Steely Dan

  • Jazz/rock band formed in 1972 in Annandale New York by Donald Fagen (lead vocals, keyboards) and Walter Becker (guitar, backing vocals).
  • Fagen and Becker met in college in 1968. Fagen heard Becker practicing his guitar – impressed, he introduced himself and asked him if he wanted to be in a band. They discovered that they had a similar interest in music, and they began to write music together.
  • They started playing together with other local musicians – their earliest bands included Chevy Chase as their drummer.
  • After graduating, they moved to Brooklyn to try to sell their music. They had little success. They joined the band Jay and the Americans and toured for a year and half, initially making $100 a show, and later, only $50 a show. An associate of Jay and the Americans moved to Los Angeles to be a producer for ABC Records, and he hired Fagen and Becker to be songwriters. Their songs were too complex for other artists, so the producer suggested that they form their own band. The named it Steely Dan – a reference to a large steam powered dildo in the William Burrough’s novel Naked Lunch.
  • In 1972, they released their first single – Dallas, with the B-side Sail the Waterway. Sales were practically non-existent.
  • Later that year, they released their debut album, Can’t Buy a Thrill. It was well received, and had 2 hit singles – Do It Again and Reelin’ In the Years – they peaked at #6 and #11 respectively on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. I fell in love with this album soon after its release, particularly the guitar solo in Reelin’ In the Years, played by session musician Elliott Randall. It was the beginning of my 45 year infatuation with Steely Dan music.
  • At the time, Fagen was reluctant to sing live, so David Palmer initially sang lead vocals on tour. By the time that they were ready to record their second album, Countdown to Ecstasy, they recognized that Fagen could interpret the songs more effectively, and Palmer left the band.
  • Fagen greatly disliked touring – he wanted to concentrate on writing and studio recording. Their last concert to support their early music was in the summer of 1974. By then, they had released the album Pretzel Logic, which included the single Rikki Don’t Lose That Number. This album began to show signs of their deep jazz influence.
  • They began recruiting the best session musicians they could find. They became maniacal on the perfection of the quality of the music they recorded. It was common for them to record as many as 40 takes for their songs. For their 1980 album Gaucho, they used at least 42 studio musicians and 11 sound engineers for the 7 songs on the album.
  • Their jazz sound became permanent with the release of the Aja album in 1977. It included the singles Peg, Deacon Blues and Josie. 
  • The group split up in 1981. Fagen did some solo work (his album The Nightfly is one of my all-time favorite records), and Becker moved to Hawaii to become an avocado farmer.
  • In 1993, they reunited and began to tour. In 2000, they released their first studio album in 20 years – Two Against Nature. Another fabulous album, it won 4 Grammy awards, including Album of the Year.
  • Their last album, Everything Must Go, was released in 2003. Becker died in September 2017, but Fagen continues to tour today.
  • Steely Dan was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2001.
  • I  always struggle to pick “the best artist of all time.” I like to refer to my top 5 of all time. Steely Dan is in that list. They always sound much better in studio, but…here’s a clip of Reelin’ in the Years from the TV show Midnight Special

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