STEELY DAN - My 1974 Interview with Becker & Fagen

At work this week I’m dealing with an updated edition of Steely Dan: Reelin’ In The Years by Brian Sweet, the only decent biography of the group ever published. To say that Brian is an aficionado of SD would be an understatement. When I first commissioned this book back in 1994 he turned up in my offices with scrapbooks full of cuttings about them and, knowing that SD didn’t exactly extend themselves when it came to self-promotion, I realised I had the right man for a difficult job. That the book has never been out of print reflects not only its attention to detail but the ongoing affection that SD continues to enjoy among lovers of classy pop music.
         As for me, I remember when Can’t Buy A Thrill landed in the Melody Maker office in early 1973. We played the hell out of it, not really knowing who Steely Dan were, only that it was a great album with some great tunes.    
        In April 1974 I interviewed Donald Fagen and Walter Becker in a hotel suite in New York. They were clever bastards, a bit down on rock and pop generally, huge jazz fans and not the easiest of interviewees. They were more interested in discussing chess than talking to me. I saw them play at the Avery Fisher Hall in NY around the same time too, supporting the Electric Light Orchestra which can’t have been much fun for them. Their set was a disaster, marred by sound problems that – as I discovered later – were the fault of ELO’s sound crew who declined to permit SD to do a sound check. Such incidents put Becker and Fagen off touring and probably explain why they retired from touring in the mid-seventies, not to return to the stage until 1993 when the potential remuneration was too good to turn down.
         Here’s the first bit of my 1974 MM interview.

Although it’s quite incidental to the story that follows, let’s begin by explaining the meaning of the term Steely Dan. It has nothing to do with music, and was never intended as a pun associated with the English folk band Steeleye Span.
         For those of you aching to be enlightened, a Steely Dan is an artificial penis. The term was adopted by author William Burroughs in his novel Naked Lunch, in which a young lady called Mary christened her three dildos Steely Dan I, II and III.
         Frank Zappa, for one, would be proud of a band who shamelessly took on such a moniker. It comes as no surprise, then, to discover that the two principal members of Steely Dan are fervent supporters of Zappa, intent on closing the gap between pop and jazz in much the same way he has tried to do.
         The Steely Dan story began in a New York College several years ago, when the two principal members, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker met and discovered a mutual interest in jazz music while the rest of the students were jiving to rock and roll.
         Today Fagen and Becker write all of Steely Dan’s material, play piano and bass respectively, arrange the music and generally share the seat of power in the five-man outfit. Fagen also takes care of the lead vocals and – again not unlike Zappa – acts as a kind of conductor when the group play live.
         Fagen and Becker began composing together at the college. Both had a formal musical education and quit to become part of Jay & The Americans, a period of their lives which they tend to skip over today. That introduced them to various influential people in the music industry and they landed a job as house writers for ABC Dunhill in Los Angeles.
         They wrote material for other artists but gradually came to the conclusion they’d do better forming a band of their own. Encouraged by their producer Gary Katz, who brought them to ABC Dunhill in the first place, they formed Steely Dan and surprised many people by having a hit with their first album. It’s been getting better ever since.
         Fagen is a tall, thin fellow with a slight hunch, probably caused through leaning over a piano for much of his life. He’s a serious musician who isn’t afraid to voice his opinions on current rock giants, for whom he has little respect. His partner Becker is pretty much the same, except that he’s short and tubby. Both would sooner spend an evening in a jazz club that at any rock concert you’d care to name.
         “Yeah, we were staff writers for ABC Dunhill, churning out songs,” says Fagen.
         “But nobody was picking them up,” says Becker.
         “We decided that being as our songs were of a conceptual nature, we needed a band, so we, er, found one,” says Fagen, who’s not a man to dwell on his past too much.
         They found Jeff Baxter, who plays guitar and pedal steel guitar, Jim Hodder, who sings and plays drums, and Dennis Dias, a second guitarist. All three are also from the East Coast, and all three had gone west to work on sessions.
         “We immediately went into the studio and did an album, simply because we didn’t have anything better to do. We weren’t doing so well as staff writers,” says Fagen. “And the record was a hit so we started going on the road. Our first few shows were pretty horrible but we’re pretty good now.”
         Becker bursts out laughing. Modesty is not one of their assets.
         “I learned music theory and harmony at music college but didn’t get as far as harsh discipline in music,” says Fagen. “I studied some orchestration and composition and definitely knew that I was going for a career in music of some kind, even though I ended up with a degree in literature. My mother was a small time night club singer.”
         “Not only that, but her married name was the same as Billie Holiday’s maiden name and that’s the kind of thing that launches a thousand careers,” chipped in Becker.
         Hits eluded Fagen and Becker at ABC, though their songs were recorded by Barbra Streisand, Jose Feliciano and John Kay. Several of their songs from the first Steely Dan album were covered, a fact that Becker explains through the album providing the best opportunity to hear what their songs sounded like in the finished version. “Deodato did a version of one song and Herbie Mann did a version of the same one,” offered Becker.
         “Yeah, we seem to be big with the lightweight jazz crowd for some reason. We didn’t write it with that kind of band in mind, just that that particular song lent itself to that kind of treatment,” says Fagen.

1 comment:

Tony Claxton said...

Hi Chris I took over from Jeff Stars back in the 70s on MM, I remember this album being played a lot in the office. Reading your blog brings those lovely 3or 4 years back . Working with the likes of Richard Williams, Max Jones, Mick Watts and yourself was something I will never forget Tony Claxton