My Playlist: Steely Dan

Together with a handful of other bands and artists I’ve dug for many years, I couldn’t think of a better group to dedicate the first playlist of 2021 than to the amazing Steely Dan. While I’ve covered them on previous occasions, this is the first time I’ve put together a career-spanning playlist.

Before getting to some music, as usual, I’d like to provide a bit of background, for which I’m going to borrow from previous posts. The original masterminds behind Steely Dan, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, first met in 1967 as students at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y. Fagen was impressed with Becker’s guitar skills. They soon discovered they liked similar music and decided to write songs together. They also started playing together in various local bands.

The seeds for Steely Dan were sown in the summer of 1970, when Fagen and Becker responded to a Village Voice ad by guitarist Denny Dias, looking for a “bassist and keyboard player with jazz chops.” Becker was playing bass at the time and would switch to the electric guitar later. When they met Dias, Becker and Fagen had already written a good amount of original music.

Donald Fagan & Walter Becker
Walter Becker (left) and Donald Fagen

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 each of the band’s following seven studio albums: Countdown To Ecstasy (1973), Pretzel Logic (1974), Katy Lied (1975), The Royal Scam (1976), Aja (1977) and Gaucho (1980).

Steely Dan: The Very Best Of | Music | Entertainment | Express.co.uk
Steely Dan in 1972 (from left): Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter, Walter Becker, David Palmer, Denny Dias, Donald Fagen and Jim Hodder

In June 1981, Fagen and Becker disbanded 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.

In 1993, Fagen and Becker reunited for an American tour in support of Fagen’s second studio album Kamakiriad, which had appeared in May that year and had been produced by Becker. While Fagen and Becker continued Steely Dan tours, it took until February 2000 before their next new album Two Against Nature appeared. One more album followed: Everything Must Go from June 2003.

UPDATED] Walter Becker Estate Issues Statement Regarding Donald Fagen  Lawsuit
Walter Becker (left) and Donald Fagen

After the release of Fagen’s third solo album Morph the Cat in March 2006, Steely Dan resumed regular touring. At the same time, Becker and Fagan occasionally released solo albums without involvement of the other partner. On September 3, 2017, Becker passed away from esophageal cancer at the age of 67.

At the time of Becker’s death, Donald Fagen said on his Facebook page, “I intend to keep the music we created together alive as long as I can with the Steely Dan band.” And that’s exactly what he has been doing until COVID-19 hit. I was fortunate to see him twice in 2018 and wrote about it here and here. I’m currently scheduled to see him again open air in early July together with Steve Winwood – keeping fingers crossed. Time for some music!

I’d to kick things off with the aforementioned Dallas, Steely Dan’s first single. Like all tracks in this post, the song was co-written by Donald Fagen and Walter Becker. Sung by drummer Jim Hodder, the county-flavored tune was not included on Steely Dan’s debut album but appeared in 1978 on a compilation titled Steely Dan.

Perhaps my favorite early Dan tune is the rocker Reelin’ In the Years, which first appeared on the band’s debut album Can’t Buy a Thrill from November 1972. It also became the album’s second single in March 1973. The song’s kickass guitar solo was played by session musician Elliott Randall, which none other than Jimmy Page called his favorite guitar solo of all time.

Countdown to Ecstasy, Steely Dan’s sophomore release from July 1973, was the band’s first album without vocalist David Palmer that saw Donald Fagen sing lead on every tune. Here’s the album’s second single My Old School. While the record didn’t have a hit and couldn’t match the debut’s chart success, it was well received by critics at the time, and My Old School became a fan favorite.

Pretzel Logic, Dan’s third studio album released in February 1974, was the last to feature the full core lineup of Fagen, Becker, Dias, Baxter and Hodder. It also included contributions from many prominent LA musicians, such as future Toto members David Paich (piano, keyboards) and Jeff Porcaro (drums), then-Poco bassist and vocalist Timothy B. Schmit (backing vocals) who would later join the Eagles, and session bassist Chuck Rainey. Here’s opener Rikki Don’t Lose That Number, which also became the lead single in April 1974.

By the time Steely Dan’s next album Katy Lied came out in March 1975, most of their original members had left. The band essentially became Becker and Fagen who continued to hire top-notch musicians to support their recording sessions. In addition to Paich and Porcaro, the latter included Rick Derringer and Michael McDonald. Katy Lied also became the first Dan album to feature amazing session guitarist Larry Carlton. Here’s Doctor Wu. The alto saxophone solo was played by jazz saxophonist Phil Woods.

Next up: Kid Charlemagne, the lead single from The Royal Scam, Steely Dan’s fifth studio album. Both appeared in May 1976. The funky tune features the above noted Larry Carlton whose guitar solo was ranked #80 in Rolling Stone’s list of The 100 Greatest Guitar Songs in May 2008. I also dig Chuck Rainey’s bass work on that tune.

This brings me to Aja, which to me is Steely Dan’s Mount Rushmore. Released in September 1977, this album is pure perfection. While I could have selected any track, I simply couldn’t ignore my all-time favorite Dan tune: Deacon Blues. Even after having listened to it countless times, I still get excited about this song. I think it represents a perfect blend of jazz, pop and rock, and I love the smooth sound. BTW, Becker played bass on this one. But the real standout are the horns.

Steely Dan’s next album Gaucho from November 1980 proved to be a huge challenge to make, which ultimately resulted in the above breakup in June 1981. Driven by Fagen’s and Becker’s perfectionism, the recording sessions used at least 42 musicians and took more than a year. In January 1980, Becker’s girlfriend Karen Roberta Stanley died of a drug overdose at his home. Her family subsequently brought a $17.5 million lawsuit, charging he had introduced her to drugs. The case was settled out of court. Shortly after Stanley’s death, Becker was hit by a taxi shattering his right leg. During his six-month recovery, he and Fagen collaborated via phone. Here’s the album’s lead track Babylon Sisters.

February 2000 saw the release of Two Against Nature, Fagen’s and Becker’s first new Steely Dan studio album in 20 years since Gaucho. It became one of their most successful albums. In addition to earning a Platinum certification in the U.S., Two Against Nature won four Grammy Awards in 2001, including Album of the Year. Here’s the groovy Cousin Dupree, which won Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal.

The last tune I’d like to call out is the title track of Steely Dan’s ninth studio album Everything Must Go, the final with Walter Becker, released in June 2003. I think Apple Music correctly notes the lyrics sound like the song is a permanent sign-off: Guess it’s time for us to book it/Talk about the famous road not taken/In the end we never took it/And if somewhere on the way/We good a few good licks in/No one’s ever gonna know/Cause we’re goin’ out of business/Everything must go.

If Everything Must Go indeed signaled Steely Dan’s final studio album, it wasn’t a total sign-off. Fagen and Becker continued to tour as Steely Dan almost every year thereafter until 2017. Becker’s final performance was on May 27 that year at the Greenwich Town Party in Greenwich, Conn.

Steely Dan have sold more than 40 million albums worldwide. They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in March 2001. In December 2015, Rolling Stone ranked Steely Dan at No. 15 on its list of 20 Greatest Duos of All Time.

Sources: Wikipedia; Apple Music; YouTube

Another Turkey Day Brings Another Rock & Roll Radio Marathon

I’m not much of a radio guy, not even in the car, where despite having access to Sirius XM, I prefer listening to music from my streaming provider most of the time. An exception for the past few years has been a massive four and a half-day countdown of songs New York classic radio station Q104.3 does around each Thanksgiving. Ingeniously, they call it the Top 1043 Classic Rock Songs of All Time.

To come up with the list, the station asks listeners to submit their top 10 songs in no particular order, which each counting as one vote. They then tally the submissions, determine the 1043 songs with the most votes, and play all of them in one shot, starting with the tune that got the least votes. The only interruption happens at noon on Thanksgiving, when they play Arlo Guthrie classic Alice’s Restaurant in its entire 18 minutes plus. The whole thing lasts from 1:00 pm ET on Wednesday prior to Thanksgiving until sometime on Sunday evening after the holiday!

Q104.3 Countdown

This year marks the 19th annual annual countdown. Wow, that’s what I call devotion – and smart marketing/audience engagement! Remarkably, each year Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven has been the most popular song. And while the station does not reveal actual vote totals, the hosts have said in the past the tune has always won by many votes.

Don’t get me wrong, I dig Stairway – big time. In fact, if I could only choose one rock song, it probably would be that Zep classic, even though The Beatles generally remain my all-time favorite band. There are other tunes that usually make the top 10, such as Hey Jude and Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody. Again, there’s nothing wrong with these songs and I like them as well.

But the recurrence of the above tracks makes the countdown predictable. To me this means it’s not as much fun as it could be. As I noted before, I think it’s time to shake things up a bit. Following is the set of tunes I submitted. I almost would have forgotten about it and literally did so at 3:00 am this morning when I went to the bathroom and remembered – okay, call me a loony! Here are my choices in no particular order.

Of course, it’s unlikely my selections will change much if anything. On the other hand it’s like elections. If everybody thought they couldn’t impact the outcome, nobody would vote. And that would indeed guarantee that nothing would ever change! So here’s to hoping for a new number one this year. How about Hey Jude?😆

Sources: Q104.3 website; Wikipedia; YouTube

 

 

 

The Crimson Tide Sways The Beacon During Night Of The Expanding Man

Steely Dan shine with special performance of Aja album and other gems

Usually, I don’t see the same music act twice in just three months, even if I dig them. There are so many other artists on my list, plus ticket prices nowadays would simply make this unaffordable. But while I was still raving about a Steely Dan show I caught in July (see review here) I learned about their October residency at The Beacon Theatre in New York City. And when I noticed it would include a special performance of my all-time favorite Steely Dan album Aja, I immedeidately knew I wouldn’t want to miss it – especially after the summer gig had convinced me that Donald Fagen is still on top of his game contrary to some less than flattering reviews I had read. Finally, Thursday night, it was time for the expanding man, and what a night it was!

To start with, I had never been to The Beacon Theatre, even though I’m a longtime music fan and would have had plenty of opportunity for the past 20 years or so – I can’t quite explain why! When I mentioned it to my friendly seat neighbors and huge Steely Dan fans – a dad and his son who had come all the way from England to see this show and another special performance tonight of Donald Fagen’s first solo album The Nighfly, the dad jokingly said, ‘you must have been very busy.’

Beacon Theatre Interior

He certainly had a point. After all, this beautiful historic venue (pictured above) on Manhattan’s Upper East Side has featured many top-notch acts over the decades, perhaps most notably The Allman Brothers Band. For about two decades, the southern blues rockers had a residency there each spring. I actually recall that in ca. 1998, a former colleague and Brothers fan told he was going to see them there.

This brings me to another dark issue of my music past – gee, this starts feeling a bit like I’m writing a confession! At the time my former colleague told me about the above Brothers show, Ramblin’ Man was pretty much all I knew about the band. It really wasn’t until three years ago or so that I explored The Allman Brothers Band I greater depth and quickly became a fan – luckily in time to at least see them once in an unforgettable performance, though not at the Beacon but at PNC Bank Arts Center in Central New Jersey. Well, to both I say better late than never, plus you can’t change the past! On the show.

An excellent jazz trio featuring organ (Hammond), guitar and drums opened the night. Unfortunately, I didn’t catch their name. While I don’t mind listening to jazz, I wouldn’t call myself a fan. So how come I like Steely Dan you might ask? Well, because jazz is just one aspect of their music, albeit an important one, especially on Aja. Perhaps more importantly, music taste isn’t always rational. Regardless how I usually feel about jazz, these three guys really grabbed me. I guess Donald Fagen, who is known for being a perfectionist, likely wouldn’t approve of some amateurs to open his show, and amatuers these guys were definitely not! And that I can easily get mesmerized by the mighty sound of a Hammond also didn’t hurt. When that organ player held the keys in the vibrato setting and the air in the place started to pulsate, I just got goosebumps – I could have listened to him all night!

Steely Dan_Aja

Finally, the time has come to get to Steely Dan. The first half of their set was reserved for the Aja album, which the band performed in its entirety, following the order of the tracks on the studio recording. The remainder of the show featured select gems from other Dan records, one track from The Nightfly, as well as a couple of covers. The full set list is here. The song collection was really a treat for Steely Dan fans!

Released in September 1977 as their sixth studio album, Aja remains the crown jewel in Dan’s catalog, in my opinion. Like for most of their records, all tracks were written by Donald Fagen and Walter Becker. Fagen and his top-notch band did an outstanding job capturing Aja’s rich sound in all of its glory. Following are a few clips. Light conditions proved to be challenging, and some of the footage is out of focus, but I’d be amiss not to include some of it – sue me if I write too long!

First up: My all-time favorite Steely Dan tune, which they didn’t play back in July.

…Learn to work the saxophone/I play just what I feel/Drink Scotch whiskey all night long/And die behind the wheel/They got a name for the winners in the world/ I want a name when I lose/They call Alabama the Crimson Tide/Call me Deacon Blues…

Next is Home At Last. Love the groove of that song. Check out the mighty four-piece horn section and the beautful backing vocals by The Danettes – it’s just perfect!

And here is the album’s closer Josie. As a former bass player, I’ve always loved the cool bassline on that tune. You may need more than my crappy labtop speakers to fully hear it!

Following are a few clips from the concert’s second half. First up: The epic Hey Nineteen from Gaucho, Dan’s seventh studio album released in November 1980. It was their last effort before they disbanded in June 1981 and went on a 20-year recording hiatus. One of the highlights in the clip is the extended trombone solo by Jim Pugh that starts at about 4:08 minutes.

Here’s The Goodbye Look, the above mentioned track from The Nightfly, which became Donald Fagen’s acclaimed solo debut in October 1982. Like all the other tracks on the record except for one, the tune with a laid back Caribbean groove was written by Fagen.

And, since all things must pass, the last song I’d like to highlight is Reelin’ In The Years. I simply couldn’t skip this classic from Steely Dan’s November 1972 debut Can’t Buy A Thrill, even though I also featured it my previous post about the July gig. I just love the great guitar work by Jon Herrington and the cool drum solo by Keith Carlock. These guys are just top-notch, demonstrating how great music can sound like! I think it’s also nice to see the traditionally reserved Fagen get animated after the end of the drum solo.

After repeatedly raving about the band, I’d like to acknowledge the members. As far as I could tell, the lineup was the same than during the aforementioned summer gig: Apart from Herrington, Carlock, Pugh and obviously Fagen, it included Freddie Washington (bass), Walt Weiskopf (tenor sax), Roger Rosenberg (baritone sax), Michael Leonhart (trumpet) and The Danettes (backing vocals): La Tanya Hall, Catherine Russell & Carolyn Leonhart.

Steely Dan Collage
Current lineup of Steely Dan: Upper row (left to right): Jon Herington (guitar), Freddie Washington (bass), Keith Carlock (drums), Walt Weiskopf (tenor sax) and Roger Rosenberg (baritone sax). Lower row (left to right): Jim Pugh (trombone), Michael Leonhart (trumpet) and The Danettes La Tanya Hall, Catherine Russell & Carolyn Leonhart. Far right: Donald Fagen

In addition to the above noted show tonight, Steely Dan’s residency at The Beacon Theatre has six more dates: Oct 21: By Popular Demand: An Audience Request Night Determined By Fan Voting; Oct 24: Performing Countdown To Ecstasy Plus Select Hits; Oct 26: Performing Gaucho Plus Select Hits; Oct 27: Performing Aja Plus Select Hits (let’s pretend I didn’t see this!); Oct 29: Performing Nightfly And Select Hits; and Oct 30: Performing Greatest Hits. Afterwards, it appears Steely Dan is taking a break before resuming touring in the U.K. and Ireland in February 2019.

If you’re a fan and can make it, I’d say go and see them. And, did I mention it’s a great opportunity to visit one of New York’s iconic performance venues?

Sources: Wikipedia, Setlist.fm, Steely Dan website, YouTube