Steely Dan is an American jazz rock/rock band consisting of core members Donald Fagen and Walter Becker. The band's popularity peaked in the late 1970s, with the release of seven albums blending elements of jazz, rock, funk, R&B, and pop. Rolling Stone has called them "the perfect musical antiheroes for the Seventies."
The band's music is characterized by complex jazz-influenced structures and harmonies played by Becker and Fagen along with a revolving cast of rock and pop studio musicians. Steely Dan's "cerebral, wry and eccentric" lyrics, often filled with sharp sarcasm, touch upon such themes as drugs, love affairs, and crime. The pair are well known for their near-obsessive perfectionism in the recording studio, the most extreme example being that Becker and Fagen used at least 42 different studio musicians, 11 engineers, and took over a year to record the tracks that resulted in 1980's Gaucho—an album that contains only seven songs.
Steely Dan toured from 1972 to 1974, but in 1975 became a purely studio-based act. The late 1970s saw the group release a series of moderately successful singles and albums. They disbanded in 1981, and throughout most of the next decade Fagen and Becker remained largely inactive in the music world. During this time a cult following remained devoted to the group. In 1993, the group resumed playing live concerts; later Steely Dan released two albums of new material, the first of which earned a Grammy Award for Album of the Year. They have sold more than 40 million albums worldwide and were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in March 2001.
History[edit source | edit]Edit
Formative and early years (1967–1972)[edit source | edit]Edit
Donald Fagen and Walter Becker met at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, in 1967. Fagen was passing by a cafe called The Red Balloon when he heard Becker rehearsing the electric guitar.He would later recount the experience during an interview: "I hear this guy practicing, and it sounded very professional and contemporary. It sounded like, you know, like a black person, really." He immediately introduced himself to Becker, and asked him "Do you want to be in a band?" They quickly realized that they enjoyed similar music, and even listened to the same jazz radio stations; not long after, they began writing songs together.
The two soon began playing in local groups. One of these bands, first known as The Bad Rock Group and later as The Leather Canary, included future comedy star Chevy Chase on drums. They played covers of songs written by The Rolling Stones ("Dandelion"), Moby Grape ("Hey Grandma"), and Willie Dixon ("Spoonful") along with a handful of originals. Terence Boylan, another Bard musician, remembered that Fagen immediately took to the Beatnik life while attending college: "They never came out of their room, they stayed up all night. They looked like ghosts — black turtlenecks and skin so white that it looked like yogurt. Absolutely no activity, chain-smoking Lucky Strikes and dope." Fagen himself would later remember it as "probably the only time in my life that I actually had friends."
After Fagen graduated in 1969, the two moved to Brooklyn and tried to peddle their tunes in the Brill Building in midtown Manhattan. Kenny Vance, a member of the pop group Jay and the Americans, who had a production office in the building, took an interest in their material that led to work on the soundtrack of the low-budget Richard Pryor film You've Got to Walk It Like You Talk It or You'll Lose That Beat in 1971. Becker later spoke bluntly of the soundtrack: "We did it for the money." A series of demos made from 1968 to 1971 are available in bootleg form. This collection features approximately 25 tracks, and is notable for its stripped down production and decidedly lo-fi nature (many songs are just Fagen and his piano), in contrast to future Steely Dan works. Although some of these songs ("Caves of Altamira", "Brooklyn", "Barrytown") were re-recorded for Steely Dan albums, the majority of them were never officially released.
Becker and Fagen joined the touring band of Jay and the Americans for roughly a year and a half. They were at first paid $100 per show, but partway through their tenure the band's tour manager cut their salaries in half. The group's lead singer, Jay Black, dubbed Becker and Fagen "the Manson and Starkweather of rock 'n' roll", referring to cult leader Charles Manson and spree killer Charles Starkweather.
They had little immediate success after the move to Brooklyn, although Barbra Streisand recorded their song "I Mean To Shine" on her 1971 Barbra Joan Streisand album. Little other significant headway was made by the pair until one of Vance's cronies, Gary Katz, moved to Los Angeles to become a staff producer for ABC Records. He hired Becker and Fagen as staff songwriters and they flew to California. Katz would produce all their 1970s albums in collaboration with engineer Roger Nichols, and Nichols would wind up with six Grammy Awards for his work with the band in the 1970s to 2001.
After realizing their songs were too complex for other ABC artists, at Katz's suggestion they formed their own band with guitarists Denny Dias and Jeff "Skunk" Baxter, drummer Jim Hodder and singer David Palmer, and Katz signed the band to ABC as recording artists. Being fans of Beat Generation literature, Fagen and Becker named the band after "Steely Dan III from Yokohama", a strap-on dildo referred to in the William S. Burroughs novel Naked Lunch. The addition of Palmer as a second lead vocalist was due to a combination of Fagen's resistance to singing in front of an audience and the label's feeling that his voice was not "commercial" enough. Fagen lacked confidence in his voice and was known to have suffered from occasional bouts of stage fright.
In 1972, ABC sent out promotional copies of Steely Dan's first single, "Dallas", backed with "Sail the Waterway." It is unclear if "stock" copies were ever released to the general public, and if they were, the single sold so poorly that promotional copies are more abundant today (whereas the reverse is true for most releases). The two songs were re-released on vinyl a handful of times as b-sides and on EPs throughout the 1970s and 1980s; as of 2012, "Dallas" and "Sail the Waterway" remain the only officially released Steely Dan tracks to have not been reissued on cassette or compact disc. Becker and Fagen would tell an interviewer in 1995 that the songs hadn't been reissued because they felt the tracks were "stinko."
Can't Buy a Thrill and Countdown to Ecstasy (1972–1973)[edit source | edit]Edit
Their debut album, Can't Buy a Thrill, was released in 1972 and made an immediate impression with the hit singles "Do It Again" and "Reelin' In the Years", reaching No. 6 and No. 11 respectively on the Billboard singles chart. Those and the Palmer-sung "Dirty Work" eventually became staples on classic rock radio.
Because of Fagen's reluctance to sing live, David Palmer handled most of the vocal duties on stage. During the first tour, it became apparent to Katz and Becker that Palmer's interpretation of the material wasn't having the same impact, and eventually convinced Fagen that he was the one who best conveyed the attitude and meaning of the songs. Palmer quietly left the group during the recording of the second album, soon hooking up with Carole King, with whom he wrote the 1974 No. 2 hit "Jazzman".
Countdown to Ecstasy, released in 1973, failed to match the level of commercial success of the first album. Becker and Fagen blamed this on having to rush-record the album between tour dates and the fact that they were not happy with some of the performances on the record. The album's singles included "Show Biz Kids" and "My Old School", both of which remained in the lower half of the Billboard charts. However, "My Old School" (and to a lesser extent, "Bodhisattva") did become a minor FM Rock staple as years passed.
Pretzel Logic and Katy Lied (1974–1976)[edit source | edit]Edit
Pretzel Logic, a diverse set that produced "Rikki Don't Lose That Number", which reached No. 4 on the Billboard chart, appeared in early 1974. The piano riff for "Rikki" was lifted directly from the title track to "Song for My Father" by hard bop pianist Horace Silver. The album also included their note-for-note rendition of Duke Ellington and James "Bubber" Miley's "East St. Louis Toodle-Oo."
During the tour for the previous album, the band had added Sonny & Cher's young session drummer Jeff Porcaro, and also added vocalist-percussionist Royce Jones and vocalist-keyboardist Michael McDonald. Porcaro and McDonald were prominent on Pretzel Logic and future Steely Dan recordings and would illustrate the duo's increasing reliance on session musicians. Dean Parks and Rick Derringerwere other session musicians they would use. Porcaro would later go on to drum for Toto, along with Katy Lied pianist David Paich. Striving for perfection, they would ask the session musicians to do up to forty takes of each track.
This album also marks the first time Walter Becker would play guitar on a Steely Dan album. He commented that "once I met (session musician) Chuck Rainey, I felt there really was no need for me to be bringing my bass guitar to the studio anymore".
A rift between Becker-Fagen and the other members of the group (particularly Baxter and Hodder) began to develop when the latter pair seemed more intent on touring. Becker and Fagen disliked touring and wanted to withdraw from the road to concentrate solely on writing and recording. The other members also felt discouraged by their diminishing roles in the studio and gradually left the group, although Dias and McDonald continued to contribute up to the 1977 Aja and 1980 Gaucho albums, respectively. Baxter left to join The Doobie Brothers, where he was later joined by McDonald. Steely Dan's last tour performance was a July 4, 1974 concert at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium in California. A recording of the show's opening track, "Bodhisattva", would later be released as a B-side.
The 1975 LP Katy Lied saw the duo using a diverse group of session players, including Porcaro, Paich, and McDonald, as well as guitarist Elliott Randall, jazz saxophonist Phil Woods, saxophonist/bass-guitaristWilton Felder, percussionist/vibraphonist/keyboardist Victor Feldman, keyboardist (and later producer) Michael Omartian, and guitarist Larry Carlton, with only Dias, Becker, and Fagen remaining from the original group. The album went gold on the strength of "Black Friday" and "Bad Sneakers", but Becker and Fagen were so dissatisfied with the sound of the album (caused by a faulty DBX noise reduction system) that they publicly apologized for it (on the album's back cover), and for years refused to even listen to it in its final form. Often considered a "transitional album", it also included "Doctor Wu" and "Chain Lightning".
The Royal Scam and Aja (1976–1978)[edit source | edit]Edit
The Royal Scam was released in May 1976 on ABC Records and is the group's most guitar-oriented record, in part due to Carlton's contributions. It also features session drummer Bernard Purdie. It sold well in the USA without the strength of a real hit single, but in the UK sales were driven by Steely Dan's first major hit in the country, the Top 20 single "Haitian Divorce".
Their sixth LP, the jazz-influenced Aja, received the Grammy award for "Engineer – Best Engineered Recording – Non-Classical", shot into the Top Five in the U.S. charts within three weeks of release, and was one of the first American LPs to be certified 'platinum' for sales of over 1 million albums. The first single off the album was "Peg", which featured Michael McDonald's backing vocals and peaked at US #11. Other singles included "Deacon Blues" (#19) and "Josie" (#26). The album cemented the duo's reputation as songwriters, as well as their reputation for studio perfectionism. The story of the making of the album was later documented in an episode of the popular TV and DVD series, Classic Albums. The album features such jazz and fusion luminaries as guitarists Larry Carlton and Lee Ritenour; bassist Chuck Rainey; saxophonists Wayne Shorter, Pete Christlieb, and Tom Scott; drummers Steve Gadd and Bernard Purdie; ex-Miles Davis pianist/vibraphonist Victor Feldman and Grammy award-winning producer/arranger Michael Omartian on piano.
"Roger [Nichols] made those records sound like they did. He was extraordinary in his willingness and desire to make records sound better." 
"The records we did could not have been done without Roger. He was just maniacal about making the sound of the records be what we liked... He always thought there was a better way to do it, and he would find a way to do what we needed to in ways that other people hadn't done yet." 
A return to concerts in support of Aja advanced to the point where a live band was assembled and rehearsed; however, the idea of a tour was scrapped due to the discord that arose among the backing musicians when they began to compare the varying rates at which they would be paid. Soon after the success of Aja, Becker and Fagen were asked to contribute the title track for the movie FM. The movie was one of the year's worst box-office disasters but the song was another hit, winning another engineering Grammy award. It barely missed out on the Top 20 in the US, and was a minor hit in the UK.
Gaucho and breakup (1978–1981)[edit source | edit]Edit
Becker and Fagen took most of 1978 off before beginning to write songs for the follow-up to Aja, Gaucho. The project would become plagued by technical, legal, and personal problems and ultimately cost them their partnership for many years. The early stages of the lengthy recording sessions were hindered by an assistant engineer's accidental deletion of "The Second Arrangement", a favorite track of Katz and Nicholsthat was ultimately abandoned.
In March 1979, ABC was bought by MCA Records, and for most of the next two years they were caught in contractual problems that prevented them from releasing the album. Becker and Fagen had planned on leaving ABC for Warner Bros. Records and wanted to release the next album on it, but MCA claimed ownership of the material, blocking Fagen and Becker from putting it out on any other label.
Becker was also having personal difficulties. His girlfriend at the time, Karen Stanley, died of a drug overdose in their shared Upper West Sideapartment. Becker was hit with a $17 million wrongful death suit, later settled out of court in his favor, but he was shocked by the accusations and the tabloid press coverage that followed. His own substance abuse problems made matters worse. Not long after, Becker was struck by a taxi while attempting to cross a Manhattan street, shattering his right leg in several places and forcing him to use crutches.
Another lawsuit dogged the band, this time regarding the title track for the album. Jazz composer Keith Jarrett claimed that the song had been based on one of his own compositions, titled "Long As You Know You're Living Yours". Fagen later admitted he'd loved the song and was strongly influenced by it. Jarrett sued for copyright infringement, eventually settling for approximately $1,000,000; the deal stipulating that Becker and Fagen keep the songwriting credit. Fagen later told the press that maintaining their reputations as songwriters was an important factor in the decision to settle for such a substantial sum.
The album was finally released in November 1980 and, despite the problems that had gone into recording it, it was another major success. The first single, "Hey Nineteen", peaked at No. 10 on the pop chart in early 1981, and "Time Out of Mind" (featuring Mark Knopfler from Dire Straits on guitar) became a moderate hit in the spring. "My Rival" was featured in John Huston's 1980 film Phobia. Roger Nichols won his third engineering Grammy award for his work on Gaucho.
Time off (1981–1993)[edit source | edit]Edit
Becker and Fagen announced the hiatus of their partnership in June 1981. Becker subsequently moved to the Hawaiian island of Maui with his family where he became an "avocado rancher and self styled critic of the contemporary scene." Becker also stopped using narcotics around this period, a problem he had been struggling with throughout most of Steely Dan's original run. Fagen released his 1982 solo album The Nightfly, which went platinum in both the U.S. and the U.K. and yielded the Top Twenty hit "I.G.Y. (What a Beautiful World)." Fagen later contributed both the score and a song to the soundtrack ofBright Lights, Big City in 1988, but generally did little or no music recording for several years. He occasionally did production work for other artists, as did Becker: one credit was British group China Crisis, who were strongly influenced by Steely Dan.Steely Dan, shown here in 2007, toured frequently after their 1993 reformation
In 1986, Fagen and Becker both performed on Zazu, an album by the former model Rosie Vela produced by Gary Katz, marking their first collaboration since the breakup. The two rekindled their friendship and embarked upon several songwriting sessions between 1986 and 1987, but initially left the results unfinished. On October 25, 1991, Becker attended a concert of the New York Rock and Soul Revue, co-founded by Fagen and producer/singer Libby Titus (who was for many years the partner of Levon Helm of The Band and would later become Fagen's wife), and performed spontaneously with the group.
Reunion, Alive in America (1993–2000)[edit source | edit]Edit
These events finally led to a reformation, and the mounting of a U.S. tour in 1993 behind Kamakiriad, which sold poorly despite a Grammy nomination for Album of the Year and the success of the supporting concerts. With Becker now mainly playing lead and rhythm guitar, the pair put together a band that included an additional keyboard player and lead guitarist, a bassist, three female backing singers, and a four-piece saxophone section. During this tour, Fagen introduced himself as "Rick Strauss" and Becker as "Frank Poulenc".
The following year, MCA released Citizen Steely Dan, a boxed set featuring their entire catalog on 4 CDs, plus 4 extra tracks: "Here at the Western World" (originally released on 1978's "Greatest Hits"), "FM" (1978 single), a 1971 demo of "Everyone's Gone to the Movies" and "Bodhisattva (live)", the latter recorded on a cassette in 1974 and released as a B-side in 1980. 1994 also saw the release of Becker's debut solo album, 11 Tracks of Whack, which Fagen co-produced.
Steely Dan followed with a tour supporting the boxed set and Becker's album. They released a live CD compiled from recordings of several 1993 and 1994 concerts, Alive in America, in 1995. The following year, they embarked upon the Art Crimes Tour, covering the US prior to their first European concerts in 22 years. This was followed by a Japanese tour in October. Following this string of activity, the duo focused on a studio project intended to yield a new album.
Two Against Nature and Everything Must Go (2000–2003)[edit source | edit]Edit
In 2000, they released their first studio album in 20 years, Two Against Nature. It proved to be one of the surprise successes of the year, and in February 2001, it earned them four Grammy Awards. They won in the categories for Best Engineered Album – Non-Classical, Best Pop Vocal Album, Best Pop Performance by Duo or Group with Vocal ("Cousin Dupree"), and Album of the Year. Their win for Album of the Year came as a shock as they defeated Eminem and his highly controversial album The Marshall Mathers LP. In the summer of 2000, they took to the road for another US tour followed by an international tour later that year. The Plush TV Jazz-Rock Party DVD followed, documenting a live-in-the-studio concert performance of popular tunes from throughout Steely Dan's career. In March 2001, Steely Dan was inducted into theRock and Roll Hall of Fame.
In 2003 Steely Dan released their follow-up album Everything Must Go and toured America afterwards. The duo went for a looser approach in the studio and attempted to capture a more live feel. Becker contributed his first lead vocal on a Steely Dan studio album on the song "Slang of Ages" (he had sung lead on his own "Book of Liars" on Alive in America). This album also showed a return to more self-contained recording sessions: Becker played bass on every track and lead guitar on five tracks while Fagen added piano, electric piano, organ, synthesizers, and percussion on top of his vocals.
Touring, solo activity (2003–present)[edit source | edit]Edit
Following Everything Must Go, the group focused its energy largely on touring and live performances. After time off and work on solo records, yielding Fagen's Morph the Cat and its subsequent tour, they embarked on Steelyard "Sugartooth" McDan and The Fab-Originees.com Tour in 2006. Also featured on the bill was former collaborator Michael McDonald, who sat in with Steely Dan during their encore. The Heavy Rollers Tour followed in 2007, including dates in North America, Europe, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand, making it the largest and most exhaustive Steely Dan tour.
The 2008 Think Fast Tour was comparatively small, focused on American and Canadian shows, including a performance at the Montreal Jazz Festival in July. Becker's second solo record, Circus Money, produced by Larry Klein, appeared later that year. In 2009, the Left Bank Holiday and Rent Party Tour saw Steely Dan touring extensively in Europe and North America, alternating standard one-date concert appearances at large venues with multi-night theater shows which featured, on given nights, performances of the albums The Royal Scam, Aja or Gaucho in their entirety. The following year, Fagen formed the touringsupergroup Dukes of September Rhythm Revue with McDonald, Boz Scaggs, and members of Steely Dan's live band, whose set included songs by the three songwriters and additional material. Steely Dan's 2011 Shuffle Diplomacy Tour included an expanded set list, as well as dates in Australia and New Zealand. Their longtime studio collaborator Roger Nichols died of pancreatic cancer on April 9, prior to the tour's commencement. Fagen released a fourth solo album, Sunken Condos, the following year.
Musical and lyrical style[edit source | edit]Edit
Music[edit source | edit]Edit
Overall sound[edit source | edit]Edit
Special attention is given to the individual sound of each instrument. Recording is done with the utmost fidelity and attention to sonic detail, and mixed so that all the instruments are heard and none are given undue priority (a deft and accomplished use of the multi-tracking process). For example, in the song "Parker's Band", two drum kits are used, which gives the song an unexpected drive, without overpowering the sound; it is not even immediately apparent that there are two drum kits on the track. Their albums are also notable for the characteristically 'warm' and 'dry' production sound, and the sparing use of echo andreverberation. Long known as perfectionists, they often recorded take after take before selecting the player or performance that made the final cut on their albums.
Backing vocals[edit source | edit]Edit
Becker and Fagen favor a distinctly soul-influenced style of backing vocals, which after the first few albums were almost always performed by a female chorus (although Michael McDonald features prominently on several tracks, including the 1975 song "Black Friday" and the 1977 song "Peg"). Venetta Fields, Sherlie Matthews and Clydie King were the preferred trio for backing vocals on the group's late 1970s albums.Other backing vocalists include Tawatha Agee, Brenda White-King, Carolyn Leonhart, Janice Pendarvis, Catherine Russell, Cynthia Calhoun, Victoria Cave, Cindy Mizelle, and Jeff Young. The band also featured singers like Patti Austin and Valerie Simpson on later projects such as Gaucho.
Horns[edit source | edit]Edit
Horn arrangements have been used on songs from all Steely Dan albums. They are usually jazz-oriented, and typically feature instruments such as trumpets, trombones and saxophones, although they have also used other instruments such as flutes and clarinets. The horn parts occasionally integrate simple synth lines to alter the tone quality of individual horn lines, for example in "Deacon Blues" this was done to "thicken" one of the saxophone lines. On their earlier albums Steely Dan featured guest arrangers and on their later albums the arrangement work is credited to Fagen.
Composition and chord use[edit source | edit]Edit
Steely Dan are famous for their use of chord sequences and harmonies that explore the area of musical tension between traditional pop sounds and jazz. In particular, they are known for their use of the add 2 chord, a type of added tone chord, which they nicknamed the mu major. Other common chords used by Steely Dan include slash chords for example B/C or E-7/A. This notation shows a chord (shown to the left of the slash) with a note other than the tonic (shown to the right of the slash) as the lowest pitched note.
Lyrics[edit source | edit]Edit
Steely Dan's songs cover a wide range of topics, but in their basic approach they often create fictional personae that narrate the experience. The duo have said that in retrospect, most of their albums have a 'feel' of either Los Angeles or New York City, the two main bases where Becker and Fagen lived and operated (see below). Characters appear in their songs that evoke these cities. Themes of sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll appear, but never in a straightforward manner, neither encouraging nor discouraging, and many (if not all) of their songs are tinged with an ironic edge.
Additionally, many would argue that Steely Dan never wrote a real love song. However, some of the demo-era recordings show Fagen and Becker at their most romantic. Such songs include "This Seat's Been Taken", "Oh, Wow, It's You", "Come Back Baby", and "Rikki Don't Lose That Number". Other themes are also present, such as prejudice, aging, failure, poverty and middle-class ennui, but these are typically seen from an ironic and detached perspective. Many of their songs concern love, but none can be classed as straightforward love songs, since there is inevitably an ironic or disturbing twist in the lyrics. One may think the song is about love on first inspection; however, upon deeper analysis the listener realizes that the real story is about prostitution (Pearl of the Quarter), incest ("Cousin Dupree"), underage sex (Everyone's Gone to the Movies), or some other socially unacceptable subject.
Steely Dan's lyrics contain subtle and encoded references, unusual (and sometimes original) slang expressions, a wide variety of "word games" and intriguing lyrical choices and constructions of considerable depth. The obscure and sometimes teasing lyrics have given rise to considerable efforts by fans to explain the "inner meaning" of certain songs. Jazz is a recurring theme, with references abounding in their songs, and there are numerous other film, television and literary references and allusions, such as "Home at Last" (from Aja), which was inspired by Homer's Odyssey.
Some of their lyrics are notable for their unusual meter patterns; a prime example of this is their 1972 hit "Reelin' In the Years", which crams an unusually large number of words into each line, giving it a highly syncopated quality.
"Name-checking" is another Steely Dan lyrical device; references to real places and people abound in their songs. The song "My Old School" is a major example, referring to Annandale (Annandale-on-Hudson, New York is home to Bard College, which both attended and where they met), and the Two Against Nature album (2000) contains numerous references to the duo's original region, the New York metro area, including the district of Gramercy Park, the Strand Bookstore, and the upscale food store Dean & DeLuca. In the song "Glamour Profession" the conclusion of a drug deal is celebrated with dumplings at Mr. Chow, a Chinese restaurant in Beverly Hills.
The band also often name-checks drinks, typically alcoholic, in their songs: rum and cokes ("Daddy Don't Live in That New York City No More"), piña coladas ("Bad Sneakers"), zombies ("Haitian Divorce"), black cows ("Black Cow"), Scotch whisky ("Deacon Blues"), retsina ("Home at Last"), grapefruit wine ("FM"), cherry wine ("Time Out of Mind"), Cuervo Gold ("Hey Nineteen") and kirschwasser ("Babylon Sisters") are all mentioned in Steely Dan lyrics.