Editor’s Note: From 1987 through 1994, diehard Steely Dan fans turned to a small fanzine called Metal Leg for information about Donald Fagen and Walter Becker. Published first by England’s Brian Sweet (who went on to write the unofficial band biography Steely Dan: Reelin’ In The Years) and later by New Yorkers Pete Fogel and Bill Pascador, Metal Leg set high standards by providing solid information without resorting to paparazzi-style tactics.
Metal Leg 2 Articles:
Welcome to the second issue of Metal Leg. By now, I was hoping to have some news of the new Steely Dan album but, alas, the only thing I have to report is that they are “in the studio,” so I suppose we’ll just have to be patient. If anyone knows anything whatsoever about the plans or progress on the new album, I’d be grateful if you would let me know so that it can be included in a future issue of the magazine.
Rosie Vela was scheduled to do some dates in the U.K. around the end of May/early June but these were cancelled due to illness. That sounds familiar: thirteen years ago Steely Dan were forced to cancel some of their later concerts when Donald Fagen went down with a sore throat. Anyway, one new date that I have seen confirmed is for the Hammersmith Odeon in the first week of October. She has recently played three successful nights in New York, opening for Andy Summers.
It will be interesting to see if Walter and Donald appear on the follow-up to Zazu because if they do, it’ll almost certainly mean that we will have to wait longer for their own LP. And while we are on the subject of waiting, here is a very appropriate quote from the KPFK interview by Walter. Talking about Steely Dan fans being deprived of their music due to the twice-postponed release date of Aja, he said, “Steely Dan fans, we like to think, are probably the ones that can keep it up for the longest.”
There are a lot of British groups around at the moment who are acknowledging the influence of Steely Dan upon their music. Firstly, there is a Scottish band called Danny Wilson, a three-piece who have just broken into the U.S. charts with their single Mary’s Prayer. Secondly, another Scottish group, Deacon Blue, fronted by an ex-teacher, who have taken their name from that song on Aja. They have received a lot of critical acclaim for their debut album, Raintown, and have been gigging extensively around the country. Finally, yet another Northern group — the Kane Gang — who, in recent interviews, have been “admitting” to listening to Steely Dan — even throughout the turbulent years of punk.
This is part two of a list of Steely Dan-related items. Part one may be found in the April issue.
1981: Rickie Lee Jones, Pirates. Donald Fagen plays synthesizer on the title track. Warner Bros. 56816.
1981: Various artists, Heavy Metal soundtrack. With a Fagen composition, True Companion. Also co-produced by Donald and Elliott Scheiner. Epic EPC 88558.
1982: Eye to Eye, Eye to Eye. Produced by Gary Katz and featuring a Donald Fagen synthesizer solo on On The Mend. Warner Bros. K56940.
1983: Eye to Eye, Shakespeare Stole My Baby. Donald Fagen plays synth on Jabberwokky, again produced by Gary Katz. Warner Bros. 23919-1.
1983: Various artists, King of Comedy soundtrack. The Finer Things written by Donald Fagen and played by David Sanborn. Donald also sings background vocals and co-produces with Gary Katz. Warner Bros. 23765-1.
1983: Diana Ross, Ross. Features Love Will Make It Right, a Donald Fagen song; he plays synthesizer on the same track. Side One produced by Gary Katz. Capitol EST 1867051.
1983: James House, James House. Seven out of nine tracks produced by Gary Katz. Atlantic 80051-1.
1984: Various artists, That’s The Way I Feel Now, a tribute to Thelonious Monk. Together with Steve Khan, Donald performs and arranges Reflections. Fagen was one of the first people contacted about the idea, and he readily agreed to take part. A&M SP-6600.
1984: Various artists, The Gospel at Colonus. Original cast recording of the stage show. Produced by Donald Fagen, Gary Katz, Daniel Lazerus and Bob Elson. Warner Bros. 925182-1.
1984: Greg Phillinganes, Pulse. Lazy Nina written and co-arranged by Donald Fagen. Planet FL 84698.
1984: Joe Cocker, Civilized Man. Produced by Gary Katz. Capitol EJ 24 01391.
1985: China Crisis, Flaunt the Imperfection. Produced by The Amazing Walter “Trevor Who” Becker, who plays synthesizer and percussion as well. Virgin.
1986: Rosie Vela, Zazu. Donald plays synthesizers on seven out of nine tracks; Walter plays guitar on a couple tracks and synth on Tonto. It was while recording this album that they finally decided to reform Steely Dan after a six-year absence. Produced by Gary Katz, who only stepped in when Joe Jackson couldn’t spare enough time to complete the whole project. A&M SP 6-5016.
Also rumored to be on Denny Doherty and Grass Roots’ albums.
Radio Free Steely Dan
This is part two of an interview which Becker and Fagen gave to a Los Angeles radio station in 1977. See also Part One and Part Three.
Personnel: CM – Captain Midnight; RC – Richard Cromelin; HK – Harvey Kubernick; WB – Walter Becker; DF – Donald Fagen.
RC: You’re on the air.
Caller: Hello, is Donald Fagen there?
DF: More or less. What’s the scoop, kid? Go ahead, ask your question.
Caller: Donald, I’m wondering what do you think of drug abuse?
DF: Drug abuse. What do I think of drug abuse? Is that a rhetorical question, or do you really want an answer to that?
HK: Are you for it or against it?
Caller: On the level now, I mean as it comes to music.
DF: Actually, I’d like to defer to my partner who I think can answer that question from a point of more experience than I can.
Caller: Okay, Walter, go ahead.
WB: What was the question again?
DF: What do you think of drug abuse?
WB: Not you, him.
Caller: What do you think of drug abuse?
WB: What do I think of drug abuse? I’m in favor of victimless crime as opposed to victimful crime.
Caller: I’m thinking more as it comes to music. Mixing the two.
RC: Mixing drugs and music.
DF: I think that’s called an African cocktail.
WB: That’s called an L.A. Speedball and the important thing is not to heat that.
RC: Ahah. Watch those test tubes and scales. Thanks for the call. We have another call, go ahead.
Caller: I can’t believe it.
RC: What do you think of drug abuse?
Caller: (chuckling) What do I think of drug abuse? Only dopes abuse drugs themselves, actually. I was just wondering if those particular guys up there are actually white punks on dope or whether they had to strive for their particular musical ability as opposed to being a white punk on dope?
DF: Yeah, listen, how is the party tonight, anyway? I wish I could’ve been there.
RC: Look, we’ve played the hits — now we’re gonna play the flops.
Plays Show Biz Kids, My Old School, Black Friday and Kid Charlemagne.
HK: Four tunes that were very good…
RC: And not enough people bought ’em.
CM: How did that album do?
WB: Virtually nobody bought the singles because most of our fans bought the album.
HK: We have a skeleton to bring out.
RC: Well, first, we’re gonna take some phone calls.
DF: (mock horror) Oh, God!
RC: That’s Donald’s favorite part.
Caller: I have a real important question.
WB: I doubt it.
Caller: What is the lyric in “Show Biz Kids”? I’ve never been able to quite figure it out.
DF: Oh, I see what you’re talking about. The little vocal vamp — that was (together) “You go to lost wages.”
Caller: That’s what I thought but I couldn’t quite believe it.
WB: That is your number one Steely Dan esoterica question. And you’ve gotten the same answer that everybody else gets — which is the right one.
RC: I do have fond memories of two go-go girls as part of your show singing that part.
DF: Porky and Bucky.
WB: Porky and Bucky used to sing that part. We hired them for the part.
HK: Why did you get rid of them?
WB: We just hired them for the tour and then they went their separate ways.
HK: I understand they didn’t come across, or something like that.
WB: No, no, no, no, no, no. They came across.
DF: This is a professional outfit!
WB: This is a professional outfit, number one. Number two…
DF: They wouldn’t come across!
WB: …Porky is now married to the catcher of the Los Angeles Dodgers … and she came across.
HK: What about Bucky?
WB: Bucky went back to Colorado. She was the stand-in for the Flying Nun. I don’t know what happened to her.
Caller: I notice there’s no seven-second delay, I didn’t have to turn my radio down.
RC: No, no delay.
WB: No, this is it, live. Just cut the cheese as best you can.
RC: You’re on the air.
DF: Hey, I think I hear the mellifluous tones of Skinny Joe Pops.
Caller: I have a question; are you guys very popular in Europe and how’s the situation there?
DF: The situation there is actually pretty bad. The Common Market, you know…
WB: Is that a multiple choice question?
DF: No, we do have a following in Yurp, that’s the way we say it.
WB: In England we were there for two weeks, gamblin’ and eatin’ in expensive restaurants. There are more restaurants in London per capita than any other city in the world.
RC: What a town!
HK: Indian food?
WB: I ate some Indian food there. They gave me somebody else’s order and I ate it and then ate my own, too.
Caller: Did you get the stomach flu?
RC: I understand the audiences there were in virtual awe of the Steely Dan prowess.
WB: They were in actual awe of the Steely Dan prowess.
DF: Except for the guy who kept doing a cruel parody of my features that was standing right in front of the stage over there in Leeds. I objected to that. He was mimicking my every gesture, that sort of thing.
WB: Well, I thought that was totally in keeping with the nature of the performance.
DF: Yeah, it did increase my paranoia which naturally increases the polish of the performance.
RC: Is that why you haven’t been on the road for two years?
DF: Watch your mouth!
WB: This is the same Richard Cromelin who wrote the article, “Steely Dan To Tour Imminently,” almost six months ago.
RC: That’s right. You guys keep messin’ me up.
WB: Causing law suits and other…
HK: The German Record Association voted The Royal Scam record of the year in 1976.
(Applause) DF: C’mon let’s hear it, huh?
Caller: I do have another question. How did you land with a record contract?
RC: Yeah, how did ABC get you guys?
WB: Well, let’s see what happened… oh, yes, we were working with a guy named Gary Kannon, who’s an independent producer. He ran out of money, the credit card company came but they couldn’t get in the door to take the furniture; he got a job in California and he took us with him when he went.
RC: A friend in need is a friend indeed.
Caller: Hi, who played the guitar solo in “Kid Charlemagne”?
WB: I was waiting for that one. Listen, have you noticed how rude these guys at this radio station are to the people who call in the middle of the fucking night?
RC: We’re not as rude as Rodney Bingenheimer.
WB: That’s true, whoever that is. Larry Carlton.
Caller: Yeah, that’s what I thought. Okay, who played the guitar intro to “Don’t Take Me Alive”?
WB: Ah, now you ask too much, my friend.
Caller: Oh, so you don’t give that information.
WB: Larry Carlton.
Caller: That’s what I thought.
WB: Hey, if you know all this stuff, why are you calling up and wasting precious air time?
Caller: I have arguments with people. They don’t believe me.
HK: At parties, or what?
WB: Hey, why don’t you call Larry Carlton if you’re really interested, you know what I mean?
RC: How many are in this band?
WB: Larry Carlton.
Caller: Would you answer a couple more for me?
Caller: Oh, thanks. How about Gold Teeth?
WB: Larry Carlton.
Caller: How about (sic) “Katy Lied”?
WB: That was Larry Carlton, too.
Caller: Far out, thank you. (Rings off).
WB: Ah, Larry Carlton. (Laughter). Larry Carlton, if you’re out there listening, I’m sorry about all those lies I just told about you.
DF: Yeah, we apologize to the actual players of those solos, too.
HK: We’ve got an album here, the Original Soundtrack did called “You’ve Gotta Walk It Like You Talk It” which you two were members of…
WB: We were not the members of. We were. No, actually, we had a whole band at that point. Let me take a look at this…
HK: Would you like to fill us in on the movie that this soundtrack is from?
WB: Well, I saw the movie and…
DF: Directed by Frederico Loce.
WB: … Frederico Loce, who’s since gone into the lucrative porn field, as far as I can tell. I’ve seen a lot of movies but I don’t remember any of this one.
HK: This was what you would call an underground movie?
RC: Roger Corman rock.
WB: It was poorly financed. Is that the operative term?
WB: It was underbudgeted, which means that some of the exposures didn’t match some of the others so you could tell where the new pieces and the old pieces were. That’s all I can remember about the movie itself.
RC: How did you become embroiled in the creative process?
WB: I wouldn’t call it a creative process. We became embroiled in it when the suggestion was made that if we would simply go into a recording studio and record however many minutes’ worth of dog meat is on this album, we would each get a check for $250 or some similar amount to that.
RC: You did it for money, in other words?
WB: We did it for money.
RC: I’m disappointed in you guys.
WB: No, you shouldn’t be disappointed in us guys because you didn’t know us then. I’m not disappointed in you.
RC: Denny Dias is on this album. We ought to give a kind word for Denny Dias who has been playing with you guys since this time from New York to California.
WB: What about sympatico? Is that a kind word?
RC: That’s a good one.
HK: There a song called “Dog Eat Dog” which Ted Nugent later did a song of the same title…
WB: Well, Ted Nugent’s lawyer will be hearing from our solicitor or barrister, whichever the case may be.
RC: I wanna know how you got together with Denny Dias.
WB: Oh, well, Don, take it…
DF: He had a basement out in Hicksville, Long Island. Actually, he put an ad in Village Voice. He ran a little ad, it said, “must have jazz chops” or something to that effect and he was trying to get a little band together.
WB: He needed a keyboard player and a bass player.
DF: I happened to play keyboards and Walter happened to play the bass guitar. We went out there, took the Long Island Railroad, broke up his band…
RC: How’d you break up his band?
WB: We broke up his band, Richard, by insisting they play all our songs instead of the Top 40 hits that they were playing which was their only means of gainful employment at that time. Playing in local bars where there were bloody fights and so on, and we wanted nothing to do with that. And what’s more we didn’t really know any of those Top 40 song so we couldn’t really play them. But we had them playing songs like “Brain Tap Shuffle,” and other songs that you don’t have copies of. (Laughter).
RC: These are proto Steely Dan things that you were selling around New York, right?
WB: We were trying to sell these tunes outright at that time and had failed. We found out later that it was no longer fashionable on Broadway to buy tunes outright due to some legal action.
HK: Let’s have some other titles that you took around.
WB: Well, “Take It Out On Me” was a title. “Let George Do It.”
DF: “That Listless Feeling.”
WB: “Surreal” was another one.
RC: What’s this Schlitz commercial I heard about?
WB: The Schlitz commercial was titled the Schlitz commercial, actually.
RC: Did you write it?
WB: We used the music from the Schlitz jingle as the musical basis for the commercial. For the lyrical part, we used a bilingual narration by Donald and Jeff “Skunk” Baxter. Jeff “Skunk” Baxter claims to have spent his formative years in Mexico City so he speaks in a very fluent, although Mexican, brand of Spanish. And he would narrate in Spanish and Donald would translate in English. What it sounded like in English was: When I get home from a hard day’s work, I grab for all the gusto I can get, ’cause you only go ’round one time. Now in Spanish the word “grab” has a second meaning — like most Spanish words as far as I can tell — and they all have the same second meaning. And I’m sure I don’t have to tell your worldwise listeners what that second meaning is. So what it sounded like in Spanish was: When I get home from a hard day’s work, I bleep for all I’m worth ’cause I can only do it one time. So the commercial was rejected by the beer company and it was done on a contingency basis and it never hit the airwaves, much to my joy.
DF: It didn’t have enough gusto, basically.
RC: Getting back to the Original Soundtrack and You Gotta Walk It Donald you had your…
WB: Richard feels this will be a great embarrassment to us but I doubt it.
DF: We’re beyond humiliation.
RC: I wanna know about Donald’s acting debut in You Gotta Walk It.
DF: Well, as I mentioned to you, Richard, this little scene ended up on the cutting-room floor, but I thought I was quite good. What was that guy’s name? Who used to play the lawyer on …
HK: Zalman King?
DF: Zalman King. This guy is really big on his esoterica, here.
WB: He ended up on the cutting-room floor, too, as far as I can tell.
DF: This movie had Allen Garfield, Liz Torres, Robert Downey (Sr.). It was a very underground movie.
RC: So what did you do in your scene?
WB: He took his hat off.
DF: That was about it. The idea that Frederico Loce had — I mean his idea of humor was…
WB: Why don’t we re-enact the scene here for the KPFK listeners, okay? Just give us a moment and I’ll do the voice-over and you do the taking the hat off, okay? Long-haired freak, long-haired freak, long-haired freak, long-haired freak, long-haired freak.
DF: That’s about it. Was if funny? Did you laugh?
WB That’s why they cut it. It was the best scene in the film, of course.
RC: So the film didn’t do very well? It never made Cannes or …
WB: The film didn’t do anything.
DF: Why don’t we take a listen to that, Richard, if you don’t mind? Just get it over with.
RC: We’ve got a guy on the phone, here.
Caller: Hi, whatever happened to Jeff “Skunk” Baxter?
DF: Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, since leaving the Steely Dan organization, has become a fully-fledged rock ‘n’ roll star playing with the world-renowned Doobie Brothers. I’m ashamed of you, sir, for not knowing your rock ‘n’ roll history.
WB: If you really want to know what happened to Jeff “Skunk” Baxter when he was 17 years old, he was working in a guitar shop and he was working on some kind of woodworking tool and his head got caught in a vice.
Caller: Why do they call him “Skunk”?
WB: Vice. V.I.C.E. Vice.
DF: We’re not talking about the vice anglaise here, either…
HK: It should be mentioned here that Jeff “Skunk” Baxter hasn’t jammed in a week, either.
Caller: What does he do? I mean, what does he do besides play hot licks?
RC: They hang out up in Mendocino, California, sometimes Humboldt and they got other things to do.
WB: He just bought a house here in the Santa Monica — what do you call that…?
DF: What do you do besides call gimcrack radio stations in the middle of the night? (Becker laughs).
Caller: Does Denny Dias live in Woodland Hills?
DF: Mind your own business.
WB: That’s an invasion of Denny Dias’ privacy.
Caller: Who taught him? I’m just curious.
WB: Billy Bauer, the metronome poll winner for 1948.
DF: And speaking of Billy Bauer…
WB: Don’t you have a Steely Dan songbook? You’d have all this information if you bought a Steely Dan songbook — either Volume I or Volume II. Hey, they’re cutting you off, buddy.
Plays Dog Eat Dog by the Original Soundtrack.
WB: … while this is not really a disclaimer or waiver of any sort, but Richard has brought us down here to humiliate us by playing these old albums. I couldn’t be prouder of the cut that we just heard called “Dog Eat Dog,” which I’m informed Ted Nugent did a copy of — whoever Ted Nugent might be. Now, if we play any more Steely Dan records, Richard, we’re going home — I mean I’m going home and I’ve got the only car so he’s coming with me. I’d like you to read the inscription on this Miles Davis record for the audience and then play the second cut on the first side.
RC: This says, “To my dear friend Walter who suggested to Miles that I play block chords. Victor Feldman.”
WB: Right and we’re gonna hear “Seven Steps to Heaven.” This is Radio Free Steely Dan.
DF: That was “Seven Steps to Heaven,” Miles Davis on trumpet, Herbie Hancock on piano, George Coleman tenor sax, Tony Williams on drums and Ron Carter on bass.
WB: That was the first Miles Davis record to feature Anthony Williams, who was just a youngster at the time. And I believe the first Miles Davis record to have Herbie Hancock on it.
DF: That tune was written by Victor Feldman, that we’ve had the pleasure of working with many times.
HK: It’s an autographed copy.
DF: That’s true.
HK: Where did you get that album — at a record store?
WB: I got that album at a record store and made Victor write that on it, yes.
HK: Let’s take a couple of calls.
RC: Good morning, you’re on the air.
Caller: (Girl’s voice) Hello, I’d like to ask how you hire a lighting designer?
WB: Are you a girl?
Caller: I’m a girl.
WB: (Chuckling) Oh, God.
DF: Our female demographics are really low. I’m glad you called up.
RC: Yeah, it’s about time.
WB: Well, we got this English guy named Mimmy Johnstone — is that his name? — Jimmy Johnstone.
DF: He’s gonna kill us for getting his name wrong.
WB: He’s a little guy, he doesn’t look very dangerous but he’s got a nunchuk in his briefcase and he’ll take your head off just as soon as say…
Caller: Oh, no, I wouldn’t attack him or anything…
WB: No, I don’t imagine that you would. Why, are you in this line of work?
Caller: I’m interested in it. I’m interested in how it works, if he’s got all this equipment. Say, I’ll do your lights; I know your music.
WB: Hey, listen, I just happen to have the board up at my place. You could come on up and run the board. Run your fingers over it, if you’d like. Are you 18?
Caller: I’m 19.
WB: Perfect, according to Muddy Waters that’s perfect.
RC: How long have you had this lighting guy you’re with right now? Do they come and go?
WB: Oh, we fired him them in 1974.
RC: He’s so good you don’t even know his name.
WB: We don’t need many lighting guys in the studio.
Caller: Oh, no. Do you prefer studios to live performances?
WB: Well, you can’t get as much audience into a studio. On the other hand the live performance takes place in bigger halls.
Caller: Do you ever perform intimately?
(Laughter) HK: Every night.
WB: I performed intimately before dinner tonight! What kind of question is that? What kind of radio station is this?
RC: Never underestimate your audience.
Caller: For clubs. Do you ever perform your music just to perform it?
HK: We should explain one thing. These lads have been off the live circuit for about three or four years.
WB: Four years would be overstating it. Three years would be about right on, come this July 5th.
RC: If I might ask, why?
WB: Why not?
CM: Yeah. Time magazine said that these guys get up at five o’clock in the afternoon and open the drapes at nine o’clock at night.
WB: I think that was Newsweek magazine.
HK: Recluse Rock.
Caller: It was Newsweek, I read it.
CM: What would you like to hear next?
WB: I’d like to hear “Blue Xmas.” I’m glad you asked me that. By Miles Davis, and I think that’ll set the mood for the evening. I don’t hear my theme music playing in the background, by the way.
RC: Who’s the guest artist?
WB: (As the record begins) Oh, isn’t that lovely.
DF: Okay, this is Bob Dorough with Miles Davis. It was recorded many years ago, something like 1962. It’s called “Blue Xmas” and I think you’ll like it.
HK: Whose record collection is this from?
DF: This happens to be from my record collection, but this is a reissue.
WB: This is from the Donald J. Fagen Memorial Library.
DF: Right. This is the “Aimez-vous les Jazz” label.
RC: I think Dorough has a new album out.
WB: That’s right and Bob Dorough has been performing in the Los Angeles basin area which very few jazz artists are wont to do.
RC: Why is that?
WB: I don’t know, I think they consider it a cultural wasteland, or something like that.
RC: I went down to the Lighthouse to see Otis Rush who you might of heard of.
WB: Oh, I’ve seen Otis Rush. He’s a fabulous guitar player. Does he still have that beautiful expression on his face while he plays?
RC: Oh, he’s a good guy, he’s someplace else. He makes it look effortless. Even the bartenders and waitresses didn’t dig the music. So that’s Hermosa Beach for you.
WB: That’s Hermosa Beach for you.
RC: They say it’s too loud. Too loud.
Steely Dan’s singles career began rather unceremoniously in June 1972 with “Dallas” which featured drummer Jim Hodder on lead vocal. At that time, Donald Fagen was a somewhat reluctant vocalist, but his fascinating and distinctive nasal tones can be heard on the B side, “Sail The Waterway.” The single didn’t sell too many copies and consequently is now quite difficult to obtain, though both tracks later appeared as a Plus Fours 12″ single in the U.K.
“Dallas” was followed by “Do It Again”/”Fire In The Hole,” which was edited down from its original six minutes for the singles market. It went top ten in the U.S.A., but didn’t chart in the U.K. until 1975 when it was reissued. Sounds wrote: “This single has an immediate insidious quality that’s kept tight in right the way through, with a carving vocal just to add impact.” Melody Maker: “They obtain a foot-stomping sound with tight harmonies and electric piano. This is funky, wailing and real teeth-gritting monkey-time music.”
Also from the album “Can’t Buy A Thrill,” “Reelin’ In The Years”/”Only A Fool Would Say That” was chosen as the next single. Melody Maker called it: “The best single I’ve heard this week. Good, intricate vocal harmonies, clear, precise guitar work and a commercial enough song to break the charts.” Sounds liked it, too: “Steely Dan have a polished image and this record swings like crazy.” It peaked at No. 11 in America, but failed to chart in England despite considerable airplay.
“Show Biz Kids”/”Razor Boy” was also edited by some 80 seconds from the album version. Sounds began their review with a comment on the omission of the four-letter word which, they surmised, “might have prodded the more impressionable among you into raging, uncontrolled copulation in the middle of the street.” Melody Maker observed that: “walk into any good disco and you’ll hear the great music of Steely Dan. They have rhythm.”
Many people considered My Old School to be the best song on Countdown To Ecstasy, and it soon appeared on 45, backed by a bittersweet tale about a New Orleans whore, Pearl of the Quarter. A Rolling Stone reviewer wrote: “My Old School is another exuberant exercise in the toe-tappin’ and foot-stompin’ that just seems to be a natural byproduct of this group,” later adding that “Steely Dan could well make the American dance band alternative to Slade.” (?!)
Steely Dan’s biggest U.S. hit, “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number”/”Any Major Dude Will Tell You,” went to No. 4 in June 1974, but even the fact that they had just toured in the U.K. — albeit cut short by Donald Fagen’s illness — couldn’t give the record the push it needed to score. Record Mirror liked it but with a slight reservation: “this gradually unfurling, mellow Latin lilter is too subtle for a single, yet makes an ideal introduction to the group.” The New Musical Express reviewer relived his past: “One of life’s great experiences is to fly into L.A. airport, rent a car and drive off into town while music like this comes at you from all corners of the car.”
After such a sizable hit, Steely put out the title track of “Pretzel Logic,” but they couldn’t capitalize upon the success of Rikki. In a later interview, Walter Becker strongly denied the suggestion made in a New Times article by Arthur Lubow that “Pretzel Logic” was about Adolf Hitler.
By the time “Black Friday”/”Throw Back The Little Ones” came out, the U.K. music press were all too aware of Steely Dan’s lack of singles success. The Melody Maker wrote: “it has a handy collection of sturdy rhythms, attractive tune, amenable lyrics, listenable harmonies and gutsy instrumentation, all welded neatly together,” but still pronounced it a miss. Sounds hadn’t worked out the story either: “as always, the music is concise, uncluttered and beautifully played. The lyric, as always, is a trifle obtuse.” “Black Friday” was followed in the U.S. by “Bad Sneakers”/”Chain Lightning,” which, despite its lovely chorus, did nothing.
The first single to be lifted from “The Royal Scam” was the superb “Kid Charlemagne”/”Green Earrings,” which featured a blistering guitar solo from Larry Carlton, who regards it as the high point of his entire career as a session guitarist. Cashbox was optimistic about its chances: “The melody and arrangement are complicated but accessible. Every note is necessary in the clean Gary Katz production. The album is selling well and this single will, too.” However, “Kid Charlemagne” proved yet another chart failure, though I doubt if Becker and Fagen lost any sleep over it.
Steely Dan at last gained their long-overdue top 20 hit in England when “Haitian Divorce” went to No. 17 toward the end of 1976. It was another long track and on it Walter Becker displayed excellent use of the voice-box, giving his guitar sound almost speech-like articulation. For some unfathomable reason, it was not released in the U.S. — instead they put out the dance-oriented “The Fez”/”Sign in Stranger.”
In early 1978, “Peg”/”I Got The News,” taken from the incredible multi-platinum Aja showed Jay Graydon to be another great guitar player. Melody Maker called it: “a furiously lithe and stiletto-sharp dance workout”; Becker and Fagen called it: “a pantonal thirteen bar blues with chorus.” The flip side, too, is a marvelous piece of music, full of erotic and suggestive splendor.
The period after “Aja” was Steely Dan’s most prolific for singles releases. As well as the three taken from the album, 1978 also saw the release of “FM (No Static At All)” which they wrote specially for the film. Playing the saxophone was Pete Christlieb, whom Fagen and Becker had spotted on The Tonight Show, and for whom they would later produce an album, “Apogee” and pen the song, “Rapunzel.” Unfortunately, the single, like the film, didn’t do particularly well.
“Hey Nineteen” was Steely Dan’s first single to be taken from “Gaucho” and their second top ten U.S. single. It was backed by a live version of “Bodhisattva,” as was “Time Out of Mind” which came out later, causing great indignation among Fagen, Becker and Gary Katz, who had apparently decided upon “Third World Man” as the B side for the second release. MCA, however, argued that radio demand for a new single prompted the decision to use the same cut. “Time Out of Mind” peaked at No. 22 in the U.S. chart.
Donald Fagen’s first solo single, “IGY,” was a portrait of the technological optimism that existed during the late ’50s. New Musical Express wrote: “Donald Fagen’s sizzling sense of the dynamic in modern U.S. pop is hitched to his patented dry, white whine and uptown lilt” but they preferred the jaunty B side, continuing: “although the even more playable “Walk Between Raindrops” has been relegated to the reverse.” Sounds was in agreement, claiming “IGY is upstaged by the slightly more personalized flip, Walk Between Raindrops, a precise yet delirious title, if ever.”
Like IGY, New Frontier received a lot of airtime and was edited for the single version. Billboard’s critic was unenthusiastic: “the lyrics are diffuse and unsettling, but Fagen wraps them in a comfortable shuffling rhythm for an overall pleasant effect.” Sounds just didn’t like it: “the song itself is a bit of a plod, but Gary Katz’ polished production is so clean and understatedly tasteful that you don’t even notice that the music isn’t really going anywhere but in one ear and out the other.”
The last single to be taken from “The Nightfly” was Fagen’s version of Leiber and Stoller’s “Ruby Baby.” He said, “I sort of based it on the Drifters’ version. I threw in a lot of jazz chords and basically made it sound like a big R&B party situation.” The New Musical Express reviewer wasn’t satisfied: “his self-conscious literary blend of soft rock and cool jazz has been intensely rewarding for years, but it’s still more of the same.”