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 7 Articles:
- Short Takes
- Donald Fagen interview on BBC Rock Hour
- Donald Fagen interview with Mary Turner
- Review of Hoops McCann Band
- Review of New Frontier video
Donald Fagen is 80 percent finished writing his second solo album. He has co-written three tracks with Walter who will also be involved in the making of the record, although it will come out under Donald’s name.
Walter has finished producing China Crisis’ next album — called “Diary of a Holly Horse” and due for a December/January release — and is now set to produce Rickie Lee Jones’ next album.
Gary Katz has also finished his work on the Love and Money album. It’s called “Strange Kind of Love” and should be out by the time you read this. He has now been lined up to produce ex-Christians’ mainman Roger Christian’s first solo album. Apparently, Christian has such a great voice that he thought he couldn’t possibly turn the project down.
Gary Katz was interviewed with Love and Money for Wired but when the programme was transmitted on September 2 his contribution had been edited out.
Steely Dan are at long last to be featured in a future edition of “Record Collector.” Let’s hope this time it actually appears, because I’ve heard this before somewhere!
Steely Dan’s name has been cropping up quite frequently in the specialist music magazines lately. In “Guitar World,” Steve Lukather said, “Larry (Carlton) is still a big influence, especially the stuff he was doing during “The Royal Scam” period. You know, when you hear someone playing bebop with a burn sound, you say, ‘That’s the shit’ and that’s what I wanted to do. I just put a slightly harder edge to it than Larry.”
The Steely Dan influence had even more practical significance in the formation of Toto. “We knew each other in high school. That’s one of the big misconceptions about us, that we’re studio musicians. We were playing in high school bands before we ever did a record date. We had a killer high school band; we learned the whole “Katy Lied” album before it came out because Jeff brought the tapes in. We were playing these tunes live at high school dances and people were going, “Wow, that sounds like a Steely Dan song!”
Bass player Nathan East told “Guitar World” that when he was teaching himself the technique of playing with real feel, he would simply listen to Chuck Rainey’s playing on Steely Dan albums.
One recent LP to show apparent Steely Dan influences (according to Dave Lee Travis) is The Bible’s album, “Eureka,” which was produced by Steve Earle. Also Hue and Cry’s latest single, “Ordinary Angel,” which was recorded in New York, is supposedly reminiscent of “Katy Lied”-period Dan. And listen out for the intro to “Do It Again” in Tom Jones’ version of Kiss.
Due to the confusion between their names in America in February, 1973, when Do It Again was riding high in the charts, several British music papers ran articles claiming that Steely Dan had challenged Steeleye Span to a musical duel to establish which of them could retain their name for the U.S. market.
“Even Cathy Berberian knows there’s one roulade she can’t sing,” Donald Fagen sang in “Your Gold Teeth.” Who the hell is Cathy Berberian? At first, I thought that she was just another character invented by Walter and Donald until I discovered that she actually exists. As the high priestess of the avant-garde, Cathy Berberian has performed just about every kind of bizarre vocal acrobatic imaginable. She admitted to being “terribly flattered” by the name check from Steely Dan and bought several copies of the record to give to her family.
She is also the woman for whom Stravinsky wrote “Elegy for JFK” with her voice in mind and who made a recording of Beatles songs sung in a mock-dignified baroque style. She got to know Paul McCartney quite well in the mid-’60s and the influence of electronic music first felt in “Revolver” and “Sergeant Pepper” is allegedly due partly to the Beatles’ fascination with Luciano Berio’s (once her husband) music and Cathy’s performances. Frank Zappa, among others, wanted to do concerts and record with Cathy. He was particularly interested in utilizing her talents for his rock extravaganza, 200 Motels, but their busy schedules were incompatible.
When asked on Rockline, a radio phone-in, whether or not he would be attending the awards ceremony, after “The Nightfly” was nominated for seven Grammys, Donald laughed and said, “Aah, I’ve been wondering about that. I haven’t gone in the past, but I may go this time. It was terrific to get nominated for so many Grammys. So I may show up.”
The nominations were: album of the year, song of the year (for “IGY”), best pop vocal, best instrumental arrangement with a vocal, best vocal arranged or two or more voices, engineer of the year (Roger Nichols) and Gary Katz was put forward for his production work.
See you in court! In the latter part of 1974, Steely Dan filed a $2 million suit against Joel Cohen, president of Steely Dan Inc., and Kudo III (Cohen’s management agency) for defamation, breach of fiduciary duty and trade libel, blaming Cohen for false rumors that the group was breaking up, inferring appearance drop outs and damaging their relationship with ABC/Dunhill. (By this time Jeff Baxter and Jim Hodder had already gone their separate ways.) Cohen in turn blamed Steely Dan’ business managers and attorney Michael Shapiro for poisoning their minds, and in return filed a $3 million slander suit against them.
Here are a few titles which were scheduled to appear on Steely Dan albums, but for one reason or another never quite made it:
- Talking about their dislike for the California lifestyle in 1975, Becker and Fagen referred to two songs where they used this as material: one being Show Biz Kids, the other an unrecorded song entitled Megashine City.
- Interviewed prior to the release of Aja, Donald Fagen told Jim Trombetta what he might be able to expect from the new album. “We have a five-minute ditty about Napoleon and the Congress of Vienna, and we have a song called Were You Blind That Day, which is a kind of Third World fantasy.”
- According to the Melody Maker, there was a song scheduled for Gaucho which was presumably another of Becker and Fagen’s Oriental-influenced musics called Shanghai Shakedown. Also set to be included on what became Gaucho was a wonderful song called The Second Arrangement, but which still somehow found its way out of the studio and onto cassette.
When Bob Dylan placed a tiny ad in a Los Angeles newspaper for qualified but unknown musicians for his 1981 tour, none other than Donald Fagen, using his real name, applied for the keyboard player’s job. A few days later Dylan’s bass player, Rob Stoner, called Fagen and told him what a great idea it was that the co-creator of Steely Dan was interested in playing piano for Dylan. “I will definitely talk to Bob about it,” Stoner reportedly told Fagen, “and I’ll get back to you in a few days.”
Stoner never called back. “As far as I’m concerned,” Fagen said, “Dylan passed up a good thing. Sorry, Bob, I’m not available any more. I’m too busy.”
He later said, “Yes, I inquired about joining Dylan’s band, but when I did, I was quite secure in my own endeavors. I’m in Steely Dan and it was basically a whim.” (Becker and Fagen dissolved their partnership only months afterwards.)
In the Playboy music poll of 1979, Steely Dan were chosen as best rock group. Playboy considered their rise from cult status to large scale popularity as “one of the most gratifying events of the past year.”
This is an extract from a conversation Larry Carlton had with “Guitar World” in 1981:
GW: Steely Dan’s “The Royal Scam” is one of the finest albums for contemporary electric guitar that has come out in the last decade. And my vote for the best solo on that album goes to your playing on “Kid Charlemagne.”
LC: It’s my claim to fame (he chuckles). I did maybe two hours’ worth of solos that we didn’t keep. Then I played the first half of the intro, which they loved, so they kept that. I punched in for the second half. So it was done in two parts and the solo that fades out in the end was done in one pass. I played seven solos on “The Royal Scam,” but without the album in front of me I can’t remember the titles.
GW: Do Becker and Fagen demand more of you than the usual session, and if so do you put out more for them?
LC: Their demands are so high. It wa gruelling going through “The Royal Scam” because I was so heavily involved in the tracks and the charts. We cut six or seven tunes with different drummers. I was pretty fed up and thinking are those guys ever going to be happy with what I do? When I heard the record, then I realized that I wasn’t the person who should be judging them at all. I knew how hard they worked on it, but I saw why. It was just outstanding.
GW: Is Charlemagne the high point of your career as a session man?
LC: Probably so. I can’t think of anything else that I still like to listen to as strongly as that.
Pianist Keith Jarrett sued Steely Dan in 1981 after Becker and Fagen admitted — initially off-the-record — in a lengthy Musician interview with David Breskin that the intro to the title track of Gaucho was very similar to a song he had written himself and recorded with Jan Garbarek entitled “Long As You Know You’re Living Yours” (on their 1974 ECM album, Belonging).
“We were heavily influenced by that particular piece of music,” Donald said.
“I love it,” Walter continued. (They later approved their off-the-record comments for publication.)
“We were talking about borrowing,” Breskin said.
Donald Fagen: “Hell, we steal. We’re the robber barons of rock ‘n’ roll.”
Breskin then said, “The only other thing that seems obviously borrowed is “Glamour Profession.” The rhythm and the feel of it, the way the synthesizer/horn vamp swings against the pulse sound very much like Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band.
“I don’t listen to them. Donald listens to them. But I see what you mean, though.”
“I liked their first record,” Donald said.
“I’m not saying it was a conscious act of pilferage.”
“That song was influenced by disco music in general,” Donald said. “But what you’re saying is basically valid. There are other things that are borrowed, too.”
According to Rolling Stone magazine, Walter and Donald were seen wearing “Get Slim” T-shirts just after the release of Slim Whitman’s 68th album. Whether this was because they were ardent fans or wanted him dealt with before he could record his 69th remains debatable.
Donald Fagen interview on BBC Rock Hour
Part two of the Interview Records feature (See http://steelydanreader.com/1988/07/01/metal-leg-6/#2 for part one) deals with two promotional appearances Donald made soon after the release of “The Nightfly.” The first one took place in London with the BBC’s Trevor Dann. For “Off The Record” he was interviewed by Mary Turner.
BBC Rock Hour interview
TD: What does the release of The Nightfly mean for the future of Steely Dan?
DF: Well, after 14 years of writing and recording together, Walter and I decided to more or less take a vacation from each other and do some separate projects. I had a few ideas for some solo albums and Walter’s doing some production work for Warner Bros. We kind of left it open as to whether or not we get together again — maybe a year or two down the line, who knows?
TD: Are you still in contact with one another, because for a time you lived very close?
DF: Yeah, we lived in the same building until recently. Yeah, I talked to him about a month ago and he’s fine. We talk.
TD: Did you feel by the time you recorded Gaucho that the band was running out of steam, that you needed a new challenge?
DF: Yeah, I think that both Walter and I both thought that album lacked a little spark that maybe some of the previous ones had, and that’s I guess another reason why we thought it would be a good idea to refresh ourselves by doing some different kinds of things.
TD: What do you think the American public has made of the demise of Steely Dan? Are they disappointed that you may not work together again?
DF: I don’t know, because first of all I don’t do that much traveling around America. I’m mainly based in New York City, except if i go on vacation or something. I don’t really get that much feedback. I think because many of the same elements are present in this album as on Steely Dan records — I mean, it’s my voice and the jazz harmonies are there — at least musically it’s not too much of a breakthrough. I guess it’s kind of a continuation along the same tradition.
TD: Was the concept something that you felt you couldn’t do within the Steely Dan format or was it in any sense provoked by the split?
DF: I don’t know if it was provoked by the split. For some years, I’ve had the idea of doing a somewhat autobiographical type of album, so I think it was more personal and subjective and therefore I think it was onloy proper that I do it myself, since I was basically drawing on my own experiences and so on, but it just seemed like because of the subject matter I should do it by myself.
Plays “New Frontier”
TD: All the songs seem to be about your life as a teenager in the New Jersey of the 1950s.
DF: Yeah, well, I’m 34 now and I started to think back about how I came to be a musician, and in exploring that I started thinking about the late ’50s and early ’60s when I first started listening to jazz and rhythm-and-blues and that kind of music, and that’s the kind of music that formed a lot of my attitudes at the time, not only the music but the whole culture connected with jazz and late night radio and hipster culture and all those things which I thought of as an alternative to the rather bland life I was leading out in the suburbs near New York City. That’s basically what the album is about, that theme runs through most all of the songs.
TD: Tell me some more about this boring suburb — it doesn’t sound much like the Bruce Springsteen New Jersey.
DF: Well, actually, it was quite near there. It’s a bit more inland, I think he lived in Atlantic City which is on the ocean, but I lived, well for at least part of the time, in one of those prefab-type developments where all the houses look exactly the same and it was quite boring really. There wasn’t much to do. Of course, in the late ’50s generally American culture was not popping; it was kind of a dull scene and to me jazz and black music in general had a vitality that I was missing in real life and it seemed more real to me than my life. It was a great escape for me.
TD: This escapism you talk about most eloquently on the title track which seems to be about a late night DJ.
DF: I created a character, the Nightfly, who’s one of those late night jazz jocks broadcasting out of Manhattan, and he’s sort of a compilation of a number of disc jockeys that I used to listen to when I was a kid. There was one called Symphony Sid, Mort Fega and a few other colorful characters who would broadcast out of Manhattan.
TD: Symphony Sid had a song written about him, didn’t he?
DF: That’s right, a very famous song that was his theme song. I think a lot of people know it, I think it was done by — well, I can’t remember the tenor player who did it, but a rather famous…
TD: It’s just recently been redone by Joe Jackson. Jumping With Symphony Sid.
DF: Oh, really, I didn’t know that. Yeah, well, he was one of the guys I listened to and there were a number of other ones. There was also a very famous monologist who didn’t play music but had a kind of jazz-style rap, named Gene Shepherd, who is quite famous in the States. All these disc jockeys were on late at night and there was a whole atmosphere about them which I considered very romantic and after a while I developed a very romantic image of what these disc jockeys were like — the studios they were broadcasting out of and it all basically went along with the kind of music they played.
Plays “The Nightfly”
TD: Donald, it seems that you were more influenced in this period by the jazz than rock and roll. Now that might seem strange because the rock and roll scene was still quite active in the late ’50s, wasn’t it?
DF: Yeah, well when I was quite young I used to buy Chuck Berry and Fats Domino records, but when I was about 11 or 12 I discovered jazz and I guess simultaneously rock became, I guess, a bit more commercial and I sensed that the vitality had switched to jazz. ‘Course the jazz scene in the late ’50s was particularly active: there were great musicians like Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Thelonious Monk all making really classic records so it grabbed my interest, so that’s what I listened to at the time.
TD: What was the particular reason for doing Ruby Baby?
DF: I thought that the lyrics to Ruby especially had a certain naivete or innocence which fit in with the teenager’s or child’s viewpoint that I was trying to present on the record.
TD: Did you go back and listen to the original versions before you recorded your own?
DF: Yeah, well, that version I had was kind of a spinoff of the Drifters’ version and I took that as a jumping off point to do a big rhythm and blues party arrangement, but yeah, I did listen to quite a few things from the ’50s just to get a general atmosphere of the times in addition to what I could remember about the period.
Plays “Ruby Baby.”
TD: How long did it take to record?
DF: For instance, this album took about eight months to write and then altogether about eight months to record. It does take a long time — we pay special attention to the technical side of things, making sure everything is recorded properly. This album was done on a digital machine which is very state-of-the-art sound and actually being quite new they break down quite a bit, and that also added to the length of time that it took to make the album.
TD: I read somewhere a story about you and Rick Derringer recording a session for Gaucho. Now he, as we know, is one of the great session guitarist and apparently you had him there for hours on end recording one solo and in the end didn’t use it because there was one or two notes out of place each time. Is that true?
DF: Occasionally a musician will come in and either he’ll be having an off night or perhaps there’s a stylistic mismatch, which is basically my fault, I guess, if I didn’t consider that in the beginning. But most of the musicians who come in appear on the albums and generally they like playing on these albums because most session musicians’ daily work is not all that exciting. They play for a lot of commercials and records which may not be the most interesting things to work on, so when they come to our sessions because we have, I guess, somewhat more interesting music to play on, most of them like it quite a bit.
TD: So when you get a Larry Carlton or Michael Brecker or Rick Derringer in the studio do you want them to play the dots or express themselves?
DF: The basic rhythm tracks are prearranged, in other words they’re charted and they read the dots and the little lines, but if there’s a solo I basically give the musicians a free hand and they just improvise.
TD: Now IGY is an unusual title for a song. What’s the background to IGY?
DF: IGY was basically 1958 and, of course, in the States at that time there was great emphasis on technology and what technology held for the future and kids were encouraged to go into the science industries and all that. Since then we’ve learned that there are disadvantages to many of these new technologies, but the idea of IGY was basically a child’s view of what the future would be like looking from the vantage point of 1958.
TD: For a long time now your lyrics have reflected a perceptive but ironic view of life and The Nightfly is no exception. A song like IGY is typical of your style, I think.
DF: Well, it is difficult at this point for me to write with a total lack of irony, but I did try to give a fairly honest viewpoint of what a kid thought about the future at that time. As I said, many of the things that we were told in those days that would come about because of technology didn’t really pan out. Therefore I guess there’s a bit of bitterness there, too.
TD: Talking of the technology, you are an accomplished keyboard player, synthesizer player…
DF: That’s a matter of some opinion.
TD: (laughing) … well, that’s my opinion. But you don’t seem to have experimented very much — certainly compared with European keyboard players — with the new technological facilities which are available. Are you excited by all that?
DF: Yeah, actually we do use rather sophisticated equipment. I think our goals are a little bit different. Several of the tunes on this album were done for instance with drum sequencing equipment. What we try to do, though, is to make it sound as musical as possible. I’m not that interested in that very metronomic, mechanical type of sound, so we do use the equipment, it’s just the objectives are different.
TD: I wondered what you might think of the European electronic music — Kraftwerk, but more particularly the English bands who are beginning to makes waves in America — Human League, Yazoo?
DF: I think it’s quite interesting. I think because of my orientation some of the things sound a bit static both rhythmically and as far as chord motion goes, that is to say, they tend to hang on one chord in the standard funk style, and I like to be more intellectually engaged by the chord movement, and so on, which is part of the jazz tradition. So some of the things don’t interest me as much as they might if they were even more experimental harmonically.
TD: How would you react to the criticism of your music which is expressed — that it is too intellectual, too perfect?
DF: Well, we always tried to deal with subjects that aren’t usually addressed in pop music, and I don’t really think of them as being particularly cerebral or intellectual, but I guess they are a bit more literary, more like short stories than pop songs. On the other hand, a lot of the music I listen to at home — and I think a lot of more enduring music — is of a much more innocent type. Old rhythm and blues also appeals to me quite a bit.
TD: Let’s hear one of the more interesting lyrics on the album. Is there a hint of the Bay of Pigs in The Goodbye Look?
DF: I don’t think specifically the Bay of Pigs, but it does take place in one of those Caribbean nations that were going through upheaval in the late ’50s, I guess it’s one that I made up, but it is similar to a lot of the actual historical things that were going on at that time.
TD: Before we hear this song — and it is a clever lyric — do the lyrics — and I know this is a very obvious question to ask anybody who writes lyrics and music — but do you write the words first or the tunes?
DF: Usually I have an idea for a general theme, I then write the music and then fill in the details of the lyrics afterwards.
Plays “The Goodbye Look.”
TD: Donald, you haven’t played live since 1974. Is there any chance of you taking this solo stuff on the road?
DF: Very doubtful. I may do some local club work — I’ve been thinking of it around the New York area — but I doubt if there’ll be any kind of grand tour. The road life doesn’t really agree with me. I’d rather concentrate on making records and so on.
TD: You seem to be somebody who feels they belong in the studio. I have this vision of you hating to close the door on the studio behind you.
DF: Yeah, I like the studio a lot. It reminds me of my parents’ living room in the suburbs, they all have wall-to-wall carpets, very much like the room we’re sitting in right now, and there’s something very womb-like and comforting about them.
TD: So what does the future hold apart from possibly a few gigs?
DF: I just did a short piece for a film. It’s a Martin Scorsese film called King of Comedy. It’s actually just an instrumental which is performed by David Sanborn, a very fine alto sax player. It was written by me and co-produced by myself and Gary Katz and I guess that’ll be out some time in January. I have a few other film things, nothing firm, that I’ve been thinking about and when I get back to New York I’ll start writing another solo album.
TD: You mentioned Gary Katz, I should have asked you. It seems strange for somebody who loves studios so much, and who’s such a perfectionist, that you need a producer at all. What does he bring to the project?
DF: He acts in a way as another pair of ears to refer to if you’re not sure if something’s working or not and acts as an editor in some ways. He also takes care of a lot of the administrative work, booking musicians and we’re also quite good friends, so it makes it a lot more fun.
TD: Let’s listen to another track, Maxine. Tell me about this one.
DF: It’s basically one of those lyrics about first love during teenage years. It’s once again about living in the suburbs and finding escape through romance. I used a bit of Four Freshman style vocal harmony on this one.
TD: And is there a Maxine who’s married now with three kids living somewhere?
DF: Her name might not have been Maxine, but it may have been based on someone.
TD: Donald Fagen, thank you very much.
Plays “Maxine” to close.
Donald Fagen interview with Mary Turner
Mary Turner: Do you primarily regard yourself as a writer, composer or performer?
Donald Fagen: I guess writing is my strongest suit and if I have a self-image that’d be the first thing I’d say. When Walter and I started Steely Dan we had been looking for a singer for years and never came up with one. Since I was the only one who could sing in tune that responsibility was given over to me, and I’ve continued to do it. Basically, I enjoy the writing end of it more.
MT: I’m sure you’ve heard this a dozen times before but the album sounds very Steely Dannish. What was Walter’s contribution to Steely Dan?
DF: Walter and I developed the sound together over the years. I think I learned a lot from him and vice versa. I don’t think there would be any way to separate how much of the style came from either of us at this point. Also, the album has many of the same musicians and my voice so obviously there’s not that much difference until you start looking at some of the details. Basically, it’s the same sound.
MT: Will you work with Walter again?
DF: We sort of left it open. How this album came about is after 14 years we just decided we needed a vacation from each other and I also had this idea to make an album that had a specific concept which would necessitate doing it by myself, since it was vaguely autobiographical. We left it open, we’ll see what happens.
MT: The concept is … well, let’s examine the liner notes. It’s about someone of your general height, weight and build who grew up in a city close to where you might have lived.
DF: (chuckling) It was cute when I wrote it.
MT: Did you ever want to be a DJ?
DF: I don’t know if I ever wanted to be a DJ. I admired DJs, especially jazz jocks who came to me from Manhattan. I lived about 50 miles away — these jazz jocks were very romantic figures to me. They would fill the night with the kind of music that I liked and they talked in these what later became FM-style voices, very slow, cool, reassuring and it was kind of a lifeline to urban life to someone living out in suburbia in New Jersey. I spent a lot of time listening to the radio, at night especially.
MT: You said the LP is autobiographical. Were all the songs written in the last year or so?
DF: I started thinking about the reasons why I became a musician and looked back to that time in the late ’50s and early ’60s when my attitudes were being formed — the whole jazz/hipster ethic in general. I sort of came upon this figure of late night jazz jockey to represent the ethos of the period, built all the songs around that and tried to look at the world from a kid’s point of view in the ’50s and ’60s.
MT: How does a young kid get into jazz? It seems like jazz was one of your primary influences. You and I are about the same age. And I remember tuning into Hot Rod.
DF: Where are you from?
MT: I grew up in Baltimore. But jazz wasn’t even in my circle of knowledge.
DF: I think there was a minority of kids who listened to jazz. That same minority had a lot of other likes from many of the other kids — it has to do with the kind of books you read and hipster ethic, and it’s quite a complicated subject actually. I was one of those kids and jazz, science fiction, Jack Kerouac and all these totems of the late ’50s were very important to me when I was growing up. It gave me a sense of identity which was in contrast with the rather bland world — at least, that’s the way I perceived it — that I grew up in.
MT: The first single is IGY. How’d you find out about International Geophysical Year?
DF: Well, I lived through that. IGY was 1958 and this was a worldwide project, and it had a lot to do with the emphasis on science and technology in schools at the time. International Geophysical Year was stressed to students as an example of how science and technology could change the world. I tried to give a kid’s-eye view of how the world looked at the time through that filter of science and technology. ‘Course, some of the things in that song came true, some didn’t. For instance, anyone can get a Spandex jacket…
MT: Ninety minutes, New York to Paris?
DF: Yeah, that never happened. The undersea railway to Paris. But who knows what the future holds? Maybe any day now they’ll start that project.
MT: Do you like recording as well as writing?
DF: Actually, I’ve slowly been losing my interest in the writing and recording aspects. As soon as I get the idea I feel like I should be finished somehow and the rest is basically a job, filling in the blanks. Periods of recording are often punctuated by great performances by musicians, which gives you the impetus to keep going.
MT: Do you think the time will come when musicians won’t be needed, but one master synthesist could replace a band or even a whole symphony?
DF: Yeah, that happens already. When people who make commercials found out about synthesizers, this was like VJ day for them. They could get one guy with expertise in synthesis and he could sit there and do the whole thing himself. I think Vangelis does whole scores for movies with a battery of synths in a recording studio, which is a problem you don’t see addressed very often because it does displace musicians. It’s become quite a problem for studio musicians, because a synthesizer can replace instruments.
MT: I’ll bet the Musicians’ Union will be jumping on the bandwagon pretty quickly.
DF: Yeah, they have these discussions about it, but there’s not much they can do because a producer can always say, “I didn’t want a string sound, I wanted a string-like sound,” because he has creative license to do whatever he wants. There’s no way to determine when a musician’s being displaced, so they have these talks at the Musicians’ Union where they bring in a few producers and they both give their point of view but nothing’s ever resolved and I don’t see how the union can get what they want as far as this goes. It’s a difficult problem, though; it is a problem for a lot of studio musicians who don’t get the calls that they used to.
MT: You weren’t planning to be a musician professionally at this time, were you?
DF: No, actually it wasn’t until I was in college that I decided to be a musician. For one thing, the type of music that I liked I wasn’t quite good enough at. I really admired jazz musicians and wanted to be a jazz musician, but some of us are cut out for that and some of us aren’t. I just didn’t have the technique, although it’s improved a lot over the years. I still don’t think I could quite cut it in the rarefied place where jazz musicians live. You have to be quite a fine musician, but I brought what I knew to the music. There are some compensatory factors. Technique isn’t everything.
MT: Are you going to do any kind of video for this album?
DF: I’m not going to be in a video, but there’s two very talented English animators who are doing an animation to New Frontier.
MT: Oh, I’ll look forward to seeing that, that’ll be neat. How about TV appearances or anything else?
DF: No, I’m too scared. I think I’ll pass on that, actually. I’ve been asked to go on a couple of shows but I just … too much pressure.
MT: It is kind of scary.
DF: There’s millions of people looking at you. Also, as you can tell from this radio interview, I tend to let a lot of dead air go by. You have to have a certain amount of training and professionalism or else be a natural raconteur to feel comfortable on television.
MT: But that’s a hard dichotomy because you are a performer.
DF: Yeah, but that’s very controlled, though. No time limit, no dead air problem — it doesn’t have to be spontaneous. I just feel uncomfortable in those kinds of situations.
MT: I don’t blame you, I’m just thinking of people who’ve bought your record…
DF: Yeah, that’s a problem. I’ll have to try and think of some kind of alternative media, I guess.
MT: You could hire a ringer.
DF: That’s true, I could get Richard Gere or someone to impersonate me. I’ll make a good impression.
MT: Maybe Warren Zevon.
DF: Yeah, or Warren Zevon.
MT: Stardom is something that’s never even tantalized you at all, I get the impression?
DF: No, there’s a lot of disadvantages to being in the public eye. A lot of responsibility. I just tend to avoid that kind of thing.
MT: It seems to be the motivation for so many people.
DF: That’s true, you know. Coming from a jazz tradition, to me the music has always been thing most important thing. Jazz musicians, especially in the late ’50s, rather more cerebral musicians like Miles Davis and Charlie Parker were very idealistic people and they were my idols when I was young. To them, the music was the most important thing and though my music is quite commercial, I still have retained that feeling about the music being the most important thing and some of the other perks don’t interest me.
MT: I’m real disappointed that you’re not going to tour.
DF: Yeah, well, we can go to Chinatown and tour Chinatown.
MT: Ok, all right. Let’s go.
Review of Hoops McCann Band
In August, MCA released an album in America entitled The Hoops McCann Band Plays The Music of Steely Dan. The album contains seven big band arrangements of tracks from various Steely Dan albums, plus a version of the Fagen-Becker song, Rapunzel, which they composed for an album they produced for Pete Christlieb and Warne Marsh called Apogee.
Named after the coke-sniffing basketball player from Glamour Profession, the Hoops McCann Band was originally formed in the summer of 1982 to play at the three-day First Annual Mt. Hood Festival of Jazz at Gresham, Oregon. One afternoon was set aside specifically as a tribute to Steely Dan. Most of the musicians now comprising the band were part of the original lineup, including Jerome Richardson, Slyde Hyde, Chuck Findley, Mitch Holder and Paul Humphrey.
The formation of the band was the idea of Dick LaPalm, general manager of the Village Recorder in West Los Angeles. Can’t Buy A Thrill was recorded exclusively at the Village and LaPalm has been a great fan and friend of Donald and Walter’s ever since. He has single-handedly taken it upon himself to make people more aware of the depth and significance of Donald and Walter’s songwriting talents.
“To me,” he said at the time, “Donald and Walter are the Rodgers and Hart of this generation. I think we’re putting together what will prove to be a major afternoon.”
The original group consisted of the late Victor Feldman on keyboards, Paul Humphrey on drums, Chuck Rainey on electric bass and Mitch Holder on guitar. Playing saxophones were Ernie Watts and Jerome Richardson; on brass, Chuck Findley and Slyde Hyde and conducting was Joe Roccisano (who also arranged the aforementioned Apogee in 1978). Among the songs rehearsed for the concert were Sign In Stranger, Black Cow, Green Earrings and Babylon Sisters.
A record of the performance was also planned with Gary Katz co-producing with Al Schmitt. “I spoke to Donald last night,” Dick LaPalm said. “Gary and Donald have been working in New York on Donald’s solo album. They both seem very excited about the Mount Hood project. We don’t have a record deal yet, but I’m talking to Arista, Warner Bros. and others.”
“If Donald Fagen was so thrilled about the project,” LaPalm was asked, “might he want to show up in Oregon and see it all go down in person?”
“I have a hunch Donald may want to show up. He’s excited, yes, but he’s also a last-minute kind of guy. I talk to him every other day, but I don’t know for sure whether he’ll show. I said to him, ‘Donald, you won’t have to sing. Maybe you can just play keyboards on a couple of tunes.’ He said to me, ‘Keyboards? What do you want me for when you have Victor Feldman?’ ”
The audience response and critical acclaim that the performance received was so encouraging that they decided to make it an ongoing proposition. Finally, six years later an album of studio versions of Steely Dan songs has appeared.
The sleeve notes to the album were written by Mort Fega, an adolescent hero of Donald and Walter’s. He explains how they recently appeared on WBAI-FM in New York presenting a retrospective of Jazz Radio in New York in the ’60s, and paid homage to the many radio personalities who shaped their attitudes about music and jazz in particular. They apparently flattered Mort Fega with their comments and even chose his old theme music, Woofin’ and Tweetin’, as the theme for their program.
In his last paragraph he raises an interesting question: “How much more dominant might they be if they made personal appearances? My gut tells me that they will be regarded with increasing esteem with each successive exposure of their writing.”
Doubtless Donald and Walter were delighted to have had such lavish attention paid to their compositions and I can’t help but wonder whether they actually took time out to attend these sessions as they did 10 years ago when Woody Herman turned his Thundering Herd loose on some of their songs.
Highlights here include Black Cow which opens the album, and gradually builds towards its climax with some staccato rhythmic guitar intertwined with flourishing brass and horns. Babylon Sisters was arranged by Victor Feldman and may have been included as a tribute to a very fine musician and composer (he is the only other player, besides Donald and Walter, who has appeared on all Steely Dan records throughout the years). Hidden away there is a brief phrase from Glenn Miller’s recording of String of Pearls. An abridged Glamor Profession sounds like an authentic jazz composition with its big band arrangement by Gene Esposito.
Throw Back The Little Ones kicks off Side Two magnificently with Mitch Holder’s screaming but understated guitar taking Fagen’s lead vocal line. After performances like this, and as someone who hasn’t yet played on a Steely Dan album, he’s sure to appear on a future Steely Dan/Donald Fagen album, I think. As the improvisational section unfolds, Chuck Berghofer plucks the hell out of his Fender bass while Paul Humphrey’s gunshot snare drum sound would not have shamed Keith Moon at this peak. Rapunzel, which was based on Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s Land of Make Believe and recorded by Dionne Warwick, was mixed by Donald Fagen and Daniel Lazerus.
The Hoops McCann Band are obviously a great bunch of musicians and they have done an equally great job of interpreting these familiar Becker and Fagen compositions. And from the performances on this album, it seems that they were inspired to even greater heights than usual by one of Dick LaPalm’s favorite axioms: “It can never be too good.”
Review of New Frontier video
The video for New Frontier was directed by Annabel Jankel and Rocky Morton (creators of Max Headroom) and produced by Andy Morahan for Cucumber Studios. Jankel and Morton, who have also directed award-winning commercials and made videos for Elvis Costello, among others, have since gone on to direct their first American feature film, D.O.A., which was released earlier this year and stars Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan. It’s an old-fashioned thriller based on a late-show classic film noir made in 1949.
In an interview at the time, Morton said, “The whole basis of the song was explained to us that it came from when he was a kid in the ’50s in New Jersey. He used to go down into an old air raid shelter that his father had built, and that was just a springboard for lots of ideas, and the whole story that we built around it just kind of evolved, really. But we didn’t want to have a linear story from A to B, we wanted to interweave it with other ideas as if somebody was thinking about the story and other thoughts were coming in.”
The video fades in at night with a teenage couple climbing into a car. He is a bespectacled Fagen-lookalike wearing a suit and bow tie; she, a beautiful blond in a short white dress and pearls. As he switches on the car radio the familiar strains of New Frontier begin. They drive back to his parents’ house, which is situated in a new development called Multi Vista homes in New Jersey. There, a yellow light burns through an upstairs window and the sealed entrance to the fallout shelter is illuminated in the headlights as they park. She prances down into the shelter. As she descends the steps we get a tantalizing upward glimpse of her long, shapely legs and an even more tantalizing close-up of her suspenders.
Down in the shelter they have an incongruous mixture of items: a survival handbook, provisions, a television, a shelf full of jazz albums and a guitar. Sandwiched between the couple’s early scenes are animated references to the Cold War and Russia in general — a gigantic red hand with a yellow hammer and sickle emblazoned on the back pressing the button; grain being harvested on some vast steppe.
They nuzzle noses; she flips through the survival book and as the words “Atomic Fallout” appear a mushroom cloud blows the hair off a James Joyce-like caricature. By now they’re ready to dance; she self-assured and flirtatious, he all nervous and edgy. Whilst watching a science program on the TV he loosens his bow tie, inadvertently pours his drink over himself and shakily lights her cigarette.
All the while Donald Fagen surveys proceedings from a poster on the wall in his Nightfly cover pose (he never actually makes an appearance, but what else is new?). She removes his horn-rim glasses and playfully tries them on while he straps on his guitar and tries to look cool beating out time on the body. Three animated figures appear one by one to complete his imaginary jazz group.
Exhausted after their night’s activities, they fall asleep, just as lovers will, with her head on his shoulder. When he wakes up she has gone, leaving a white glove on his shoulder. As he opens the lid of the shelter, he is confronted by a menacing figure wearing a radiation suit and hood. The hood is slowly removed to reveal his amused girlfriend. The fear drains from his face and they both laugh, embracing as the camera pans backward and up.
In their “Rock Videos Hot 100,” Rolling Stone was unstinting in its praise: warm and witty and stunningly crafted, New Frontier is a treat for the eyes and ears, and emotionally penetrating and uplifting. Easily the most awesome of Cucumber’s consistently great accomplishments, and possibly the greatest rock video ever.
It is an exceptional video — imaginative, amusing and, true to Jankel and Morton’s tradition, stylish, too. It’s a shame, though, that Fagen and Becker earlier didn’t realize the potential that video offers for selling a song to the public (particularly since they are so opposed to playing live). Having said that, I’m sure that they’d much rather let each listener’s unique visual interpretation of their music remain untouched by any one video-maker’s version.