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Friday, April 04, 2008

Friday Nite Retro

Welcome to Friday Nite Retro! Tonight we're featuring a band named after a dildo in the William Burroughs novel Naked Lunch: Steely Dan! The duo of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker met at Bard College in 1967 and began playing in local groups (one,The Bad Rock Group, even included future comedy star Chevy Chase on drums. Although they had a few notable successes, they never really hit it until they moved to Los Angeles to work as staff songwriters at ABC Records. After realizing their songs were too complex for other ABC artists, the duo formed their own band, and the rest is history.

Their debut album,
Can't Buy a Thrill, was released in 1972 and made an immediate impression with the hit singles "Do It Again", "Dirty Work," and "Reelin' in the Years." "Do It Again" and "Reelin' in the Years" reached #6 and #11 respectively on the Billboard singles chart. All three tunes soon became staples of FM radio. "Reelin' in the Years" also features an acclaimed guitar solo by Elliott Randall.

Do it Again

Fagen was resistant to singing in front of an audience, and the label's feeling that his voice was not "commercial" enough only added to that. Fagen lacked confidence in his voice and was known to have suffered from occasional bouts of stage fright. So, for their first two albums, singer
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 #2 hit, "Jazzman."

Dirty Work

Countdown to Ecstasy, released in 1973, failed to match the level of commercial success of the first album (probably to the surprise of few, as it was much more jazz/blues oriented than its predecessor). "My Old School" did become a minor FM Rock staple as years passed, and remains so to this day.

My Old School

Reelin' in the Years

Steely Dan returned to prominence with their third LP
Pretzel Logic in early 1974, a diverse set that produced another hit single, "Rikki Don't Lose That Number", a US Top Ten hit (#4 on the Billboard chart) which became yet another enduring FM rock radio staple. During the tour for the previous album, the band had added Sonny & Cher's young session drummer Jeff Porcaro (Later a member of Toto) and also added singer-keyboardist Michael McDonald (Later a member of The Doobie Brothers) for back-up vocals. Both would become prominent on this and future Steely Dan recordings and would illustrate the duo's increasing reliance on session musicians.

Rikki Don't Lose That Number

The 1975 LP
Katy Lied went gold on the strength of the songs "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, and for years refused to even listen to it in its final form. Often considered a "transitional album," it also included such gems as "Dr Wu" and "Chain Lightning."

Black Friday

Bad Sneakers


Their sixth LP, the jazz-influenced
Aja saw Becker and Fagen using the services of top-notch jazz-rock musicians including Larry Carlton, Lee Ritenour, Wayne Shorter and Chuck Rainey. Aja won several awards, 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 my personal favorite "Deacon Blues"(#19), and "Josie"(#26).

Deacon Blues



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, barely missing out on the Top 20 in the US and was another minor hit in the UK. The newer FM radio stations around the country loved the song for obvious reasons, and a dubbed version, using the long "A" sound from the title track of "Aja" circulated on AM radio stations for awhile.


Becker and Fagen took most of 1978 off before beginning to write songs for the follow-up to Aja
. The project would become plagued by technical, legal, and personal problems and ultimately cost them their partnership for many years.

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 Brothers and wanted to release the next album on it, but MCA claimed ownership of the material and blocked Fagen and Becker from putting it out on any other label.

The first track completed for the album was "
The Second Arrangement". It was one that Becker and Fagen were very proud of. But one night, Nichols was horrified to discover that all but a small fraction of the song had been accidentally erased by an assistant engineer. Nichols quickly tried to find Katz and eventually found him eating dinner at a restaurant. It was Nichols who also broke the bad news to the band. When Fagen was notified, he simply walked out of the studio without saying a word. Attempting to re-record it proved to be too discouraging, so they abandoned the song.

Becker was also having personal difficulties. His girlfriend at the time, Karen Stanley, was found dead of a drug overdose in their shared Upper West Side Apartment. Becker was hit with a $17 million wrongful death suit, later settled out of court in his favor, but he was hurt by the accusations and the tabloid press coverage that followed. He also had his own substance abuse problems to deal with. Not long after, Becker was hit by a taxi while attempting to cross a Manhattan street, shattering his right leg in several places and forcing him to go about on crutches. His sense of humor was evident in his statement to Rolling Stone magazine that he and the taxi had occupied the same space at the same time.

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, entitled "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 and eventually won a co-writing credit as well as royalties on future pressings.

Gaucho was finally released in November 1980 and, despite the problems that had gone into recording the album, it was another major success. The first single, "Hey Nineteen", peaked at #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. The album subsequently received a Grammy nomination for Album of the Year.

Hey Nineteen

Time Out of Mind

Becker and Fagen announced the temporary suspension of their partnership in June 1981. In 1982 Fagen released his solo album The Nightfly, which was favorably compared to his Steely Dan work although it failed to match the wide audience appeal of the two previous Dan albums. It did produce these two songs which did well on MTV at the time:

I.G.Y. (What a Beautiful World this will be)

New Frontier

Kamakiriad, released in 1993, was the second solo album by Fagen. It was his first collaboration with partner Walter Becker, who produced the album, since 1980. The album was a futuristic optimistic 8 song-cycle about the journey of the narrator in his high-tech car, the Kamakirii (Japanese for praying mantis).

Tomorrow's Girls

In 2000, Becker and Fagen released their first studio album in twenty years,
Two Against Nature. It was not only a return to form but 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 March 2001, Steely Dan was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In the summer of 2000, they took to the road for another US tour followed by an international tour later that year. A DVD was also released under the same title, which is essentially a live-in-the-studio concert performance of popular tunes from throughout Steely Dan's career.

Cousin Dupree

The pair are still touring today and will be playing the Montreal Jazz Festival this July. Since that time, a number of further live performances have been announced on their website.

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Blogger JM said...

Unfortunately, due to the constant airplay of their early singles I found myself initially dismissing their stuff as "hacky pop". Lucky for me, I eventually realized just how good they really are. Unfortunately, it took much longer to realize that I had turned "Deacon Blues" into a mondegreen.... "Make love to these women, languid and dead asleep.... Call me Deacon Wu, Deacon Wu."

title="comment permalink">April 06, 2008 5:25 PM  
Blogger John Good said...

John - It was sorta the same for me; I "rediscovered" them later, but I do have fond memories of Deacon Blues. I was 14 years old, and ran a morning paper route in the wee hours. I had a radio on my moped, and that was my favorite song. Always takes me back. =)

title="comment permalink">April 06, 2008 11:12 PM  

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