By Rosa Shiels
CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand — The line from Boston is crackly and the voice indistinct. If there were ever a time for good reception it is now; the New York aristocrats of jazz-rock, Steely Dan, have finally decided to come down our way, and Donald Fagen is on the line, ready to talk about it.
One of the two savvy progenitors of this time-tested, uber-cool, cerebral rock unit, Fagen is bound to have plenty to say and it would be good to be able to hear it. As it turns out, he speaks with a measured drawl interspersed with lots of slow aaahhs, but the poor-quality line is swallowing the subtleties. There are also frequent pauses at his end; does he sense my terror or is he just trying to comprehend the Kiwi exxent?
Pianist and vocalist Donald Fagen and bass player Walter Becker are the composers and conceptualists behind the musical entity Steely Dan, whose power-packed albums of original songs full of famously obscure lyrics, driving rhythms and complex, dense harmonies gave ’70s stoners and music aficionados something deep and meaty to conjure with — and groove to — for most of the decade. And that was just the start of it.
Fagen (New Jersey) and Becker (New York) were like-minded souls who got together as students at the selective liberal arts-based Bard College in New York’s Hudson Valley in the late ’60s over a shared love of fine jazz and hip Beat Generation literature.
The pair started out on their musical road, door-knocking song publishers at the legendary Brill Building, and were eventually signed by the owners of Jay and the Americans, their first touring band. They moved to LA in 1971 to become staff songwriters at ABC/ Dunhill Records, and in between writing verses for others, penned songs for themselves and planned their own band and record.
This was where the band-name came in — named after a dildo in the infamous William Burroughs’ 1957 novel “Naked Lunch” — and the magical, somewhat intellectual brew of music and lyrics, so different from the fare of the times, and custom- made for their own quality-controlled recordings.
“When we started in the ’70s,” Fagen says, “there was a kind of a window open for different kinds of music, different sorts of bands, that closed soon after. And I think we were lucky that we started when we did.”
Steely Dan’s first album, “Can’t Buy a Thrill,” was released in 1972, spawning such hits as “Reelin’ in the Years,” “Do It Again,” and “Dirty Work.” This album blueprinted the duo’s early approach, their core of piano and bass joined by Jeff “Skunk” Baxter and Denny Dias on guitars, Jim Hodder on drums and David Palmer on vocals (Fagen was initially uncomfortable with the sound of his own voice).
By 1973, Fagen was singing lead, and other band members subsequently included Michael McDonald (vocals, piano), drummer Jeff Porcaro and Royce Jones (percussion, vocals). The band toured the US and Britain and put out the sparkling “Countdown to Ecstasy” and “Pretzel Logic,” two albums which launched such great songs as “Bodhisattva,” “Your Gold Teeth,” “Show Biz Kids,” “My Old School,” “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” and “Any Major Dude Will Tell You.”
All of a sudden, by 1975 they’d stopped touring and disbanded, instead hiring session players to record a major quartet of albums: “Katy Lied,” “The Royal Scam,” “Aja,” and “Gaucho.”
In this age of internet dispersal of music, YouTube, and using avatars on the parallel web universe Second Life to do your concerts for you, it’s not far-fetched to think artists can create a strong enough presence never to need to tour or work live. But back in the ’70s this was a brave move.
“I know that when we started we toured for a couple of years and then because of various problems we quit and decided to concentrate on making records,” Donald Fagen says. “We were probably one of the first bands to do that.
“I guess at the time the general consensus was that a band had to tour in order to be successful, but actually our record sales improved after we stopped touring, which maybe meant that, you know, we weren’t the best band in the world. I think when we concentrated on records we basically started making better records.”
Fagen and Becker went their separate ways during the 1980s, with Becker signing out of the showbiz life for a couple of years to take up avocado farming in Hawaii. Fagen continued with music, recording his first solo album, “The Nightfly”; composing for film (“Bright Lights, Big City”), and producing albums for Rickie Lee Jones and a clutch of jazz artists.
He also provided songs for Diana Ross, Manhattan Transfer, and Jennifer Warnes, among others.
“Sometimes I’ll write things that I feel really are not for me — they sound more like pop songs or something that I don’t particularly want to sing. So if someone asks me for a song I’ll just have a song that I’ve written that I don’t wanna do, and then other times someone will ask me for a song and I’ll write it on spec.”
In the early ’90s, Fagen and producer Libby Titus produced the New York Rock and Soul Revue, with an associated recording. At the same time, he was working up material for another album.
The acclaimed “Kamakiriad” (1992), with Walter Becker back in collaboration as producer, reached beyond platinum status.
Since then, the creative partnership has spawned new studio and live recordings, individual and band websites, another Fagen album (“Morph the Cat”), Becker’s two solo albums (“11 Tracks of Whack” and his untitled work-in-progress) and, once again, a committed touring schedule of US, Europe and Japan.
There’s a rational aloofness, somehow, about much of Steely Dan music, and the cool metallic quality of Fagen’s voice and carefully machined logic of the songs means the band name is particularly appropriate. Whatever, careful listening beyond the percussive grooves, strong hooks and clever, sometimes unfathomable lyrics is always rewarded.
So what’s their creative approach?
“Generally speaking — I can only speak for myself over that — I think Walter’s process is the same in that usually the original idea’s instinctual, you know, and will come out while I’m at the piano, and then the rest of it is working out how the idea develops. Over time Walter and I will get together and work out the rest of it.
“I usually develop the musical idea a little more before the lyrics, and Walter and I will collaborate on the lyrics. And Walter will help refine the music, as well.”
The tricky lyrics are peppered with Stateside colloquialisms and cultural or social allusions, which make them both intriguing and maddening.
“When we started it was the early ’70s and we followed the mood of the times, and wrote about the culture that we were familiar with. As time goes on I think we’ve learned how to write with a little bit more lucidity. It probably became clearer as time went on and, of course, a lot of it has to do with US slang, you know? And we also make up characters and make up words.”
So what about the reference to kangaroos and the NSW country town of Muswellbrook in Black Friday (on “Katy Lied,” 1975)?
“Because we are talking about a stock market crash essentially, and we are talking about somebody who wants to get away as far as he possibly could. So we basically just spun a globe, put a finger down and it happened to be there.”
Music-wise, Steely Dan songs and arrangements have always been a cut above, with a jazz approach to chordal modulation and harmony over a solid rock foundation. Their mostly accessible melodies often disappear into crowded banks of vocal harmonies.
“I sometimes think of the harmonies as a section in a big band — like the trombone section, or something like that,” he says.
“Walter and I were jazz (fans) when we were young. We grew up listening to the great jazz of the ’50s and ’60s, so that comes through naturally when we’re arranging.”
Awards have rolled in for Steely Dan through the years, and the year 2000 was particularly big for them. Fagen and Becker were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; the pair received honorary Doctor of Music degrees from Berklee College of Music; they received an ASCAP (the US songwriters’ association) Founder’s Award, and “Two Against Nature” – recorded in 2000 – won four Grammys, beating out Eminem for the album of the year.
Steely Dan’s 2007 Heavy Rollers tour takes in the US, Europe, Japan and Australasia, with stadium and winery concerts (in Australia) and a 10-piece orchestra featuring Fagen and Becker plus Freddie Washington on bass, Keith Carlock on drums, Jon Herington on guitar, and Jeff Young, keyboards and backing vocals, with a four-piece brass section — Michael Leonhart (trumpet), Jim Pugh (trombone), Roger Rosenberg (baritone sax), and Walt Weiskopf (sax) — and two backing vocalists, Carolyn Leonhart-Escoffery and Cindy Mizelle.
Along with sound, lights, and administration people, that makes about 30 in the touring party, a number which could become cumbersome and overwhelming to tour with were it not slickly organised.
Where other bands are rounding off their touring lives, Steely Dan are reveling in the musical results of life on the road and their current band.
“These days I think we’re concentrating on live performance, and since we started touring again in about ’93 we definitely have the best band. All the players are soloists. They’re jazz musicians and the relationship between the players on musical levels is great, so we’re really happy with the band at this point.”
Reviewing their last album, “Everything Must Go” (2003), Peter Kaufman, of the Washington Post calls them “the Coen brothers of rock — wisenheimer wonder boys who win us over with their complete mastery of craft, even as they keep us at arm’s length … smarty-pants Fagen and Becker at the top of their snarky game. Their work may not appeal to the heart, but the brain and the feet love it. Improbably, the Dan abides.” That just about sums it up, really.
Steely Dan: Monday, September 24, Westpac Arena. Book at Ticketek.