Walter Becker 1950– Donald Fagen 1948–
Becker and Fagen write and record songs for the group Steely Dan. Because of their use of satire and complex imagery, their writing style has been compared to that of William Burroughs, from whose novel Naked Lunch the name Steely Dan derives. In their songs, Becker and Fagen comment on failed romances, drugs, revelations, and character transformations. Many critics feel that the songs of Becker and Fagen are self-consciously intellectual and that their style is the antithesis of the simple lyrics and elaborate stage shows prevalent in 1970s rock and roll.
Steely Dan's debut album, Can't Buy a Thrill, includes the hit songs "Do It Again" and "Reelin' in the Years." Their next few albums are characterized by rueful irony and increasingly obscure lyrics. With The Royal Scam, however, Becker and Fagen's lyrics became easier to understand. The songs are about ordinary people trapped by crime and sexual passion, and the album has been referred to by Kenneth Tucker as "the ultimate 'outlaw' album." The songs on Aja use relatively few words to say as much as possible. They deal with relationships and breakdowns in communication between the narrator and numerous women.
Becker and Fagen describe Steely Dan as "more a concept than rock band" because they do not perform in concert or record with a specific group of musicians. Even so, their distinctively polished sound and elusive lyrics have gained for them a wide following among the pop music audience.
Steely Dan may be too good for its own good. The rock audience seems rather content lately to stagnate in its own shallow pool of pompous British art-rockers, somnabulistic middle-class folk-poets, and infantile southern boogie bands, while it waits lethargically with glitter on its eyelashes for the Beatles to regroup. Into this mess springs Steely Dan, with its short, lucid, offbeat melodies and literate, semi-obscure but meaningful lyrics. They're bound to either take off completely or become cult heroes….
[There] is much to be reckoned with on Pretzel Logic, all of it smooth, elegant, and unacceptable only to those with the most neanderthal of commercial ears….
[The] lyrical style of the band is cynically, sarcastically appropriate to the '70s. While not totally opaque, the words demand careful attention and some thought. More often than not, the visions they project are jaundiced and bleak. But the lyrics are also well-written; they use the language intelligently, which is all too rare these days.
Pretzel Logic presents us with a band that has much to say, and they say it with grace, wit, intelligence, and economy. Hopefully, the album has the power to place Steely Dan once again in that rare group whose work has artistic resonance, subtlety, and depth, as well as the ability to appeal to a vast audience.
Chuck Mitchell, in his review of...
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Steely Dan is the most improbable hit-singles band to emerge in ages. On its three albums, the group has developed an impressionistic approach to rock & roll that all but abandons many musical conventions and literal lyrics for an unpredictable, free-roving style…. Pretzel Logic is an attempt to make complete musical statements within the narrow borders of the three-minute pop-song format….
This band is never conventional, never bland.
And neither is its material. Despite the almost arrogant impenetrability of the lyrics …, the words create an emotionally charged atmosphere, and the best are quite affecting. While it's disconcerting to be stirred by language that resists comprehension, it's still difficult not to admire the open-ended ambiguity of the lyrics.
But along with Pretzel Logic's private-joke obscurities (like the made-up jargon on "Any Major Dude Will Tell You" and "Through With Buzz"), there are concessions to the literal: "Rikki Don't Lose That Number" makes sense as a conventional lover's plea, while "Barrytown" takes a satirical look at class prejudice. But each has an emotional cutting edge that can't be attributed directly to its viewpoint or story. As writers, Fagen and Becker may be calculating, but they aren't cold.
Bud Scoppa, "Stainless Steely Band," in Rolling Stone (by Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc. ©...
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Steely Dan is about, among other things, connection. It's the 3,000-mile live wire buzzing between 60s New England school days and 70s Laurel Canyon Showbiz, steel handcuffs linking jazz with pop, the Archies with William Burroughs, a shifting patchwork of vindictiveness and tenderness. Connection on all levels, deliberate and wildly accidental….
There are more, and shorter, songs [on Pretzel Logic] than on Countdown to Ecstasy, and while those maddening, fascinating references to private people, places and events still crop up, the overall feeling of the lyrics is significantly less obscure. The Dan evokes and suggests, yet the songs always feel complete and direct…. They seem confident that whatever you create out of what they suggest is going to hit the intended targets. The lushness of the music is tempered by their incomparable dry wit.
Though there's an uncharacteristic lack of import in some of the tunes ("Parker's Band," "With a Gun") and unexpected mellowness in others ("Any Major Dude Will Tell You," "Rikki Don't Lose That Number"), it's the moments in which Walter Becker and Donald Fagen lash out from quicksand insecurity that remain the metallic heart of Steely Dan. "Through with Buzz" is one of the best….
Another peak is "Charlie Freak," the story of a down-and-out denizen of the streets who sells his precious ring to our hero, then ODs on the drugs he buys with the...
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Often, at first, [Steely Dan's] music has to be approached through a mist of murky alienation (many of their lyrical themes are negative statements) and foggy intent which gradually disperses with the warmth of repetition and recognition.
Nevertheless it's a satisfying experience for the "cleverness" of the combo is never in question yet when pure talent applies and expresses itself obliquely the results are bound to need a shade more assimilation than the normal brainless, bone-crunching rock.
The heart of Steely Dan, writers Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, draw a thin veil across their purpose, expressing lyrics vaguely, not telling the whole story…. They are toying with inaccessibility but their grasp of attractive rock is sure as the list of US hit singles—"Reeling In The Years," "Do It Again," "Rikki Don't Lose That Number"—illustrates….
"Katy Lied" doesn't have the heady impact of ["Can't Buy A Thrill"] and falls short of the masterful ["Pretzel Logic"], but like a slow unfolding tale, the album grows in stature by the play….
"Daddy Don't Live In That New York City No More" is a hoot. Sugar daddy stops messing round in Big Apple and quits. A simple, witty song….
"Everyone's Gone To The Movies," a song from 1972, is, like "Daddy," blessed by Dan's characteristic black humour…. "Any World" continues the theme of disenchantment, Dan's sure melodic...
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Steely Dan sound like a million dollars not only next to at least 26 of their coresidents of the Boss 30 when they're in it, but also in comparison to three-quarters of the stuff with which they share FM needletime….
The words, while frequently not easy to get the definite drift of, are almost always intriguing and often witty….
Why, then, do I—without the slightest intention of undermining anyone else's enthusiasm for it—find myself not caring if I ever again hear any of Steely Dan's music up to and including Katy Lied?
It has to do primarily with the fact that, however immaculately tasteful and intelligent it all may be, I personally am able to detect not the slightest suggestion of real passion in any of it….
When it comes to the words …, I feel all too frequently as though I must choose between concluding that I'm a thickhead and suspecting that the Dan lyricist either is too lazy to make his stuff penetrable or else is oblique simply to conceal the fact that, however facilely he may string together unusual and interesting images, he really hasn't much to say through them…. I can make only the wildest guess as to what Messrs. Becker and/or Fagen wanted to tell me about their perception of the world….
Steely Dan's music continues to strike me essentially as exemplarily well-crafted and uncommonly intelligent schlock....
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[Only the real Steely Dan fans listen hard enough to] know that "Reelin' In The Years" is as venomous as [Bob Dylan's] "Positively Fourth Street," or that "Do It Again" is a very black little tale about a born loser, or that "King Of The World" is, in fact, about the end of civilisation.
These are dark, even bitter, themes, and it's the special irony of this, the most ironic of rock groups, that their glossy musicianship should be a lick of paint upon a nest of Chinese boxes, in which moves intact a world so enigmatic and different in mood from the sunny image of hit-makers. Surely the disparity between their intentions and their reception by an audience is quietly enjoyed by Steely Dan's principals and cosongwriters, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, for this world of theirs is as cynical as it's brilliantly observed, a world in which they can sing, on "Black Friday," a song about a stock market crash,… or, in "With A Gun," outrageously set a jaunty, Beatlesque tune to a lyric about a psychopath.
Fagen and Becker show remarkable nerve and intelligence in their writing, which has a literary quality of coolness and detachment quite unusual in rock bands, but whose low-profile has also turned off or eluded some critics who, as American writer Robert Christgau once perceived, feel that art is dictated by Self-Expression and autobiographical imperatives. Steely Dan, on the contrary, have revealed practically nothing about...
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[The first part of this excerpt contains criticism by Michael Watts; the second part is from an interview by Michael Watts with Walter Becker and Donald Fagen.]
Donald Fagen and Walter Becker are living proof that intelligence is still regarded with suspicion in rock and roll. I confess it annoys me that they are more persistently categorised as "oddballs" and "smartasses" rather than considerable songwriters, which is what they are, because rock music and literary qualities are still held to be incompatible even by those who write about rock. Or so it seems.
Yet I suppose that, ultimately, Fagen and Becker, progenitors of Steely Dan, have only themselves to blame for insisting upon erudition and references drawn from jazz, Latin and classical music, as well as pop, whilst concealing it all beneath shiny music that can demand very little beyond an acquiescent toe unless one wishes it; for the supreme irony of Steely Dan, with whom irony as a device is second-nature, is the apparent equanimity with which they go about being most things to all men and everything to a few….
[Their] concerns are the most wide-ranging within rock writing, and have become the subjects for more interpretations than songs by any other artist since the Dylan of the period leading up to "John Wesley Harding." Not usually very specific—the most recent album, "The Royal Scam," is the least difficult of the five—they...
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With each successive album, Steely Dan's popular success and appeal become more obscured by sundry admirers' claims of abstruseness and complexity. To some it seems inevitable that the Dan will eventually produce the Finnegans Wake of rock…. Walter Becker and Donald Fagen bow to no one in the matter of composing immaculate, catchy cul-de-sacs, but it is that same immaculateness, the way the words, as impenetrable as they may appear, fit with metrical seamlessness into the melodies that makes their impenetrability of little importance to any casual listener caught up in the sound of the entire song.
That said, one must immediately note that their latest, The Royal Scam, is the Dan's most atypical record, possessing neither obvious AM material nor seductive lyrical mysteriousness….
[On The Royal Scam there] is little of the self-confident gentleness that dotted Pretzel Logic, less still of the omniscience that suffused Katy Lied. The Royal Scam is a transitional album for Steely Dan; melody dominates lyric in the sense that the former pushes into new rhythmic areas for the group … while the verbal content is clearer, even mundane, by previous Dan standards.
While Scam is certainly not a concept album, every song—with the possible exception of "The Fez"—concerns a narrator's escape from a crime or sin recently committed. Becker and Fagen have really...
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[The Royal Scam] has wormed its way into my subconscious far faster than its slightly less sharply focused precursor, Katy Lied….
Most so-called artists working in rock are reduced to self-parody after five albums, but [Becker and Fagen] refine and develop their terminally depressive vision like the true masters they are. The melodies are sharper than ever on this collection, and the lyrics somehow more direct. I've never supported the notion that they were deliberately misleading in the past, because their sub-obsession with the passage of time and its effect on relationships lend itself to the aural equivalent of, say, Last Year in Marienbad….
Here, the preoccupations are mostly contemporary, not too wide-ranging if in the future or the past, and neatly signposted: Haitian Divorce allows the stage whispered "Now we dolly back, Now we fade to black" to set the scene for a cunningly unfaithful spouse to return home; a mind-bending Californian chemist from the 1960s finds himself transmuted into obsolescence; cave paintings silently scream a message across recorded history; the fetishist pleads "Don't make me do it without the fez on" to a disco beat; a sexual victim is seduced for a pair of earrings—and, in a stately musical setting, The Royal Scam itself comes into view: a biblically phrased allegory chronicling the waves of immigrants who poured into the land of milk and...
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"Aja" sounds graceful, rounded, complete. But it is also a little dry, as if from constant refinement. The reason lies not in the familiar usurpation of technique, but in the exacting ambitions of Becker and Fagen, forever trying to integrate their jazz affections with pop appeal. For all its brilliant polish and acute sensibilities, "Aja" has less surface attraction than any other Steely Dan album.
However, although the ambience may strike some as cerebral, Steely Dan continue to work within a recognisable format of song. There is much here that I find memorable, and most of all "Deacon Blues," a relatively straightforward ballad—"languid and bitter-sweet," to borrow one of its own lines—that seems to be about the night-club musician as a kind of existentialist figure.
The mood is film noir…. And the chorus … is just about the most haunting they have written, with its images of roulette wheels spinning and Scotch tossed back while the saxophonist plays his own lonesome song.
Their lyrics, indeed, remain as allusive and elusive as ever. They still invite guessing games, and I would say if anything that the songs on "Aja" are about relationships, or lack of them, with women. "Black Cow" … is a put-down of a swinger or hooker. "Josie" is about the good-natured local lay. "Peg" has a sarcastic lyric about a model.
And "I Got The News" features a very clever dialogue...
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The title cut is the one song on Aja that shows real growth in Becker's and Fagen's songwriting capabilities and departs from their previous work. It is the longest song they've recorded, but it fragilely holds our attention with vaguely Oriental instrumental flourishes and lyric references interwoven with an opiated jazz flux. "Aja" may prove to be the farthest Becker and Fagen can take certain elements of their musical ambition.
Lyrically, these guys still seem to savor the role they must have acquired as stoned-out, hyperintelligent pariahs at a small Jewish college on the Hudson. Their imagery can become unintelligibly weird (Frank Zappa calls it "downer surrealism"); it's occasionally accessible but more often (as on the title song) it elicits a sort of déjà vu tease that becomes hopelessly nonsensical the more you think about it. Focus your attention on the imagery of a specific phrase, then let it fade out….
The last album, The Royal Scam, was the closest thing to a "concept" album Steely Dan has done, an attempt to return musically to New York City, with … a fascination with grim social realism. The farthest Aja strays from the minor joys and tribulations of the good life in L.A. are the dreamy title cut and "Josie," which hints ominously about a friendly welcome-home gang-bang. The melodramatic "Black Cow" is about love replaced by repulsion for a woman who starts getting too strung...
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They all look alike. The casings are always bland. The sauce, however tasty, is an afterthought. What matters is what's inside, and by the time you know if it's any good, the dumpling is gone.
Steely Dan—Walter Becker and Donald Fagen—do nothing unself-consciously. So it's entirely likely that in "Glamour Profession" on their new album, Gaucho, the coke dealer chooses Szechuan dumplings as celebratory chow in an offhand metaphor for Becker and Fagen's songwriting. With Gaucho's seven songs—which, in the first few plays but not thereafter, tend to sound alike—the casings are the adult-contemporary arrangements, the sauce is the piquant solos and horn charts, and the meat—wait a minute. Is there meat in any pop song?
I think so, although one listener's meat is another's Twinkie. Sometimes popmakers know what the meat of a song is, sometimes not. My operational definition: it's the part that drives your friends crazy, because every time you hear it, you sing along. It can be, but isn't always, a hook; it can be an isolated moment (the scream in [The Rolling Stones's] "Gimme Shelter"), a gimmick (the auto ignition in [Roxy Music's] "Love Is the Drug"), a rhythm (the intro to [Talking Heads's] "Artists Only"), a quirk (Dylan's pauses in "Memphis Blues Again"), a lyric ("and this loneliness won't leave me alone"), and especially the combinations.
Steely Dan's catalogue offers all of...
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The thing you begin to notice, listening to Steely Dan's songs, is that no one ever answers anyone. For all the talk—and their latest album, Gaucho, is as compulsively chatty as dinnertime on death row—there's no conversation. Whoever keeps asking, "Who is that gaucho, amigo?" might as well be talking to the wall. (p. 41)
Naturally, the guy gets a little hysterical as the game goes on, but not so much so that he can't remember details—such as everything that freaky gaucho was wearing. To Steely Dan's constantly talking heads, surfaces seem very clear. It's only people who are indistinct: shadow figures, possibly hallucinations, always unknown quantities.
But sometimes that's a godsend. In "Hey Nineteen," the satire is straightforward enough. Between a thirty-five-year-old's nostalgia and a nineteen-year-old's nonchalance, there's not a lot of rapport…. Yet the composition ends in a blessedly fuzzy epiphany, with the generation gap bridged by Cuervo Gold and fine Columbian. The labels are important—Steely Dan's characters seem to know the world exclusively through brand names. These characters are the true "heads": solitarily confined intelligences who've had to order all their experience from a catalog. But oh, with the right blurring agents, not knowing can be a beautiful thing.
It's always been a problem with Steely Dan to figure out who's being ironic about whom: Walter Becker and...
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