60 Minutes of Music that Rocks Their Worlds

By Vic Garbarini
Guitar World

Two Against Nature (Giant) is the title of the first official Steely Dan studio album in 20 years. It also sums up the subversive musical philosophy of keyboard/vocalist Donald Fagen and guitarist/bassist Walter Becker, the reclusive duo who masterminded Steely Dan’s radical blend of rock and funk dynamics, jazz harmonic sophistication and irresistible pop hooks. Their upbeat music was always contrasted with dark, ironic lyrics, creating sophisticated yet ambivalent songs that served as a caustic commentary on the arena rock, pop and disco that dominated Seventies radio. The good news is that the new record is an almost seamless continuation of the Steely Dan sound last heard on 1980’s Gaucho. Creepy characters and dark doings still haunt the band’s gorgeous musical landscapes. But a sense of compassion has also surfaced amid the cynicism.

“I hope the music has evolved, and although it’s more sophisticated, we do have a more affectionate take on the characters in the songs,” agrees Fagen. In Steely Dan’s heyday, Becker and Fagen were known for calling on the top guitarists of the time to add an edge to their compositions. Elliott Randall’s epic solo on “Reelin’ In The Years”, Larry Carlton’s classic riff on “Kid Charlemagne”, the elastic elegance of Chuck Rainey’s bass line on “Josie”, plus great performances from everyone from Jeff “Skunk” Baxter to Mark Knopfler fleshed out their best work. They pushed rockers to play with a jazz feel, and jazz icons to rock out.

“We found there were certain jazz musicians back in the Seventies who figured out how to play rock. like Wayne Shorter and Joe Sample, and understood the rhythmic and improvisatory approach we needed,” explains Becker. Becker’s own guitar work is superb, if understated.
He finally steps out on the new album, handling most of the solos himself.

“I was a humble guitarist with a lot to be humble about,” he laughs. “I feel more confident in my own playing since we started touring again.” Meanwhile MCA/Universal has just reissued digitally remastered editions of the two albums that represent the groups greatest artistic and commercial successes, 1976’s The Royal Scam and 1977’s Aja. The latter album boasts three of the most pleasantly twisted singles to ever hit top 40 radio, including “Deacon Blues”, “Peg”, and the ominously seductive future-funk of “Josie.”

“Walter and I were jazz fans from a very early age,” says Fagen, regarding their choices for an ultimate 60 minutes tape. “We later discovered blues and rock as teenagers, so we’re attracted to rock and r&b that has kind of a jazzy structure and swing to it.” Which explains their unique viewpoint, and the often surprising insights and enlightening observations they offer concerning their dozen favorite songs. To squeeze them all in, we picked a half dozen each of Becker and Fagen’s most intriguing choices, then listed the remainder of their selections with a few of their pithy comments.

“The Last Time” THE ROLLING STONES – Out of Our Heads (ABKCO, 1965)

“For its time, this was a really innovative use of the guitar line as a hook in rock music. Guitar lines were certainly used in jazz and swing music before this, but mostly as accompaniment. It was Chicago blues people like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf who first started using the guitar line as something to actually build a song around. This song wasn’t really a blues, but the Stones were building on a riff in that same bluesy way. And the guitar hook doesn’t seem to be in the same key as the chorus, which is pretty interesting.” – Donald Fagen

“Hunter Gets Captured By The Game” THE MARVELETTES – Deliver: The Singles 1961-1971 (Motown, 1993)

“Just the weirdest song you’d ever want to hear in your whole fuckin’ life. The structure and chord progressions were really unusual. The Marvelettes had a raw, gospel quality to their voices and music that had been polished out of most other Motown artists. Sort of a ‘Go to church, but keep a razor blade in your hair’ approach to soul music” – Walter Becker

“Every Little Thing” THE BEATLES – Beatles For Sale (Capitol, 1964)

“Not one of their best-known songs, but fascinating in that it changes keys a couple of times, as I recall. It has a beautiful guitar line, and a series of cell-like chord progressions that succeeded one another. For instance, the verse forms one cell, the chorus another, the bridge a third — and they’re all heavily contrasted. It gives the song a very jagged structure, almost like 16 bars from a Stravinsky piece.” – Fagen

“Strange Brew” CREAM – Diraeli Gears (Polydor, 1967)

“In his early days, Eric Clapton had a very interesting way of stretching time. If you listen to Otis Rush or Albert King, you sometimes hear the same kind of thing. But on this track Clapton uses volume, distortion, the timbre of the guitar and the sheer excellence of his playing to transpose the blues idiom into something really original.” – Fagen

“Walkin’ Blues” ROBERT JOHNSON – The Complete Recordings (Columbia, 1990)

“I remember as a kid reading about this record in a blues column in a jazz magazine called Downbeat. So I bought it, and I had no idea what it was going to sound like. And I just couldn’t figure out how he was making those sounds on the guitar. I’d never heard anyone play a guitar with a slide, or seen a metal guitar. I was thinking, ‘Shit, are there automobile parts on that guitar? How did he make that boing noise? Is there some kind of spring on that thing?’ (laughs) As with Marley, this was a case of realizing there was another rich musical universe that I was unaware of, one that had a highly developed and rich musical tradition.” – Becker

“Fables Of Faubus” CHARLES MINGUS – Mingus In Europe, Vol. 1 (Koch/Enja, 1964)

“There’s a great live version of this with Mingus actually singing the lyrics, which go something like, ‘Why is he so sick and ridiculous, Faubus!’ Mingus was a jazz legend who, aside from writing unbelievable music, was basically mad. He had this incredible outrageous attitude toward everything connected with his music, including his audience and his band. I’m sure it was difficult for the people around him to deal with him. But all this made a big impression on me as an adolescent. Once he punched his trombone player, the great Jimmy Knepper, in the mouth and put him out of work for a year and a half. Knepper took him to court, sued him and won — then Mingus hired him back. (laughs) That says it all.” – Becker

“I Shot The Sheriff” BOB MARLEY AND THE WAILERS – Burnin’ (Tuff Gong, 1973)

“The first time I heard this, it was like discovering a new musical universe. It was a complete representation of an alien culture that had all sorts of rich musical devices that you were suddenly confronted with for the first time. And the lyric – ‘I shot the sheriff, but I did not shoot the deputy’ — has a humorous, ironic element that adds a lot to the song. Irony has kind of lost its novelty. It’s not striking like it was in the Seventies because it’s not set off in relief against anything.” – Becker

“You Upset Me Baby” B.B. KING – King of the Blues (MCA, 1992)

“Anyone who listens to B.B. King and doesn’t hear what’s different about him compared to what came later is just not a very sensitive listener. Listen to that vibrato, the pitch-bending and the feel he gets — it’s all in the details. In a funny way, he’s like a virtuoso violinist. That’s a regional thing. The way they bend notes in the Mississippi Delta, the source of the blues, is much more defined, subtle and soulful than what most white guitarists play.” – Fagen

“One More Heartache” MARVIN GAYE – Anthology (Motown, 1995)

“Marvin Gaye was a truly ‘musical’ singer. His little improvisational turns were always very precise, and his rhythmic feel was terrific. He had a great range and could soar into some really exciting high-register stuff. The song has a simple but elegant harmonic scheme, built on a deceptive sort of bass riff. I love the rhythmic tension between the straight-eight feel that most of the instruments are playing and the weird shuffle the tambourine is doing.” – Becker

“4 Eyes” LOVIN’ SPOONFUL – Hums (Kama Sutra/Pair, 1966)

“It’s amazing how obscure this band is today. John Sebastion was a very underrated singer who had a big influence on me. The music was very upbeat, while the lyrics could be very biting in a way. This was a funny song about a guy with glasses. Sebastion grew up wearing them, so this was his way of expressing some anger toward the people who used to call him ‘four eyes’. But at the same time, there’s a sense of freedom in the guitar playing that’s used as a humorous element. Today Sebastion is back working with his first love, jug band music, which is where a lot of the Spoonful’s songs had their roots.” – Fagen

“Tangerine” DAVE BRUBECK QUARTET – Dave Brubeck Quartet in Europe (Sony, 1958)

“This is the record my father bought when I was 11. It got me listening to jazz, mostly because of Paul Desmond’s incredible alto sax work. ‘Take Five’ and some of Brubeck’s odd time signature stuff was gimmicky even then — though it opened my eyes as a kid. But because this was a live record, it was just straight-ahead blowing — chorus after chorus of gorgeous, melodic improvisation. Paul had great flow, great tone and nearly perfect technique. It was a great example of post-Charlie Parker bebop. Desmond wasn’t revolutionary in any way, just a great practitioner of the form.” – Becker

“Red House” JIMI HENDRIX – Are You Experienced? (MCA, 1967)

“Hendrix had a certain kind of internal freedom that enabled him to take a basic blues like this and do something totally original with
it. That freedom is related to the irony with which he approached his material. Jimi had a pretty good sense of humor — he was a very skilled put-on artist. There are not many musicians you can compare him to. (alto saxophonist and flautist) Eric Dolphy, who also had that tremendous sense of freedom. He said ‘I don’t care what other guys used to play in this context — I feel like playing this!’ And like Dolphy, Hendrix had the technique to pull it off.” – Fagen

60 More Minutes

Donald Fagen:

“You Don’t Have to Cry” – The Byrds
“Atomic folk rock with modal harmonies”

“Love is Strange” – Mickey and Sylvia
“Pure sexiness, and a beautifully appeggiated guitar line.”

“Baby, I Need Your Loving” – Four Tops
“The perfect Motown record, like a little Mozart piece.”

“These Arms of Mine” – Otis Redding
“The greatest rock singer of all time, plus the economy and perfection of Steve Cropper’s guitar.”

“Land of Make Believe” – Dionne Warwick
“European classical harmonies combined with gospel soul.”

Walter Becker:

“What Becomes of the Broken Hearted” – David Ruffin
“Unusual vocal modulations that surprise and uplift you.”

“Ride the Pony” – Lee Dorsey
“Incredibly mysterious New Orleans soulfulness.”

“Israelites” – Desmond Dekker
“Intergalactic reggae, with a weird little augmented scale on the guitar.”

“I’m Ready” – Muddy Waters
“Direct transfer of country blues consciousness to electricity and the big city.”

“My Country Sugar Mama” – Howlin’ Wolf
“I heard about this guy called Howlin’ Wolf, and when that huge voice came on the radio, I knew it had to be him.”

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