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 6 Articles:
“Century’s End” was reviewed in April on Singled Out by, of all people, Jacqui O’Sullivan from Bananarama and Derek B. Mike Read set the ball rolling with the question: “Too laid-back for radio?” and O’Sullivan responded with “Yeah, too easy, too laid-back, definitely. It’s just like a single Steely Dan put out a few years ago. I like his voice, though. Steely Dan fans’ll like it.” Read then queried its choice as a single and wondered whether it was a “record company decision.” She reiterated “probably for the Steely Dan fans” and Derek B said “I’ll go along with that”. I have to admit I wasn’t surprised they didn’t like it, but at least they didn’t stoop to the childish depths of the Melody Maker review.
Walter Becker is currently producing China Crisis’ new album in Hawaii. Work started in early May and they are scheduled to spend a couple months there. Look out for an autumn release.
Donald Fagen had another article featured in the May edition of Premiere. It’s called “The Big Rattle” and concerns a character called Eric who composes film scores on a battery of synths and computers. A possible significant (or ominous?) development is that while the earlier ones credited him as co-founder of Steely Dan, the latest omits any mention of Steely Dan.
Jeff “Skunk” Baxter was recently interviewed in a U.S. publication called “Song Talk.” It’s a very interesting article and quite a bit of the piece concerns Steely Dan. He talks about how they met in New York (Donald and Walter were working on an LP, which never saw the light of day, with a girl protege of Gary Katz’ named Linda Hoover), they realized he could play their challenging tunes and he liked their songs so they got together. Skunk himself suggested Jim Hodder who in turn later suggested Dave Palmer for last-minute vocalist. They agreed that if “one of us was ever lucky enough to get anything happening (laughs) call everyone else and we’ll do this. At first we were gonna call it Big Nardo and the Eighth Grade.”
“The deal that Steely Dan signed was not the world’s greatest, but we were desperate,” Baxter says. Apparently, one of the demos they were hawking around the record companies at the time was called “Dr. Udu’s Proto-Man.” The first song Steely Dan ever cut was “Dallas” which Baxter says was released and then withdrawn because they didn’t want to be labelled country and western!
He went on to explain how he was teaching himself to play Bach’s Toccata and Fugue on the guitar at the time they were recording “Countdown to Ecstasy” and suggested to Donald that they should try and incorporate one particular chord pattern into one of the songs. Later Fagen came in with a song called “The Boston Rag” and had put that actual chord change in it. “It thrilled me to death, Donald listening to my ideas.”
James Grant from Love and Money was interviewed very briefly on FSd in May and talked about his experiences in New York recording with Gary Katz. He didn’t have time to say too much other than to remark that they did encounter Donald in the studio and that he is “mega-shy.”
Apparently it took them three months to get past merely saying hello to him! He did a horn chart for the LP, Grant said, which was really interesting but “out to lunch” as far as Love and Money’s sound was concerned and so it’s not on the album. He did say, however, that Donald’s “new stuff is sounding really good,” so perhaps a long-overdue second solo album is in the pipeline. Since the last issue, yet another album of early demo material has been released entitled “Stone Piano.” It’s on the Thunderbolt label and is a succeeding volume to the earlier “Old Regime” package. There are no new tracks to be found and once again the artwork and cover defy description. Quite frankly if a friend hadn’t obliged me in getting my copy before I knew its merits — or lack of them — I would have kept my money in my pocket.
Hiram Bullock explained in a recent Guitar World interview why he chose to cover “Pretzel Logic.” “It was the suggestion of a friend of mine, and it fit because I’m a Steely Dan fanatic. I love everything they ever did. But the thing is you never hear Steely Dan covered, because the tunes are just too personal, it’s really clearly them. It would be really hard to cover the vocal.”
Despite the way things might often appear and the reputation Steely Dan was attributed throughout the ’70s, Walter and Donald have done their fair share of interviews, not only in the press but on radio, too. Certainly, I don’t think they’ve ever been interviewed on TV — and don’t think they ever will either, bearing in mind comments Donald made once about his discomfort in front of a camera — but there is quite a lot of very interesting material around if you are lucky enough to find it.
“Nightbird and Company”
One of the first radio interviews Becker and Fagen did was with Alison Steele on “Nightbird and Company” in May 1973. She began with some basic background questions about the band, what instruments each member played and asked who was the writing team. One of the more amusing moments came when she asked the inevitable, “How do you like touring?” and was greeted with a long, stony silence, followed by an outburst of laughter. Eventually, Donald said, “It’s interesting. I think it’s a new experience for Walter and I, but most of the other members are experienced on the road. For us, six weeks’ tour is really a long haul, but we’re gettin’ used to it.”
She later asked them about how they were being received as opening act for Elton John. Donald replied that the audience were “more than tolerant. I think our music is somewhat sophisticated the way Elton Jobn’s is, especially harmonically and lyrically, and they’re very receptive.”
Another question which amused them was: “What’s your ambition as far as where the band’s going to go, and what do you feel is the ultimate, the epitome that a band can reach?” Donald said, “I’ll let you take this one”, and after some more thought and a little stuttering, Walter said, “I’d like to make a couple great records — records that are totally fulfilling to myself and I’d like to have a band that performs well live and has developed some degree of communication between the musicians.”
Jim Ladd interview
The Jim Ladd interview (Series 8 #11) began with the three comparing life in Los Angeles with life in New York. Donald and Walter, obviously not enthralled with the lifestyle on the West Coast, claimed L.A. is hard to understand and Angelinos difficult to relate to — even ones their own age who ought perhaps to share the same cultural backdrop but don’t. The conversation swung around to why New York has more musical vitality than L. A. and they concluded that it’s mostly due to the racial mix.
When asked “How much do you care what people get out of Steely Dan’s music?” Donald replied, “We set out to please ourselves more than the audience, I think it’s obvious from our records that we’re serious in our intent.” Walter: “I would say I care more about whether what we’re trying to do is ultimately successful to any extent than I care about how many people buy the record.”
Talking about their song-writing routine, Walter said “We have a great time composing the songs,” and Donald took it up from there: “It takes a great deal of thought and work and energy, but there is an awful lot of hysteria and general jocularity while we’re composing these songs, as you can imagine — I mean these songs are ridiculous, these songs are crazy, these songs should be locked up and put away.” He continued on a more serious level. “But we write fiction, as opposed to relating personal experiences — though, of course, all fiction derives from the author’s personal experience anyway.” More specifically, he referred to “Black Cow” as being about how a particular incident (“in this case it was a small luncheonette in Anywhere, U.S.A.”) will stick out in a person’s mind when a relationship ends.
“I would like to take this opportunity to dispel the rumor, which I’ve heard repeatedly from interviewers, that Don and I ever use codes,” Walter said. “We use the English language as we understand it.”
Ladd then asked a favorite Dan question, “Why are you fascinated with the Orient?”
Donald: “We used to listen to a lot of Duke Ellington records and he was fascinated with the Orient, and we figured if it was good enough for him, it was good enough for us.” When Ladd asked if anyone had ever been upset with them at an interview, they said, “There was one Scottish guy who fell asleep in the middle of an interview in London. We took his wallet and took him down an alley and put him in a garbage can.”
Donald then explained how they happened across Michael McDonald at an audition for the post “Pretzel Logic” tour. “He immediately impressed us and we snapped him up.”
Under normal circumstances they didn’t often discuss the meaning of song lyrics, but he did persuade them to expand on “Kid Charlemagne.” Walter said, “He’s a casualty of the ’60s. Let’s just say that society has passed him by somehow and he’s a specialist in a specialty that no longer exists.” Donald took up the story, “They changed the rules on him, and he’s out there in a rented automobile trying to make do.”
He then asked them how they regard the show biz aspect of rock In’ roll. Not surprisingly, Walter says, “I’m not particularly taken with it, I’m more interested in the music than show biz. To tell you the truth, I would’ve thought if a rock n’ roll band set off a smoke bomb sometime during their performance, the audience would’ve just laughed and laughed and laughed. I would think that eventually that thing would become so obviously a sham that audiences would no longer crave that, but I’ve been wrong before in thinking that things are so laughable to me that they will soon die out. Maybe it’ll just keep getting more and more carnival atmosphere and less musical.”
Donald elaborated: “We’ve been jazz fans for a long time and they don’t make much show of their music, but most people need that if the music doesn’t have that interest to sustain.”
Earth News Radio
Earth News Radio was broadcast an October 10th 1977 and began with its host Lou Erwin asking about their lyrics.
“When you’re trying to cram a lot of information into what is basically a popular song form, you have to leave some holes. We always have a story in mind and try to present it in the most entertaining way we know how. Sometimes we leave a few holes, that’s all. And the more zany interpretations they make, the better really,” Donald said.
Erwin then said, “The public’s interpretations often seem mind-boggling to them,” and Walter illustrated his own lack of enthusiasm for explaining lyrical mysteries by saying, “I just usually say yes or no and leave it at that, with no regard as to whether that may or may not be the truth.”
One particular incident involved an interviewer deducing that the “number” of Rikki fame was San Francisco slang for a marijuana cigarette. “But we didn’t know that,” Donald protested. “‘The fact is we were simply referring to a phone number, so I think people should take the lyrics more literally to be on the safe side.”
Walter was asked how they came by the group name. “We issued the name in a song once and we liked the sound of it and it created an interesting illusion that there was a guy named Steely Dan, or that the title had reference to a pedal steel player. But the relationship between us and William Burroughs is vastly overemphasized by some critics, who see similarities that just aren’t there.”
Erwin asked what their own worlds were like. “Steely Dan’s music is dark because that is the shade of good drama,” Donald said. “It’s more interesting to write about somebody who’s in a life-or-death situation or having trouble in a relationship. It goes back to Greek drama — they didn’t write about people who were having a lot of fun.”
All the other musicians have been pared away, Erwin said. “Yeah, well., we didn’t wanna be limited by the musicians that we had at the time. They’re basically rock in’ roll musicians and we wanted to expand harmonically and rhythmically and go for the experience of working with a lot of different musicians. I don’t think it had to do with not being able to fit in or get along with anybody, ’cause we always had a pretty good relationship with people we worked with.”
He mentioned their recent unhappy experiences trying to get their first touring band for three years together. “It’s very difficult to build a band from scratch when you’re dealing with material of the complexity that ours is. To get a band together that really works together in a good way, we’d have to rehearse for a longer time than, well, at least longer than we anticipated on our last attempt a couple months ago.”
Rock Around The World
Rock Around the World in May 1978 interviewed Walter, Donald and Gary Katz. It began with Donald running through their early days as staff writers at Dunhill. “We were your usual hacks, we’d go in, we had a little office with a piano and some Jimi Hendrix posters on the wall and we’d write songs for the roster of artists at ABC, among others.”
Once again the conversation was steered around to their songwriting and lyrics. Walter: “We think of ourselves as comparatively detached from our writing, especially compared to other rock artists, who seem to bare their souls to the screaming masses, but it may be that we’re not as detached as we think. When a song is written in the first-person neither one of us is really that person, but I still think it reflects things that we actually feel and think. We never set out to write confusing parables.”
Gary Katz came in with an explanation concerning a line from “Any Major Dude Will Tell You.” “For instance, like in “Any Major Dude,” a squonk’s tears, I had to ask Donald what the hell that was. A catchy enough phrase that didn’t provoke too much thought, except if you wanted to know what a squonk was. But you have to know about it, you can’t write about it unless you have known about it: it’s a mythical woods animal who had the ability to cry himself into a bag of tears.
“They’re into jazz and always have been. They know as much about jazz from its inception to now as any two people I know, from players to songs. “Parker’s Band” is a song that was written long before we came to California.”
Asked about the latest album, Walter said, “It’s not another way of spelling Asia.”
“Aja is a young Oriental girl,” Donald explained.
“Donald claims to have known a girl called Aja once, but I doubt it.” The conversation ends with Donald claiming, “That song is basically an attempt to refute the idea that there’s no rest for the weary.”
Robert Morgan interview
In an interview with Robert W. Morgan broadcast in April 1979, Donald began by outlining their days with Jay and the Americans. “We used to work for Jay and the Americans and the group had names like Rosenberg and Blatt, and in those days it was conventional to change your ethnic name, whether it was Jewish or Italian, to nifty-sounding names like people had in the movies.”
“The nice thing about that band”, Walter added with all the fondness he could muster, “was that we were in the band and there were four guys with suits in front of us. It was like being in the Four Tops.”
Donald: “Yeah, I mean, we couldn’t play shit, but we were in the band. It was nice, nice. They had uniforms and things. I remember the guy who ran the Seven Seas Lounge at the Newport Hotel in Miami Beach used to complain about the way the band dressed, because Jay and the Americans looked really swell but we were always not quite so natty.”
“For that gig they had six horn players, right? Six bad horn players. Sammy Davis was in town and had every good musician in Miami Beach, and so Jay had one great musician who played about nine different instruments. You remember that sax player? And all the rest of the guys were, like, jive trumpet players who would take all the parts up an octave and blow it.” Walter continued, “We were writing a lot, but had no vehicle for them. Jay wasn’t interested, he thought we were amusing. So when we were offered a job writing songs and actually doing something besides playing “Only in America,” it seemed like a nice idea for a change, plus it would pay us every week whether Jay had a club gig or not. I think we realized we wouldn’t be writing songs for the Grass Roots for very long and that it was just a dodge. The original Steely Dan was already selected by the time we went to California and we would take them upstairs and say ‘Hey, we’ve just found this fantastic guy and you’ve gotta sign him for our band’ and after a while they stopped asking ‘What band?” Then they realized we were gonna do an album.”
Morgan asked them why they signed their record contract if it was allegedly so bad. “We’d been kicking around for a couple of years and we wanted to make a record”, Donald said. “It seemed to us that if we signed this thing and went in and made a record, it would be good. I think we would’ve preferred to’ve grown up on the same block with five or seven guys who thought the same way we did and had a working unit for all these years, but it didn’t work out that way and we were all strangers. They were very nice about the whole thing and more or less abdicated their own musical conscious and listened to us — I’m talking about our original band ofsix, then five or whatever it was…”
“And then nobody here but us chickens.”
He asked them to explain what happened when “FM” came out in 1978. “We had a song out called FM, and naturally the AM stations didn’t wanna play a song called FM so they took the A from Aja, which was harmonically compatible, and did a little edit on that and we were surprised to hear AM coming out of the radio where FM should’ve been. Isn’t it wonderful what you can do with technology these days?”
“There are some things that we should’ve done differently,” Walter said. “I can see we overextended ourselves in certain instances and perhaps brought a bad idea to its nasty conclusion, but it would be hard to avoid that. There are very few artists that are even remotely perfect.”
“That’s right, can’t all be winners.”
Robert Klein interview
When Donald and Walter went out to “promote,” Gaucho they recorded an interview with a hip young Jewish comedian called Robert Klein in front of a live audience in New York. This provided the basis for part of the Melody Maker cover story by David Fricke and provided two three-sided double album sets, the first broadcast on December 15th, 1980 and the other on February 22nd, 1981. The latter show is basically just a rerun of the former, with a few previously-edited bits now included. The shows are as much an opportunity for Klein to dispense his comedy routine as for the interview itself, but they seemed to enjoy it nonetheless.
A couple of the lighter stories are worth relating, however. He asked them if they were aware that a songwriting class was devoted to Steely Dan at Berklee. Donald said, “No, this is news to us, Bob. There was a piano teacher there that was very good, a jazz pianist and I remember I had a course with him, but he had to leave because he got a good gig. He had a series of lessons he was supposed to give over a period of 3 or 4 months, but at the last moment he decided the gig was more important, so in one lesson he gave three months’ worth of lessons. He was sitting there saying ‘Now the function of the half-diminished chord is…’ he went through all of musical history in three hours.”
In the second part, Klein asked Walter about a report that Mitch Miller, “although he really loves your music,” had complained about him playing the guitar all night long. “Yeah, that’s true. I live in the apartment below Mitch Miller, but I heard a thud last night. I’d like to get the apartment, right? And I figure if I hear the right thud, I can just tunnel up and answer his calls and live there, too.”
“We get all our ideas from Mitch,” Donald said. “We have a little microphone that we’ve snaked up through the pipes and when he’s practicing his oboe we just flip on the recorder.”
“Actually he can’t play his oboe any more because his beard grew up and into his mouth.”
Klein then asked Donald if a film score would interest them. “Yeah, we’ve talked about it from time to time. But our experience with “FM” wasn’t that good — it’s the “Heaven’s Gate” of low-budget movies.” Walter said, “We were warned up front that this might not be “Lawrence of Arabia.” Just do your song and that’s it.”
Mary Turner interview
One of the most comprehensive interviews Steely Dan did was with Mary Turner in a four-part Off the Record. It included quotes from Jeff Baxter and Gary Katz, as well as Dick LaPalm. Working through from the early days to the present, Donald and Walter started with some more reminiscences about their days on the road with Jay and the Americans. “Remember the time they were playing up in Queens and Jay got subpoenaed? That was no fun.”
“That’s right, the guy with the gun.”
“We don’t wanna get into that, if you wanna know the truth, because we could end up with a horse’s head in our bed.”
Moving on to how Gary Katz secured his job out in California, Walter said, “The situation then was that ABC had the Mamas and the Papas, Barry MacGuire, Three Dog Night, Grass Roots and Bobby Vinton, Tommy Roe, you know, they didn’t have a big underground thing going. Gary had a certain type of moustache that convinced them that he would be a good underground producer.”
Jeff Baxter took up the story. “Jay Lasker said ‘Gary, you didn’t tell me that I was gonna get a band with these two dummies.’ So we had a band; Jay had a band and he had to go out and buy a PA system, so we could rehearse in one of the offices. It was great, it was like being in a family. I remember when Howard Stark gave me a check for $1,000. I went nuts! Wow! And he looked at me real serious and said ‘You go get yourself a nice apartment and find yourself a nice girl and put some money in the bank.’ I was flabbergasted.
“Rehearsals’d start around six, ’cause I was repairing guitars and we couldn’t practice in the daytime anyway, cause it was 9-to-5 in the office. So we’d go into our abandoned office around six o’clock with some sandwiches and rehearse until really late.”
After rehearsals came the road work, which Jeff Baxter obviously enjoyed a great deal. “Touring? Now this was a touring band; this band knew how to tour. You know, I wish I could tell you some stories, some great stuff. We had Dinky Dawson, who was doing the PA, and the guy who mixed our monitors was interesting. He would set up the monitors so he could hear real well, he’d get a nice sound that he liked and he’d take his violin out and play with us throughout the set. Everything as really shaky.”
Donald wasn’t nearly as enthusiastic. “I dislike the rigours of the road. It’s just I don’t like to front a band, you have to talk to the audience) tell jokes. I don’t like the jock atmosphere of a travelling rock ‘n’ roll band — it’s corny, boring and silly.”
Mary Turner asked Gary Katz about Jeff Baxter and Michael McDonald’s departure. “Donald and Walter’s music was evolving and it was opening into more sophisticated sort of an expansion of their own style. And they wanted the freedom to be able to use as many styled players as fit the tunes that were starting to be written then. Jeffrey had an opportunity at that time ’cause he had been playing off and on with the Doobie Bros. as a guest, which afforded him the opportunity to be on the road a lot, which he enjoys. There was no big blowup or argument. It never happened.”
She then brought up the subject of their very demanding studio standards. “We know what a song can sound like and if it’s short of that, it’s not good yet. So yes, it’s boring on the twenty-fifth take but there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, so to speak. So I can endure it, but it is boring sometimes. And it can be very difficult for the performer if you continue to do it, wanting it better than he just did.”
Dick LaPalm then spoke about nurturing Steely Dan’s talents. “When you’re dealing with people as creative as Steely Dan, the atmosphere has to be conducive to creativity. We know the kind of cookies Gary Katz prefers and you can bet when we know that he’s coming in, we’re gonna have a lot of chocolate whatever-they-are. I know that Roger Nichols, their executive engineer loves Good n’ Plenty.”
He went on to further illustrate how high the studios’ tolerance levels are. “One night we were having a problem with the right speaker, yes and no. It would work for 15 and start cutting out and, in the end it got to the point where we’ve gotta do something, so Gary Katz came up with the best idea. He picked up a can of cola and just threw it at the speaker and it worked, they did not have one problem from that moment on. The next morning someone came in and said ‘Dick, the Valencia cabinet is broken and the grill is cracked – what happened?’ Well, someone in the Steely Dan session – we think it was Gary — broke the cabinet, but the speaker worked from that moment on and everyone said, ‘Isn’t that wonderful?’ Again, the important thing is to keep the creative juices flowing.”
“Your lyrics are always really good, but they’re hard to follow,” Turner said.
“We’re very much concerned with the sound of the words and the music. There are many instances when we’re writing lyrics when we’ll sacrifice literal meaning or linear storytelling effects for sound effects. That’s the way we’ve been writing for a long time,” Walter replied.
Donald: “I think we’ve gotten to the point where we rarely sacrifice literal meaning for the sound of the phonemes. I think we’ve come to the point where we can compromise and come up with a lyric that’s both meaningful and poetic as you will, or as you won’t.”
She then confronted them with the criticism that using studio musicians takes away a lot of the excitement of the music. “Well, that’s the critical point-of-view,” Walter said, “and has to do with the belief that great rock ‘n’ roll is made by some primeval swamp savages mysteriously equipped with electric guitars. They crawl out of the marsh and they can hardly speak any English and they come in and record “Hound Dog” and that kind of thing, which is not true. A surprising number of your rock ‘n’ roll records that people think of as being groups are actually the same studio musicians.”
“And also when we work with these musicians they know they’re not gonna get a three-chord commercial for Uncle Ben’s Rice. They’re gonna have some challenging progressions and some interesting rhythms to play. They know we’re looking for an atmosphere for each tune and we’re looking for them to come up with parts to cooperate with us and help us with the arrangement and take part in the making of the record. As long as we’re together, just the two of us, and we don’t have a working band, we’re never gonna have the kind of unified group sound that, say, The Band had for those years or The Rolling Stones. It’s a different kind of thing and I think we accept that and look to our writing and arranging to keep a unified style.”
She asked them why they thought Steely Dan was so popular. “I never doubted that this sort of thing would catch on,” Walter said.
Donald explained, “No, musically we’re working with basic pop song forms, though we may distort them, they’re still basic forms that are derived from a balanced structure that people have been listening to for years — the popular songs of the ’30s and ’40s. Basically, you have two themes, one of which is repeated several times in a recapitulation and so on. We’re pretty traditional as far as that goes and I think that’s the reason for the popularity of it aside, of course, from our own doubtful genius.”
A second interview with Robert W. Morgan broadcast in May 1981 again worked through their history in the usual manner. Here are a few of the non-repeat quotes.
Donald began by talking about their days at Bard. “We had groups for different occasions. We had a little jazz trio for NAACP benefits and things like that and we could quickly get together a rock ‘n’ roll band for the Halloween party.”
“Yeah, a dance, outdoors, indoors, anything. The art show — I’d rather not talk about the art show. Donald was using a borrowed piano which he blew up. I was soloing and the piano stopped and he left. He walked while I was struggling to make a piece of tonal music. But I didn’t really wanna be there anyway.”
“Yeah, I did walk. I left him to face the federales like Karl Malden did to Marlon Brando in ‘On the Waterfront.’ ”
Their stilted affection for their days with Jay and the Americans provided them with another opportunity to wring some more jokes out of them. “One of the musicians in the back-up band was so bad that anything we might do to change the songs would go unnoticed. We had little Motown bridges. The bridge for “She Cried” really took off like a 747.”
Gary Katz relates the story of how he first met Donald and ‘Walter. “I was producing independently in New York at the time and a friend of mine in Jay and the Americans said when you get finished come here and we’ll go home. He said, ‘I’m working with these two guys who are real interesting.’ I met Donald and Walter and the first time I heard their music it was far out. It was different than anything I had heard. It was very adventurous in the music in the sense of chord structure and very odd vocally against those chords.”
Amid rumours about alleged duck-hunting expeditions and intensive Scrabble playing sessions, she asked if they were all good friends. Gary Katz again: “Yeah, sure, but Donald and Walter are not the same people and they have different lives outside of their work. It’s not like everybody hangs out, you know, when the studio’s over we don’t all go to somebody’s house and get high and just hang out for 12 hours after that. We all have our own lives and a very settled life.”
It’s not like one person brings the music and one person brings the lyrics or one person brings rock and one person brings jazz. It’s really an intermingling of all the above and testing the waters and throwing out an idea and it can come from any one of the three of us. I don’t know any ego, I know it sounds really pompous to say, but I haven’t seen any ego since I’ve been working with them. If anything, it’s the opposite, continual self-putdown.”
Finally. came Startrak Profile, a retrospective in January 1984 comprised of snippets from all the above interviews but with some interesting new quotes frm Gary Katz and Jeff Baxter.
Talking about touring, Gary said, “Nobody felt prepared to do it at that time and in fact nobody was. The record was finished and put out pretty quickly and obviously no one expected such immediate acceptance, so all of a sudden there was immediate pressure to go out and support the album, especially from the record company.”
Jeff Baxter, though, said touring was not without its lighter moments. “I was actually enjoying myself, everybody in the rhythm section was enjoying themselves, Donald and Walter hated touring — hated it with a passion. But Donald turned out to be a great performer. There’s a streak in Donald that runs to be in a great stage presence, I mean, he’d literally go nuts. So I think deep down inside Donald there’s a — if not love — a certain genetic understanding of live performing. No, they didn’t like it, but they had to like some of it ’cause it was pretty funny. Everybody really liked the band when we played. I guess we had something for everybody, ’cause we used to pound it out. Everybody would sweat their brains out.
“We got panned at the Whisky A Go Go I ’cause we didn’t look good. The reviewer said he wasn’t sure about the music, but he definitely knew it, we were the ugliest band he ever saw. Anyway, we took this show on the road. Everybody really liked us. I was amazed — especially in Texas. I couldn’t figure that out ’cause the band that would open for us would be unbelievably raunchy and funky and loud and boogieing and we get on – although I guess we did have that quality — every once in a while we could really crank it up and rock ‘n’ roll. ‘Cause basically as much as everybody likes jazz and we all love to play that kind of music, there’s nothing like rock ‘n’ roll for your soul.”
Gary Katz explained their studio set-up. “It’s not a written chart for each player, because the purpose of having the really great players that we enjoy working with is to be able to get their musicality that we hired them for. When the players come in we have this little ugly demo with just terrible electric piano sound and Donald’s sort-of singing, maybe Walter playing the bass line and chord sheets and it’s pretty clear what we’re looking for. Then it’s a process of going out and playing it down and hacking it out and getting what you like.”
He was asked about how they found the soloist for “Deacon Blues.” “Pete came about because we liked the saxophone player on the Tonight Show and we found out who it was. We kept hearing this one guy who was great, but could never figure out who in the band it was. We had one player come down thinking it was him and when it wasn’t we called the other one and it was Pete and he was great. Pete’s a free spirit; there’s not much controlling Pete, which is exactly what we want. So you just run the music by him and he blows his brains out and it’s great. He also plays on “FM.”
In May 1974 Steely Dan came to the U.K. for their first overseas tour. The support group was the Kiki Dee Band and the scheduled dates were: 17th – Palace Theatre, Manchester; 18th – Leeds University; 19th – Bristol Hippodrome; 20th & 21st – Rainbow, London; 23rd – Apollo, Glasgow; 24th – Spa Hall, Scarborough; 25th – City Hall, Sheffield; 26th – Top Rank, Southampton; 28th – Birmingham Hippodrome; 29th – Liverpool Stadiun; 1st June – Kursaal Ballroom, Southend.
The NME wrote that during their visit they would be recording a BBC2 “In Concert” special for Stanley Dorfman, guesting in The Old Grey Whistle Test and then departing for more key dates in Europe. However, when they arrived to record the Whistle Test program, there was a technicians’ strike in progress and they were turned away at the gate. Sacrilege!
The tour was cancelled, too, after only four concerts when Donald was taken ill. Rumors abounded that he was suffering from the effects of drugs, but Walter denied this saying: “I’ve known him seven years and never in that time have I known him to take cocaine, and certainly not since we got to England.”
Also in May that year the NME wrote: “Steely Dan, the stylish American five-piece rated by NME writers as one of the most striking bands to have emerged in the Seventies, start their tour on Friday 17th in Manchester. In celebration of this they ran a competition in which 25 copies of “Pretzel Logic” could be won. The questions were:
- Which founder member of Steely Dan is no longer in the band? (A) Elliott Randall (B) David Palmer (C) Gary Katz (D) Donald Fagen.
- Which college did Walter Becker and Donald Fagen attend during the sixties? (A) West Point (B) Yale (C) Bard (D) MIT.
- Which Dan song chronicles the aftermath of a nuclear disaster? (A) Do It Again (B) Barrytown (C) King of the World (D) Fire in the Hole
- Which Dan song was not written by them? (A) Reelin’ in the Years (B) Remember You’re a Womble (C) East St. Louis Toodle-Oo (D) Parker’s Band
- Who played the slide guitar on “Show Biz Kids”? (A) Ry Cooder (B) Rick Derringer (C) Skunk Baxter (D) Elmore James
A 3″ CD of “Century’s End” has been issued by Warner Bros which includes “The Nightfly” and “The Goodbye Look”, as well as an instrumental track entitled “Shanghai Confidential.” In actual fact, this song was originally composed specially for a professional New York dancer called David Parsons who asked Donald to write him a song for a dance video. When the video was complete, however, he decided not to use the song after all.
One song featured in the film “Bright Lights, Big City” which is not included on the soundtrack album is Donald’s version of the Jimmy Reed song of the same title. His interpretation of it is apparently a gem; it was also covered by The Animals in the ’60s.
In a Q article about music business hoaxes, it stated that the manager of an unknown Scottish band attempted to expose certain A&R men’s ineptitude by sending them “demos” of already established artists, including Steely Dan. The A&M fellow rejected the two Fagen-Becker tunes with the comment, “not the sort of act A&M would sign.”
Larry Carlton is recovering after being shot in the neck as he entered his studio to work on his next album on April 6th. Initially, he was in a serious condition but he has thankfully pulled through and his voice is back to normal (the bullet penetrated his voice-box) and he is receiving daily therapy to return his left arm to its full usage.
In a late ’70s(?) Playboy feature called “Ears of the Stars,” Donald Fagen was asked what he had been listening to lately. He said: 1. Phil Woods – Altology (Prestige); 2. Dandy’s Dandy (Venture); 3. Sonny Rollins – Way Out West (Contemporary) 4. Surf Punks (Dayglow).
The original choice of cover for “Can’t Buy A Thrill” was vetoed by Jay Lasker on the grounds of being too suggestive. It featured a naked little girl staring lasciviously at the magazines in a porn shop window while the store’s proprietor leers at her.
Likewise, he demanded a change in the cover for “Countdown to Ecstasy” because the first water color by Donald’s girlfriend, Dorothy White, depicted three sci-fi spectres sitting in different states of detached expectations as three white lights loom ahead. Lasker thought that with five members in the group, the cover ought to reflect this and asked her to include another two figures. He reasoned that otherwise people might think that the group had broken up. Dorothy White argued that it was just a painting and had no relation to the members of the band. However, to placate him, she succeeded in adding two more vague shapes to the background without significantly altering the painting’s appeal.
The bridge on “Glamour Profession” is a take on the bridge of Kurt Weill’s “Speak Low” and they had had the chorus for it lying around since their college days.
A question raised in a “Musician” interview in 1979 about a line from “Your Gold Teeth” prompted a response from a reader in Washington. He accused Becker and Fagen of taking the lyric, “There ain’t nothing in Chicago for a monkey woman to do” from a Count Basie/Joe Williams song entitled “Going to Chicago Blues.”
On their ’73 U.S. tour, Steely Dan were encoring with a version of the Angels’ “My Boyfriend’s Back.”