In 1967, Donald Fagen passed by a New York cafe when the sound of electric guitar stopped him in his tracks. The riffs he heard belonged to Walter Becker. The two bonded over their love for jazz music and Frank Zappa and, unbeknownst to both musicians at the time, this exchange would be the beginning of the cult favorite jazz-rock duo, Steely Dan. The band would be the vehicle for Fagen and Becker’s compositional genius and an innovative blend of jazz, rock, blues and R&B that would catapult them into notoriety.
The like-minded duo wrote and played with a variety of musicians, chasing their aspirations of becoming professional songwriters. Becker and Fagen composed under the pseudonyms Gustav Muhler and Tristan Fabrini while backing the band Jay and the Americans until 1971. However, as songwriting for hire became dull and their disdain for contemporary rock amalgamation simmered, the overall-clad jazz junkies were persuaded to pursue their own musical vision.
Steely Dan was officially formed the following year with the release of their debut album Can’t Buy a Thrill, a title inspired by one of the few contemporary American musicians the duo could stomach, Bob Dylan. But amid the rise (and fall) of Ziggy Stardust, glam-rock and androgenous sex appeal, Becker and Fagen looked, as a Los Angeles Times critic put it, like two car mechanics who wandered onto a stage. This didn’t matter much to the duo, however, because their magic happened in the studio. The debut album overflowed with an assortment of thrilling session musicians who materialized the brainchild of Fagen and Becker. Despite their cynical outlook on the state of music at that time, Can’t Buy a Thrill garnered commercial success. “Reelin’ in The Years,” “Do it Again” and “Dirty Work” shot up the pop charts in the United States.
Countdown to Ecstasy in 1973 was not as commercially appealing, however, it did receive critical notoriety for its cynicism and wit. At this point, Steely Dan had established itself as a solid session band, but they were pushed onto the performance trail to cash in on their hits. The working band was composed of Jim Hodder on drums, Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter on lead guitar and Denny Dias on rhythm guitar, alongside Becker on bass and Fagen now doing lead vocals.
The next year Steely Dan set aside lengthy jams for their most concise album yet, Pretzel Logic. Silence lingers in the opening track and star of the show “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” and is met by an infectious piano figure and pristine harmonies. By then, it’s too late, the listener is hooked into the world of suspended time, creeps and love lost. That was the appeal of Pretzel Logic, Fagen and Becker, backed by some of LA’s best session musicians, transported their listeners into a loose narrative with their honed songwriting.
There is a note to audiophiles on the back cover of Katy Lied, followed by a laundry list of impressive gear and equipment used to produce the band’s fourth studio album, delivered with a self-aware smirk. Although Katy Lied received gold status bolstered by tracks like “Black Friday” and “Bad Sneaker,” Beck and Fagen were deeply dissatisfied with the sound quality. They’d experimented with new technology, DBX, which expanded the dynamic range beyond the prior limitation of analog tape, but something went horribly wrong. The album’s producer, Gary Katz, said the album sounded better than anything they’d ever made... until they mixed it and found out the DBX wasn’t functioning properly. To date, Becker and Fagen refuse to listen to the album and even publicly apologize for it.
1976 brought Steely Dan’s most guitar-oriented album yet and their first major hit in the UK, The Royal Scam. An album that personifies a loss of innocence and a dramatic descent of humanity. The New York natives were disillusioned by the culture and homogenous composition of popular music at that time in LA. As Becker told a journalist in 1976, “Sentient life in Los Angeles is a distinct rarity.” Despite their reputation as smug contrarians, their fifth studio album produced hit “Caves of Altamira” and a few others.
The following year brought what has become perhaps Steely Dan’s most celebrated composition, Aja. Becker and Fagen had become experts at fusing genres and their sixth studio album proves that, if nothing else. It’s pop and jazz, both and neither, idiosyncratically thrilling and smooth. The duo’s East Coast cynicism clashes with their complete grasp on what it takes to make a hit on tracks like “Peg.” A perplexing platinum best seller, Aja sold millions of copies riding on singles like, “Deacon Blues,” and “Josie.”
However, their high was cut short with the various misfortunes the duo suffered during the making of Gaucho in the 1980s, their most LA album yet (although it was recorded in New York.) From a court battle with the record company that absorbed their own to Becker’s all-consuming heroin addiction, the album may have been doomed from the start. In the end, Gaucho went platinum, but Steely Dan had hit their emotional and laborious limit which forced them to take a break until 1993. It’s no coincidence that the subject matter touches on estrangement, the looming effects of aging and what the throws of drug addiction can do to friendship.
The duo reignited their partnership for reunion tours in the early 2000s and released Two Against Nature which earned a Grammy for Album of the Year. The two virtuosos also relished in successful solo careers. Fagen’s Nightfly is regarded as a critical and commercial hit. Tragically, Becker died in 2017 at the age of 67.
Written by Kelly Fletcher