Comedian Chevy Chase also attended Bard and played drums in Becker and Fagen’s band, the Leather Canary. In a salon.com interview with Amy Reiter, Chase claimed that he “quit them” and that when Steely Dan was eventually formed in 1972 they “begged him to return”. Okay….
Singer/keyboard man Donald Fagen and guitarist Walter Becker named their group Steely Dan after a sex toy in the novel Naked Lunch by William Burroughs..
Walter Becker and Donald Fagen met at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson in upstate New York. The school, and the town, served as the setting in their hit song ‘My Old School.’ Fagen graduated in 1969, with an English degree, and Becker withdrew because he neglected to do any work. The two moved to Brooklyn, New York and sold their songs at the Brill Building in Manhattan.
A May 8th 1969 drug bust at Bard netted 44 arrests, including Becker and Fagen. It has been stated by Walter Becker himself, per a Steely Dan interview, that G. Gordon Liddy of Watergate fame, was the assistant DA during the drug raid and wrote Becker a special warrant for his arrest, since they didn’t have one for him initially.
Less than five miles from Annandale is Barrytown, which became the title of a Steely Dan tune. It’s home to the headquarters of Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church. Becker and Fagen referred to Rev. Moon’s followers, the Moonies, when they sang, “But look at what you wear / And the way you cut your hair / I can see by what you carry that you come from Barrytown.
Fagen and Becker were jazz fans who had no use for rock until they heard the Beatles. For Fagen, it was ‘Ticket to Ride’; for Becker, ‘No Reply.’ Becker still doesn’t like rock if there aren’t enough chord changes.
In the late ‘60s, the songwriters worked at New York’s Brill Building. The first song they ever had recorded was ‘I Mean to Shine’ (a forgettable song on the 1971 ‘Barbara Joan Streisand ‘album.) .The royalties were signed over to their previous manager, says Becker, “to escape from his clutches.”
Becker and Fagen were the bass and keyboard players in the touring band of Jay and the Americans in the late ‘60s. Fagen used the pseudonym Tristan Fabriani; Becker was Gus Mahler. They played on the group’s last Top 20 hit, ‘Walkin’ in the Rain.’ In later years, they used these pseudonyms when writing the liner notes to their albums.
Walter Becker sang on many of their early demos. “I sang a lot of the songs because I sang much louder,” Becker says, but that ended when “I realized what a great singer he was and what a shitty, out-of-tune singer I was.” Fagen, who never felt comfortable as a lead singer, could not find anyone else with the “smirky feel” the music requires. At one point Loudon Wainwright III was asked to join as vocalist but declined. As Fagen was initially uncomfortable as lead vocalist – David Palmer – former vocalist with The Quinaimes – Middle Class and Jake and the Family Jewels – was added later – much against the wishes of Gary Katz. The producer – who had introduced them to guitarist Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter – formerly of The Fugs – The Holy Modal Rounders and a band called Ultimate Spinach – and drummer/vocalist Jim Hodder – formerly in a band called The Bead Game – was an ardent admirer of Fagen’s vocal style and felt it was a retrograde step – and continued to push for Palmer’s removal until he was finally let go in 1973.
Elliot Randall played the wonderful guitar solo on ‘Reeln’ in the Years’, after Jeff Baxter having a bad day had been unable to nail it. It is reputedly Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page’s all-time favorite guitar solo!
During the recording of ‘Peg” for the ‘Aja’ album, eight top session guitarists reputedly tried to play the guitar solo without success. What Becker and Fagen described as ‘A pantonal 13-bar blues with chorus’ seemed to defy every one who tackled it until local LA musician Jay Graydon – the ‘last resort’ – mastered it to their satisfaction. Supposedly, some of the other efforts were reputedly so weird they defied belief!
During the recording of ‘Gaucho’ they ‘would book an entire band for a couple of nights, not get any acceptable tracks, call in another band for a further couple of nights’ and so on and so on. It was the most expensive non-soundtrack album in US history!
‘Aja’, was the longest track they ever recorded made up of fragments of discarded tunes such as ‘Stand By the Sea Wall’, running to seven pages of sheet music, comes in at 7 minutes and 56 seconds! Played by Michael Omartian (Piano) Donald Fagen (Synthesizer) Walter Becker (Guitar) Chuck Rainey (Bass) and Steve Gadd (Drums), it features a beautiful guitar solo from Denny Dias, a 64-bar tenor sax solo from Wayne Shorter of ‘Weather Report’ and some spectacular drumming by Steve Gadd. As all the players were such excellent sight readers this potentially complicated suite was ‘in the can’ after two takes although the improvised drum solo from Steve Gadd at the end was so stunning that it distracted the other musicians in the studio into making mistakes which led to some re-records! They spent between eight months and a year laying down basic tracks – used six different studios in recording the album – and used 360 rolls of two-inch tape.
David Palmer who sang lead on ‘Dirty Work’ and ‘Brooklyn.’ Palmer sued the band in early 2014, claiming he was cheated on digital performance royalties. He sure waited long enough!
Unable to locate an accoustic sitar for the ‘drone’ they wanted in the background of their hit ‘Do It Again’, Becker and Fagen settled for an electric one. Denny Dias had never played an electric sitar before … and hasn’t played one since!
When their song ‘Show Biz Kids’ was being shortened prior to it’s release as a single – Steely Dan availed of the opportunity to remove a line containing an expletive. Becker remarked, “We’re sadder but wiser in relation to that. It’s always comforting to know that you’ve got something potentially obscene on AM radio!” When reviewing the single – legendary BBC Radio One deejay John Peel said he enjoyed ‘the healthy cynicism’ of Steely Dan and ‘lamented’ the edited omission of the ‘F word’ which, he speculated ” … might have caused the more impressionable among you into raging uncontrolled copulation in the high street.”
When ‘Do It Again’ was released in 1972, it was credited on the sleeve as a traditional song even though it was written by Becker and Fagen. “You should never believe anything it ever says on a Steely Dan record,” says Fagen. “It’s mostly a bunch of lies and bulls— that we write just to confuse the listener.”
‘Pretzel Logic’ is about time travel. “When it says, ‘I stepped up on the platform / The man gave me the news,’ we conceived the platform as a teleportation device,” Fagen says. “And there are other key lines like ‘I’ve never met Napoleon but I plan to find the time.’ What we’re actually saying is I plan to find the time in that he lived in.”
Having played bass on every track of the first three Steely Dan albums and many others on ‘Katy Lied” and ‘The Royal Scam’ Walter Becker was not featured as a guitarist on any of their albums until ‘Aja’.
When Michael McDonald joined Steely Dan in 1975, providing background vocals and keyboards, Fagen voted to make him lead singer but was vetoed. Of course, he went on to huge success with The Doobie Brothers. Skunk Baxter also left to join The Doobie Brothers, who were touring (which Jeff enjoyed) a lot more than Steely Dan.
Becker and Fagen were inspired to write satirical songs by reading science fiction as kids. “Writers like Alfred Bester, Fredric Brown and Robert Heinlein,” says Fagen. “They were mainly writing satire under the guise of science fiction.”
Even Becker and Fagen don’t know what some of their obscure expressions mean. “Walter and I enjoy making up our own slang,” says Fagen. “In ‘Josie,’ a street gang uses a weapon called a ‘battle apple.’ I don’t know what that is, but it sounded better than anything else we could come up with.”
Jim “Skunk” Baxter, Steely Dan’s former guitarist, is currently Chairman of the Civilian Advisory Board for Ballistic Missile Defense, and has acted as an advisor to members of the House Science Committee. He was invited to serve on the Laser Advisory Board at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and has given lectures at the University of Manitoba School of Political Science on matters concerning regional conflict and missile defense.
Asked about the lyric, “They call Alabama the Crimson Tide / Call me Deacon Blues,” Fagen said, “Walter and I had been working on that song at a house in Malibu. I played him that line, and he said, ‘You mean it’s like, ‘They call these cracker assholes this grandiose name like the Crimson Tide, and I’m this loser, so they call me this other grandiose name, Deacon Blues?’ And I said, ‘Yeah!’ He said, ‘Cool, let’s finish it.’” ‘Deacon Blues’refers to the football team of the University of Alabama, whose nickname ‘The Crimson Tide’ dates back to a game played in Birmingham in 1907! ‘Deacon Blues’ is now part of the repertoire of the college marching band.
In 1975 – the DBX sound reduction system employed for mixing the finished ‘Katy Lied’ album at the ABC studios seriously damaged the sound quality of the master tapes. Despite the DBX company creating an entire new machine in an attempt to reverse the process – they were never able to retrieve the original sound. Producer Gary Katz was ‘devastated’ – and Becker and Fagen – having come very close to scrapping the entire album found it difficult to listen to the finished product.
In response to an ad in an LA newspaper announcing that Bob Dylan was seeking musicians for a tour, Fagen applied for the gig using his real name – causing major excitement in the Dylan camp! Described later as ‘basically a whim’ – it had more to do with his need for time and space away from the rapidly deteriorating relationship with Becker who had a serious drug problem at the time – who also needed a break to sort himself out. Fortunately for Fagen, who loathed touring, it didn’t happen. He later quipped – “As far as I’m concerned Dylan passed up on a good thing” and “Sorry Bob! I’m not available any more!”.
Fagen likes to make fun of the aging hippies who attend Steely Dan concerts. Fagen has written that “Tonight the crowd looked so geriatric I was tempted to start calling out bingo numbers. By the end of the set, they were all on their feet, albeit shakily, rocking. … So this, now, is what I do: assisted living.”