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Off the Beaten Tracks: Steely Dan – cool, not cold

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For the first few years of their existence, I avoided Steely Dan under the impression that they were cold and clinical.

I saw the light in 1976, having been sent a review copy of their fifth album, The Royal Scam. First I was blown away by the blistering guitar work of ace session man Larry Carlton. Then studying the lyrics, I realised that something extraordinary was going on here. These were not songs but short stories set to music, with an endless variety of meanings and interpretations. Hugely intelligent. And so, so cool.

Steely Dan essentially comprised bass guitarist Walter Becker (born 1950) and keyboard player Donald Fagen (born 1948), who met at college in New York and played in bands together. They formed a songwriting partnership and worked for a while in the Brill Building, the Manhattan office block which was at the centre of the American popular music industry in the 1960s.

They had little success but impressed producer Gary Katz, who moved to Los Angeles at the beginning of the Seventies and hired them as staff writers for ABC Records. Their idiosyncratic work proved too demanding for the label’s roster of artists so Katz suggested they form their own band. They hired guitarists Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter and Denny Dias, drummer Jim Hodder and, because Fagen was reluctant to sing before a live audience, vocalist David Palmer.

In 1972 Steely Dan’s first album, Can’t Buy A Thrill, supplied two hit singles in Do It Again and Reelin’ In The Years. Do It Again stands the test of time, a laconic antidote to the ‘boy loves girl’ school of pop lyrics:

In the mornin’ you go gunnin’
For the man who stole your water
And you fire till he is done in
But they catch you at the border
And the mourners are all singin’
As they drag you by your feet
But the hangman isn’t hangin’
And they put you on the street

You go back, Jack, do it again . . .

With an electric sitar solo into the bargain.

By album two, 1973’s Countdown to Ecstasy, singer Palmer had been dumped and Fagen persuaded that his voice suited the music just fine. The record sold disappointingly compared with its predecessor, perhaps through the lack of a hit single. But there are some superb tracks, notably Show Biz Kids, featuring killer slide guitar from Rick Derringer, which combines an attack on the hedonistic Hollywood lifestyle with a sly acknowledgement of the band’s hipness:

They got the shapely bodies

They got the Steely Dan T-shirts

And for the coup de grace

They’re outrageous.

The following year’s Pretzel Logic album shows the Dan at their peak. It starts with the wistful Rikki Don’t Lose That Number, which became a major hit, and goes on effortlessly to combine the rock and jazz genres. Apparently Becker and Fagen, in their increasing quest for perfection, demanded that the session musicians record each track up to 40 times before choosing the best. A word here in praise of producer Katz, who must have had the patience of a saint.

Katy Lied (1975) is one of the patchier Dan albums but contains some of my favourite songs. Bad Sneakers

Do you take me for a fool
Do you think that I don’t see
That ditch out in the valley
That they’re digging just for me?

and Rose Darling  are superb, while Doctor Wu is a masterpiece of elliptical storytelling:

You walked in

And my life began again

Just when I’d spent the last piastre I could borrow.

This reminds me in style of the ‘six-word novel’ attributed to Ernest Hemingway: ‘For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.’

Next comes the aforementioned The Royal Scam. As I said, the guitar is superb throughout. Perhaps my favourite track is Everything You Did, about a husband who discovers his wife is cheating on him and salaciously demands all the gory details.

Album number six, Aja, proved to be Steely Dan’s biggest seller. Fagen’s jazz leanings come to the fore, especially on the title track. Deacon Blues, after which the Scots rock group was inaccurately named, represents a rare show of emotion:

I cried when I wrote this song

Sue me if I play too long.

By now Becker and Fagen’s quest for auditory perfection had reached near-insanity level. One edition of the Classic Albums TV series in the early 1990s recreated the making of Aja, with the somewhat embarrassed co-operation of Becker and Fagen. A family friend of ours, Martin Smith, produced the programme and at the time of making it told me that Fagen was going through a crisis of confidence in his singing.

Martin gave me an unedited video cassette of one track, sadly I don’t remember which, showing Fagen on keyboards playing along with the other musicians for something like 45 minutes, occasionally opening his mouth but nothing coming out.

All sorts of squabbles ensured that the next album, Gaucho, would not come out until late 1980. I prefer it to Aja, especially because of the title track about an ageing homosexual throwing a hissy fit when his partner brings home a young male in a borrowed ‘spangled leather poncho’.

The increasing acrimony between Becker and Fagen led to a lengthy hiatus in Steely Dan’s output. Fagen brought out two solo albums, The Nightfly and Kamakiriad, which many admire but are too jazzy and lacking in surprise for my taste, although Snowbound is pretty neat. Becker put out his own effort, Eleven Tracks of Whack, which was a mixed bag but proved to me that he rather than Fagen was the provider of the Dan’s strong melodies.

It was in 2000 that the pair released the first Steely Dan album in a couple of decades, amid suspicions that commercial considerations had finally overridden their tendency to bicker. Two Against Nature was a pleasant surprise, reviving the vibe of the earlier records and including a knockout track, Jack of Speed.

Three years later came Everything Must Go, which was hardly a career reviver but featured another belter, Things I Miss The Most.

With live performances replacing recorded music as the main moneyspinner, and Fagen valiantly overcoming his vocalsphobia, Steely Dan toured regularly without releasing anything more than Fagen’s third solo album Morph the Cat, as always beautifully played but a bit short on tunes and emotion.

The pair were still playing live until last year, when Becker succumbed to oesophagal cancer, aged 67. Fagen vowed to keep the band’s name alive, but in my opinion anything more could serve only to dilute Steely Dan’s legacy of music at its most literary.

alan@conservativewoman.co.uk

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Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth is a former national newspaper journalist now retreated to the Ribble Valley, where he grows cacti and tramps the fells with the family dog Bingo. He and his wife Margaret run a website, A-M Records , which includes their collected TCW columns plus extra features including Tracks of the Day. Requests, queries and comments can be sent to alanj126@yahoo.co.uk

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