The rise and fall (and rise again) of Steely Dan

By Greg Kot
Chicago Tribune

For Steely Dan fans, it’s been a drought of biblical proportions: 12 years and counting without any new music from one of the more innovative bands of the 1970s.

There have been no albums from either of Steely Dan’s founding members, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, since 1982, when Fagen released “The Nightfly.” The duo last worked together in 1980, on what would be the final Steely Dan album, “Gaucho.”

As Fagen explains, he was left drained by the making of “The Nightfly” without his old partner, and found “I had nothing left to say.”

“The ‘80s, personally and musically, were a trying period; I felt I was essentially out of the scene for a whole decade,” he adds. “I needed to grow as a person to get the energy to record again without repeating myself. If I could’ve put out an uninspired record to make a living, I would have. But that’s not the way I work.”

The creative juices are flowing again, however.

Late last year, the taciturn keyboardist and an all-star cast released an album of rock and soul cover versions, “The New York Rock and Soul Revue: Live at the Beacon” (Giant), that included a couple of reworked Steely Dan tunes.

He’s also been laboring on a solo album, which he says may be released as early as next February, with Becker producing and playing bass. And Fagen is “consulting” with his Steely Dan sidekick on a Becker solo album, tentatively set for release in the fall of 1993.

What’s more, Fagen and Becker will be reunited for the first time on stage since 1973-74, when the New York Rock and Soul Revue arrives Aug. 29 at Poplar Creek Music Theatre.

Also performing will be erstwhile Steely Dan vocalist Michael McDonald (who later found fame with the Doobie Brothers and as a solo artist), as well as veteran singers Boz Scaggs, Phoebe Snow and Chuck Jackson, plus a six-piece band, horn section and backup singers.

Together, Becker and Fagen charted an alluring course through 1970s pop, blending a love of jazzy, minor-key pop melodies, shimmering production and ironic lyrics. After a string of critically acclaimed releases, the duo struck platinum (1 million sales) with “Aja” in 1977.

But with the follow-up, “Gaucho,” the duo’s creative partnership dissipated almost beyond repair.

“We were going through a lot of personal troubles, and we were under a lot of pressure to top ‘Aja,’ which had been an enormous visible success,” Fagen says. “When I hear that record (‘Gaucho’) now, I get the creeps.”

After that, “it wasn’t possible for us to go in. I thought ‘Aja’ was our peak, and then Walter and I just went in different directions.”

Fagen worked through a bout of depression in the ‘80s, while Becker battle drug addiction, but the two began seeing each other off and on again to write songs beginning in 1985 (one of which is expected to surface on Fagen’s next album).

Although a much-rumored Steely Dan reunion didn’t take place, “we’ve been close since then,” Fagen says. “Our relationship has improved tremendously and it’s fun to be with him in the studio again. That’s what was missing in ‘Gaucho.’”

Meanwhile, Fagen began playing a few modest gigs in restaurants around Manhattan at the behest of a friend, songwriter Libby Titus.

“They were evenings of mixed music—cabaret, jazz, some pop—even some comedy,” Fagen says.

“I got invited to do one with Dr. John. It was just me and him on keyboards, with a rhythm section, mostly playing jazz, and he’d sing a few. It was fun.”

From there, the Rock and Soul Revue concept was born, with lines stretching around the block to see free-wheeling, anyone-might-show-up performances at the Lone Star Roadhouse in Manhattan.

The shows marked Fagen’s first live appearances since that first Steely Dan tour, which he dubbed a “disaster.”

“We’d open for heavy metal bands, and we never got the sound check we wanted,” he says. “The accommodations were less than wonderful, with routing from hell—from Honolulu to Miami.”

With the Rock and Soul Revue, Fagen says he’s in a “Steve Allen mode,” playing master of ceremonies from his piano. He and Becker will perform a handful of Steely Dan tunes with the rest of the band, though one from their upcoming albums—“It’s bad luck to play new material until it’s released.”

He adds that other surprises may be in store, however. “I’m trying to get Walter to sing. The last time he did that was during the Bleecker Street days back in 1966.”

Becker and Fagen first met at Bard College in upstate New York in the mid-‘60s.

“We were writing songs together within a day of meeting each other,” Fagen says. “We both had been jazz fans since we were 9 or 10 years old, listening to the same jazz shows on the radio, and we both got into soul and pop in the mid-‘60s.”

Fagen says the two veered towards pop because jazz was losing its appeal.

“It had begun turning into an avant-garde art form,” he says. “As (saxophonist) John Coltrane took jazz further out, he destroyed what jazz had been before. I understood what was happening, but I missed the more melodic and harmonic elements in jazz. Those started turning up in the pop music of the time.

“The chords were the same, but the progressions were becoming more adventurous. And I also got into the blues, the direct energy of it all.”

All those elements began to show up in Steely Dan’s music in the next decade. The introductory riff from one of it’s biggest hits, “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” was drawn from a composition by hard-bop pianist Horace Silver; “Parker’s Band” saluted jazz innovator Charlie Parker; and “East St. Toodle-Do” [1] was a dextrous reading of a Duke Ellington original.

The duo’s jazz obsession, Fagen’s frequently cynical lyrics, even it’s name—drawn from a William Burroughs novel—gave Steely Dan a collegiate hipster veneer that turned off some critics.

But there’s no denying the duo’s intellect and inventiveness, how they managed to succeed as a pop band even as they thumbed their noses as pop convention.

“I hear records a certain way because I grew up a jazz fan,” Fagen says. “ I like a much drier sound, more up-front and direct, than is the norm in pop music.”

“I don’t have a car, but I hear pop radio in cabs, these little messages of what’s going on. At home, I mostly listen to old jazz, blues and soul, because the mixes on these new records are so ugly I can’t listen to them. Everything is so grandiose, with huge amounts of echo. So many *things* are used, like drum machines, without trying to make them sound musical. Because there’s no soul in these machines, engineers try to compensate with massive amounts of reverb (echo).”

It sounds like Fagen’s new album, a song cycle that he says will be similar in format to “The Nightfly,” will be firmly in the Steely Dan tradition: pop that doesn’t pander.

As Fagen says, “I just think we always had a different set of priorities.”

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