By Fred Dellar
No news flash interrupted TV programmes on May 21, 1990. No breakfast time headline gave any indication that much of musical importance was happening. But for many, the real rock summit was taking place – Donald Fagen and Walter Becker were both booked into New York’s Hit Factory studio and working as one! “We’re not working as Steely Dan,” Becker announced, “We’re just collaborators”.
The album, it seemed, was down to Fagen, though several cuts, may be six or seven, would involve Becker as co-writer and producer. The twosome’s statements revealed little. Becker declined to talk about any of the material on the album except to say that Fagen’s current writing had a soulful flavour with somewhat greater harmonic and lyrical complexity than that normally associated with traditional R&B. Not much to go on. No great revelations. But, far as true aficionados were concerned, Steely Dan were once more at the starting blocks.
The idea of the Dan was first spawned at New York’s Bard College where 17 year-old Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, a manly 19, first exchanged licks. They linked in bands like Leather Canary and The Bad Rock Group, at one point employing Chevy Chase as drummer. But Becker’s efforts failed to impress the tutorial staff who, after Fagen graduated, requested that former should quit because of the “lack of seriousness on his Work-Study programme” and chance getting busted somewhere else.
Somewhere else proved to be the New York City music scene, where, the duo eventually united again and briefly threatened the world of Ennio Morricone.
You Gotta Walk It Like You Talk It (Or You’ll Lose That Beat)
The film to which Becker and Fagen applied their creative talents wasn’t exactly Oscar nominee material. More of a home movie, it played a Manhattan theatre for two weeks and then vanished, leaving a sound track produced by Kenny Vance, mastermind of chart high-flyers Jay And The Americans.
The resulting album featured Becker (bass and guitar) and Fagen (keyboards, vocals) along with Vance (vocals), Denny Dias (guitar) and John Discepolo (drums). The band shaped sounds around the sort of oblique lyrics that were later to become associated with Steely Dan. But nobody waved flags.
The due had met Dias after he’d placed an ad in Village Voice which read: “Guitarist looking for keyboardist and bassist – must have jazz chops.” He was to play on many of the Fagen-Becker demos, later returning to reach true Dan status.
In the interim, the Bard buddies latched on to the fact that the Jay Organisation would pay them $50 for every song they delivered. So they began a hack attack, delivering the demos by the crateload, also touring as members of Jay And The Americans, using the pseudonyms Gus Mahler and Tristan Fabriani.
Berry Town and Old Regime, just two of the several records that document Becker and Fagen’s prowess as songwriters, arrangers and performers during 1968-71, contain early versions of “Brooklyn,” “Berry Town” and “Parker’s Band” all of which later appeared on true Dan albums. Jay Black, head honcho with Jay And The Americans, remembers the period well: “They were cocksuckers who I may kick in the ass next time I see them,” he averred.
Can’t Buy a Thrill
Later reissued on MCA
Fagen and Becker chummed up with the producer Gary Katz, who signed with ABC-Dunhill Records on the understanding that his musical buddies would be signed as staff writers. But the twosome had other ideas. They spliced together a band that featured sidekick Dias, along with ex-Ultimate Spinach guitarist Skunk Baxter, drummer Jimmy Hodder (ex-Bead Game) and vocalist David Palmer, who’d warbled a bit with Middle Class, a band managed by Goffin and King.
Along with such gigsters as jazz vibrist Vic Feldman, keyboardist David Paich, guitarist Elliot Randall, hornmen Snooky Young and Jerome Richardson, plus back-up chirpers Shirley Matthews and Venetta Fields, they fashioned an album that most critics deemed stunning. And if the music failed to pick up publicity, the band’s name compensated. For it was taken from that of a dildo in William Burroughs’ The Naked Lunch, while the album’s title stemmed from Becker belief that “You can’t buy a thrill while living in California – it’s like living in a morgue.”
Those oblique lyrics were now well to the fore, wrapped in a surround-sound that came jazz- and Latin-flavoured. “But we’re not interested in rock-jazz fusion,” claimed Becker, “that kind of marriage has only come up with the ponderous results. We play rock’n’roll but we swing when we play. We want that ongoing flow, that lightness, that forward rush of jazz.”
If the critics liked what they heard, so too did the punters. The album went Top 20 while two pulled-off singles, “Do It Again” and “Reeling In The Years” hauled themselves into the Billboard Hot 100. Years later, in 1983, Italian band Club House linked “Do it Again” with Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” thus fashioning a Euro-hit. One way or another, the kudos afforded Can’t Buy A Thrill doubtless pleased Tristan Fabriani, who once again raised his pen to provide the album’s suitably cryptic line in sleeve notes.
Countdown to Ecstasy
Later reissued on MCA
The band’s first US tour proved a disaster, after which David Palmer moved on to form The Big Wha-Koo, leaving the Fagen vocal sneer upfront. However, Skunk Baxter reckoned Countdown to be a million times better than the first album.
“When we did Can’t Buy A Thrill, hardly anybody knew anybody. On Countdown To Ecstasy we had a pretty good idea of what we wanted to do. It was a lot more fun doing it. It was a lot more rock’n’roll.”
Certainly the band rocked mightily on “Bodhisattva,” which they used as an opener on their first (and only) UK tour. But in essence, Countdown settled in very nicely alongside its predecessor, though no hit singles were forthcoming.
Later reissued on MCA
Keyboardist Michael McDonald moved in at this point, also providing an able assist when it came high harmonies. It was Fagen and Becker’s fond remembrances of New York jazz radio that sparked most of the album, rock being nudged aside on “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” which contained a nod in the direction of Blue Note soulster Horace Silver, while “Parker’s Band” proved a tilt of the beret in the direction of the immortal Bird.
The most oddball cut of all was a rendition of Duke Ellington’s “East St Louis Toodle-oo” that proved a near facsimile of Duke’s 1927 version, Denny Dias playing Bubber Miley’s original trumpet solo on sitar and Skunk Baxter reproducing Tricky Sam Nanton’s trombone part on pedal steel. “Rikki” gave the band their biggest-ever success in singlesville, notching the No. 4 spot and the Dan headed out on the obligatory tour. But by the time they’d reached home base Baxter and McDonald had opted for life with the Doobie Brothers, while Dias decided to return to session work, leaving his telephone number in readiness for any future Fagen and Becker studio jaunts.
Later reissued on MCA
This was to be the big one, the all-time major deal. It was just the Fagen and Becker show, all the others having fled, though the faithful Dias turned up for all sessions, Becker explaining “Denny’s got staying power vastly above that of most of his comrades.” Accordingly, the twosome wrote what they considered to be their most inventive songs and hired a line of deluxe sessionmen, including Wilton Felder, Jeff Porcaro, Rick Derringer and jazz alto great Phil Woods.
The duo also aimed at state-of-the-art hi-fi quality, utilising the latest technology available. But everything backfired. The DBX noise-reduction intended to seal perfection to awaiting ears, went snafu. Massive studio bills accrued as the twosome attempted to put things right. Even when the album finally made it way into the world, it was generally greeted with apathy, Nick Kent commenting in NME: “By most other standards, this album would almost be brilliant, but for Steely Dan, Katy Lied is easily their worst to date.”
The Royal Scam
Later reissued on MCA
It was the title song of the Dan’s fifth album that grabbed most of the attention – one reviewer claiming it to be “a brooding, smouldering document with malevolent instrumental interjections. About outsiders – Puerto Rican immigrants to New York — it’s not a West Side Story celebration but the bitter obverse, the reality of the barrio.”
Lyrically, everyone agreed, Fagen and Becker had never been more potent (though one track, “The Fez” was an almost wordless portion of neo-disco with a slice of “Le Grisbi” chucked in for luck). And, for once, there was even a British chart single in the reggae-inclined “Haitian Divorce.” The Royal Scam was beyond criticism though NME observed: “While the melody lines are once more inspired, the album lacks spontaneity, doubtless because the musicians involved are not playing as a band.”
Later reissued on MCA
Fagen and Becker were still pushing studio equipment to its utmost limits and Aja was said to have been remixed 13 times in the five months preceding its release. Equally the Dan seemed intent on employing every West Coast musician of quality in their search for perfection.
When the album finally broke surface it boasted seven guitarists, six drummers, an equal number of keyboardmen, plus an numerous other sound-stokers including a sax squad that included such luminaries as Jim Horn, Bill Perkins, Wayne Shorter, Pete Cristlieb, Plas Johnson, Jackie Kelso and Tom Scott, the latter contributing an array of horn arrangements that turned such cuts as “Peg,” “I Got the News” and “Black Cow” into near facsimiles of his own LA Express jazz-disco sides.
But everything paid off. Aja lifted itself to No. 3 in the US album charts and provided a brace of Top 20 singles in “Peg” and “Deacon Blues.”
During 1978, the Dan contributed “FM (No Static At All)” to a movie about the conflicts at a maverick LA radio station. It became Fagen and Becker’s first release through MCA. The same year, big-band leader Woody Herman recorded five Dan songs while the boys themselves produced Apogee, a straight jazz album, for Pete Christlieb and fellow tenorist Warne Marsh.
A move to Warner Bros was mooted but, before the twosome packed their bags, MCA required a contract-fulfilling album. Galling, considering the duo were supposedly owed millions in unpaid royalties. MCA squirmed as the recording costs for Gaucho crept toward the million dollar mark.
“At one point,” Fagen later claimed, “they cut off the money and wouldn’t pay for any more studio time.” The saga ended when MCA insisted that the suggested retail price of the record should be set at a dollar more than the norm, which caused another five-month battle between Fagen and Becker and a record company anxious for an instant recoup.
When the album saw the light of day, it notched platinum within months, leading MCA to heave a sigh of relief. Six months later, in June 1981, Fagen and Becker split, failing to say whether they would ever release another Steely Dan album. “We just kind of left it up in the air,” Fagen told the New York Times, “Nothing is planned. We’ll see.”
(Warner Bros) 1982
Not a Steely Dan album though it might just well have been. In reality it was Donald Fagen’s solo debut. But how could you tell the difference? The ever reliable Garry Katz had been retained a producer, the usual array of LA session-stars had put their hands out for pay-packets and the music could have slotted in alongside anything on Dan’s previous offerings. The exception to this rule were “Maxine” which sounded for all the world as if it was dreamed up by The Hi-Los or some other jazz-oriented ’50s harmony group, and “Ruby, Baby,” an update on a 1956 Drifter’s hit.
The sleeve depicted Fagen as a tie-loosened jazz DJ, readying a John Coltrane track for public airing. There was also a single, a great, multi-layered hit called “New Frontier” that prompted a video cited by Rolling Stone as being among the greatest of its genre.
Since then there have been various sightings. During 1986 Fagen and Becker reunited to play on model Rosie Vela’s Zazu album which Garry Katz produced. Becker has logged his name on albums by China Crisis, Fra Lippo Lippi and Rickie Lee Jones, while Fagen scored the soundtrack to the Michael J. Fox movie Bright Lights, Big City, releasing an excellent but neglected single in “Century’s End.”
And now they’re back, presumably to make Dan noises even though the resulting album is unlikely to bear that established trade name. As usual, some will welcome the event like the second coming, while others will mutter under their breath about redundant jazz-rockers. There’ll be rumours and rumours of rumours. A whole scuttle of mights and maybes. One thing is for sure. The band absolutely will not tour.
Around the time that Gaucho was released someone asked Donald Fagen how they had escaped without touring for all those years. “Easy.” claimed Fagen. “We fired all the roadies so we couldn’t go!”
Vox was a short-lived British music magazine, first published in October, 1990.