With le­gal trou­bles and per­sonal tragedy be­hind them, 1970s rock­ers Steely Dan are a come­back suc­cess, writes

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Arts - Iain Shed­den

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

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