Reelin’ in from Woolies

Yep. Woolworth’s was where Walter Becker got turned on and Donald Fagen got his Ticket to Ride from the Beatles. Together, they’re the core of Steely Dan, an American cult band catching on in Britain.

By Steve Clarke
New Music Express

Woolworth’s seems hardly the place to get turned on to rock music—that’s where Walter Becker’s ears started to twitch at the sounds of The Beatles’ “No Reply” (side one, track – on”Beatles For Sale”). And that convinced him there was more to rock than three chords.

For Becker’s songwriting partner, Donald Fagen—the two are the writing force behind Steely Dan—it was “Ticket To Ride,” heard on the radio one summer that nibbled a hole in his prejudice against rock music.

Becker, however, is still prejudiced against rock and doesn’t like it if there aren’t enough chord changes, unless it’s played extremely well.

Steely Dan, hailed as positively the best American band of the 70s, have finally made it to Britain after one false start. You remember, they were supposed to be coming before—and according to them that tour was never booked in the first place:”The story was a complete and utter fabrication,” claims Becker.

Although each musician in the group counts, it’s Becker and Fagen’s songwriting that really makes Steely Dan something special. Both of them have similar backgrounds and attitude, getting into jazz a long time before appreciating rock.

Fagen, he says he’s done this bio speel about two million times now: he learned to play piano and a little alto-sax as a child, taking his licks from jazz records, and tried to play like Red Garland who is Miles Davis’s old piano player. “I picked up that style. Later I found that I could pick up almost any style from records.”

He admits one reason why he got info jazz was to be hip. But when he started buying good jazz records he realized the music was for him. Fagen and Becker met at Bard College.”Walter was the only person I knew who used to listen to the same jazz stations—New York jazz stations which are now defunct…so’s jazz, as a matter of fact.”

He whines his story in a definitive New York accent. Dressed in T-shirt, jeans and white sneakers with a red flash and wearing heavy-framed glasses, still looking like a college academic.

“We more or less thought along the same lines and we both had a rather bizarre sense of lyrics,” he says.

The songwriting-partnership is a real one, although Fagen says he usually comes up with most of the source idea and then they take it from there, each one adding a line here, a line there.

Becker and Fagen eventually ended up as staff-writers for ABC Dunhill across the country in Los Angeles. That lasted only six months, during which time they wrote songs for, among others, Barbara Streisand.

Says Fagen: “We weren’t doing so good ’cause we’re sort of funny. When you’re writing for other artists it’s difficult to get them to do songs if the lyrics aren’t absolutely banal.”

And that’s really why Steely Dan was formed.

THE EXACT formation of the group is a little difficult to pin down, although Becker and Fagen and Gary Katz (their producer and also a long-time friend of theirs) stress that the process wasn’t in any way loose.

“Every day we’d bring in another musician or two, and the president of the ‘ company told him he was in the band.

“They (ABC Dunhill) really didn’t know what was going on. See, we had a little office with a piano. Finally we moved out of the office and moved into this other little room and set up our equipment and stopped writing songs and started rehearsing.

“It was a sort of a secret.”

“But we just weren’t able to find all the musicians we wanted within one phone call. We needed people who could negotiate the chord changes and stuff and the same time we needed guys who’d work for nothing—and they’re very difficult to find.”

Fagen says Katz kept the record company cool—they were still under the impression Becker and Fagen were staff-writers—and kept them in the dark about what they were doing.

Anyway, there are currently eight in the band—a nucleus of five (Becker, Fagen, drummer Jim Holder, guitarists Jeff Baxter and Denny Dias) plus second drummer Jerry Porcaro, keyboard-player Mike MacDonald and percussionist Royce Jones.

“We’re a big noisy band now,” comments Fagen.

For one American tour the group were augmented by several black back-up chicks, but dropped them because that was getting too much like show business.

Fagen sees the band as a flexible, unit: “It’s kind of a workshop…’cause we’re always juggling musicians around—although lately the eight musicians we have now seem to be working out very well. The band as it stands is now quite stable.”

At one time there was another singer, David Palmer, but things didn’t work out and he ended up singing on only a couple of tracks on their debut “Can’t Buy A Thrill” album.

Back to Fagen: “I did most of the singing on the first album and on the albums since. But then we realised that in order to sell records you have to go out and actually play.”It was very difficult to convince me to get up in front of people and sing. But finally I got enough, courage to do it, And I’ve been getting into it slowly. Now it’s come together pretty well.”

“Can’t Buy A Thrill” was recorded over a couple of months before the group ever worked live. In fact Becker and Fagen had done very little live work at all then, although the rest of the musicians had been on the road with various outfits.

“The first album was more or less experimental. I think the latest one comes closest to what we’ve been wanting to do,” says Fagen.

Two American hit singles came from “Thrill,” “Do It Again” and “Reelin’ In The Years.”

Now, if like me, you were under the impression Becker and Fagen didn’t compose “Do It Again” (it’s described on the sleeve as traditional) then you’re wrong.

You should never believe anything it ever says on a Steely Dan record. It’s mostly a bunch of lies and bullshit that we write just to confuse the listener. But we did write it sort of like a ballad, and it told a story,” illuminates Fagen.

AND NOW let’s talk a little about Becker and Fagen’s fascinating lyrics.

“We don’t necessarily try to communicate any specific thing to the listener. It’s more or less we try to communicate an impression, and the listener has the freedom to interpret as he wants, says Fagen.

I can see what he means. I thought – Pretzel Logic—the song, not the actual album—was a totally surreal lyric with no real meaning. But according to Fagen it’s about time travel:

“When it says, ’I stepped up on the platform / The man gave me the news’, we conceived the platform as a teleportation device. And there are other key lines like ’I’ve never met Napoleon but I plan to find the time’ ,

“What we’re actually saying is I plan to find the time in that he lived in.”

And here’s Fagen’s conception of “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” the single from “Pretzel Logic”:

“That’s a very simple love song to a young lady. I always thought it was a rather erotic, decadent sort of thing. Here you find a guy, a rather rich gentleman living in a resort, and he somehow manages to capture this young lady.”And what about “Show Biz Kids” from “Countdown To Ecstasy.” Exactly what is it that those girls chant incessantly?”You go to Lost Wages,” meaning Las Vegas. Like, it’s a kind of joke in the United States to call Las Vegas ‘Lost Wages’ ’cause it’s a gambling centre.

”’Through With Buzz’ was just about a more-or-less platonic relationship between two young people. There’s nothing really sexual about it until one, of the young people in the relationship realises he’s being used and starts having paranoid fantasies and breaks off the relationship. There’s no symbolism or anything. We never used puns.”It’s a very saccharine sounding track with a very cynical lyric. We often do that for an ironic purpose. That is to juxtapose a rather bitter against rather sweet music.”

I suggested that the “Pretzel Logic” album seemed their most accessible album.

“We really don’t think about it. The record company was starting to get annoyed with us because they couldn’t get a single off ‘Countdown To Ecstasy’. The only thing we did was tightened up the arrangements. The songs weren’t quite so long. And ‘Night By Night’ was basically written for commercial purposes.”

When we recorded ‘Do It Again’ we thought it was something we could sort of stretch out on and take solos. I did a long solo—about six minutes—it ended up as the single”

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