This is happening all too regularly for my liking. We aren’t at 2016 levels of musical deaths yet by any means. Perhaps it is the dawning that those who were breaking musical boundaries in the sixties and seventies are now in their sixties and seventies.
And now it is Walter Becker’s turn.
Steely Dan are one of those divisive bands. As a couple of nerdy musos, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen were never going to be competing with the rock gods like Zeppelin and the Who. They hadn’t got the edge of Lou and Iggy. They didn’t possess the good looks of the Eagles. Their music sounded best wafting over the FM airwaves or coming out of an expensive piece of audio equipment.
But boy were they good. They were the kids that learned to read and write properly, no mucking around. They had their chops and they were hot. They loved their r’n’b and doo-wop and loved their jazz too.
I can come back to pretty much any Steely Dan album at any given moment and get something out of it that I hadn’t heard before. It may be a musical nuance from one of the plethora of skilled crew that put their LPs together. It could be another meaning from one of their sardonic dry lyrics. It might be a melodic flight of fancy that revealed itself anew. But I didn’t have to be in the mood for them. I was always in the mood for them.
Yet in many ways I wasn’t a fan. Their best years were behind them by the time I was old enough to get that they weren’t an AOR/MOR act. Until recently I had only ever bought two of their LPs.
The first was a tape that I picked up in Liverpool at university. It was effectively a double best of LP and I think I was swayed by a) the value for money aspect and b) the sexy blonde Cali girl on the cover.
When the CD repackaging era took off, I bought the insanely good value (there’s a theme here) box set Citizen Dan. It contained every one of their prime era albums on CD, although each album was added to the end of the previous, sometimes splitting albums across individual CDs. I dutifully sat and loaded them on to my iPod years later, grateful that I had the chance to create the albums again on my computer.
In the meantime, though I devoured the music but knew little about the people behind it. Last year I read Donald Fagen’s “Eminent Hipsters” book and was little the wiser as to the deal Don.
Walter Becker I knew diddly about and it is with sadness on the day of his passing that this remains the truth.
The point with Steely Dan was that the music did all the talking. There was no real need to get beneath the surface because there was so much depth in their records that they could just sustain repeated listening. The music was rich and varied. The rhythms complex but accessible.
I’ve treated myself in the last year to a couple of audiophile version of “Aja” and “Gaucho”. They are just a dream to listen to on a decent music system but there’s a bit of grit there too. This is music from the dark side, yet the sophisticated way it is presented subverts the sheen. It may be perfect for cruising the Pacific highway but there’s a car wreck waiting around the bend.
Try not tapping along to the introduction of “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” (years later I realised that the introduction was a wholesale lift from Horace Silver’s “Song For My Father”). Try those harmonies “Deacon Blues” – heavenly. Forget the lame Scottish band that nicked the name. That wasn’t Donald and Walter’s fault. Jeff “Skunk” Baxter’s soloing on “Reelin’ In The Years” was a Whistle Test staple – air guitars a go-go.
I’ve got a couple of Dan biographies that I’ve been meaning to read on my bookshelf. They’ll fill in the missing details, no doubt. I’ll continue to listen to their albums, probably more than anyone else from that era with the exception of David Bowie and Stevie Wonder.
I may just make myself a mix tape up of the songs on that blonde on the cover cassette too.
But in the meantime, here’s that Whistle Test clip.
<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/185466932″>Steely Dan- Reelin’ In The Years live</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/steelydan”>Steely Dan Archives</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a>.</p>
If anyone hasn’t heard their LPs, I’d recommend them all unreservedly, even “Gaucho”. Are they cool? Well of course they aren’t. Or maybe they are? Maybe they just didn’t give a shit and created probably the most adult pop music of the seventies.
Either way, I’m pretty damned sad that Walter’s gone.
“And I ain’t ever going back to my old school”