By Gary Cordwell
Donald Fagen last night published a moving tribute to his friend, bandmate and fellow co-founder of Steely Dan, Walter Becker, whose death was announced yesterday from an unspecified illness at the age of 67. “He was as smart as a whip, an excellent guitarist and a great songwriter. He was cynical about human nature, including his own, and hysterically funny”. Not much more needs to be added, the man and the music he created are pretty much summed up right there.
The facts. Becker was born in New York in 1950. he met fellow jazz-head Fagen in 1967 and they immediately clicked and began making music together. The 7 albums they made between 1972-1980 as Steely Dan were all damn near essential and shifted upwards of 40 million units. Never, before or since, has such intellectual, complex, individual outsider music gained such universal mainstream acceptance. They hoodwinked the stiffs and inadvertently helped to create and define the sound of ‘yacht rock’…not that they’d ever wish to be associated with the scene (or any scene for that matter. To mangle a Groucho Marx quote, why would they want to be part of a scene that would have the likes of them as members?). Besides, they were always much more Woody Allen New York than sun-kissed Californian beaches.
They were the archetypal oddball outsiders, bringing jazz complexities to 70’s soft rock. They always seemed to be in on some mutual cryptic gag – you’d have to scrutinise their lyrics minutely and unravel their references to become part of the select, ultra-hip clique who ‘got it’. Even their name was hip – a reference to an enormous dildo in William Burroughs ‘Naked Lunch’. Their lyrics were wry, cynical, obtuse and surprisingly subversive – and all wrapped in a smooth, sophisticated musical shell (musical Galaxy Minstrels, if you will). They wrong-footed you, distracting you from the deep, dark weirdness at its heart. Songs were often based on fictional characters – loners, freaks, perverts, losers. Drugs and alcohol and a sense of burnt-out 70’s malaise were a recurring theme…but wrapped in shiny sophisto-pop so the straights didn’t notice.
And the music. Flawless. Chock full of unusual jazz chord changes and progressions, played by the cream of the musical crop. Becker and Fagen ditched their original 5-piece line up after album 3 and became increasingly sophisticated. They would barricade themselves in the studio for years at a time, recording and re-recording, drafting in musos and studio bods at a rate of knots – searching for that one perfect, immaculate moment of recorded sound. Their final album, ‘Gaucho’, boasted over 40 musicians and 11 engineers. The list of people on these albums is a veritable who’s who of 70’s rock and jazz – Michael McDonald, Timothy B. Schmit, Mark Knopfler, Wayne Shorter, Michael Brecker, plus most of Toto and the Blue Note record label rota. Special mention must go to Larry Carlton, whose stunning guitar work is all over the essential and oft-overlooked ‘The Royal Scam’.
‘The Dan’ reformed in the early 90’s, releasing two more critically acclaimed and Grammy winning albums and actually playing live, right up until July of this year when Becker was too ill to join them onstage. His equally brilliant solo albums and production work for others mustn’t be forgotten either. Fagen has vowed to help their music live on with the Steely Dan band for as long as he can.
Writer. Musician. God-like genius…any major dude will tell you.
RIP Walter Becker