By David Yonke
“I think it’s universally agreed that our music is the best possible Muzak — rock Muzak — to play in a supermarket.”
— Steely Dan in a 2003 interview on NPR
Two college jazz fans struggled to peddle their songs in New York’s legendary Brill Building, landed a job playing with Jay and the Americans on a concert tour, wrote the soundtrack for the low-budget Richard Pryor movie Gotta Walk It Like You Talk It, then hit the big time in 1971 when superstar Barbra Streisand recorded one of their original tunes, “I Mean To Shine.”
Such were the early career steps of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, two quiet, sarcastic Bard College students determined to make their mark in the music world.
It took a little while and a few detours, however, before Fagen and Becker found their path to fame and fortune as Steely Dan, the beguiling Rock and Roll Hall of Fame group who will be in concert Tuesday night at the Toledo Zoo Amphitheater.
Their music straddles barriers — both the sonic and intellectual kind — throwing Latin or funky dance grooves into the mix along with obscure literary and historic references.
Theirs may be the only rock band with its own online dictionary (www.steelydandictionary.com), created by Dan O’Malley, an Irish fan who felt the need to explain Steely Dan’s more esoteric lyrics.
“Kirschwasser,” for example, from the song “Babylon Sisters,” is a type of German brandy made from cherries; “Mizar,” from the tune “Sign in Stranger,” is a star in the constellation Ursa Major, and a “bodhisattva,” from the song of that name, is a Buddhist term for a being who compassionately refrains from entering nirvana to help others and lead them to enlightenment.
Fagen, 59, of Pasaic, N.J., and Becker, 57, of New York City, have both said they were alienated young adults who found common ground in beatnik literature, Chicago blues, and the jazz of Charlie “Bird” Parker, Duke Ellington, and John Coltrane.
They formed a band at Bard known by various names, including the Leather Canary, Bad Rock Group, and the Don Fagen Trio, and occasionally featuring fellow student Chevy Chase on drums.
The pair moved to Los Angeles in 1971 to work as songwriters, but after growing increasingly frustrated by other artists’ inability to grasp their unorthodox blend of jazz, rock, and pop music, as well as their quirky lyrics, they decided to record their songs themselves and thus gave birth to Steely Dan.
The original lineup of the band, whose name was inspired by William Burrough’s novel Naked Lunch, featured Fagen on keyboards and vocals, Becker on guitar, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter and Denny Dias on guitars, and Jim Hodder on drums.
Their debut disc, Can’t Buy a Thrill, released in October, 1972, marked the launch of a musical legacy built with sophisticated and unpredictable arrangements, wry and offbeat lyrics, and studio perfectionism.
The band and their label, ABC Dunhill, had targeted Can’t Buy a Thrill to a small niche of savvy listeners, but surprisingly, the album became a mainstream smash. It leaped into the charts with the radio-friendly hits “Reeling in the Years,” featuring Baxter’s soaring guitar riff, and “Do It Again,” with its infectiously funky beat.
Fagen, Becker, and the band were then pressured by their record label to capitalize on their success by launching a concert tour.
“When we went out in support of the first album, the record company in a way forced us out,” Fagen said in the liner notes to the band’s box set, “Citizen Steely Dan: 1972 to 1980.”
“That was just a thing that you were supposed to do. You know, the original band was put together very quickly — almost instantly, really. And we were dealing with musicians we didn’t know very well. Toward the end of our touring days, after two years of touring around and with some additional personnel, we were starting to get pretty good.”
Steely Dan followed its debut album with Countdown to Ecstasy in 1973, marking what would become one of Fagen and Becker’s trademarks: a stellar supporting cast of guest artists. This one included Rick Derringer on slide guitar and jazz legend Ray Brown on bass.
The guest artists gave Fagen and Becker the versatility they sought, but it also put some pressure on the rest of Steely Dan’s members.
“Although the players were good players, we wanted to do a variety of types of music and work with other musicians,” Fagen explained. “And they basically, and very justifiably, wanted to go out and make money. And so we decided to disband and concentrate on recording and writing music.”
It wasn’t long before Steely Dan was pared down to Fagen and Becker at the core, surrounded by a revolving door of talented instrumentalists and singers.
Among the many stars who have contributed to the pair’s music projects, both on tours and in the studio, are Patti Austin, Michael and Randy Brecker, Larry Carlton, Michael McDonald, Joe Sample, Wayne Shorter, Mark Knopfler, Jeff Porcaro, and David Sanborn.
Fagen and Becker kept Steely Dan rolling through the rest of the ’70s, producing a series of albums that sold at least 1 million copies each: Pretzel Logic (1974), Katy Lied (1975), The Royal Scam (1976), and Aja (1977).
It was Aja that earned the band its first Grammy Award, for best engineered non-classical album, and produced three hit singles: “Deacon Blues,” “Peg,” and “Josie.”
It took four years after Aja before Fagen and Becker released their next album, Gaucho, with the Top 10 hit “Hey Nineteen.”
Feeling exhausted from a decade of relentless recording and touring, however, the release of Gaucho was followed by the surprise announcement that Steely Dan was breaking up.
Ironically, it was 19 years before Fagen and Becker’s next Steely Dan project, Two Against Nature, was released, on a Leap Day, Feb. 29, 2000.
It was an auspicious start of the new millennium for the revived Steely Dan.
In February, 2001, the band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and in March of that year Two Against Nature earned four Grammy Awards, including Album of the Year.
Steely Dan’s most recent studio effort is Everything Must Go, released in 2003, with a title track inspired by the Enron financial fiasco.
Before going on tour to support Everything Must Go, Fagen and Becker displayed their wry humor in an interview with NPR’s Steve Inskeep, saying they planned to wear “defibrillator backpacks during performances” and that they were into “recreational defibrillation.”
Steely Dan launched its 2007 Heavy Rollers tour in Memphis on May 5, with Fagen and Becker accompanied by a 10-piece band. The tour is scheduled through September with shows in the United States, Europe, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand.