By Greg Kot
CHICAGO — Steely Dan famously quit touring to concentrate on recording meticulously crafted studio albums in the ’70s. But in the last decade, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker have spent more time on the road than behind a mixing board. And now, with a dozen musicians, they’re performing some of those hallowed ’70s albums song-for-song on stage.
In a four-night residency at the Chicago Theatre next week, Steely Dan will devote an evening each to “The Royal Scam” (1976), “Aja” (1977) and “Gaucho” (1980), plus a fans’ choice set on the fourth night.
Fagen and Becker once were notorious perfectionists who found concert sound sorely lacking in the ’70s. They’ve loosened up a bit, but the realities of the music business have also dictated their decision to do it on the road rather than in the more controlled environment of a recording studio.
“Those days, conditions were poor” and the tour packages with heavy metal bands and Texas outlaw bands were “mismatched,” Fagen says of Steely Dan’s ’70s touring experiences. “We were sharing dressing rooms with guys who had the shower and a chainsaw going at the same time.”
“We have our chainsaws now,” Becker adds.
Fagen: “We have a band that’s been together long enough so that everyone feels the groove the same way. We stay in nice hotel rooms, we have cute backing singers, everything you could want.”
Becker: “Plus the skill, organization and ability to create sounds live are much greater.”
One thing clearly hasn’t changed: The dry, often dark sarcasm that has informed Steely Dan’s music ever since they bonded at Bard College in the ’60s on Kurt Vonnegut novels and Blue Note label bebop. That sensibility made the Dan unique among ’70s rock bands. Their recordings from that era remain touchstones for several generations of musicians and are often studied for their sonic innovation and peerless musicianship. Initially a relatively conventional rock-pop band, Steely Dan soon morphed into a Becker-Fagen collaboration with a rotating cast of musicians.
The finicky pair would sometimes fly a musician across the country to play a particular solo on a particular track. “We would write a part with a specific person in mind,” Fagen says. “Once we stopped being a touring band, it opened up all sorts of possibilities for how the arrangements would work and who could play on them.”
Becker and Fagen inserted bebop chords and sly lyrics informed by Beat Generation literature into rock tunes and even infiltrated the charts with some of the most harmonically sophisticated pop music ever made; “Aja” became one of the best-selling albums of the ‘70s even though its elliptical, jazz-stoked tunes came out months after the Sex Pistols were breaking in England.
“That was the height of the punk era, when musical values became intertwined with social or political values,” Becker says. “It became all about what music was more radical or what kind of music had real working-class ‘authenticity.’ But in my experience of listening to music, nothing was ever as radical as jazz. Given a choice between Charlie Mingus and Eric Dolphy or Joe Strummer and Lou Reed, there was no choice. I like Reed and Strummer, but it’s kiddie music.”
For Fagen, the music got better and more satisfying as the group evolved, which explains why the band is choosing to perform the last three studio albums of its initial run (1972-80) instead of the earlier stuff, which many fans would prefer: “Can’t Buy a Thrill” (1972), “Countdown to Ecstasy” (1973), “Pretzel Logic” (1974) and “Katy Lied” (1975).
“The ones we’re playing have a more mature style; each of the others has a track that Walter and I think is a clinker,” Fagen says.
He’ll also make the case for the duo’s comeback albums, the 2000 album “Two Against Nature” that bested Eminem for best album at the Grammy Awards and the 2003 follow-up, “Everything Must Go.”
“But no one wants to hear those,” Fagen says with a laugh.
The duo prided itself on standing outside the mainstream throughout its career, so the notion of playing some of its best-known albums front to back suggests an uncharacteristic embrace of nostalgia and trend-hopping. Lately, every band or artist with any sort of musical heritage seems to be hitting the road and promising to play a “classic” album as part of the set list, from Bruce Springsteen (“Born to Run”) to the Pixies (“Doolittle”).
But Fagen and Becker have assembled an 11-piece band that can bop as much as rock. They suggest that the current tour is less about exactly duplicating their work as configuring it for the moment — in large measure because every album after “Countdown to Ecstasy” was conceived without touring in mind. The relative complexity of the material allows them to reinterpret a few passages while still hewing to the familiar outlines of the original work.
“Donald and I were in Jay and the Americans’ road band in the ‘60s, and that sort of oldies mentality can be a wee tad depressing,” Becker says. “But we didn’t play any of these songs live between 1974 and 1994 when we weren’t touring at all, so the repetitive aspect isn’t there for us. With the amount of money people spend these days to see a rock show, they expect to hear their favorite old Steely Dan songs, and this is a way for us to present it somewhat differently.”
They also acknowledge being discouraged by the current landscape for releasing new music, because of the rise of Internet file-sharing and what they see as a lack of stimulating new music.
“It’s true I’m attracted to a groove, and a lot of stuff has a pretty good groove these days, but they are often looped vamps where nothing ever happens, or they become novelty records for people to rap over,” Fagen says. “I want to see some harmonic development, some kind of denouement. I want to hear lyrics with wit and substance…” Fagen stops himself. He knows he sounds like a curmudgeon. But then he and Becker never were ones to embrace the sound of the Now. As transplanted New Yorkers recording in Los Angeles throughout much of the ’70s, they spent a good chunk of their time creating their version of a noir movie about Southern California decadence.
Now they hope to do the same with the concept of the nostalgia show.
“We’re not into note-for-note re-creation,” Fagen says. “There’s something depressing about that.”
The Stories Behind The Albums
Here are the albums Steely Dan will perform in concert, with comments from Donald Fagen and Walter Becker on the creation of each:
‘The Royal Scam’ (1976)
Becker: “We had been recording in L.A. all along and decided to do this one in New York, looking for a more brash musical personality.”
Becker: “The harmonies became more overtly jazz derived. It didn’t seem like a formula for pop music, but it was the height of an era when the LP was a cutting-edge instrument. You could do anything.”
Fagen: “It was a surprise it was such a huge hit. I’m sure that our manager (Irving Azoff) had something to do with it. He was very good at promoting things that were difficult to promote. It had a kind of exclusivity about it that he helped make desirable.”
Fagen: “We were trying to do something that sounded as fresh as ‘Aja’ and of equal quality, and it didn’t feel as good, because we were working under that pressure. Some of the tracks sound a little too careful.”
Becker: “We broke up afterward, but I started breaking up in the middle of making it. The record has a really spooky quality for me, but that’s part of what we intended. We got caught up in that; it’s the risk you run of becoming captive of your own artistic vision.”