While Donald Fagen and Walter Becker had a historical financial scam in mind when they wrote the lyrics for Black Friday, not the shopping frenzy after Thanksgiving, I still feel the song fits today’s occasion. They initially recorded the tune for Katy Lied, released in March 1975, and the first Steely Dan album following the breakup of the original five-piece line-up.
According to Songfacts, the inspiration for the tune was the original Black Friday on Friday, September 24, 1869, when a group of speculators headed by Jay Gould and his partner James Fisk, bought as much gold as they could on the New York Gold Exchange to drive up the price. But the government found out about the ploy and eventually released $4 million worth gold from the Treasury’s reserve into the market. This caused the gold price to nose-dive and investors to get hit.
While Black Friday, which also became the lead single from Katy Lied, was inspired by the above U.S. events, it includes the Australian town of Muswellbrook. “It was the place most far away from LA we could think of,” Fagen later explained, “and, of course it fitted the metre of the song and rhymed with book”.
…Black Friday comes I fly down to Muswellbrook Gonna strike all the big red words From my little black book…
Katy Lied was the first Steely Dan album after Fagen and Becker had decided to stop touring and turn the band into a studio act. They also had started to increasingly rely on session musicians to record their music. Black Friday featured Michael Omartian on piano and David Paich on electric piano. The following year, Paich became one of the founding members of Toto. While Steely Dan also worked with various guitarists on the album, including Rick Derringer, Hugh McCracken and Larry Carlton, for a change, it was Becker himself who played the solo on Black Friday.
The single was a modest chart success in the U.S., peaking at no. 37 on the Billboard Hot 100. But Becker and Fagen never seemed to care much about chart performance. Plus, like all other Steely Dan albums, Katy Lied reached Gold certification before they went on hiatus in 1981 following the difficult recording sessions for the Gaucho album.
Both bands deliver powerful sets at New Jersey’s PNC Bank Arts Center
The Summer Of Living Dangerously was supposed to have wrapped up on Saturday in Bethel, N.Y. Instead, Steely Dan and The Doobie Brothers brought their double-headlining tour to a close yesterday at PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel, N.J. – and what a glorious night it was for both bands!
Initially, the show had been scheduled for July 6. But due to an illness of one of the musicians, the gig had been postponed on short notice. Luckily, it didn’t get cancelled altogether. After all, as The Doobies’ Tom Johnston put it, this was the end of “a long and draining tour” with Steely Dan. But while more than 30 dates crammed in just three months must have been exhausting, you surely didn’t notice any of the musicians were worn out. On the contrary, at times, it seemed they were playing as if it was their last gig ever!
As I usually do leading up to concerts, I checked YouTube for recent performances, setlist.fm and online reviews to get a better feeling what to expect. In this case, I noticed the reviews were consistently great for The Doobies but more on the mixed side for Steely Dan. Some reviewers were disappointed that unlike the southern rockers, Donald Fagen left out Dan gems like Deacon Blues and Do It Again. Others noted Fagen’s voice sounded challenged, especially on the high notes. YouTube clips I had watched prior to the show seemed to confirm some of what the above reviews noted.
Based on the above, I had definitely adjusted my expectations – after all, who wants to be disappointed! As such, I was anticipating a solid set from The Doobies and more of a mixed bag from Donald Fagen/Steely Dan. What I feel I got instead were kick-ass performances from each! While Fagen’s vocal performance may have varied during some of the tour’s previous shows, I thought he was in great shape last night! Maybe it helped that the boy from Passaic, N.J. was home at last, as he acknowledged at some point. Fagen also showed signs that he enjoyed himself – something I understand he’s not particularly known for!
The Doobies kicked off the great night. From the very first bars of Natural Thing to the last note of the second encore Listen To The Music, these guys sounded as terrific as they did the first time I saw them some 20 years ago: the harmony singing, the dynamic of the music – everything was still there, and it all still sounded fresh – pretty amazing! What more could you possibly ask for?
Time for some clips. I decided to capture and use my own video material. This comes with all the caveats you have, recording with a smartphone that isn’t latest generation and when you’re not exactly sitting in the first row. But at least it’s authentic!:-)
First up: Rockin’ Down The Highway. Penned by Johnston, this great rocker appeared on Toulouse Street, The Doobies’ second studio album from July 1972 and their commercial breakthrough.
Another classic from Toulouse Street is Jesus Is Just Alright. For some reason, I had always thought of it as an original Doobies tune – I was wrong. According to Wikipedia, the song, a gospel tune, was written by Arthur Reid Reynolds and first recorded by his band The Art Reynolds Singers for their 1966 studio album Tellin’ It Like It is. Who knew.
In general, I’m more drawn to the early phase of The Doobies – basically, their first five studio records. One of the exceptions is Cycles, the band’s 10th studio album from May 1989, the first record following their reunion after the 1982 break-up. One of the tunes from Cycles I dig is the opener The Doctor, a co-write by Johnston and the record’s co-producers Charlie Midnight and Eddie Schwartz. Last night, the nice honky-tonk piano by Bill Payne and Johnston’s guitar work stood out to me. It’s just a seductive tune overall that’s very reminiscent of the early Doobies.
Another classic by the southern rockers is Long Train Runnin’. Written by Johnston, the tune was included on the band’s third studio album The Captain And Me, released in March 1973. I’ve always dug the combination of funk and rock in this song. This is also a great track to call out killer saxophonist Marc Russo. The guy must have been blowing out his lungs! Long Train Runnin’ was the last track of the band’s regular set, so I guess that’s the reason why they extended it. It meant more great sax playing. The audience certainly loved it!
And while I could keep on raving about southern rockers, I also need to get to Fagen & Co., so I’m going to wrap up The Doobies’ section with an additional gem from The Captain And Me: China Grove, yet another Johnston composition and the first encore. If you’re curious what else they played, you can check here.
After such a dynamic set from The Doobies, the bar certainly had been set high for Steely Dan. Of course, Fagen and his former partner Walter Becker have been known for playing with top-notch musicians, so I hadn’t had any real concerns the band somehow wouldn’t be up to par. It was mostly Fagen I had wondered about. But as noted at the outset, he had a great night, so I really couldn’t have been more happy!
Following a set-opening jazz instrumental performed by just the band (see lineup in caption of above photo collage I put together), during which the musicians immediately took the opportunity to shine, Fagen entered the stage. In a deviation from previous set lists I had seen, they played Black Cow, the opener from Dan’s masterpiece Aja. Apparently, it was swapped with Josie, which during earlier gigs had been included later in the set. Here’s my clip.
Next up: Black Friday from Katy Lied, Steely Dan’s fourth studio album that appeared in March 1975. The record was the first after the break-up of the band’s original five-piece lineup. At that time, Fagen and Becker had decided to stop touring and become a studio band. Additionally, they increasingly were relying on top-notch session musicians for their recordings. Among the latter were guitarist Rick Derringer, drummer Jeff Porcaro and Michael McDonald (backing vocals), who BTW just a month after the record’s release joined The Doobie Brothers.
While as previously noted Fagen & co. didn’t play Do It Again, one of my favorite early Dan tunes, they performed Rikki Don’t Lose That Number, another early gem I dig. It appeared on Dan’s third studio album Pretzel Logic from February 1974. Also released separately as the record’s first single in April that year, it became their biggest hit, climbing all the way to no. 4 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100.
Steely Dan didn’t skip Can’t Buy A Thrill altogether. In fact, they played two tunes from their studio debut released in November 1972. One was Dirty Work, which prominently featured the band’s excellent backing vocalists La Tanya Hall, Catherine Russell and Carolyn Leonhart, a.k.a. The Danettes.
The last tune of the regular set was My Old School from Steely Dan’s sophomore album Countdown To Ecstasy, which came out in July 1973. Like predecessor Bodhisattva, it featured Connor Kennedy, a young guitar virtuoso hailing from Woodstock, N.Y., who had toured with Fagen last year as part of a band called The Nightflyers.
The amazing Reelin’ In The Years, the second tune from Can’t Buy A Thrill, was the first encore and the last Dan tune of the night. To see what other songs they played you can check here. Reelin’ In The Years also included Kennedy who traded guitar licks with Jon Herington. Unfortunately, while I was recording this great performance, Facebook cheerfully informed me that something had gone wrong and that my live video had stopped – bummer! But with close to 4 minutes, at least I captured a good chunk of it, so decided it was worthwhile keeping and including the clip in this post. Plus, Fagen’s outgoing “yah!” that precedes the performance is kind of cool!
Based on what I experienced last night, I can highly recommend the show, except of course that particular tour is now over. But looking at their schedules, each band already has additional dates on the calendar for this year. The Doobies resume performing in San Francisco on September 20 together with the Eagles – that should be fun! There are also dates in San Diego; Clearwater, Fla., Greensburg, Pa.; and two special shows at New York’s Beacon Theatre in mid-November, where they will perform the albums Toulouse Street and The Captain And Me in their entirety, along with other songs.
Steely Dan has 18 additional dates on the schedule starting October 1, including a nine-gig residency at the Beacon Theatre, beginning October 17. Like The Doobies, these are special performances dedicated to select Dan albums, including The Royal Scam (May 1976), Aja, Countdown to Ecstasy and Gaucho (November 1980). There are also shows focusing on Fagen’s first solo album The Nightfly (October 1982), a gig billed as “greatest hits,” as well as an on-demand concert, based on fan voting.
I have to say, Dan’s Aja performance sounds really tempting, especialy since they left out Deacon Blues and Josie last night. Plus, I’ve never been to the Beacon Theatre, a venue where The Allman Brothers used to perform, making it something like “holy ground.” You see what I did here? Trying to rationalize spending additional money on yet another concert. We shall see!
Sources: Wikipedia, setlist.fm, Doobie Brothers official website, Steely Dan official website, YouTube
I’m still a bit in disbelief about the sad news of the untimely death of Walter Becker at age 67. According to Rolling Stone, the passing of the Steely Dan co-founder was announced earlier today on his official website without providing any details. Uncutreported that Becker had a recent operation that prevented him from performing with the band at the Classic East and Classic West festivals in July in Los Angeles and New York, respectively – possibly an indication of a lingering health issue.
In early August, Becker’s Steely Dan compatriot Donald FagentoldBillboard that “Walter’s recovering from a procedure and hopefully he’ll be fine very soon.” He did not further elaborate. I imagine more details about the circumstances of Becker’s death are going to emerge over the next few days.
Becker was born in Queens, New York on February 20, 1950 and grew up in the city’s suburbs. He started getting into music by learning the saxophone before switching to the guitar. Becker ended up taking blues guitar lessons from his neighbor at the time, Randy Craig Wolfe, also known as Randy California. He was in good hands. Wolfe was an original member of rock band Spirit that was founded in 1967. The previous summer, he had played with Jimi Hendrix in his short-lived rock band Jimmy James and the Blue Flames.
In 1967, Becker and Fagen met at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., where they both studied at the time. They began to form Steely Dan in the summer of 1970. According to Wikipedia, the impetus was an ad in the Village Voice placed by guitarist Danny Dias, who was looking for a “bass player and keyboard player with jazz chops.” At that time, Becker and Fagen had already written a good amount of original music.
Steely Dan’s first lineup was assembled in December 1971, after Becker, Fagen and Dias had moved to Los Angeles. The additional members included Jeff “Skunk” Baxter (guitar), Jim Hodder (drums) and David Palmer (vocals). Earlier, Gary Katz, a staff producer at ABC Records, had hired Becker and Fagen as staff song writers. It was also Katz who signed the band to the label.
In 1972, Steely Dan’s first single Dallas was released but sold poorly. The debut studio album Can’t Buy a Thrill followed in November that year. The producer was Katz, who also served in that role for all of the band’s other ’70s albums. Unlike the initial single, the record became very successful. It reached Gold certification in August 1973. Eventually, in September 1993, Can’t Buy a Thrill was certified Platinum, after sales had reached one million copies. Here is a clip of the record’s great opener Do It Again, one of my favorite Steely Dan tunes.
Seven months after their debut, Steely Dan released Countdown to Ecstasy in July 1973. While Bodhisattva and My Old School became concert favorites among fans, the record didn’t generate a major hit single. That changed with Pretzel Logic, the band’s third studio album, which appeared in February 1974 and featured Rikki Don’t Lose That Number. Also released separately in April 1974, the tune became Steely Dan’s most successful single, reaching no. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the summer of 1974.
In March 1975, Steely Dan’s fourth album Katy Lied appeared. By that time, most of the band’s original members had left, and Steely Dan essentially became Becker and Fagen who hired additional musicians as needed. Katy Lied reached Gold certification. Lead single Black Friday charted at no. 37. Notable guest musicians on the record included future Toto members David Paich (keyboards) and Jeff Porcaro (drums), as well as Michael McDonald on backing vocals. The Royal Scam followed in May 1976, another gold record for Steely Dan. Lead single Kid Charlemagne charted at no. 82 on the Billboard Hot 100.
In September 1977, Steely Dan released their sixth studio album Aja, the band’s best-selling record and my Steely Dan favorite. It peaked at no. 3 and no. 5 on the U.S. and U.K. charts, respectively, and became Steely Dan’s first platinum record. Ultimately, the album sold more than five million copies. It generated three singles, Peg, Deacon Blues and Josie. Here is a clip of my favorite one, Deacon Blues.
Gaucho, which came out in November 1980, was Steely Dan’s last studio release before they disbanded in June 1981 and went on a 20-year recording hiatus. Becker and his family moved to Maui where he became sober from drug use and eventually started working as a record producer. Fagen went on to launch a solo career. While the recording of Gaucho was impacted by various personal and professional challenges, the album was mostly well received, peaking at no. 9 on the U.S. album chart and reaching Platinum certification. The record includes the classic Hey Nineteen, which became the lead single climbing to no. 10 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Between 1981 and 1993, Becker produced records for various artists, including Rickie Lee Jones, Michael Franks and Fra Lippo Lippi. He also became involved with the band China Crisis. Becker is listed a member of the band on their third studio album Flaunt the Imperfection. While Fagen and Becker had a couple of one-off collaborations in-between, they resumed their official partnership in 1993 when they toured as Steely Dan for the first time in 13 years.
Becker also produced Fagan’s second solo album Kamakiriad, which appeared in May 1993. In turn, Fagan became the co-producer of Becker’s 1994 solo debut 11 Tracks of Whack. Here is a clip of one of the record’s tunes, Lucky Henry, which features some great guitar work.
While Becker and Fagan continued Steely Dan tours, it took them until 2000 before they released a new album, Two Against Nature. It was a successful recording comeback, peaking at no. 6 on the Billboard 200, and scoring four Grammy awards and Platinum certification in the U.S. One of the Grammy awards was the record’s lead single Cousin Dupree, which won Best Performance by a Pop Duo or Group with Vocal.
The final Steely Dan studio album Everything Must Go appeared in June 2003. While the record received mixed reviews, it reached no. 9 on the Billboard 200. Here is a clip of the title track.
Following the album’s release, Steely Dan continued to tour frequently. At the same time, Becker and Fagan occasionally released solo albums without involvement of the other partner. Becker’s second and final such record Circus Money appeared in June 2008. Here’s a clip of Bob Is Not Your Uncle Anymore, a tune with a nice reggae groove.
Following are excerpts from a statement Fagen posted on his Facebook page about his long-time music partner: “Walter Becker was my friend, my writing partner and my bandmate since we met as students at Bard College in 1967…We liked a lot of the same things: jazz (from the twenties through the mid-sixties), W.C. Fields, the Marx Brothers, science fiction, Nabokov, Kurt Vonnegut, Thomas Berger, and Robert Altman films come to mind. Also soul music and Chicago blues…[Becker] was smart as a whip, an excellent guitarist and a great songwriter. He was cynical about human nature, including his own, and hysterically funny…I intend to keep the music we created together alive as long as I can with the Steely Dan band.”
Sources: Rolling Stone, Uncut, Billboard, Wikipedia, Donald Fagen Facebook page, YouTube