Less a band than a concept, Steely Dan was one of the most advanced, successful, and mysterious pop units of the 1970s. Combining pop hooks with jazz harmonies, complicated time changes and cryptic, often highly ironic lyrics, the band sounded like no one else. Because of the perfectionism of founders Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, the outfit rarely toured, and toward the end, was composed almost entirely of session musicians, while Becker and Fagen began to play less and less on their own albums. Producer Gary Katz became Steely Dan's "third member," as much because of Becker and Fagen's insistence on pristine sound quality as for Katz's role in forming the band. With Becker and Fagen fronting a version of Steely Dan that toured to great success in 1993, they proved that their long-lived cult was very much alive. And the 2000 release of Two Against Nature resurrected the band as a viable recording unit, and also won Steely Dan several Grammy Awards.
Meeting in 1967 at Bard College in upstate New York, Becker and Fagen played in amateur bands, ranging from jazz to rock to pop to progressive rock; one —Bad Rock Group —included future comedian Chevy Chase on drums. Becker and Fagen began composing together and toured from 1970 to 1971 as backing musicians for Jay and the Americans under the pseudonyms Tristan Fabriani (Fagen) and Gustav Mahler (Becker). They also wrote and recorded the album You Gotta Walk It Like You Talk It, produced by Kenny Vance of Jay and the Americans. They tried unsuccessfully to start a Long Island band with guitarist Denny Dias, then moved to New York City to sell their tunes to publishers, but had little success aside from placing "I Mean to Shine" on a Barbra Streisand album. They did, however, meet independent producer Gary Katz, who enlisted them at ABC/Dunhill Records in L.A. as staff songwriters as a stipulation to accepting his own contract as a staff producer. It was Katz who hatched the idea for what would become Steely Dan. Steely Dan was the name of a dildo in William Burroughs' Naked Lunch.
Steely Dan's debut, Can't Buy a Thrill (#17, 1972), yielded two hit singles, "Do It Again" (#6, 1972) and, featuring guitarist Elliot Randall, "Reeling in the Years" (#11, 1973). Hailed by critics, the album sold well. Put off by a singles-oriented audience, as well as inadequate rehearsals, Becker, Fagen, and Katz considered Steely Dan's first tour a total disaster. Countdown to Ecstasy (#35, 1973) contained no hit singles —possibly because singer David Palmer had left to form the abortive Big Wha-Koo, forcing Fagen's distinctive vocals to the fore.
On their next effort, Steely Dan was joined by singer/keyboardist Michael McDonald, who sang mostly backup vocals. Pretzel Logic (#8, 1974) featured "Rikki Don't Lose That Number" (#4, 1974) and more pronounced jazz leanings; the opening of "Rikki" was a nod to hard-bop pianist Horace Silver, and "Parker's Band" saluted bebop giant Charlie Parker. In 1974 Steely Dan went on their last tour for nearly two decades. Hodder resumed session work; Baxter and then McDonald joined the Doobie Brothers [see entry]; though Dias continued to work with Becker and Fagen for some time, he also returned to playing sessions. Becker and Fagen amassed enormous debts by spending lengthy spells in the studio with high-priced sessionmen. Katy Lied (#13, 1975), the first Steely Dan LP by Becker and Fagen plus session players, contained a single that inched into the Top 40, "Black Friday" (#37, 1975), and featured a solo on "Dr. Wu" by jazz alto saxophonist Phil Woods. The DBX noise-reduction system used to enhance the sound malfunctioned, and the album's sleeve contained a lengthy apology from Becker, Fagen, and Katz; still, it sounded cleaner than most contemporary releases. A scheduled tour was scrapped during rehearsals.
The Royal Scam, like most Steely Dan albums, sold well (#15, 1976) and presented some of Becker/Fagen's most mordant lyrics. The seven-song Aja (#3, 1977), which included FM favorites like "Peg" (#11, 1977) and "Deacon Blues" (#19, 1978), played by such expert sidemen as the Crusaders, Wayne Shorter, and Lee Ritenour, went Top 5 within three weeks of its release, and became the band's first platinum album. In 1978 jazz bandleader Woody Herman's Thundering Herd Big Band recorded five Becker-Fagen songs, selected by and under the supervision of the duo. A subsequent contractual dispute with MCA (which had absorbed ABC Records) delayed the release of Gaucho (#9, 1980), which yielded "Hey Nineteen" (#10, 1980) and featured guitar work by Mark Knopfler and Rick Derringer. Its B side was Steely Dan's only live recording, "Bodhisattva," from the 1974 tour. Also in 1978, Steely Dan's contribution to the movie FM, "FM (No Static at All)" (#22), was that soundtrack's highlight. In 1980 Becker suffered a broken leg and other injuries when a car hit him while he was walking in Manhattan.
The following year Becker and Fagen announced that they would go separate ways, though their management denied it would be a permanent separation. In 1982 Gaucho won a Grammy for Best Engineered Album, as had Aja in 1978. Such passion for sonic detail paid off when, during the '80s and the advent of CDs, Steely Dan's highly crafted catalogue steadily sold. Fagen released his solo The Nightfly in 1982 to stellar reviews, then waited until 1993 for the Becker-produced Kamakiriad. During that time, Becker produced such artists as Rickie Lee Jones and China Crisis and handled production work for New Age label Windham Hill and jazz label Triloka. After his girlfriend died from a drug overdose (her mother tried to sue Becker, claiming that he had fostered the young woman's drug problem), Becker overcame his own substance-abuse problems.
In the early '90s Becker and Fagen appeared in concert with the New York Rock and Soul Revue alongside Boz Scaggs, Phoebe Snow, and Michael McDonald, documenting the gigs on 1991's Live at the Beacon. In 1993, nearly two decades since their last concert, Becker and Fagen headed an 11-piece version of Steely Dan that reprised their works in a U.S. tour. In 1994 Becker released a critically acclaimed album of his own, 11 Tracks of Whack; Fagen produced the disc.
In 2000 Steely Dan, with Becker and Fagen coproducing, released their first album of new material in over 20 years, Two Against Nature. The record debuted at #6 and won three Grammys, including Album of the Year; its accompanying tour, meanwhile, drew raves. Also that year, Garden Party, an aggregation of smooth-jazz players such as keyboardist Jeff Lorber and saxophonist Dave Koz, put out a Steely Dan tribute album, No Static at All. Steely Dan was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001.
This biography originally appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001).
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Steely Dan's origins and surprising success, as recalled by Walter Becker, Donald Fagen and Jeff Baxter