engraving, but it’s only good for what money can buy.

Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, master conmen, find their way into all the loopholes that the pop song form can offer. Their object: “to crawl like a viper through these suburban streets.” They’ve already pulled off innumerable musical capers: melodized utterly bizarre chord progressions, diddled with preconceived rhythms, devised lyrics as ambiguous as Rorschach blots. And it all sounds smooth.

That kind of con takes planning to the split second. So Steely Dan shut out all inderminancy at the studio door. No accidents can happen there. (Accusing them of sounding “sterile,” as some have, misses the point – you might as well accuse the Stones of using too much guitar.) You can be sure that Becker and Fagen mapped out every detail of Aja to their own inscrutable specifications.

Don’t let anyone tell you that Aja is Steely Dan’s “jazz album.” The cuts are longer than usual, and soloists are credited, but the only reasonable jazz analogue is big-band swing (listen to “Peg” and “Home at Last”), not the bebop so dear to the Dan’s lyricists. Vocal and ensemble sections balance solos in exact formal proportions – the structure is narrative, not discursive.

Aja edges closer to mainstream pop than Steely Dan have recently cared to go. They’re so far removed from any competition that perhaps their only amusement comes from outdoing themselves. Having outflanked every musical rule they’ve ever met, Becker and Fagen, supremely cool, now try to maintain their pre-eminence with one hand tied behind their back. Cavalierly, Aja sacrifices a bit of Steely Dan’s usual harmonic mobility – they uses riffs instead of serpentine melodies – while the listener hardly notices. These rock Houdinis slip out of every restraint.

Last year’s The Royal Scam eschewed any blues-derived tunes, which had been prominent on earlier Dan LPs. Aja makes up for the omission; of seven songs on the album, “Josie,” “Peg,” “Black Cow” and, to a lesser extent, “Home at Last” and “I Got the News” rely on static, blues-inflected verses.

Cutting down on harmonic variety encourages you to listen to rhythm, which may be just what Steely Dan had in mind. There’s a liner credit for “Hemiolas, Hockets, Maneries of Garlandia, etc.” – three medieval rhythmic devices that Steely Dan actually use. They also get exquisite, interactive drumming (a rare thing on studio rock records) from Jim Keltner, Steve Gadd, Ed Greene and Bernard Purdie, and constantly varied bass lines from Chuck Rainey. Listen, also, to Larry Carlton’s sneaky rhythm fills on “Home at Last.” But beware of creeping normalcy: Aja is the first Dan album since their debut to start on a solid downbeat.

Just to stay paradoxical, the lyrics wax restlessly even as Becker and Fagen deliberately restrain themselves. “Josie,” a tribute to a troublemaker, is a blue with extra chords breaking into the tune just as the narrator describes Josie breaking rules – a neat form/content match.

The old Dan sneer has been toned way down on Aja. Every lyric uses a sympathetic first-person viewpoint. Believe it or not, there are at least three, uh, love songs barely twisted at all by Dan standards. The guy in “Black Cow” fights back tears when he glimpses his ex at “Rudy’s” (“I can’t cry anymore while you run around”); “Peg’s” narrator, surrounded by her photo image, vows he can love her better than any camera; “I Got the News” is a tense gangland romance. Are Becker and Fagen mellowing, or just learning to counterfeit new emotions?

“Deacon Blues” offers a wildly ambivalent answer. A romantic pessimist’s vision of the jazz life (to “cross that fine line,” learn saxophone, “die behind the wheel”), it could be Steely Dan’s most heartfelt lyric, set to a delicate, sighing tune. The arrangement, though, is enervatingly conventional; it’s disheartening to hear Fagen sing “I’ll be what I want to be” over an MOR cushion.

There’s more streetwise jazz savvy in “I Got the News,” a cousin of Royal Scam’s terse “Green Earrings.” The lyrics are a telegraph transmitted by dits and dahs of choke-chorded piano and brass-knuckled drumming; the structure, a jumpily asymmetrical assemblage of riffs sorted into a verse and three interconnected bridges.

Logically enough, Aja‘s other masterpiece is its title cut, which blends the album’s two obsessions – love and the compulsion to escape – and probes the undertones of its own lilting melody. Here’s the scenario: The speaker is in some asylum, “up on the hill.” He escapes for a tryst with his lover (“double helix in the sky tonight”), then is apprehended and returned to the hill. Simple, circular… a dreamy guitar interweave rambles toward the verses, light and unconcerned until our man reaches the outside world. Becker’s guitar solo (interrupted by a police whistle) and Wayne Shorter’s foreboding sax break are orchestrated by a continuously toughening riff while Steve Gadd drums retribution from below. When we end up on the hill again, Fagen’s synthesizers cloud the mind as Gadd flails. In brilliant cinematic fashion, the solos advance the action, and we reach the final verse realizing that the lilt masks darker forces.

Lyric fragments from earlier Steely Dan songs float through Aja: “outrageous,” “change your name,” “a world of my own.” Feeling suddenly claustrophobic in pop, perhaps, Steely Dan are recharging their identity, taking a quick look back before they embark on a new course: the conquest of expanded song form. In the light of Aja‘s finest moments, I’d say no band is better suited for the attempt.

Jon Parales

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Steely Dan – “Aja” (1977)

September 23, 2008 at 12:40 pm (Reviews & Articles, Steely Dan)

Michael Duffy wrote this review for Rolling Stone (issue #253) – Dec. 1, 1977…


Aja is the third Steely Dan album since songwriters Walter Becker and Donald Fagen discarded a fixed-band format in late 1974. Since then they have declined to venture beyond the insular comfort of L.A. studios, recording their compositions with a loose network of session musicians. As a result, the conceptual framework of their music has shifted from the pretext of rock & roll toward a smoother, awesomely clean and calculated mutation of various rock, pop and jazz idioms. Their lyrics… remain as pleasantly obtuse and cynical as ever.

Aja will continue to fuel the argument by rock purists that Steely Dan’s music is soulless, and by its calculated nature antithetical to what rock should be. But this is in many ways irrelevant to a final evaluation of this band, the only group around with no conceptual antecedent from the Sixties. Steely Dan’s six albums contain some of the few important stylistic innovations in pop music in the past decade. By returning to swing and early be-bop for inspiration — before jazz diverged totally from established conventions of pop-song structure — Fagen and Becker have overcome the amorphous quality that has plagued most other jazz-rock fusion attempts.

“Peg” and “Josie” illustrate this perfectly: tight, modal tunes with good hooks in the choruses, solid beats with intricate counterrhythms and brilliantly concise guitar solos. Like most of the rest of Aja, these songs are filled out with complex horn charts, synthesizers and lush background vocals that flirt with schmaltzy L.A. jazz riffs. When topped by Fagen’s singing, they sound like production numbers from an absurdist musical comedy.

The title cut is the one song on Aja that shows real growth in Becker’s and Fagen’s songwriting capabilities and departs from their previous work. It is the longest song they’ve recorded, but it fragilely holds our attention with vaguely Oriental instrumental flourishes and lyric references interwoven with an opiated jazz flux. “Aja” may prove to be the farthest Becker and Fagen can take certain elements of their musical ambition.

Lyrically, these guys still seem to savor the role they must have acquired as stoned-out, hyperintelligent pariahs at a small Jewish college on the Hudson. Their imagery can become unintelligibly weird (Frank Zappa calls it “downer surrealism”); it’s occasionally accessible but more often (as on the title song) it elicits a sort of deja vu tease that becomes hopelessly nonsensical the more you think about it. Focus your attention on the imagery of a specific phrase, then let it fade out. Well, at least it beats rereading the dildo sequence in Naked Lunch.

The last album, The Royal Scam was the closest thing to a “concept” album Steely Dan has done, an attempt to return musically to New York City, with both a raunchier production quality and a fascination with grim social realism. The farthest Aja strays from the minor joys and tribulations of the good life in L.A. are the dreamy title cut and “Josie,” which hints ominously about a friendly welcome-home gang-bang. The melodramatic “Black Cow” is about love replaced by repulsion for a woman who starts getting too strung out on downers and messing around with other men. “Deacon Blues” (a thematic continuation of “Fire in the Hole” and “Any World”) exemplifies this album’s mood: resignation to the L.A. musician’s lifestyle, in which one must “crawl like a viper through these suburban streets” yet “make it my home sweet home.” The title and first lines of “Home at Last” (presumably a clever interpretation of Homer’s Odyssey — I don’t get it) put it right up front: “I know this superhighway/This bright familiar sun/I guess that I’m the lucky one.”

More than any of Steely Dan’s previous albums (with the possible exception of Katy Lied), Aja exhibits a carefully manipulated isolation from its audience, with no pretense of embracing it. What underlies Steely Dan’s music — and may, with this album, be showing its limitations — is its extreme intellectual self-consciousness, both in music and lyrics. Given the nature of these times, this may be precisely the quality that makes Walter Becker and Donald Fagen the perfect musical antiheroes for the Seventies.

Michael Duffy

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Steely Dan – “Cousin Dupree” (Live – 2000)

September 11, 2008 at 11:58 am (Music, Steely Dan)

Recorded live at the Sony Studios…

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Steely Dan – “Sail the Waterway” (1972)

August 29, 2008 at 3:14 am (Music, Steely Dan)

The B-side to “Dallas” – originally released as a promo by ABC Records in 1972

This is the first SD song to feature the vocals of Donald Fagen. This sounds a little more like the Steely Dan we all know – at least more so than the country leanings of “Dallas.” This probably should have been the A-side – then again, nobody heard either song anyhow.

(Audio only)

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Steely Dan – “Dallas” (1972)

August 29, 2008 at 3:10 am (Music, Steely Dan)

Steely Dan’s obscure debut single from 1972 (which never made it to any of their albums and is now mostly forgotten) , features original co-lead vocalist David Palmer (who sang “Dirty Work” on their debut album). This song has a very country-ish sound and does not sound like almost anything the Dan ever went on to do.

(Audio only)

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Steely Dan – “Reeling in the Years” (Live TV)

August 10, 2008 at 1:27 pm (Music, Steely Dan)

Taken from “The Old Grey Whistle Test” – the year says 1978 but it clearly cannot be. They were no longer a “band” by then and their original (other) singer David Palmer is seen & heard. This HAS to be from 1972 or 1973. Probably wasn’t aired until 1978 is my guess.

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Steely Dan – “The Making of ‘Peg'” (Documentary)

July 29, 2008 at 6:19 pm (Music, Steely Dan)

Interesting documentary about the making of this classic 1977 song…

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Steely Dan – “Reeling in the Years” (Live – 1973)

July 29, 2008 at 6:12 pm (Music, Steely Dan)

Early clip from “The Midnight Special” TV show…

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