Walter Becker – an appreciation

The passing of Walter Becker, who finally reeled in all of his years yesterday at age 67, is another one of those inevitable reminders that your youth is way way behind in the rear view mirror.
In the Autumn of 1973, I arrived, fish out of water, at the University of Manchester. In terms of music listening, i was most an under-the-bedclothes transistor radio nerd, lacking any form of stereo system, although I had listened to a fair bit of what was then being tagged as “rock music” at my friends’ houses.
The problem was, I didn’t like much of it. And when I arrived at the university and began dropping into the rooms of people in my hall of residence, I rapidly realized that musically most of them were locked into an emerging musical monoculture. That year in college, there seemed to be only four LPs in constant rotation – “Selling England by the Pound” by Genesis, “Tales from Topographnic Oceans” by Yes, “Seventh Sojourn” by the Moody Blues, and “Brain Salad Surgery” by Emerson Lake and Palmer. Somewhere in there some people were listening to Led Zeppelin and Jethro Tull, with a sprinkling of God aka Eric Clapton. But…most of the listening seemed to be dominated by bands writing long tunes stuffed full of elaborate pseudo-classical musical devices, and seriously pretentious lyrics that seemed to have been written by amateur high school poets.
Being something of an iconoclast, I rebelled. I had been marginalized in high school, and I was not about to join a herd that had shown by its behavior that they did not value differences.
I began to listen to American music off of Piccadilly Radio, which had DJs who not only shut up instead of talking over music (hooray) but who also were not afraid to step outside of the “4 bands and a couple of hangers-on” mindset.
I also found a record store in a small mall a few hundred yards from the college building named Black Sedan Records. Black Sedan was a small store tucked away in one of the corners of the mall. Most of its clientele was comprised of students from the University, but many of the visitors were musical nerds, who liked to hang out and listen to the latest LPs on the store sound system. Black Sedan’s workers had catholic taste, and also specialized in getting hold of import LPs released in the USA before they were released in Europe. At the time, the concept of simultaneous worldwide release dates for LPs did not exist except for a handful of mega-artists like Led Zeppelin. LPs by US acts would often be released in the USA first, up to 3 months ahead of the release in Europe. So, you could walk into Black Sedan and listen to music that might not be available in a UK record store for up to 3 months.
On one of my first visits to Black Sedan, I walked in and a few minutes later the counter guy put on a new LP by Steely Dan, “Countdown to Ecstasy”. I had heard “Do It Again” and “Reeling In The Years” on the radio already, and liked them. It was clear that in terms of playing and production, Steely Dan was ahead of most other bands of the period. They were also clearly prepared to do different things, as evidenced by the jazz-like electric sitar solo on “Do It Again”.
So, out of the speakers came “Bodhisattva”, seemingly a fast 12 bar blues, but not quite, the third part of the 12 modulated differently. Then, after the lyrics, which were clearly a dig at Eastern mysticism, was a jazz guitar solo. The play-out section was not the same as the rest of the tune, and it led to a shambolic sounding ending in a pile of cacophony that almost seemed like a parody of a bad rock band’s last live set tune ending.
Then, after the discord and bombast, along came “Razor Boy“. A jazz samba, with acoustic bass and Latin percussion, and dancing vibes, but with sinister lyrics sung in sweet harmony (“Will you still have a song to sing/When the Razor Boy comes and takes your fancy things away”). Then, out of nowhere, a pedal steel guitar began to accompany and solo, using jazz-based voicings instead of the usual wailing and sliding “my baby done left me” country music sound.
I was hooked.
I had been subverted by Steely Dan.
Steely Dan were, in hindsight, a unique band that partly provided the missing link between classical 20th century pop music, jazz, and Bob Dylan. Dylan had expanded the lyrical canon of songwriting beyond where it had been, tackling all manner of human subjects and social issues. However, Dylan was not really a singer, he was a vocalist, sometimes shaky and off key, and his songwriting approach was, compared to professional pop songwriters, rudimentary. Nobody was going to confuse his sense of harmony and musical structure with that of, say, Burt Bacharach. However, Bacharach also could not have written “Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right”.
Steely Dan’s approach to songwriting, while seemingly revolutionary, was mostly rooted in classical structure, as this excellent piece from Tom Moon explains. Donald Fagen once said in an interview “classical song structure is extremely serviceable” and Steely Dan were quite happy to use it when it suited them.
However, it became early on in their writing careers that they were not, unlike Bacharach, going to be able to churn out hits for others, because, as Becker noted, “the lyrics always turned left in the middle of a song”. Steely Dan’s songs were often populated by…weird characters. Mixed in with the love songs (and yes, Steely Dan did write love songs, listen to “Rose Darling”), were songs about desperate gamblers (“Do It Again”), depression (“Any Major Dude Will Tell You”), drug dealers left high and dry by changes in fashion (“Kid Charlemagne”), seedy divorces and affairs (“Haitian Divorce”), and sad forty-something men attempting to date the Newer Model (“Hey Nineteen”).
Many of the Steely Dan song characters were fringe, alienated in some way from mainstream society. This reflected Becker and Fagen’s own upbringings. Both men were children of the Cold War, a dislocating time, when Americans were taught to live in perpetual fear of, as Fagen would write in his solo tune “New Frontier”, the Reds pushing the button down. They grew up feeling alienated from many things that were part of mainstream America. Today they would be nerds, but at the time the word did not exist. Like nerds, they lived in their heads, read books extensively, smoked pot, and expressed themselves through writing songs that often started out like pop songs, but then suddenly exploded into sharp stories about weird people, with jazz instrumentation and sophisticated modulations of keys and structure.
In many ways, Steely Dan’s choice of subjects for their songs was analogous to the approach of Spike Milligan’s writing approach for The Goon Show, where, not being a professional comedy writer who had written for others, he would quite cheerfully write a 30 minute show comprised of a single sketch with multiple oddball characters, surreal plot lines and elaborate jokes within the plot. Milligan, probably not coincidentally, was also a jazz musician.
Steely Dan also, like Weather Report, soon violated the idea, cemented in the 1960s, that a band passing as a pop band was a fixed collection of musicians. Unhappy both with the travails of touring, and with the poor consistency of most of the band members, Becker and Fagen effectively dissolved Steely Dan as a touring entity in 1974, and retreated to being a studio duo, hiring musicians from a wide variety of backgrounds to suit their conception of what a song should sound like. Effectively they operated more like a jazz ensemble, where musicians would routinely play with other musicians, partly to see what would emerge.
With lots of time spent in the studio, Steely Dan recording sessions soon acquired their own mystique. Tales of entire tunes recorded with several different sets of musicians being scrapped, and multiple rejected guitar solos for tunes such as “Peg” abounded, as the duo sought something different, lightning in a bottle to uniquely adorn songs that crossed the entire spectrum of musicality from simple to complex. Eventually Steely Dan returned to touring in the 1990s after a lengthy hiatus, able to afford great musicians, and this even led to a change of mind by Becker, who over the last 15 years of his life would mention in interviews that he wanted to record quickly and not spend hundreds of hours seeking perfection, although he also admitted that this was not exactly Donald Fagen’s preferred working method.
It has always been difficult to work out who did what on Steely Dan compositions, and in interviews Becker explained that when working together, they had no formula for how to complete a Steely Dan record, with both men taking on anything and everything to get to the point where they could move on. However, it is possible to tell songs written on guitar from songs written on keyboards, due to the notes and keys used, and based on this, one can make some educated guesses. “Haitian Divorce” and “Here At The Western World” are guitar-based songs, and the use of reggae devices on the former tune leads me to suspect that it was mostly written by Walter Becker. One is left with the impression that Fagen was more attuned to melody and tunefulness, with Becker, described by Fagen as highly cynical, crafting many of the sharp, witty but sometimes cynical lyrics.
Walter Becker’s guitar playing was always initially in background. He mostly played bass on early Steely Dan LPs, until the hiring of Chuck Rainey allowed him to start playing more guitar on LPs, and slowly he emerged from the shadows to demonstrate that he had a laconic, understated but highly effective playing style, not in the least bit flash, but perfect for adding statements to the music. The best example is probably his playing on “West Of Hollywood” from the CD “Two Against Nature”. “West Of Hollywood” is a song written deliberately without a single rhyming couplet in the lyrics. It represents a microcosm of Steely Dan – a monster groove, over which an elaborate story is told, with Becker talking his way through the song on guitar before Chris Potter blows the tune apart with his frantic soloing over a progressively ascending and descending series of modulations.
Steely Dan, more than anything else, expanded the vocabulary of song in the late 20th century, and, like most pioneering musical acts, regarded genres and boundaries as a weird construct imposed from elsewhere and something to be ignored. If a superficially odd combination of instrumentation sounded good, they would try it (see the bass clarinets on “Babylon Sisters”).
So, we have lost one half of one of the best songwriting and recorded performance assembly duos of the last hundred years. Steely Dan’s real impact has been on other songwriters and musicians, who have also felt free to step out beyond the 3 minute song form with conventional instrumentation and stock “happily ever after” characters.
Thanks for the fun, Walter.

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