Steely Dan: They may be older and fatter, but their sense of humour remains unchanged
By Jack Sawkin
As someone once memorably remarked, dinosaurs weren’t exactly walking the earth the last time Steely Dan released an album of new material, but their tracks were still fresh. But, having been missing in action for most of the eighties and all of the nineties — their last studio album, “Gaucho,” came out in November 1980 — Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, aka Steely Dan, release their seventh album later this month.
The imminent arrival of “Two Against Nature” (released on February 28 in Europe and Japan — a day before the US, fact fans) has sent the band’s loyal and long-suffering following into a frenzy of anticipation.
Their influence has bubbled through the music of Deacon Blue, Danny Wilson, and the High Llamas in the intervening years, and even as far as rap artists like De La Soul (who sampled Peg on Eye Know) and Lord Tariq and Peter Gunz (ditto Black Cow on 1998’s Deja Vu, leading to the bemused Fagen and Becker picking up an award for Rap Song of the Year through their writing credit), but those only made fans mad for the real deal. Word of a new album first began to surface in 1996, following a successful reunion tour two years previous which spawned the “Alive In America” live album. On that tour, Fagen would dryly announce from the stage that the duo planned to record some more “before one of us dies,” and the veteran Steely Dan watcher immediately settled him/herself down for the customary interminable wait.
Recording began in spring of 1996 and was finally completed in the summer of last year. Although — obtuse as ever — no singles from the album are scheduled, two tracks, “Cousin Dupree” and “What A Shame About Me,” have already been sent out to US radio stations and there are plans for a European tour in the autumn.
But while the album is all new material, work practices in Dandom appear to have changed little. In the interview disc for his 1982 solo album “The Nightfly,” Fagen admitted hauling the cream of New York’s session guitarists in to audition a specific lick, finally using none of them at all.
He glibly puts this down to a “stylistic mismatch” on his own part, but he explains it in the smug whine of someone you’d never tire of slapping. The band seems to be up to their old tricks. Neither John Beesley nor Joe Sample, who contributed keyboards to the “Two Against Nature” sessions, appear on the finished product. Neither this fanatical, maddening attention to detail, nor the lengthy silences between records has surprised fans. Six band albums in nine years between 1972 and 1980 proved a misleadingly frenetic work-rate, and Fagen’s solo career after their split in 1981 proceeded at an altogether statelier pace. “The Nightfly” was followed, eventually, by “Kamakiriad” (1993), while Becker’s only solo offering was his uneven “Eleven Tracks of Whack” in 1994.
There were other projects, such as Fagen’s worthy but muso-heavy New York Rock and Soul Revue in 1991, but mostly it was down to unearthing the occasional soundtrack gem (such as Fagen’s “Century’s End” from Bright Lights, Big City, in 1985). The world Steely Dan inhabited when “Gaucho” arrived was a very different place. The week it was released, Abba’s “Super Trouper” was the number one single and album in Britain and Bill Gates was a 25-year-old computer program boffin from Seattle whose little Microsoft company was about to be hired by IBM to produce the software for the first personal computer.
Since then, the very technology which was unthinkable — even to two cyber-dudes like them — back then has become commonplace, and Fagen and (especially) Becker have embraced it warmly. Commonly held to be inscrutable, enigmatic and secretive, the band merrily contribute to a lively chatroom on their Internet website. They’re the most accessible recluses on the planet.
In an on-line interview pushing the nine-track new album, Becker noted: “We wanted to strike while the career iron was still lukewarm.” Fagen acknowledged the passing of time, admitting: “I hope we have a massive audience but it’s a very difficult musical landscape to when we last put out an album. Also, we’re not as pretty as we used to be.” How true. A sober-suited Fagen showed up to collect Q Magazine’s Inspiration Award for 1993 looking like the grumpiest member of a Manhattan legal team, while Becker has metamorphosed into Professor Denzil Dexter, the supremely laid-back and blindingly unsuccessful research chemist from The Fast Show.
However, the acerbic wit, which has always been their mainstay, is allowed to run wild in their on-line responses to e-mail. “Thanks so much, Elizabeth,” replied Becker to one, “I enjoyed your letter immensely, right up to the first mention of the word ‘husband’.” A polite inquiry as to whether the new album will be issued on vinyl elicited the following withering response: “At this point there are no set plans to press vinyl. Nor are there any plans to manufacture any eight-tracks or Edison rolls or player-piano rolls either.”
Becker has approached the chance to chat on-line with gusto — he has pages of his own (set up by “Walter Becker – Producer, Explorer, Philandropist”), which range from his own personal resolutions to a couple of agony columns (Dear Greta and Ask Dr Klamm), whose advice is as irreverent and unhelpful as seasoned Danwatchers would anticipate. You can also detect his droll japery in the fake band history: “1982 – after a period of dissolution on the fringes of the Hamburger Werkstatt group. B & F abandon symbolist thought-poetry and begin experimenting with Siamese erotic pottery. 1989 – Walter Becker is injured slightly during the running of the bulls at Pamplona, Spain and for the next six months wears a knee brace and eye patch.”
The website has even automatically christened the new album in cyber-language 2vN. In all, it sounds like business as usual on Planet Dan, down to the predictably minimalist and unfathomable sleeve, which shows two amorphous shadows against the ground, a 21st century revisit to Countdown To Ecstasy. Roll on.