DAN THE MEN
With legal troubles and personal tragedy behind them, 1970s rockers Steely Dan are a comeback success, writes
THERE’S a dictionary on the internet dedicated solely to words and phrases used in Steely Dan songs. Bodhisattva ( a Buddhist who leads others to enlightenment) is in there. So, too, is gaslighting ( attempting to undermine someone’s sanity) and, of course, steely dan ( a Japanese dildo featured in William Burroughs’s novel Naked Lunch ). Perhaps the most unusual entry, though, is Muswellbrook ( a town in the Hunter Valley in NSW).
The Australian reference, in the song Black Friday from the American band’s 1975 album Katy Lied , could be a veiled nod to some romantic tryst or on- the- road drama when Steely Dan were plying their trade across the world in their heyday, except Steely Dan, despite being one of the most successful groups of the 1970s, never made it to Australia then, or at any time in their 35- year history.
‘‘ No one ever asked us before,’’ is how singer, keyboard player and songwriter Donald Fagen explains their absence.
Now someone has asked them, and Fagen, 59, along with his songwriting partner Walter Becker, 57, will arrive here in September for their band’s first Australian tour.
The Muswellbrook mention was no more than a wild stab at a world map, a lyric device to get the subject of the song as far away as possible from New York, Becker and Fagen’s home city. So Steely Dan didn’t make it here in person. Nevertheless, their music made a lasting impression in Australia.
In the early ’ 70s, Steely Dan changed the face of pop music with jazz- influenced hits such as Do It Again , Reelin’ in the Years and Rikki Don’t Lose That Number . Those songs and a handful of others from landmark albums Can’t Buy a Thrill ( 1972), Countdown to Ecstasy ( 1973) and Pretzel Logic ( 1974) have been staples of American radio since.
Although the band broke up in 1981, they reformed several times and this decade have released two albums, won four Grammys and toured the US twice in the past year, spawning a new generation of fans for their distinctively smooth take on rock ’ n’ roll.
Reviews from recent shows overflow with superlatives, praising not only the later material and impressive back catalogue but also the expert craftsmanship that goes into playing it. With a hand- picked team of experienced session players, the Steely Dan of 2007 are, says Fagen,
everyone working off the same groove’’. It wasn’t always that way, however, and Fagen is pleased that ‘‘ we finally got a band that we like and that sounds great’’.
Steely Dan occupy their own space in rock history. The band arrived in the wake of prog rock and before punk. Their jazzy inflections, complex rhythms and pop harmonies formed an intoxicating hybrid that appealed to a broad demographic. Pop fans could get off on their melodic hooks, while rock snobs could marvel at the level of musicianship.
Their first six albums, recorded in a remarkable six- year spell, are meticulously crafted and eclectic. Much as Brian Wilson chose to leave the Beach Boys on the road in order to create his studio masterpieces Pet Sounds and Smile in the 60s, Becker and Fagen became less interested in touring and more obsessed with studio techniques with each album. By the time they came to record their fourth, Katy Lied , they were a band in name only.
Fagen is at a loss to define the chemistry that has brought such enduring success. ‘‘ It’s not really calculated very much,’’ he says. ‘‘ It’s intuitive. I couldn’t really explain to anybody how we do it.’’
Clearly jazz is at the heart of it. It was that element that set them apart from anything else in rock music at the beginning. ‘‘ I think maybe it’s because we started out as a jazz band,’’ he says. ‘‘ We were coming at it from a different place than most rock ’ n’ roll bands.
‘‘ We both did a lot of reading when we were young, too, so it had a lot of storytelling attached
Between 1972 and 1977, Steely Dan made an album a year, an astonishing output even by the standards of the time. All were produced by Katz. The last of these was Aja , their most overtly jazzinfluenced work. It featured some of the best musos in the country, such as drummer Steve Gadd and saxophonist Wayne Shorter, and produced the hit single Peg .
Fagen’s passion for jazz started as a child. As a 10- year- old he would sit at the piano playing jazz chords. Some of that early practice translated into his work. There’s even a chord that other musicians refer to as the Steely Dan chord.
‘‘ Jazz musicians are constantly looking at a piece of music, say a standard from the ’ 30s and 40s, and they know how to alter the chords,’’ Fagen says.
‘‘ They don’t play it how it’s written, they automatically alter the chords: they play chord to it, which I think gave it more substance.’’
Some of that storytelling involves New York, and there are many references in their songs to names and places in the Big Apple and in New York state. The town of Annandale, for example, is mentioned in My Old School , from Countdown to Ecstasy , and it’s there also that the story of Steely Dan begins. THE songwriting partnership of Fagen and Becker is one of the longest in pop history. The pair met 40 years ago when they were students at Bard College in Annandale- on- Hudson, a small town about 250km north of New York City. Almost immediately they began playing in bands, one of which, the Bad Rock Group, featured fledgling comedian Chevy Chase on drums.
When Fagen graduated in 1969, the two young men took their first steps towards a music career. Moving to Brooklyn, they began writing together and tried to sell their work in the famed Brill Building in New York, but with little success.
They joined a band called Jay and the Americans. A member of that group, Kenny Vance, put them in touch with producer Gary Katz, who invited them to Los Angeles and signed them as in- house songwriters for the ABC record label. That move sealed their future. substitutions from their experience. They want to play the more hip substitutions and chord progressions. Jazz sets a sound vocabulary.’’ His approach to writing hasn’t changed much. ‘‘ I still listen to a lot of music and I set little study projects for myself, listening to a certain genre or a certain period of music.
‘‘ Then when I’m writing I’ll go into that and take a piece of what I’m studying and it will find its way into the music.’’
While the jazz stylings of Aja proved popular, shortly thereafter began a personal and professional slide that would result in Becker and Fagen going their separate ways.
The follow- up album Gaucho was beset by legal and recording dramas, not least of which was the loss of the album’s centrepiece, a song called The Second Arrangement , which was accidentally wiped by a studio engineer.
Contractual battles delayed the album’s release by almost two years, during which time Becker and Fagen’s relationship cooled. Fagen says only that ‘‘ we were both having a lot of personal problems around that time’’, but they were significant problems.
Among them was Becker’s girlfriend, Karen Stanley, dying of a drug overdose in the couple’s Upper West Side apartment, which brought a hail of unwelcome publicity. Stanley’s mother issued a $ US17 million wrongful death suit against Becker, who had his own drug problems. The matter was resolved out of court. Soon after that, Becker was knocked down by a New York taxi and broke his leg.
Fagen wasn’t having it so easy either. Jazz musician Keith Jarrett sued him, claiming the song Aja was based on his own composition, Long As You Know You’re Living Yours . Fagen admitted the song had been an influence and Jarrett was given co- writing credit and royalties.
Gaucho was another successful album when it was finally released in late 1980, but in June 1981 Becker and Fagen split.
‘‘ It wasn’t actually for that long, really,’’ Fagen says. ‘‘ We stopped making records in 1980 and then by ’ 85 or ’ 86 we were trying to write music [ together] again.’’
Nothing came of those writing sessions, however. In the meantime each of them recorded solo albums and worked with other artists in the studio. It was only in the early ’ 90s, when the pair produced each other’s solo albums, that the chemistry returned and the hint of a band reunion was formed.
‘‘ I don’t think our relationship has changed that much over the years,’’ Fagen says. ‘‘ We have families and so on and we’re old now, but basically it’s still fun.’’
Steely Dan toured the US a few times in the ’ 90s, but no one could have predicted that their comeback album in 2000, Two Against Nature , would have such an impact. It won four Grammys, including album of the year. Three years later they released Everything Must Go to further acclaim. They plan to record a new album next year.
After 35 years there are still few bands that sound like Steely Dan. Surprisingly, Fagen doesn’t think they have been influential, despite their success.
‘‘ If it has influenced anything it’s probably commercials on TV,’’ he says, quite seriously. ‘‘ All these kids go to music school to learn how to write jingles and things like that . . . television music. Maybe we’ve influenced some fusion bands, but not so much in popular music.’’
And is there a proudest moment in those 35 years of making music?
‘‘ I don’t think about that,’’ he says. ‘‘ I’m much more interested in what I’m playing at the moment. I’m into the live band and directing that to make it play well.’’ Steely Dan’s Australian tour begins at Swan Valley in Western Australia on September 8 and travels to Adelaide, Canberra, Hunter Valley, Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne.
In their own space: Main picture, Walter Becker, left, and Donald Fagen now; and in 1977, above