Steely Dan Band History – The Antiheroes Music Still Needs

Fagen and Becker were the charismatic studio magicians of the 20th century, fathers of jazz-rock, and storytellers of the darkness of glamorous life under the trippy name ‘Steely Dan.’ They are one of the few bands that always did what they wanted with their music, backed up by the best session player in history, a cult fan base, and a healthy dose of criticism from purists of each era.

I’m not only a Steely Dan fan but a student of their craft. My dream as a studio musician is to have lived in the 70s and get a call from Fagen. That can’t happen, and my solo would have probably not made it in the record anyway, but at least I’m writing with a smile on my face for the duo who showed me how you can make the most polished music in the world, and still keep the necessary dirt and coolness in!

Their music and lyrics hit just as hard as they did in the ’70s – so it’s no wonder the world still ‘needs’ a Steely Dan – The wise kids who sat in the back of the class, making fun of the teacher, pocking the rich kids and still getting straight A’s and sell 40 million albums in the meanwhile! 

Donald Fagen 

Donald Jay Fagen (born in New Jersey on January 10, 1948) is the lead singer, keyboard player, and, naturally, the co-founder and co-songwriter of Everything Steely Dan. 

Born to an ex-singer mother, Fagen was introduced to singing early on, became a rock fan through Chuck Berry, and later got into jazz by listening to the greats of the era, Davis, Monk, etc. He was trained in classical piano but only picked up playing keys in high school and played in various local bands and jazz formations before heading to New York to study literature.

Heavily inspired by his unique anti-materialistic lifestyle, childhood, and passion for reading, Fage released four solo albums and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for his work with Steely Dan.

Donald Fagen And Walter Becker
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Walter Becker 

Walter Carl Becker (February 20, 1950 – September 3, 2017) was the guitar player, bassist, and half of Steely Dan’s songwriting and producing duo.

Becker was born in New York in a working-class family and described as having a troubled childhood, being brought up without a mother by his father and grandmother. He shared the same passion for Jazz and Rock as Fagen and studied saxophone and later guitar, being one of the most influential yet unsung guitar heroes of the 20th century.

His skepticism about human nature, modern guitar playing, and hip songwriting influenced the Steely Dan sound and lyrical enigmas. He was inducted alongside Fagen in the Rock n’ Roll Hall Of Fame.

Walter Becker passed away in 2017 at 67 from esophageal cancer.

Steely Dan Quick Facts

Band MembersDonald Fagen, Walter Becker 
Years Active 1971 – 1980; 1993 – Present
LocationNew York
Most Successful AlbumAJA (1977)
LabelsReprise – MCA – Warner Bros – Giant – ABC
Discography9 studio albums, 2 live albums, 21 singles
Social MediaYouTube, Facebook
Websitewww.steelydan.com
AwardsRock n Roll Hall of Fame (2001) – Grammy Award Winners (2001) for Album of the Year; Best Pop Performance; Best Pop Vocal Album
Last UpdatedAugust 2023

Steely Dan Origins & Original Line-Up

Fagen and Becker met while attending Bard College in New York. As told by Fagen, he heard Becker practicing guitar in a coffee shop, liked the modern playing, and immediately asked him to be in a band together. 

This was the start of the duo’s musical adventure, first as part of a local band, then backing musicians for the Bad Rock Group and Jay and The American, low-budget film score writers and hired songwriters. When one of their compositions ended up becoming the Barba Streisand song, “I Mean to Shine,” the duo was noticed by producer Gary Katz, who hired them as staff songwriters for ABC/Dunhill in Los Angeles.

Katz then pushed them to form a band to bring the duo’s complex compositions to life, signed them to ABC Record, and eventually produced six of their albums. 

The original Steely Dan lineup is the only one that featured other official band members and hinted towards a ‘normal’ band. With the help of Katz, Fagen & Becker recruited Jim Hodder on drums, Denny Dias and Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter on guitar, and David Palmer on lead vocal to compensate for Fagen’s stage fright – all top-notch musicians who could do justice to their records in the studio and live.

Can’t Buy A Thrill (1972) 

Can't Buy A Thrill steely dan cover
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After a few poorly received singles that never made it even for a reissue, in 1972, the cult debut ‘Can’t Buy A Thrill’ was the first to bring the Steely Dan sound to notice.

The album is a sophisticated, ironic take on 70s pop culture with a fine blend of jazz, rock, latin, and swing never attempted before with a band of mostly rock musicians. It was a commercial success, with singles reaching the top 10, but most importantly for Fagen and Becker, it was a step up of whatever was being released at the time, still sounding today just as fresh and crisp as in 1972.

“Do It Again,” “Reeling in the Years,” and “Dirty Work” were the most successful singles while best representing what the band would become.

The songs were Intricate yet seemingly simple and catchy hooks and riffs, cryptic lyrics with just enough spice to be played on the radio, and two legendary guitar solos from Diaz and Baxter. The formula worked and stuck for all the other albums, with the Jazz element only getting stronger. 

Countdown to Ecstasy (1973)

Countdown to Ecstasy steely dan
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The debut’s release was followed by extensive touring, which didn’t go how the band would prefer. Poor schedules, unrehearsed musicians, and continuous pressures characterized the tour and making of ‘Countdown to Ecstasy’ which didn’t meet commercial and creative expectations.  \

Palmer, by the time, had left the band, as Fagen became a more confident singer who better delivered, according to Katz and Becker, the satire and irony of the songs. As part of the entire discography, the second album marked the start of Steely Dan becoming the ‘Antiheroes of Rock’ with each song hitting LA’s glamorous lifestyle of which Fagen and Becker were never truly part. 

Lyrics got more provocative and cryptical, sometimes non-sensical for anyone who needed help understanding the context.

“Show Biz Kids” is the best example of Steely Dan taking a hit at the “Yacht Rock” label some had put on them. In retrospect, the album was fresh and musically achieved for Steely Dan fans, yet none of the tracks impacted the public. 

For guitar lovers, “The Boston Rag” has my favorite Skunk Baxter solo drifting inspired from the neo-classical to blues and straightforward classic shredding.

Pretzel Logic  – Becoming Studio-Only (1974)

Pretzel Logic  - Becoming Studio-Only steely dan
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The 3rd album started the session-musician era of Steely Dan with Jeff Porcarco, Jim Gordon, Dean Perks, Michael McDonald, David Paich, and other players recording various songs and performing in the following tour. All after working with Steely Dan formed legendary acts like the “Doobie Brothers” and “Toto.”

“Rickie Don’t Lose That Number” and “Any Major Dude Will Tell You” were the biggest songs of the record, with the first being the highest-ranking song in Steely Dan’s discography. 

Fagen and Becker blamed the rush of being on the road for the second record flop and felt the live shows of Pretzel Logic were not delivering the quality of the record; thus, the duo decided to retire the band from live performances and become a studio-only group. 

The decision didn’t suit the other members, all working musicians who needed and wanted to perform, so ultimately, only Fagen and Becker were left with Dias frequently playing guitar on tracks.

Kety Lied (1976)

Kety Lied steely dan
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Kety Lied is a unique album, the first of the studio-only and session musician-only era. This album solidified the Steely Dan sound with the introduction of Larry Carlton on guitar – the player who would shape some of the most excellent rock solos with the band and find the ‘method’ to make all these great players serve their songs.

Ironically, for the duo that finally had time to focus on getting dozens of takes from session musicians and could tweak the mix endlessly, it ended up having the ‘worst’ sound, according to them. This peaky nature was at the core of the polished perfectionism that followed next.

“Doctor Wu” is an underrated Gem from the album, which, at first listen, innocently describes a relationship between a patient and doctor; the deeper you dig, the more you understand it’s about drug addiction, as it’s the entire album’s central theme.

The record went gold and had two major hits, “Bad Sneaker” and “Black Friday,” yet Fagen and Baker were so dissatisfied with the record’s sound quality that they even wrote an apology at the back of the cover. 

From my perspective as a record producer, it shows the obsessive nature of the duo and dedication to getting the ‘perfect’ record rather than an audible sound quality issue for the everyday listener.

The Royal Scam (1976)

The Royal Scam steely dan
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By 1976, a cult following was established, and the best players in the world were at the duo’s disposal. The two following albums turned Steely from great to legendary, pushing the boundaries of what could be considered pop.

Steely Dan was the only band that could pull off, making their most musically complex and lyrically enigmatic albums the most commercially successful of their career. It’s typically the other way around for most bands, but it worked due to the cult following and mastery in delivering the most complex idea as simply as possible.

The Royal Scam is provocatory and complex, full of legendary solos and catchy hooks. It revolves around the ‘average Joe’ who continually is scammed and bumped from side to side by a system that, in the eyes of Fagen and Becker, is a gigantic Las Vegas Casino.

“Kid Charlemagne” features one of greatest guitar solos of all time from the fluid hands of Larry Carlton, and ‘Don’t Take Me Alive’ with an intro solo that makes for a close second.

The guitar’s contribution to the album is so noticeable, as the two songs with the most iconic guitar works are arguably the two most streamed songs of the album even today. Besides Carlton, the legendary guitar lineup of the album includes Danny Dias, Elliot Randall, and Dean Parks.

It’s my favorite Steely Dan record, from the concept to the musicians involved, the sound, and the legacy it left. It is a pure delight to enjoy the rockier side of the duo with all the intricacy of Jazz.

AJA (1977)

AJA steely dan
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‘AJA’ is the ultimate Steely Dan masterpiece, compromising all the best elements the pair had gathered, with more from the progressive rock and fusion world than the other records—a pinnacle of studio work that sold over 2.3 million copies. 

By the time ‘AJA’ was being recorded, the band had created a new ‘Wrecking Crew,’ with all the best musicians on each instrument. After ‘The Royal Scam,’ not only the Steely Dan gig was the best you could get, but the musicians who played with them ended up getting record deals for solo albums.

‘Josie’ is the tune that best represents the album’s sound. It starts with the oddest jazz-influenced intro of a commercial rock song you can hear on the radio and drifts off to a straight rock groove and full-on jazz harmony, including the Steely Dan signature ‘Mu’ chord voicing. Becker here plays the solo on ‘Josie,’ a lesson in phrasing and an impressive feat, considering Carlton is also on the song.

‘Deacon Blues,’ in the words of Fagen, “is about as close to autobiography as our tunes get.” If you can decipher, you might catch a glimpse of history. ‘Peg,’ on the other hand, is a danceable track based on a simple blues shuffle with the unexpected Steely Dan twist and a one-take solo masterpiece by Jay Graydon, a task many guitar players before had failed to convince Fagen and Becker in.

The album’s highlight for me is Steve Gad’s drum solo on the album track ‘Aja;’ it was the first time anything like that ended up in a ‘pop’ record. 

The documentary will give you the best insight into the recording process of arguably the most polished album of the 70s.

Gaucho (1980) & The Breakup

Gaucho steely dan
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Gaucho marks the end of the Steely Dan golden decade and the band. Becker’s drug abuse, the recent death of his girlfriend, and a car accident that hospitalized him for six months rocked the collaboration and work ethics of the duo. Meanwhile, legal battles with MCA, Warner Bros, and lastly, pianist Keith Jarret left a bad taste on the record’s release.

The unease was transmitted even in the recording sessions. While the players included legends such as Michael Brecker, Anthony Jackson, and Knopfler, the sessions were becoming long and tiring due to the perfectionist nature of the duo.

Musically and commercially, it was a successful shift toward a simpler soft rock style with less progressive and fusion elements – less intense than ‘Aja’ and much smoother in style and sound.

The songwriting, though, didn’t have the impact and depth of the previous two albums; it lacked surprise, and the blend of smoothness and satire didn’t deliver in all tracks. Even so, the first two tracks, ‘Babylon Sisters’ and ‘Hey Nineteen,’ are among the band’s most accomplished songs ever released.

The breakup came soon after the album’s release as the ‘fun’ was momentarily gone from the creative process, and most probably, both members wanted to experiment on solo records. It was never a fight that broke up the band, as both Fagen and Becker kept working on various projects together and helping each other’s solo careers.

Live in Amerika & Two Against Nature (2000)

After two decades of going solo and collaborating on various projects, Walter and Becker reunited with Steely Dan for “Alive in America’ –  the first live album of the band’s career and first tour since 1972. 

The success led to returning to the studio for a Grammy-winning album. “Two Against Nature” is the most straightforward, funky, and down-to-the-basic album of their discography, with a very relaxed satiric nature.

‘Two Against Nature’ is a sophisticated and satirical jazz funk without much rock, apart from the ‘attitude’ and delivery. The arrangements are a delight of groovy bass lines, four-to-the-floor drum beats, and tasty guitar licks with the always-present jazz spice.

“What a Shame About Me” is my favorite tune of the track – a guitar and drums driver piece that backs the story of a failed middle-aged writer reuniting with his high school old flame. “West of Hollywood” brings back the complex jazz with one of Chris Potter’s best sax solos.

Some call this album musically mature, a phrase that could work well for all their albums – I find it to be yet another experiment, but this time from the perspective of two much older songwriters who know how to get the best out of songs that were a decade in the making.

The final studio album, “Everything Must Go,” followed in 2003, almost as a continuation of where the previous one left sonically and conceptually.

The Dan – o – phobia 

Steely Dan was and is not a band for everyone to enjoy. While they somehow got Jazz through to the pop and rock listener, they rarely made the Jazz purist enjoy rock and pop. Fagen and Becker didn’t fit anywhere; they didn’t have a band that made the gossip, and they didn’t go well on stage; In fact, they didn’t play live at all, so there was no category to put them in.

A movement ‘against’ the hip Steely Jazz arose among Jazz purists and critics who found the music without depth and an improvisational element.

On the other hand, the music was just too polished for Rock fans, not the rebellious Rock n’ Roll that represented the voice of a generation. 

Combine both, and you get the negative reputation of “Yacht Rock” and the Steely Dan fans branding as wannabees and snobs.

I don’t agree with either, as the deeper you go into the music, the more you find all the ‘dirt’ and emotion, which is directed precisely against the hypocrisy and social classes that rock attacks. The best jazz musicians in the world played in Steely Dan’s record, so I’m afraid I have to disagree with the lack of improvisation and emotion either.

Becker’s Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame acceptance speech in 2001 says it all in one sentence:

“We’re persuaded it’s a great honor to be here tonight.” is as counterculture as it gets.

Donald Fagen’s Solo Career

Fagen released records immediately after the band’s breakup, releasing the highly acclaimed ‘The Nighfly’ in 1992. It could almost be another Steely Dan record with Gary Katz still as a producer if not for the lack of Becker’s fine-tuned ears that add the extra level of sophistication.

The album got Fagern 7 Grammy nomination, while the following “Kamakiriad’ was co-produced by Becker and got a nomination for Album of the Year. Fagen followed up his solo by releasing two albums, “Morph the Cat” and “Sunken Condos,” even after reuniting with Fagen.

After Becker died in 2017, Fagen kept Steely Dan going to this day as the only official member with a cast of stellar backing musicians.

Walter Becker’s Solo Career 

After getting through his drug addiction and starting a family in 1984, Becker had a much quieter solo career than Fagen for the public eye – yet worked intensively as a producer of pop and new wave acts of the 80s and 90s, with many of the records getting certified gold. 

He released two solo albums, the first of which was ’11 Tracks of Whack’ released in 1994, co-produced by Fagen, and “Cirus Money,” released in 2008. Both albums were less successful than Fagen’s solo releases, yet the quality and sound remain to the Steely Dan record’s level, showing more of Fagen’s darker songwriting.

The Man Behind The Sound – Roger Nichols

Roger Nichols  (September 22, 1944 – April 9, 2011) was the unsung hero of Steely Dan, engineering the polished sound of their records from the early days.  

An old friend of Frank Zappa, a technical genius, nuclear operator, and inventor with fine ears to match the level of Fagen, Becker, and Katz, Nichols would do anything to get the sound needed. He would invent it if no gear were available for the job.

For the recording sessions of “Gaucho,” he invented the Wendel sampling computer, the basics of what became the standard digital drum replacing to get the percussion sound on some of the songs and years after a nuclear clock to sync digital recording equipment in the studio.

Steely Dan Scandals

Fagen and Becker were never the ‘break-the-hotel’ rockstars and kept private for most of their Career. Apart from Becker’s drug addiction in the 70s, the most mediatic scandal came after Becker’s Death in 2017 when The Walter Becker estate sued Fagen over ownership of the band’s shares and name.

According to an agreement in 1972, the duo had agreed to pass the right to use the name  Steely Dan” and the band’s shares to whoever was alive in case one of the two died. The case is yet to be resolved in favor of any side.

A Fine-Tuned Creative Machine

While both were alive, Fagen and Becker never had a public breakup, a public fight, or anything that hinted toward the artist’s ego’s crashing like in most rock bands. They seemed to align in the same trajectory and always put the music first. 

Having only two people calling the shots, along with the producer, made it easier to get the best out of the session players for the song, who were not limited but only directed towards a vision. The result is the timeless records we have today that would not have happened with a ‘normal’ band.

Will There Ever Be Another Steely Dan?

Steely Dan is the ultimate class act for the working man, a band for everyone to enjoy. You can either delve deep into the layers of intricacy and irony or skim through the complexity and stick to the coolness of the quality of the song.

We can hope that in the near future, another obsessive, talented, and awkward duo will take their place as the ‘Antiheroes’ of the music scene. Whether anyone will match up to them or have the courage to defy today’s static industry is something we shall witness while enjoying Fagen’s and Becker’s stories of ‘cool kids’ getting swallowed by the status quo.

They gave the world a working formula; now, it’s only a matter of following up.

FAQ

Question: Is Steely Dan Yacht Rock?

Answer: Steely Dan is sonically and stylistically part of the Yacht Rock genre, yet conceptually, they never fit in. In true Fagen and Becker style, the Yacht Rock labeling was used as an object of satire – making fun of their fans to draw out a point on the hypocrisy of modern American life.

Question: What Does Steely Dan Mean?

Answer: Steely Dan was a steam-powered sex-tody from William S. Burroughs’s ‘Naked Lunch’ novel. Fagen and Becker were fans of the Beat Generation literature and found the name fitted the concept behind the band.

Question: Who Wrote Most Of The Songs For Steely Dan?

Answer: Fagen and Becker co-wrote and co-produced all the songs and are always credited equally. Both would come up with melodies, lyrics, and concepts and go back and forth with them. It’s hard to say which contributed more to any song, as they both played multiple instruments and had the same taster for irony and fictional dark characters.

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