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 10 Articles:
Hello and welcome once again to July’s Metal Leg. Firstly, let’s get the apologies out of the way. The April issue was unavoidably delayed due to numerous printing setbacks (holidays, sickness, strikes, etc.). Hopefully, though, we can make up for that somewhat in this issue with a couple exclusives (one brief, one considerably longer). Things may be looking up at long last.
Anyway, onward with some more obscurities, yet more additions to the ever-expanding Becker/Fagen/Katz discography: Gary Katz has co-produced a 1986 album for — and with — Larry John McNally called Fade to Black on Atco in the States, and under his former name of Kannon appears on an album entitled Song For Two by Cashman and West on the ABC Dunhill label from 1972. He’s credited with backing vocals. Spotted hidden away on the credits at the end of Bright Lights, Big City, a track called “BNT Blues” by Bobby Forrester, which was produced by Donald Fagen. Walter Becker gets a thank you on the sleeve notes for Dr. John’s album, In A Sentimental Mood.
Gary Katz has finished his work on Roger Christian’s solo album, title as yet unknown (even by Island Records!), and that should be out in September. It’s apparently a white soul thing a la Sam Cooke. Gary Katz is pleased with the results, but didn’t get along with the artist himself at all.
In John Belushi’s biography, Wired, the author tells of how during the making of a film called Neighbors in 1981, Belushi used to play “Hey Nineteen” incessantly at full volume. He told the producer of the movie that he wanted to make a film based on the song in which a ’60s girl tells her story to a punk rocker.
The end of Frank Zappa’s Joe’s Garage Acts 2 & 3 (final track) contains a spoof of Steve Gadd’s drum solo from Aja.
The first sample of Steely Dan? De La Soul has been getting a lot of airplay with his album Three Feet High and Rising, and on a track called “Eye Know” has sampled a couple lines from Peg. Will they or won’t they sue?
The August edition of Premiere features Donald Fagen’s first article for some months. It’s a brief interview and appraisal of Ennio Morricone’s work on Sergio Leone’s series of spaghetti westerns. Pity about his tape recorder, though, I’d have liked to have read more.
In a publicity release from Simon and Schuster about Rock Me, its author Marcelle Clements was asked if she had patterned any of her characters after anyone in particular:
“No, but I’ve known many musicians and the psychology of performers has always interested me. My mother was an opera singer, and I live with a musician, Donald Fagen. In fact, Donald and his former partner, Walter Becker, and I all went to the same college and I even sang with them now and then for a little while around 1965 or 1966.
“I studied music pretty much my whole life, starting with the piano at age four. I majored in voice and composition at the High School of Music and Art, and then in theory and philosophy of music at Bard College. In both high school and college I knew many musicians who resemble the ones in my book and there were bands like the one in my book. I’m comfortable with musicians. As a journalist, I’ve interviewed and written about performers and I think these profiles have been some of my better pieces. I’m not much of a musician any more, though I still play the piano now and then. A few years ago, I learned to play the saxophone and that was a wonderful obsession for a while. My characters are drawn from all these experiences.”
Guns ‘n’ Roses drawing inspiration from Steely Dan? Well, Axl Rose was apparently inspired to write of Appetite for Destruction’s songs after hearing “Hey Nineteen.” “My Old School” is another particular Rose favorite.
“They” might have the Steely Dan T-shirts, but Phil Gedling’s got an equally rare item: a Steely Dan badge. Phil stumbled across this little delight in a Plymouth newsagents around 1980.
Thanks to Richard Clark, Nigel Harrison and Andy Komocki for their correspondence and to Jane Findlay at School House Management for her cooperation in setting up the China Crisis interview.
China Crisis interview, Part One
It was one of those occasions — China Crisis were on tour and we were supposed to be interviewing Eddie Lundon and Garry Daly, but it was midway through the tour and Garry had fallen foul to a froggy throat. Consequently their tour manager introduced us to bass player, deputy and (it transpired) all-around nice bloke Gazza Johnson who was left with the dubious task of trying to answer our questions.
We parked ourselves in the hotel lobby, only for our conversation to be punctuated by reversing waste trucks with hooters blaring, stiletto heels marching purposefully across the marble-effect floor and the overheard cheery greetings from the three hotel receptionists at the desk.
Is Walt a hard taskmaster in the studio?
He can be, yeah. I remember once doing Flaunt I was four hours doing a bass track and we got to the end of it and he just said, “We’ll leave that and maybe come back and have another go at it tomorrow.” I was gutted, you know. You know what they used to say about drivers, when they get behind the wheel they change; Walter was like that. Once he gets behind the mixing desk he takes no prisoners. But he was a lot more relaxed on the new album mainly because he was at home and he’d worked with us before.
Is he particularly hard on the vocalist?
Not really, because he’s got a lot of respect for Garry. The way that he tends to work it is he goes a lot for composites — doing about three or four tracks and piecing them together and seeing what he’s got. And then doing another three or four tracks, and he has the track sheets actually out there and the ones that he likes where he’s got a word there he’ll underline that and keep on going until he’s got a full track.
Did he go his own way after you’d finished recording or did he socialize with you as well?
Usually once we’d finished he tended to get off then. When we did Flaunt we were in Sussex so we’d just go back to the cottage he was staying in and listen back to what we’d done that day. He’s just like an observer more than anything else; he reads loads of books and for Christmas we all went home — we had two days off, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day — and we invited Walter to come back to Liverpool with us and he just said, “Oh no, I’ll just feel even more out of it.” So he went to London and stayed in a hotel and just went to the movies.
What other contemporary groups does he admire?
He gets a lot of stuff in. He’s really curious about lots of things, anything that he sees that he can pick up on. When we were there he had a Sugarcubes album sent over.
Does he have a big record collection?
Yeah, a lot of jazz.
Has Walter inspired the members of China Crisis to go out and investigate any particular jazz artists?
Garry had been listening to Benny Goodman around the house and when I got over there I started picking Walter’s brains and he gave me this Sonny Rollins CD, and I’d ask him about this and he’d say, “Yeah, go out and look for this, look out for that.”
Did you originally intend to have Walter produce some tracks, and then Mike Thorne the others?
No, the thing with Walter is he approaches everything as a complete project, which isn’t necessarily the way the record company looks at it. The record company had definite ideas on potential singles.
We wondered if it was coincidence that St. Saviour’s Square and Red Letter Day, the first two singles from the album, were both produced by Mike Thorne?
Actually, single releases have a lot to do with… it’s not just the band, there’s the management…
You don’t necessarily choose the singles yourselves?
It depends really. You can get involved, but at the end of the day, you want to get the record company totally behind you. They canvass everybody from radio promotion people through to marketing people, and even the reps go around and canvass in the shops.
Were you under any pressure to include anything on this LP that had commercial potential as far as the charts go?
Record companies are always looking at that. It’s the easiest way for them to market the album. If you’ve got a couple hit singles on the album, it actually takes the album along with it. Whereas if you don’t have the hit singles, they’ve got to start thinking laterally, of different ways to market the band to sell the album. The easiest one all the time is going to be the hit singles, so that’s what they tend to go for.
What was a typical Hawaiian studio day?
Mainly it started around one/two o’clock and we’d work through until about nine, because had his girlfriend and kids. We’d get one day a week off.
Very stable working hours — it wasn’t like you were going in whenever inspiration took over.
It depends if you were having a bit of difficulty over something. If something wasn’t working, then maybe you’d leave a bit earlier, or if something was going really well, then you’d carry on a bit later.
Isn’t Connie Reed who did some background vocals on the album Roger Nichols’ wife?
Yeah. Roger’s a real audiophile and he’s got incredible equipment at home so she does songs of her own at home.
Was that part of the reason why you went to Village Recorders in L.A., because Roger Nichols is obviously very familiar with that studio?
We worked with Roger in the Village Recorder and that was partly because Walter didn’t think they could really mix in Hawaii, so they wanted to go and do it in L.A. They looked around a few places, and they had to try and get a good price. They knew the people at Village really well and they knew what the room sounded like, too.
You spent about eight weeks doing Flaunt The Imperfection, but four months on Diary of a Hollow Horse. Did you plan to spend longer on this record? Because Walter said after Flaunt The Imperfection that he enjoyed doing it for that very reason. He had eight weeks and he said he had serious anxiety towards the end because he wanted to put some percussion on the album but time was running out. Was that partly the reason you took longer over this one?
No, it was just we actually did pre-production over there in the studio and it was just the way it worked out. We spent 10 weeks doing Flaunt and 12 weeks in Maui and then two weeks in L.A. We went over by about two or three weeks on this one, so it was never pre-planned that we were gonna take longer. Walter had a fixed idea — he thought we might even finish early.
Was he the first person to work on it?
Yeah, Mike Thorney did the three tracks at the end. We did those in November/December. Walter didn’t feel too happy about the idea of being told to come up with singles — keep an eye on the singles. He wasn’t too happy about that idea, because he likes looking at it as a whole project. It’s an album, and that’s what he does.
Did you do an album’s worth of songs with Walter?
Yeah. We did them again just to see how they would sound — if the stuff Mike Thorne produced hadn’t turned out to be as good as the Walter versions, we would’ve used the Walter ones.
I notice on Walter’s production numbers there’s additional musicians, for instance Tim Weston who was once with Dr. Strut.
Tim was the studio gopher on the tape op on I think it was the first Steely Dan album.
He was on Countdown to Ecstasy. He got a namecheck on it anyway. Is Walter still writing songs, do you know? Because after Flaunt he said he was inspired to go out and get a drum machine and a little four-track tape.
Yeah, he’s got stuff set up in the house.
This was George Benson’s studio you used, wasn’t it?
Yeah, in Maui. Lahaina Sound.
Have you any idea how Walter’s going to use the material he’s writing in the future?
I don’t know. That’s the funny thing when it comes to business, he keeps it all under his hat. I know they had a little period where Walter was in touch with Donald and Donald came over to Hawaii and he couldn’t stand Hawaii. He wouldn’t go into it and he’s not the kind of bloke that you push him on it. Because he’d just run you around the houses and just lose you and sort of change the subject.
Does Garry write the lyrics first and then you put the music to them after?
It’s a very flexible working arrangement, really. Sometimes somebody’ll come up with some chords or a riff and then we’ll just sort of build on that and Garry’ll sing along and just work something out. But then he always has lyrical ideas that he carries around with him. He takes a diary around and writes lines down and things that come into his head.
Which one of your songs has given you the most satisfaction?
(long pause) I think one of the most successful ones that we’ve ever done was when we did You Did Cut Me with Walter. I think we were all very happy with that one.
What about on the new LP — anything that stands out?
It’s very difficult when you’ve just finished an album, you need to distance yourself from it for a bit before you can start to be objective about it.
Do you still listen to your old material?
Oh yeah. What you tend to do is you never listen to it before you go in to record or before you start your writing period because it influences whatever you’re gonna do. The only time we maybe do it is after we finish recording the album — we listen to all the other ones and see how that one fits in with the previous ones.
Was it Walter who suggested you go to Hawaii? I heard Eddie saying it was because of the cheap rates.
Walter originally said he wouldn’t come back over to England. The record company wanted him to work here but he said no, it’s too much to be separated from his girlfriend for that amount of time again, but what he didn’t mind was working in Los Angeles. He and Roger wanted to work digitally, so he said there’s a place down the road from where I live on Maui that we might be able to get, so he went down there. Apparently, it’s hardly ever used and the idea of a three-month block booking meant he could get a good rate on it. As well as that the exchange rate was really good, and seeing as none of us live in London — we all live in diverse places all over the country — we would’ve been living in London hotels so you may as well be staying in a condo in Hawaii for the same price. The record company ummed and aahed and said, “Let’s see some figures on it” and Walter came back with a good price and they had to say, “Ok, then, go” and the final parting word was “We don’t want to see any great suntans when you get back.”
Did you find it difficult to get down to work over there?
No. With having one or two days off, it made it easier. Sometimes you felt like we should have been working harder, but sometimes we thought it’s going a bit slow so why don’t we forget about the day off. But Walter always said, “Don’t worry, it’s all going OK.”
Did he deliberately reduce his playing contributions to a minimum, because he was only on two tracks?
Yeah, he did have a guitar solo, but he got Tim to replace it. It was very strange…
Apparently, he’s very slow doing a solo, isn’t he? One bar an hour.
I don’t know. We can only compare it with when we worked with him before. Roger actually reckoned he should put the solo on for the stamp, but Walter didn’t seem to be confident about it, so he got Tim to replace it.
Which track was this?
Sweet Charity in Adoration.
I thought there was more use of saxes and flutes on Diary of a Hollow Horse than your previous album. Was that down to Walter?
Yeah, it was funny, actually, because there was gonna be brass parts on it and Walter had somebody flying over to Hawaii to do the charts, but the bloke couldn’t make it. Walter just came in and said, “I see this as a sign from God. There ought to be no brass parts on this album, there’ll just be sax solos.” So he said all the brass parts will be played by keyboards and that was it, so we rang up Jim Horn, who Roger had worked with before on John Denver stuff, and he came over and doubled on recorder and Walter said, “Just bring everything and we’ll just see how it goes.” It’s very much the way Walter will work sometimes — just try and keep things flexible.
How responsible is he for the arrangements on the album, because they’re credited between yourselves and Walter?
When we’d demoed this album the record company were coming up with different ideas of people to work with — it’s very difficult at the moment to get a producer who thinks the way that we do, because they tend to use a lot of samples and drum machines now. We just use acoustic drums, that’s the way we go. Walter heard the demos and he rang Ed, because we’d had a few people whose names were tossed in the hat, and we were hanging around for something like six weeks waiting for people to come back with answers, but we didn’t get any, so a couple of us said the least we can do is send a tape to Walter to see what he thinks about them. So we sent the tape off and Walter came back and said he loved it. He thought we were playing great, thought the arrangements were great, just a little bit of fiddling around here and there needed. He was really keen — wanting to do it.
What other names were mentioned?
What record company people tend to do is pull out a copy of Music Week, see what’s in the Top Fifty, see who produced it and then they start ringing round.
Walter’s producing Rickie Lee Jones’ album now, isn’t he?
He was gonna start it as we were leaving, he was gonna take a month off and then he was gonna go over and talk to her. But all the time we were there he was trying to keep it under his hat. They were going to do it in Los Angeles, but they were searchin’ around for a studio at the time.
If you’re having such difficulty finding a producer who thinks they way you do, do you think it’s likely you’ll do another album with him?
You can only say that when they next album comes around, we’ll see how we feel, talk about it. We definitely wouldn’t exclude it, because it’s the first time we’ve gone back to a producer.
How did you come to work with him first of all back in 1985?
Respect, more than anything else. I remember the first day that he came over, we heard the car pull up and we were rehearsing in Barwell Court. He got out and as he came in through the door I was trying to play, because you’ve gotta try and impress, but it was really difficult because my hands were shaking. But what happened was: we were touring with Working With Fire and Steel and we were in Warner Bros.’ Burbank offices having lunch and they were talking about the next album saying “Did we have any idea who we wanted to work with?” and Eddie said, “Oh yeah, we want to work with somebody from Steely Dan. And he was thinking at the time Gary Katz or Michael Omartian or somebody like that. And so they said, “Yeah, Michael Omartian’s a big fan” and they put the feelers out to see what’s going on. We went back and started working on the songs for Flaunt. We spent the whole of the summer doing that, and somebody rang up from Virgin and said we’ve had this inquiry from Warner Bros., they want to know if you’re interested in working with Walter Becker. We said yes, great. We didn’t think it would get that far, but he came over and he met us and apparently he was nearly as nervous as we were, because he’d never worked with anybody else and hadn’t done anything for four or five years.
Do you know what songs or what particular album it was that convinced him to work with you?
Fire and Steel. He liked the titles, and when he heard it there was a song on it called Papua, which is a real jaunty pop song with a little sequencer thing going through it, but it’s actually about nuclear holocaust. We said Garry doesn’t want to make the mistake of having a little pop tune with serious lyrics, because it detracts and Walter turned around and said, “I thought that was brilliant, the way you did that. That was the work of genius.” He likes all that kind of stuff.
He was quoted as saying after Flaunt the Imperfection that he was attracted to China Crisis because the lyrics didn’t make any sense!
(smiling ruefully) He said apparently that’s the way that Donald used to do it. They’d go in and he’d just sing impromptu lyrics, just to get the feel of the vocal down. They didn’t really seem to make much sense — it was just the rhythm and the meter of them that mattered more than anything, but sometimes, no matter how obtuse they were, they’d just leave them in, because you just got used to the sound of them after a while.
Some of the session musicians who have worked with Steely Dan in the past remarked what a strange fellow Walter seemed to be. Did you have any experiences which would confirm that?
Not really. I think he’s a brilliant fellow, I think he’s really great.
Part two of this feature in October. Interviewers: Brian Sweet and Dave Edney.
Roger Nichols interview
In early June I was fortunate enough to conduct a brief telephone interview with Steely Dan main man and engineer Roger Nichols. He was just about to start work in Los Angeles on mixing the Rickie Lee Jones’ album which has been produced by Walter. Unfortunately, due to the extremely short notice of the interview, I wasn’t able to record it for an exact transcription, and coupled with that it took place in the middle of the night, so what follows here is the “memorized” version only. — Brian Sweet
The first question obviously had to be: When can we expect a new album from Donald?
Donald will probably start recording in the fall — we’ve already had a couple false starts. Originally work commenced in 1984, and since then we’ve done some more work in Jeff Porcaro’s studio, but Donald wasn’t happy with it and scrapped it all. Work on the new record is now scheduled to begin in the fall when we’re all available.
What about the rumored reunion, is that a realistic possibility or not?
Walter’s talking about putting a studio in his house in Hawaii. The technology may mean that Donald and Walter could do an album without either one of them having to leave their homes for any length of time. A couple of years ago they worked for a year on songs, but the distance between them meant it didn’t come to anything.
What’s the story behind the infamous erased track from Gaucho? Was it called The Second Arrangement?
Yeah, that’s it. We tried to re-record it but it never was as good the second time around. But we did a couple versions and did one especially for Gary Katz. We used a drum machine to redo it, depending on which version you have, but there were horns on the original song. There were two versions done, and I’ve heard one that utilizes separate parts edited together to make the song complete.
What was Donald and Walter’s reaction to the release of these early demos that have been emerging recently?
A friend of Gary Katz’s sold the tapes to be made up into a CD, and have since appeared as early Steely Dan songs. Donald and Walter weren’t exactly delighted to see those things for sale in the record stores.
Do you — or did you — ever get frustrated by Donald and Walter’s lack of output?
Not really. There was always some kind of forward motion, no matter how microscopic. For instance, Gaucho took two years, but things are always done properly, and if it’s not right then it’s either redone or discarded. We had a problem with Ruby Baby; the piano was out of tune with itself and the synthesizers. That took an awful long time to get just right.
Roger also admitted that he must have at least a dozen pieces of paper signed personally by Donald in which he promises not to write in ranges which he can’t reach vocally. But each time Donald reneges on his (written) work and does just that.
Tell me about this video you were doing of Steely Dan in the studio during the making of Gaucho.
It wasn’t your run-of-the-mill video — it didn’t contain any shots of musicians. And Donald wasn’t really in there either. Instead it showed knobs turning themselves, a hand on the recording console sliding faders and a momentary glimpse of Donald’s leg as he left through a studio door. It was never actually edited together.
There must be soem terrific songs left over from Steely Dan sessions. Are they ever likely to see the light of day now?
Well, I doubt it. When recording was finished I invariably wiped all the vocal tracks — so they couldn’t be used without our permission — because the record company owns them, so if they see fit to issue them as instrumentals then that’s up to them. By the way, why is your fanzine called Metal Leg? I’ve never been able to understand where the title is from.
I explained that in a musica press item from 1980, the forthcoming Steely Dan album (Gaucho) was allegedly going to be called Metal Leg.
Roger told me that he’d never heard such a title, unless Donald had been considering a subtle change of title and hadn’t told him about it.
At this point I had to give consideration to my gradually-spiralling phone bill and we concluded the interview. Damn, now I wish I’d continued for at least another hour!
Royal Scam/Aja reviews
Continuing the album rundown series, Dave Edney looks at the Royal Scam and Aja, in the penultimate installment.
“John Cale, I recall, once remarked of Steely Dan that, while their music struck him as attractive and beautifully put together, it was, after all, made my just another conventional rock band playing for a conventional rock audience.” — Melody Maker
“If future historians want to find artifacts that perfectly define the strange, detached ’70s, they won’t have to look past Steely Dan’s chilling repertoire. The Dan is simply the best rock band in America.” — Anon.
“Steely Dan have made it in the way Poco should have done. After all, their music is similar.” — Record Mirror
Katy Lied’s release in 1975 proved to be something of a turning point in Steely Dan’s career. Even though the writing had been on the wall for quite some time, it was, by all accounts, the last album to feature a “collective unit” of musicians all working together under the Dan umbrella.
With live work already a thing of the past, between Katy Lied and the planning of the next album, the decision had been taken to abandon the idea of assembling a group to carry on the Steely Dan tradition.
From now on, Becker and Fagen were to use a plethora of session musicians to perform their music in the studio and in 1976 their fifth LP, The Royal Scam, became the first album to rely entirely upon the inclusion of these musical musclemen.
Despite Denny Dias’s namecheck on the record sleeve for this album, his playing contribution, on closer inspection, seems small, and henceforth even Donald and Walter took a voluntary back seat to the people they chose to surround themselves with. (Walter Becker once said that it wouldn’t bother him at all not to play on his own record.)
In short, a “musical nucleus” no longer existed. Included among the 27 people who play on this album are names long associated with the band, but if one pays close enough attention, one notices a shift in the Steely structure.
One significant absentee is Jeff Porcaro, already temporarily jettisoned for the syncopated rhythms of Bernard Purdie and Rick Marotta, and the other major changes included the promotion to the forefront of such highly respected musicians as Larry Carlton, Chuck Rainey and Victor Feldman and the more frequent use of horns.
The extensive use of these “hired hands” not only heralded the introduction of a slicker, denser, more orchestrated sound, but also gave Fagen and Becker extra control over their material, allowing them the opportunity to shape their songs in accordance with the musicians intended for use on each individual track.
Indeed, more care and attention was being lavished on the Dan’s product than ever before, but due to Fagen and Becker’s reluctance to appear outside the confines of the studio, stories proliferated about their working methods. One magazine described how, for the new LP, they would not think twice about flying players from New York to L.A. just to experiment with a 30-second solo and the NME, in a backtrack of their career to date, wrote the following: “At this point, it was clear that Becker and Fagen wanted no part of the conventional trappings of rock ‘n’ roll fame, and were running the risk of trying the patience of even the most committed fans.
Word filtered through of their in-studio intransigence and Rick Derringer, for one, confirmed their insistence on perfection.
Perfectionists they may be, but Walt, Don and Gary have always managed to bring out the best of the people they have worked with, and the flawless musicianship on this album is but one facet of a record that marked a welcome return to form after the disappointment of its predecessor.
Zig Zag offered the following observation: “The cruiser and his crony out for a last fling? No way. This is Becker and Fagen back on the form that made them the most exciting exponents of the rock idiom to emerge in the ’70s.”
For those whose fears that the departure of Messrs. Baxter and Hodder were exacerbated by the slickness and willful obscurity of Katy Lied, this is a complete reassurance. For those who saw future potential in the new format, Scam is a majestic fulfillment of that potential.
But the Dan’s decision to employ the creme-de-la-creme for this record met with the inevitable mixed reaction from the critics. There were many who felt that the old five-piece line-up could never be replaced, and that anything else simply would not do. The NME were among them: “If Steely Dan are ever to recapture the intoxicating excellence of their first three albums, they’ll probably have to do it by once again working as a more cohesive unit.”
“In reality, the new Steely Dan is even less of a group than the one which made Katy Lied. But The Royal Scam packs more unified musical punch than any Steely Dan record since Countdown to Ecstasy.” —Zig Zag
“Part of the problem with this record may be the degree to which Steely Dan has stopped being a rock band in favor of becoming a vehicle for Becker and Fagen’s music and lyrics. Thus what seemed like an adventurous and startingly successful rock act has become one more singer/songwriter studio concept.” —Dave Marsh.
James Wolcott called Steely Dan “the smartest American band ever,” but complained not only of “the musical wanness of this LP” but criticized individual performances too. Hence Donald Fagen’s singing was “hoarsely monotonous” and the drumming, heaven forbid, was “heavy-fisted.” In other reviews, Fagen was called “the quintessential white pop voice” and “one of the most inventive singers in pop.” Wolcott concluded by commenting that the musicianship had “the spiritless professionalism of session work.” This division of opinion can be applied to the overall reception which greeted the LP’s release. (Donald Fagen himself, when questioned in a Music Gig interview about the apparent disappointment with which The Royal Scam was received, said, “The reason critics were disappointed was that they get tired. The first LP is always the easiest to like, the second they still like, the third they think is pretty good. The longer you last as a group the harder the critics are. That accounts for some of the disappointment. Myself, I think it’s one of the best ones we’ve done. I think, in fact, that each record is a little better than the last.”)
It sold in ever-increasing quantities (no. 11 in the UK album charts), yielded a surprise hit single, Haitian Divorce, and was generally more popular than anything that they had done previously (despite observations that the album was less overtly commercial than its predecessors). But for every “thumbs-up” the album got there was an equally negative opinion to be found elsewhere, especially in the States.
In (England), most of the music papers fell over themselves in their haste to review the album by using white-label copies. Consequently, the reviews in question tended to lack information and were based on premature reaction. Street Life (supposedly the English equivalent of Rolling Stone) offered the following: “The Dan hve just released their fifth immaculately brilliant album, and quite frankly, chaps, it’s not good enough!”
The reviewer then went on to utilize Becker and Fagen’s own tongue-in-cheek sleeve notes for Can’t Buy A Thrill to open his review, then drew this parallel: “It has been asked whether what the world really needs now is another Steely Dan album? This could very well be the beginning of the end of the promise of the pundits’ rock ‘n’ roll band. And this is so, despite an album which as is safely pluperfect as The Royal Scam, an album perhaps subjectively better than their last. Five albums in and the law of diminishing returns is in full operation. Any band having survived their first two or three albums needs to pull a rabbit or two to stop the arteries hardening. Steely Dan are in great danger of creative sclerosis. In isolation in a time capsule this album would be an exemplary work. In perspective, it’s not sufficiently an advance or a progression or a lateral shift to be anything other than beautiful, superlative redundancy. This is only averagingly — and worryingly — excellent.
Street Life was not the only publication to judge the Dan by their own exceptionally high standards. International Musician and Recording: “Steely Dan don’t surprise any more — never again the sheer amazement of hearing a Do It Again or a Bodhisattvafor the first time.”
“For this listener, Steely Dan, for the first time, inspire reservation more than awe. It lacks the drive of Countdown to Ecstasy and the affability of Pretzel Logic.” — Downbeat.
It’s always easy to judge a new record by preconceived ideas obtained by listening to older material. Some critics sat on the fence, whilst others simply part company with the band at this point, no doubt still yearning for the simplicity of the first LP. Despite these misgivings, Music Gig called it an album that is “everything a Dan addict could have hoped for.”
Crawdaddy: “The most consistently satisfying album by this distinctive, innovative group.”
Records and Recordings: “Seventies rock at its most incisive and, as such, indispensible.”
Circus: One of the finest LPs of the year.
The critics at least agreed on one thing. In direct contrast to the brow-beating incomprehensibility of previous records, Becker and Fagen’s verbals were much easier to follow.
“The Dan’s lyrics are as stunning as ever, and more straightforward than of old.” — Street Life
“Melody dominates lyric in the sense that the former pushes into new rhythmic areas for the group while the verbal content is clearer, even mundane by previous Dan standards.” — Rolling Stone
“This LP is more human and accessible than anything they’ve ever done. There’s little of the in-jokiness, cynicism and unfathomable obliqueness that has characterized the other albums, and in its place, Becker and Fagen seem to have acquired what amounts to a social conscience. Certainly, the Royal Scam suggests more genuine concern and sympathy for the human condition than I had ever thought likely.” — Zig Zag
Perhaps the most interesting idea, however, is that due to the similarity of the lyrical themes explored on this record, the Dan had, no doubt inadvertently, released a “concept” album.
Street Life expanded this theory: “Scam is the Dan’s best thematic album yet. From the great expressionist cover inwards, the album presents a procession of outlaws, antiheroes, outcasts, outsiders and loners.”
Rolling Stone: The Royal Scam may not be a concept album, but every song concerns a narrator’s escape from a crime or sin recently committed. Becker and Fagen have really written the ultimate “outlaw” album here. But it lacks ready-made Top 40 fodder. It also widens their already considerable parameters. Their next LP, if one can speculate about this lovably perverse bunch, should be a pop killer.”
In October 1977, one rather irate journalist began his review of Aja thus: “Face it, lovers of tense, wittily neurotic rock, Becker and Fagen are now confirmed jazzheads. Vive Pretzel Logic.
Steely Dan’s latest “pop killer” appeared some 18 months after The Royal Scam. Rumored, originally to be a double album in order to fulfill their contractual obligations to ABC, it was apparently remixed 13 times in five months. It came in a gatefold sleeve that included, for the first time, individual musician credits (almost 40 of ’em).
Inside, one finds an album that shows yet another extension of musical ideas, despite the fact that several of the songs could have fitted neatly onto The Royal Scam. One reviewer, Dean Sciarra, suggested “50 percent of the tunes on this album could have fit quite inconspicuously on a number of their previous LPs, from Countdown to Ecstasy onwards.”
Most of the songs on side two cover musical territory already explored on Scam, but there are one or two subtle differences to be found.
NME: “Space is given over to instrumental prowess and complex arrangements while Becker and Fagen evince more than ever their jazz leanings, be it contemporary jazz or big band swing.”
These “jazz leanings” are perhaps best exemplified by the fact that Tom Scott was brought on board to assist with the horn arrangements for the album, a move which displeased Creem magazine: “The horn charts — arranged by Hollywood’s Mr. Homogeneity Tom Scott — are tasteful and boring. However, if the Royal Scam was a guitar fetishist’s delight, then Aja devoted an equal amount of time to the woodwind and reed players. (Even the guitar solos have a “Djangoesque” quality to them.)”
But the inclusion of the two extended tracks on side one cause most interest. A song that pays romantic homage to the life and times of a jazz musician, Deacon Blues is arguably their finest composition.
The title track, on the other hand, all eight minutes of it, is undoubtedly the most adventurous piece recorded by the band. A sprawling song-cycle (written in three movements), it caused quite a stir among the reviewers of the album.
“Aja is undoubtedly the finest piece of music I’ve heard all year and for Steely Dan represents a milestone; it extends deep into jazz-rock territory without forsaking the Dan’s skill as craftsmen of fine songs” — NME
“The title cut is the one song on the album that shows real growth in Becker and Fagen’s songwriting capabilities and departs from their previous work. It may be the longest song they’ve recorded but it fragilely holds our attention with vaguely Oriental instrumental flourishes and lyric references interwoven with an opiated jazz flux. Aja may prove to be the farthest Becker and Fagen can take certain elements of their musical ambition.” — Rolling Stone
Largely on the strength of this track, Music Gig called the album “One of the best fusion jazz records ever recorded” while Crawdaddy wrote quite the opposite: “This definitely ain’t no jazz album nor is it (God forbid) a fusion/crossover. I’d prefer to leave the labeling to someone else. Don’t let anyone tell you that Aja is Steely Dan’s jazz album. The cuts are longer than usual and soloists are credited, but the only reasonable jazz analogue is big band swing, not the bebop so dear to the Dan’s lyricists. If anything, Aja edges closer to mainstream pop than Steely Dan have recently cared to go. They’re so far removed from any competition that perhaps their only amusement comes from outdoing themselves.”
This affinity for the pop mainstream was also commented upon by Dave Fudger of Sounds: “Steely Dan have been slowly turning their music into very sophisticated MOR, and that’s no insult. To me, the Eagles, for example, are not very sophisticated MOR. Steely Dan, on the other hand, are the superior MOR band.”
Elsewhere the album was criticized for being glib, a critique no doubt caused by the inclusion of even more hand-picked talent than before.
Circus: “The solos on this record are somewhat sober. When combined with the slick rhythm tracks and the icy veneer of Gary Katz’ production, these ingredients make for an album virtually squeezed dry of vitality. In short, Aja is boring.”
In direct contrast, the NME wrote: “Strangely enough, considering the number of musicians employed, they sound like a band again. And it’s been a long time since you could say that.”
Nevertheless, as befits a so-called “middle-of-the-road” record, Aja sold. And it sold extremely well, entering the top 5 in England. By rights, this should not have been possible. Rolling Stone commented on the album’s “carefully manipulated isolation from its audience with no pretense of embracing it.”
Record Review: “Steely Dan occupy a unique niche in contemporary music. They’re a rock group sure, except that 1) they really aren’t a jazz group and 2) the music they play owes more to jazz traditions than it does to rock ‘n’ roll roots. A rock group that isn’t then, and a popular one at that.”
Most bands, of course, would fade away if they couldn’t promote their recordings with live shows, but Steely Dan are an exception to that rule, too. They simply refine and expand their craft as they see fit and release albums when they feel like it.
Downbeat, for one, was glad of their success: “In an era when a gaze at the album charts understandably elicits comments about the lack of maturity exhibited by many record buyers, it is a pleasure that Steely Dan are around to pursue their unique art.”
Now at the height of their popularity, Steely Dan’s “unique art” continued to be closely scrutinized by members of the music press. Among the reviews of their latest album, there were several lengthy attempts at summarizing their career into neatly arranged paragraphs that seem almost like epitaphs to the band, in retrospect.
The Dan were not dead just yet, though it was to be a long time before we were to hear what was to prove to be their final album.
In conclusion we leave the final words to Rolling Stone: “Aja will continue to fuel the argument by rock purists that Steely Dan’s music is soulless and by its calculated nature antithetical to what rock should be. But this is in many ways irrelevant to a final evaluation of this band, the only group around with no conceptual antecedent from the ’60s. Steely Dan’s six albums contain some of the few important stylistic innovations in pop music from the past decade. By returning to swing and early bebop for inspiration — before jazz diverged totally from established conventions of pop song structure — Fagen and Becker have overcome the amorphous quality that has plagued most other jazz-rock fusion attempts. What underlies Steely Dan’s music is its extreme intellectual self-consciousness, both in music and lyrics. Given the nature of these times, this may be precisely the quality that makes Walter Becker and Donald Fagen the perfect musical antiheroes for the ’70s.”
During the recording sessions for Gaucho, Donald and Walter were preparing to leave New York for Bayshore Studios in Miami when at the last minute the prospect of a late-winter avalanche of college kids deterred them, so they stayed in Manhattan. But their publicist, Katie Valk, went anyway and wound up making front page news.
A former lifeguard, Valk pulled a man from a Cadillac Seville which had plunged into a creek and revived him. “Bystanders rescue five from car in Indian Creek,” the Miami News headline read. When she returned to New York, Becker sent a limo to the airport to pick her up and then feasted with her on a box of stone crabs she had brought back. Valk’s comments on the whole episode? “Everybody knows press agents use their mouths more than their heads anyway.”
“Donald and Walter? Yeah, they’ve been down to hear us this week. They offered to record the band, mainly to have a record of it, if only for themselves.” So said Warne Marsh in 1980 after some dates at New York’s Village Vanguard. And Fagen and Becker, who rarely appear in public, weren’t the only ones who crawled out of the woodwork to catch him. A few months later, Fagen and Becker asked New York Times journalist Robert Palmer to write the sleeve notes for Apogee, the album they had produced for Marsh and Pete Christlieb. When Donald Fagen visited Palmer’s apartment and scoured through his 10,000-album collection, he pulled out the only disc he wanted to hear: a particular Becker and Fagen favorite, Warne Marsh’s All Music on the Nessa label.
Neighbors/Everybody needs good neighbors/Full of love and understanding…
Tell that to Mitch Miller, famous for his sing-alongs and one of the world’s best-selling recording artists in the 1950s, who does not think much of contemporary music. “Most of it is very bad. This guy from Steely Dan — Walter Becker? He lives in my apartment building in New York. He plays the same licks all night long. I feel like calling the cops on him. To get into rock, you don’t have to be a very good musician.”
Steely Dan Breakfast Meat?! This was the cure suggested by Walter Becker for a Creem journalist’s severe case of writer’s cramp.
Journalist: Is it non-fattening and non-calorific?
No, it’s extremely so. It’s go a lot of cholesterol and gris gredue.
Walter, is it true you have the metabolism of a sea slug as a result of eating Steely Dan Breakfast Meat?
Yeah, that would definitely give you the metabolism of a sea slug.
Fagen: We’re gonna market it like Fotomat. There’s going to be these little stands where you drive up and give the guy a dollar and he gives you some Steely Dan Breakfast Meat. If you don’t like it you just bring it back, and it’s like a donation because you shouldn’t waste food.
Becker: What about the starving children in China?
Fagen: I’d like to have a telethon to raise enough money to send three or four 747s filled to the brim with Steely Dan Breakfast Meat to China and othr impoverished countries.
Becker: Hey! Pat Boone sausages are gonna be about as stylish as white sheets after Steely Dan Breakfast Meat sees the light of day.