In the final part of my 1974 MM story about Steely Dan, Becker and Fagen talk about other bands, not always admiringly...
It was The Beatles, Bob Dylan and Rolling Stones who shifted Fagen’s and Becker’s allegiance to rock and roll. They admit to being heavily influenced by The Beatles, and approve of the ongoing nostalgia for the music of the sixties, a period they consider to be the most creative in rock music.
“It was exciting and it was new, but the funny thing is it wasn’t really new, it was just a different approach,” says Becker. “The Rolling Stones... they were all derived from rhythm and blues which came from black America. It was fun and that was most important.”
Both admit to being ardent Dylan fans too, but they were disappointed with Planet Waves and neither particularly wanted to see Dylan on his recent US tour. “That album pales compared to Highway 61. It’s like a joke,” says Fagen. “It’s probably better than other people’s albums, but it’s not what a Bob Dylan album used to be. I could count on buying a Dylan album and wearing it out. There was a good year’s worth of introspective thinking involved with a new Dylan release, but now...”
They have equally forthright views on today’s rock scene which they consider to be based totally on commercialism. “It always has been, but never more so than now,” says Fagen. “It just happened that in the sixties there were bands that came up one after the other with original ideas, but now everyone seems to be copying each other. I never seem to hear anything new.
“The last thing I heard that was really and truly new was the first Band album. The second was good too but after that you could chuck them out of the window.”
Their explanation for the success of British bands in America is simple: “The American people love to hear an English accent.”
“In addition to that the English bands seem to have a flair for a certain type of presentation that was exciting when it first came out.” says Becker. “Groups like The Who put on the kind of show that American bands would never do.”
“But it is true that the American people are inexplicably attracted by the English accent,” says Fagen. “It’s alien and it’s exotic and they never seem to get used to it. Even I think that. There’s a lot of English acts could fill, say, Madison Square Garden, but there’s very few of them I would go and see. It’s ironic that an English band will come out playing the blues and the blues started in America.”
“I will begrudgingly admit that English bands are more polished performers. Their recordings are more carefully made and even the bad ones sound kinda good to me somehow. They’re better than their American counterparts and I can’t understand how that is,” says Becker.
The conversation turned to a general discussion on which groups they did and didn’t like. In general they dislike rock groups, especially the “new wave” of bands that slot into the glitter category. Their most hated group of all appears to be Slade. “How they ever managed to get enough money together to come here and tour is a miracle,” says Becker.
Uriah Heep is another band whose popularity amazes them, along with Deep Purple and Black Sabbath. “Black Oak Arkansas is an American band who imitate that kind of music and they’re absolute trash,” says Fagen. “I can’t listen to them. Even if I might enjoy the visual thing, I couldn’t possibly stay in a room and listen.”
“I like Johnny Dankworth,” says Becker, “and Tubby Hayes. That’s where it’s at for us. We like all jazz.”
“The more complex groups like Yes, or Jethro Tull or Emerson Lake & Palmer are more interesting, but I’ve yet to hear one of those groups that seemed to have developed into anything more than quick changes and super niceties.
“Yes is a very polished group, but I don’t particularly like their music,” says Fagen. “Their music doesn’t seem to hold together. We might be prejudiced because we like short songs and they like long songs. It has a sort of artificial sound, though, like it was put together deliberately to appear complicated.
“A lot of those groups seem to me as if they picked up on Frank Zappa many years ago. Zappa puts a lot of complex things together which probably don’t make much sense but he looks at it with such a comical eye and the English bands don’t think it’s funny. They take it very seriously.
“We don’t consider ourselves too serious about the music. We enjoy ourselves. I’ve been to see about five rock concerts in the last five years and most of them have been Frank Zappa concerts. I’d go to see the Gil Evans Big Band or Thelonious Monk. We’re really out of it as far as rock is concerned. It’s too loud. I’d go to see Joni Mitchell. She uses interesting chords.”
“You wouldn’t go see Joni Mitchell,” snapped Becker.
“Ok. I might not go see her live, but I have bought Joni Mitchell records,” Fagen corrected. “Her voice terrifies me.”