RS#255: Steely Dan

Steely Dan Springs Back: The Second Coming

Their new album, held throughout product-glutted summer for just the right moment, accidentally came out the same afternoon as the new Rolling Stones LP. Their first tour in three years was canceled. They haven’t had a hit single since 1974′s “Rikki Don’t Lost That Number.” And still, their sixth and most esoteric effort yet, Aja, is one of the season’s hottest albums and by far Steely Dan’s fastest-selling ever. Suddenly, against all the odds, it’s Steely Dan fever.

They are the unlikeliest super-group – perhaps because there is no group. Two blurry character named Walter Becker and Donald Fagen write and construct the songs, then hire highly skilled studio musicians to execute the parts. They even play themselves, but less and less, it seems, each album. (“It wouldn’t bother me at all,” says Becker, “not to play on my own album.”) The infrequent product of their labors is labeled a Steely Dan album. Any further details are subject to Becker’s and Fagen’s notorious distaste for facts.

There are, though, plenty of stories making the rounds: about Becker and Fagen being “obsessively maniacal” Scrabble players whose marathon games have wasted weeks of valuable studio time. Or the one that suggests they wrote Aja about their fetish for shooting ducks locked in copulation. Or the former president of ABC Records who reportedly disowned them, calling them “worms.”

They are said to delight in making mincemeat of outsiders, these two. There were questions to be asked, though. It was an ugly job, but somebody had to do it.

I arrived at the tiny Malibu guest home of Walter Becker the day Aja was released. It was late afternoon, morning for the bass-and-guitar-playing half of Steely Dan’s composing team. I waited in a quaintly domesticated living room, amid harmless collections of beach shells and artifacts. I could hear Becker playing guitar, soling lazily along with a jazz station in a back bedroom. He was just waking up.

A moment later, neighbor Donald Fagen pulled up in a black sports car. The lead vocalist/keyboardist/composer breezed straight into the kitchen for a mug of coffee. Becker emerged with Fender in hand; wordlessly, the two took seats. There was something vaguely disconcerting about their Eddie Haskell smiles; they were quite aware of their heinous reputations.

“We do encourage that misconception,” allowed Becker. “But it’s not that accurate.” He lit a Marlboro with shaky hands. “We’re no longer belligerent to interviewers, for example….”

Fagen immediately dispensed with the diplomacy. “A lot of interviewers are just jerk-offs,” he snapped, taking a swipe at a fly.

The pair are like delinquents taking an oral exam in detention. Becker is long-haired and wispily bearded, in the spirit of Robert Hughes’ later years. He exudes a newt-like translucence. Fagen, by comparison more tanned, is dark shades that he will not remove. And his mouth is caricature-sized; it’s as if he has an extra two inches of lip and no room for it. It’s true – they could be characters from their own sinister songs.

They obviously sleep all day. I asked how they spend their nights.

“Writing songs,” Becker replied. “I go over to Donald’s. He comes over here. We spend a lot of time doing that.” He played casual solo and thought. “Overdubbing too.”

“Most of our time is spent on the Working Process,” Fagen began, slapping the arms of his leather chair. “We spent most of the year recording.” Fagen stopped slapping. “But I don’t know what we were actually doing.”

“Overdubbing,” answered Becker.

“We overdubbed a lot of the overdubs over.” Becker grinned luxuriously, cracking open a can of Coke.

“Yeah, we did,” Fagen added.

Becker turned to me. “That was why….” I waited for him to continue. He did not. So much for anecdotes.

They don’t own a Scrabble game, as it turns out. The duck story “must have come from our doing interviews during the Hotel Bel-Air phase. They had ponds with swans and shit.” However, that former ABC president did, they say, call them worms.

“We didn’t deal with ABC for a long time,” Becker said. “We were definitely on the shit list over there, can you believe it? And we didn’t give ‘em a hard time or anything. We have a great relationship with them now. They were just pissed as us for being…I don’t know.” He shrugged. “Worms, I guess.”

Their contract with ABC runs out with the follow-up to Aja; rumor has it they will follow their producer, Gary Katz, to Warner Bros.

“Oh yeah,” Becker continues. “We’re going to Warner Bros. We’ve got one more with ABC of new material. Lemme see, then they have the rights to greatest hits album. Steely Dan: the Golden Years, or I Remember Steely Dan…”

That Was the Steely Dan That Was,” Fagen suggested.

“The Good Songs,” Becker decided. “Then we’ll be doing the same thing we’re doing now, except for Warner Bros.” Having just summed up the next, oh eight years of his life, Becker took another sip of Coke.

(Current ABC President Steve Diener, who wrote the liner notes for Aja, was anxious to comment: “I hope they stay with the label. I have a lot of respect for these guys. I really mean that. The reason I tolerate and even encourage them is it’s necessary for their own creative perfection. But when they deliver…they deliver. They are a very special breed of cat, and that includes their producer, Gary Katz.”)

“Really,” added Fagen, about his and Becker’s Working Process. “This is the job of the decade.” He has, it seems, adapted his entire sense of humor to the nasality of voice. “We’re just sitting out the Seventies, waiting for better times….”

Becker and Fagen met ten years ago at Bard, a progressive college in upstate New York, “and we’re tired of talking about it.” They had the same eclectic tastes in jazz, and together began to write their own uniquely overeducated from of pop and rock. They floundered through several amateur bands – one of which was called the Bad Rock Group and included Chevy Chase on drums (“We don’t remember him,” says Fagen) – and eventually wound up playing with Jay and the Americans.

Becker and Fagen gladly relocated in Los Angeles when producer/friend Gary Katz took a West Coast staff job with ABC on the stipulation they be hired as label songwriters. Katz promptly assembled around them a band that would play their material exclusively. He chose East Coast musicians he had worked with before: Denny Dias and Jeff “Skunk” Baxter on guitars and Jim Hodder on drums. Becker played bass; Fagen handled keyboards and, for the first time in his life, vocals. Another vocalist, David Palmer, was later added to help with stage presence. They were named after the William Burroughs dildo in Naked Lunch.

With Katz at the helm, Steely Dan recorded its debut album, Can’t Buy a Thrill, and, amazingly, scored hit singles with “Do It Again” and “Reeling in the Years.” “We had zero expectations,” Becker remembered. “In fact, we were amazed that ABC bought the album at all.” He snickered. “It was like a dream come true.”

By the time of Pretzel Logic, Steely Dan’s third album, the concept of a rock band as airtight touring-recording-touring unit had all but evaporated. The band, now including keyboardist/vocalist Michael McDonald, last performed live, briefly but expertly, in 1974. But the music had already taken a spectacular swing in the direction of forward motion jazz.

Steely Dan built a new audience from the remains of the old. The band also gained much attention for its tradition of not listing detailed credits on its albums. It became a serious obsession among musicians to figure out who played which solos on Steely Dan records. Most of the time it wasn’t the band members pictured on the album, but hired guns.

“That cold stigma about studio hacks,” Fagen bristles, “is nonsense. You can get studio musicians to sound exactly like a rock & roll band.”

Becker: “We don’t feel it’s something to be ashamed of. We had outside players on the first album. [Jimmy Page calls the Elliott Randall guitar solo on "Reeling in the Years" his all-time favorite.] The Beatles did it quite a bit, by their own admission. A lot of things Eric Clapton played…everyone thought it was George Harrison.”

The original Steely Dan band dissolved soon after the 1974 tour, making official, says Becker, “the enlarged-band concept, if you will.” Hodder and Dias returned to the lucrative freelance status. Baxter went on to join and start the resurgence of the Doobie Brothers, later bringing with him Michael McDonald. Steely Dan became simply Walter and Donald, the journeymen be-boppers from Bard.

Becker: “It was unfair of us to spend eight months writing and recording when Jeffrey Baxter and others in the group wanted to tour. We weren’t making very much money and everybody wanted to be out touring a lot. We didn’t. That was that.”

But touring is generally the means of amassing fortunes in the music business, and Becker and Fagen, with their costly taste in crack specialists, were going broken in a hurry. According to sources close to the band, they secretly signed with Warner Bros, in ’74 and spent most of their advance buying out manager Cohen. Warner Bros., however, will admit to having them signed only since last year.

The relationship with Katz continued. (“Why shouldn’t it?” asked Becker. “He has a moustache.”) They next recorded Katy Lied, using players from all areas of expertise. “It was better sounding than anything you’ve ever heard to this date,” recalls Gary Katz. “Even Aja. Unbelievable. We went in to mix it, and the tapes sounded funny. We found out the DBX noise reduction system we were using was not functioning properly.”

Becker, Katz and engineer Roger Nichols took a midnight flight to the DBX factory in Boston and after some work by experts, were told the malfunction had irreparably damaged the tapes.

It is a testimony to their studio prowess that the “flawed” sound on Katy Lied is still much advanced compared to any of the competition. “I am a fan first,” Katz underscores. “It takes a long time to make an album that all three of us are really happy with. It’s a three-way effort. One review like…the sterling production of Gary Katz, and I will take a good two, three days of abuse from those guys.”

All three are predictably proud – and remarkably free of even playful sarcasm – in discussing their working relationship with such jazz musicians as Wilton Felder, Victor Feldman and particularly Larry Carlton. “In the past,” said Becker, “it has been Larry who played most of the guitar solos. We’re probably hardest on guitar players. But we get the best work. I suppose other people go into the studio and jam around and it’s, ‘Let’s get something going,’ until they get a few riffs that they can try and write some words around. We’ve real charts and everything. It’s more productive. The musicians enjoy getting asked to do something that’s challenging. We like working with an overview too. It’s difficult, but it’s fun. It’s not stupid music.”

They have been known to discard entire tracks because of a single bad move. Six months later a musician may realize he’s reading the same chart and playing the same song with a different band. “I imagine you have to have certain jazz consciousness to understand what we’re doing,” said Fagen.

The Royal Scam, the fifth Steely Dan album, continued the lyrical descent into the seamy underside of society. It’s a particular favorite of fanatics who savor Becker’s and Fagen’s Gordian Knot of oblique losers, dopers, ravaged lovers and doomed optimists. But the composers do now warm to specific questions.

“We actually think most of these songs are pretty funny,” Fagen commented. “We don’t construct them as puzzles. We try to tell a big story in a very short period of time. Naturally we have to exclude some information. We don’t discourage any speculation.”

Personal harassment from the hardcore devotees has fallen off in recent years, though Becker and Fagen still reminisce about the fellow who followed them across country to retrieve “the girlfriend.” He had finally figured out what Becker and Fagen were talking about. They had her…and they were taunting him. “Ah well,” Fagen said. “It tapers off when you’re not touring.”

Becker and Fagen now write off their announced plans for a fall return to touring as “speaking out of turn.”

“We thought it might be a good idea again,” Becker says. “We actually made one full start with a bunch of musicians. We’re going to try again soon. I think maybe we underestimated the time we needed to start something from scratch and have it sound like…something, you know.”

The problem, according to Katz, was the rude realization that they could no longer capture the increasingly intricate sound of Steely Dan on record with a few rehearsals.

“I push them so much…I do. It’s selfish. I want to see it. They may not owe it to anybody, but they do owe it to themselves to go out and play,” Katz says.

The plan now calls for the next Steely Dan album to be recorded by two different studio bands, each performing one side of material. One of the bands will then tour as Steely Dan. The songs will be written in New York this time. In the meantime, though, Becker and Fagen are staying in L.A. to compose the title song for manager Irving Azoff’s film, FM.

“I don’t particularly like L.A.,” said Becker. “Nobody knows we’re out there anyway.” Their only recent public appearance, and that’s stretching it, was when a small public-sponsored station invited them, on an outside chance, to conduct their own late-night radio show. Becker and Fagen showed up with armfuls of their favorite obscure jazz records and joyously took the station over for the night. “Radio Free Steely Dan,” Becker announced, “is still open for offers.”

In anticipation of Aja, Katz mounted a small campaign urging Becker and Fagen – who fancy themselves as more exclusive than reclusive – to take a higher profile. This included a meeting with Irving Azoff. “We were ready to go blissfully through life without a manager,” said Fagen.

“We were doing fine, you know,” Becker added. “Going out and looking for managers is like going out and looking for rattlesnakes. Irving impressed us with his taste for the jugular…and his bizarre spirit. He thought we could do much better about making American Steely Dan conscious. He wanted a new hobby. We figured, sure, take a shot.”

Which, in itself, is quite a concession. Becker and Fagen are oblivious, even apathetic, about the pursuit of commercial or critical success. “We just keep the quality up for ourselves,” Fagen insisted.

“We’re proud that we don’t have any cuts or at least ones that we think are inferior. These days most pop critics, you know, are mainly interested in the amount of energy that is…obvious on the record. This is primitive rock & roll energy. People who are mainly Rolling Stones fans and people who like punk rock, stuff like that… a lot of them aren’t interested at all in what we have to do.”

I wondered if he intends to keep it that way. “I don’t care,” he said, slapping the chair again. “Doesn’t mean that much to me. We have no idea who’s out there buying our records.”

Three weeks later, with Aja the first Steely Dan album to break into the Top Five, a visit to Irving Azoff was in order. I dropped in on Azoff at his Benedict Canyon home one Sunday while he was watching his beloved Rams – and one suspects a small investment of his own – succumb to the New Orleans Saints. Staring glumly at a huge Advent video screen, Azoff brightened only at the mention of Steely Dan.

“Here’s how we did it,” the twenty-eight-year old megamanager chirped. “Simple strategy. Think of the biggest American supergroups. Fleetwood Mac. The Eagles. Chicago….” Azoff broke into a triple-platinum smile. “And Steely Dan. Everybody knows Steely Dan. They belong in that list. All we had to do was make it official.”

His ambition for Becker and Fagen is fueled by the fact that he, like Katz, is a fan. Three years ago, Azoff was wearing out copies of Pretzel Logic. Now, having finally acquired Steely Dan, he is in the frenetic but enviable position of managing all of his favorite artists, including Boz Scaggs, the Eagles, Jimmy Buffet and Dan Fogelberg. “I used my power base,” Azoff said, “and called all my rack-jobber friends – the guys in the field and the record chains – and I offered them Aja for a suggested $6.98 instead of the $7.98 list price. Most of them knew they could stock up early and retail it as if it were $7.98. They all bought two, three, four times as many as normally. I told them the offer would last two weeks.

“We never raised the price. And they kept selling. So here’s this album that’s Number Three in the country. What radio station isn’t going to play a hit Steely Dan album. It’s been the most-played album for weeks. We killed the Stones, didn’t we?” Azoff paused. To curse the Rams, who lost by two points. “It was fun,” he resumed. “Those guys would have gotten there sooner or later anyway. They deserved it sooner.”

I figured Azoff might be able to assist me in relocating Becker and Fagen – the new American superstars weren’t answering their phones – for some last-minute reflections on their sudden explosion.

Azoff scoffed at this in are-you-kidding tones: “They could be anywhere. They haven’t returned any calls in weeks. When those guys go underground, they disappear. I get no special privileges. They probably don’t even realize they have a huge album.”

The phone rings late on deadline night: it’s the elusive Walter Becker calling long distance. Vacationing in Florida, he’s in a frisky mood, reeling with stories about a new band whose sessions he’s been attending: Root Boy Slim and Sex Change Band Featuring the Rootettes. “This is a real laugh,” he says.

Root Boy Slim is a figure straight out of Becker’s and Fagen’s musty backroom imaginations – a pudgy white blues singer of such deviant songs as “Bride of the Burro,” “Christmas at K-Mart” and “Too Sick to Reggae.” Becker and Fagen knew they’d been topped the instant they discovered him in a Baltimore nightclub. They cajoled Gary Katz, now equally rabid in his devotion, into producing and signing Root Boy Slim to Warner Bros. Now Becker and Fagen, at career peak, are at his sessions. Doing what? “Kibitzing,” reports Becker.

Becker has to be steered in the direction of Aja. “I certainly don’t think it’s any more commercial than any of our other albums,” he says. “I haven’t heard it on the radio yet…but I read how well we’re doing.” He chuckles. “I guess we’re achieving the success we so richly deserve. On the whole, I think this is a very rewarding thing.”

I wonder how it feels, at least for tonight, to be bigger than the Rolling Stones. Walter Becker immediately balks at the comparison. Perhaps one can try too hard to extract the Secret Intentions of Steely Dan. So I simply ask if he feels as though he’s in a band at all.

“No,” Becker answers earnestly, “but we can get a real good one together in a hurry.”

Courtesy of Rolling Stone #255 – Cameron Crowe – December 29, 1977