Gannett News Service
This summer, Steely Dan will tour on the heels, not of a group album, but the release last year of the Donald Fagen solo CD, Morph The Cat.
But Fagen’s musical partner in Steely Dan, Walter Becker, says fans can rest assured that even without new Steely Dan music to play, he and Fagen won’t let the shows become a nostalgia trip for the fans or the musicians on stage.
“Our attitude is we’re definitely sort of in the anti-nostalgic camp,” Becker said in a recent teleconference interview with several writers. “If we don’t feel a tune that we’re playing feels fresh to us, if it feels like we’re recreating something rather than creating something, we don’t do it. And when we’re on stage it’s, you know, the band and the musicians that are there and the way it sounds and feels is just not an attempt to recapture anything. It’s a real musical event that’s happening for the first time before your very eyes. And I think…having done this a few times, we’re going to try and condense the Steely Dan set down into a maximum high-impact slamming type of deal that will completely banish any talk of nostalgia or traipsing down the rose garden, the garden path or however you put that.”
Steely Dan’s history certainly suggests that Fagen, Becker and the rest of the touring band will make good on that promise. The group has always been known for its sense of musical sophistication and adventure. It’s worth noting that despite still being hugely popular at the time, Fagen and Becker broke up after the 1980 Steely Dan album, Gaucho, in a large part because they realized they were stagnating creatively.
Of course, up until that time, the duo had set an impressive standard to try to maintain.
Fagen (keyboards/vocals) and Becker (bass) formed Steely Dan after meeting at Bard College in upstate New York in the late 1960s, and immediately made an impact with the 1972 debut album, Can’t Buy A Thrill. It included the hit songs like “Do It Again,” “Dirty Work” and “Reelin’ In the Years” and boasted highly developed arrangements, excellent playing and instantly accessible pop hooks.
Subsequent albums, such as Countdown To Ecstasy, Pretzel Logic, Katy Lied and The Royal Scam continued to maintain the high standards established with the debut, and Fagen and Becker reached a creative and commercial peak with the 1977 Steely Dan album, Aja. But soon after that their partnership went off track.
During the writing and recording of their next album, Gaucho, Becker, in particular, suffered two major personal setbacks –- first the suicide of his girlfriend and then he suffered a broken leg when he was struck by a cab. The situation kept Becker from helping Fagen complete Gaucho.
With the duo feeling burned out and in need of addressing their lives outside of Steely Dan, they went their separate ways.
The two didn’t re-emerge until 1992, when Fagen and Becker teamed up as part of the New York Rock And Soul Revue tour (alongside such vocalists as Boz Scaggs, Phoebe Snow and Michael McDonald).
After that roadshow, Fagen and Becker decided to test the waters with Steely Dan. Tours were booked for 1993 and 1994, sandwiched around the making and release of Fagen’s 1993 solo CD, Kamakiriad (produced by Becker) and Becker’s 1994 release, 11 Tracks Of Whack (produced by Fagen).
Then it was on to a full-fledged return of Steely Dan with the 2000 CD, Two Against Nature. It was a gratifying new beginning. Not only did the CD enjoy considerable popularity, it became the first Steely Dan release to win non-production Grammys, taking home 2002 honors for Album of the Year, Best Pop Vocal Album and Best Engineered Album/Non-classical.
Another strong CD, Everything Must Go, followed in 2003.
While Two Against Nature and Everything Must Go arrived in fairly quick succession, Becker, who has started work on a solo album, said it probably will be some time before he and Fagen make another Steely Dan CD.
“I’m sort of in the middle of it,” he said. “So, I think that (a new Steely Dan album) is in (some) far flung future.”
Becker said he enjoys touring now more than in the 1970s before Steely Dan became strictly a studio project.
“At the point where we jumped out in the ‘70s you know the control that we had over presenting our music the way it sounded and so on was pretty hit and miss,” Becker said. “And whereas in the intervening years they’ve gotten it together to that point that you know it sounds good every night …The band sounds good every night now which was not really the case in the ’70s.”