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The Art of Steely Dan

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When the Beatles broke up in 1970, a number of artists scrambled to obtain their mantle as the World’s Greatest Musical Group, especially in England, where the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Roxy Music, and David Bowie all fought over the crown–which of course was ultimately unobtainable. In the US, during the early 1970s, popular music was dominated by the more gentle, and ultimately far more ephemeral threads of the singer-songwriter movement, which took the complexity of the best work by Simon and Garfunkle, and the Beatles in the 1960s, and reduced them to three finger-picked chords and a whine.

The notable exception was Steely Dan, who emerged from the same love of popular American music of the 1950s that influenced all of the above acts, but also a love for more rarefied stuff: big bands of the 1930s and 1940s, and bebop and cool jazz of the 1950s.

As The New Musical Express wrote in 1974:

Woolworth’s seems hardly the place to get turned on to rock music-that’s where Walter Becker’s ears started to twitch at the sounds of The Beatles’ “No Reply” (side one, track – on”Beatles For Sale”). And that convinced him there was more to rock than three chords.

Ed Note:(hey, being Ed, I can drop in an aside like this, call it an Ed Note, and mean it!) Actually, Woolworth in the 1970s was the perfect place to get turned on to rock music. In the late 1970s, I bought dozens of Beatles, Badfinger, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, and other rock records from the Woolco (a Woolworth spin-off chain) located next door to my parents’ liquor store in southern New Jersey. OK, back to the NME:

For Becker’s songwriting partner, Donald Fagen-the two are the writing force behind Steely Dan-it was “Ticket To Ride,” heard on the radio one summer that nibbled a hole in his prejudice against rock music.

Becker, however, is still prejudiced against rock and doesn’t like it if there aren’t enough chord changes, unless it’s played extremely well…Although each musician in the group counts, it’s Becker and Fagen’s songwriting that really makes Steely Dan something special. Both of them have similar backgrounds and attitude, getting into jazz a long time before appreciating rock.

Fagen, he says he’s done this bio speel about two million times now: he learned to play piano and a little alto-sax as a child, taking his licks from jazz records, and tried to play like Red Garland who is Miles Davis’s old piano player. “I picked up that style. Later I found that I could pick up almost any style from records.”

He admits one reason why he got info jazz was to be hip. But when he started buying good jazz records he realized the music was for him. Fagen and Becker met at Bard College.”Walter was the only person I knew who used to listen to the same jazz stations-New York jazz stations which are now defunct…so’s jazz, as a matter of fact.”

He whines his story in a definitive New York accent. Dressed in T-shirt, jeans and white sneakers with a red flash and wearing heavy-framed glasses, still looking like a college academic.

“We more or less thought along the same lines and we both had a rather bizarre sense of lyrics,” he says.

The songwriting-partnership is a real one, although Fagen says he usually comes up with most of the source idea and then they take it from there, each one adding a line here, a line there.

Becker and Fagen eventually ended up as staff-writers for ABC Dunhill across the country in Los Angeles. That lasted only six months, during which time they wrote songs for, among others, Barbara Streisand.

Says Fagen: “We weren’t doing so good ’cause we’re sort of funny. When you’re writing for other artists it’s difficult to get them to do songs if the lyrics aren’t absolutely banal.”

And that’s really why Steely Dan was formed.

The Art of Steely Dan, a new book by David Pearl, is largely sheet music, but rather than the usual transcriptions of songs, it contains snippets of the riffs, chord changes, intros, solos and grooves that made Steely Dan such a interesting part of 1970s music. There are also extensive analyses of the Dan’s lyrics, their inspirations, and how they chose their often unusual instrumentation. In addition to all this, there’s also a discography and a resources section to provide lots of other info about the band.

For the songwriter looking to add more than a few twists to his compositions, or the arranger looking to add jazz flourishes to otherwise straightforward pop tunes, this certainly could be a fun book to consider. It’s the most musical inspiration you’ll get from any group named after a dildo in a William Borroughs novel.

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  • John S.

    The DVD about the making of AJA (Classic Albums – Steely Dan: Aja”) is a rewarding and enjoyable program for fans. Strongly recommended.