By G. Brown
DENVER –In the ’70s, Steely Dan’s sleek, studio-perfect sound defied all conventions. Pop hooks mixed with jazz harmonies and chording. Complex time changes. A flair for wryly observant yet cryptic lyrics.
It made Steely Dan one of the most influential bands in the development of rock music. Now, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker have suited up as Steely Dan again, this time for Two Against Nature, the first album of new material in nearly two decades. They perform at Fiddler’s Green Amphitheatre on Wednesday.
Will today’s music fans embrace Steely Dan as they did in the ’70s and early ’80s?
“The climate in the music business has changed pretty radically,” Becker admits. “But we were always there on a fluke to begin with — we existed in an odd little position, a niche that we had managed to eke out for ourselves, and that’s probably still as true now as it was then. We didn’t particularly fit into the context of the ’70s in any clear way, and I don’t think we fit into the context of what’s going on now in any clear way, either.”
Fagen, 52, and Becker, 50, met in 1967 at Bard College in upstate New York, and they started composing and playing together — one of their first official gigs was backing Jay & the Americans on tour. The two were working as staff songwriters at ABC Records when producer Gary Katz suggested they assemble their own band.
Named for the talking sex toy in the William Burroughs novel “Naked Lunch,” Steely Dan debuted in 1972 with Fagen on keyboards and vocals, Becker on bass, and other members. Can’t Buy a Thrill spawned the smashes “Do It Again” and “Reelin’ in the Years,” followed a year later by Countdown to Ecstasy and the FM favorites “Bodhisattva” and “My Old School.” A third album, Pretzel Logic, produced a hit in “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number.”
Making a change
But by then Becker and Fagen were in the middle of an important change — not long after a chaotic tour, they gave up the road altogether. Becker still remembers opening for ’50s acts Chuck Berry and Sha Na Na at the Denver Coliseum, trying to win over 10,000 kids all greased up and ready to rumble.
We were often opening for other people whose crew decided to sabotage the sound of our show, so we wouldn’t get too good of a reception.
“They’d had a cattle show (the National Western Stock Show) the day before — it was very gamey! That was one of the most extreme examples of weird circumstances we found ourselves in, where the audiences were not necessarily our audiences. God knows why. It was up and down in those days.
“Ultimately, it was a decision based on the economy of aesthetic and personal satisfaction for Donald and myself. Traveling around was uncomfortable for us. The performances of the band were uneven. And, of course, we were often opening for other people whose crew decided to sabotage the sound of our show, so we wouldn’t get too good of a reception. We found ourselves on the wrong end of that a few times too many.” After officially becoming a duo, Steely Dan concentrated on the studio. Fagen and Becker adopted the custom of bringing in dozens of session musicians, guys like guitarist Larry Carlton, to round out the instrumentation. They’d try out several drum tracks and multiple solo takes in a fussy quest for the inspired.
“Generally speaking, Donald and I had a lot of fun writing and making records — that’s what we had originally wanted to do,” Becker says.
“The things that we relate to musically are mostly jazz and blues influences from the ’50s and ’60s. Growing up when we did, we couldn’t get to hear very much jazz in live situations because we were too young. We were very focused on the idea that recordings are the real text of the artform, rather than live performances.
“So we had a relatively enjoyable and satisfying job of being songwriters and recording artists on the one hand, versus a frustrating, exhausting, trying, intermittently unrewarding job of touring in a rock ‘n’ roll band on the other. And we just decided to do what we could do.”
Their unerringly exacting creative and technical standards paid off with 1975’s Katy Lied and 1976’s The Royal Scam. But it was Aja, with the radio staples “Peg,” “Josie” and “Deacon Blues,” that cemented Steely Dan’s status. The album, which featured many of the top players of the day, went on to win a Grammy award and became Steely Dan’s first platinum
By the time Gaucho, the followup, won Steely Dan another Grammy in 1982, Fagen and Becker were burned out and had already called it quits. Although Steely Dan was officially over, the group’s founders continued to work together on various musical projects over the years.
In 1993, the pair did one thing the original Steely Dan did precious little of — tour. It was chronicled on Alive in America, released in 1995. Soon after, Fagen and Becker began writing songs for what was to become Two Against Nature. “Aside from our shared sensibility and conception of what the album could be, we also had lots of little starts of songs, fragments from collaborations in the ’80s and into the ’90s that we rewrote and used in different ways,” Becker says.
“Which is what you want to have in an ongoing collaboration. One of the things that makes collaborations work has to do with a pool of resources that you’ve built up — music that you didn’t use that you can recycle. So we had a lot of stuff to begin with. When we actually sat down to write, it turned out we had a pretty good flow of ideas.”
The sharp, inimitable ensemble sound of Two Against Nature picks up precisely where Gaucho left off in 1980.
“We didn’t set out to make an album that would be continuous with the stuff we had done in the past,” Becker says. “On the contrary, we discussed a couple of different schemes that would have been very radical departures. In talking over the potential pluses and minuses, we decided not to impose an overall structure on what we were doing in advance, but to just sit down and write some songs and see what would happen.
“We ended up writing stuff that was not that different, probably because we’re very focused on musical and songwriting fundamentals, especially by comparison to the pop music field in general. A good beat, harmonic interest, a good melody and good lyrics are the main elements in what we’re trying to do. How you arrange things and what the sounds are going to be are, for us, secondary considerations.” Some songs are classic Steely Dan. The frisky “Cousin Dupree” is a seedy tale of unconsummated intra-familial lust — “Well we used to play/When we were three/How about a kiss for your cousin Dupree … What’s so strange about a downhome family romance?”
“What a Shame About Me” is about an aging guy from NYU who’s down on his luck (“I’m still working on that novel”). When a more successful old girlfriend back home from L.A. suggests sleeping together, the shamed protagonist balks, explaining that she’s “talking to a ghost.” Steely Dan remains Fagen and Becker with a solid group of backing musicians, but Becker is now playing virtually all of the guitar solos, and he’s more than competent.
“Donald encouraged me to do it, because I’d been playing guitar in the live shows,” Becker explains. “Donald and I produced this record ourselves. We don’t necessarily plan as far in advance as we should, and we frequently found ourselves in a position of, “Well, now the next thing we need on this tune is a guitar part, but we haven’t booked a guitar player.’ The suspense is killing us, and here I am with my guitar and my amps. So I ended up doing a lot of guitar work just because I was there.
“In addition, in the past we’ve gotten virtuoso soloists who could do a lot of things that I couldn’t do. Somehow, the context of recorded music has changed a lot. There’s been such an overkill of “shred’ guitar players between 1979 and the present day that getting one to come in and play a jazzy solo is not necessarily the same idea that it was then.”
Showcased in film
Steely Dan’s tunes are reportedly showcased in Me, Myself & Irene, an irreverent Jim Carrey comedy from brothers Bobby and Peter Farrelly
(Dumb & Dumber and There’s Something About Mary). It’s pop culture, new millennium-style.
“I suppose Donald and I know as much or perhaps more about the audience as we ever did,” Becker says. “And apparently there are people from all sorts of situations, ages and so on that are still interested in what we’re doing. I think that’s great.”