Buyer's Guide: how to buy the best of Steely Dan
East Coast brainiacs Donald Fagen and Walter Becker (Steely Dan) brought jazz smarts and lyrical sophistication to rock. But where to start?
Of all the smartasses that ever made a career out of rock’n’roll, such as Frank Zappa, Todd Rundgren and 10cc, none played it smarter than Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, the co-leaders of Steely Dan. To sell 40 million albums, as the Dan have, is no mean feat. But they did it with the most sophisticated and highbrow music ever recorded by a major rock group.
The fact that their group were named after a dildo – as featured in William S. Burroughs’s 1959 novel The Naked Lunch – is typical of the subversive edge and sly humour that has always been a feature of Fagen and Becker’s art. All this is what made them, in the words of Rolling Stone magazine, “the perfect musical anti‑heroes of the 70s”.
Fagen, from New Jersey, and Becker, from New York City, met in college on the East Coast and worked, unsuccessfully, as musicians and songwriters for hire before relocating to Los Angeles and forming Steely Dan in 1971. The original line-up featured Fagen (lead vocals and keyboards) and Becker (bass) plus guitarists Denny Dias and Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter, drummer Jim Hodder and a second lead singer, David Palmer, enlisted because Fagen was prone to stage fright, and the band’s label thought his voice didn’t cut it.
However, after one album, 1972’s Can’t Buy A Thrill, Palmer was out. And over the next eight years, the personnel on Dan records was ever-changing, as Fagen and Becker used the finest talent available, including Toto drummer Jeff Porcaro, the Doobie Brothers’ singer Michael McDonald, and jazz musos, guitarist Larry Carlton and pianist Joe Sample.
Steely Dan’s music is typically classified as ‘jazz rock’, but the genius of Fagen and Becker was to fuse these two elements with funk rhythms and a pop sensibility evident in the hits Do It Again, Reelin’ In The Years and Rikki Don’t Lose That Number. 1980’s Gaucho was the end of their golden run: they split a year later, and a whole decade passed before a reunion in 1993.
Since then, there have been just two more albums. No matter. During their imperial phase, the Dan created something unique: a balance of slick West Coast groove and dry East Coast wit. As Time magazine put it: “Sensuous and sinister, like a lazing snake coiled under the sun. Probably poisonous too…”