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Steely Dan's Walter Becker Remembered
Mof Gimmers , September 4th, 2017 15:48

Mof Gimmers looks back at the work of Steely Dan to pay tribute to Walter Becker who died recently

A playlist of some of Steely Dan's finest moments

“He was smart as a whip, an excellent guitarist and great songwriter. He was cynical about human nature – including his own – and hysterically funny.”

These words are what Donald Fagen used, when paying tribute to his Steely Dan partner Walter Becker, after his untimely passing this weekend. With a death like this, reappraisals of a band’s work are never far away. It’s hard trying to sum up a band like Steely Dan, but in the tribute above, Fagen is basically describing what Steely Dan devotees have loved about the band for so long.

They’re cynical. They play great. They’re self-deprecating. They’re hysterically funny.

In many ways, Steely Dan are the quintessential American band – they’re almost always dreaming of the silver screen, and when displaced away from their home town, they write about it best while being sarcastic and unswervingly truthful about the place they relocated to. In the Dan’s case, they went to LA, and spoke about it in a way that only a ‘foreigner’ could. They loved hating it, soaking up the weather and weirdness, while channelling a superiority complex and feelings of helpless inadequacy in equal measure.

They were attracted to the seedy underbelly of the community – junkies and depressed starlets rubbing shoulders with big time Charlies and tales of pathos. Through East Coast eyes and West Coast living, they told a story of America that people wanted to hear – that this was a fantastic, crummy, confusing place that amused their curious minds.

In many people’s eyes, Steely Dan are a high watermark for sophisticated fusion rock, melding jazz and pop, with everything in its rightful place, and the kind of musicianship that makes dads shake their heads wearily at the competition. Of course, these things are true of the band to an extent, but there’s much more going on than mere smoothitude.

This is a spiky band in sound, and on paper. Alongside some of the precise, session-man instrumentation of the group’s work, is one of the sharpest tongues in the business. In the Super Furry sampled ‘Showbiz Kids’, you can hear the one-two punch of “showbiz kids are makin’ movies of themselves, you know they don’t give a fuck about anybody else”, and “they got the shapely bods – they got the Steely Dan T-shirt”, while elsewhere, quickie dissolutions of a marriage gone bad in “congratulations this is your Haitian divorce.”

Easy listening it ain’t. Tune in to ‘Everything You Did’, there’s a line that is dripping in vinegar; “turn up the Eagles, the neighbours are listening”, which saw the Eagles themselves returning serve with a line about ‘steely knives’ in the enormously successful ‘Hotel California’. Typically, Steely Dan are on the tongue of the American conversation, albeit in a sly, subtle way.

Even when the band has radio hits of their own, they’re still doling out pathos like it’s nobody’s business. In ‘Deacon Blues’, they create the ultimate deadbeat anthem by comparing themselves to the Wake Forest Demon Deacons – a football team that only won seven games between ’72 and ’75. Compared to another team of the same period - the mighty University of Alabama championship team, who only lost two matches in that same period – Steely Dan cheerfully sing: “They got a name for the winners in the world and I want a name when I lose. They call Alabama the 'Crimson Tide'. Call me Deacon Blues."

It isn’t just overly clever, sarcastic songbooks though – musically, the band are no slouches. While there’s some great fusion, the band share as much with Earth Wind and Fire as they do The Weather Report.

With an improvisational flow as good as any jam band, that comes with its own gnarliness. Sure enough, a lot of West Coast music of the ‘70s as light and airy as a sea-breeze – but Steely Dan could wig-out with fuzz guitar, or help you throw strong drink down your neck in the club.

The famous solo in their boogie of ‘Reelin’ In The Years’ is far from ‘relaxing’ and ‘smooth’ – it’s a huge jam that really kicks the shit out of you when it reaches its apex. It’s no one-off – there’s scuzz to be found in the fantastic ‘Showbiz Kids’, ‘Bodhisattva’, and more. And when they’re more downbeat, there’s still an uneasy tension there. The idea that this band are smooth sailing is a brilliant joke in itself, be lumped in with the Yacht Rock tag as they are.

If you think of America’s nouveau riche playing ‘Sailing’ by Christopher Cross is one thing, the idea of them throwing on Steely Dan is completely another, conjuring up a picture of Fagen and Becker skulking in the corner, with their arms crossed, with Charlie Brown stormclouds gathering over their heads, while thinking: “Broadway duchess – darling, if you only knew half as much as everybody thinks you do…”.

Diminished jazz chords and suspended sevenths, or whatever it is musicologists talk about when getting excited about Steely Dan, are definitely in the mix, and so too is the air of the broken spirit of countless crack squads of session players, and a band who refused to tour for such a long time – but really, at the heart of it all is a catchy, proper pop band.

People may argue that this is a band with little regard for commerciality, but that’s a nonsense when you’re punching the air to the chorus of ‘My Old School’, ‘Rikki Don’t Lose That Number’, ‘Peg’, ‘Dirty Work’, and the scores of other songs that are anything but a chore in musical smart-arsery.

Remember – Steely Dan are a band that weren’t afraid of sending you to the dancefloor – that’s why hip hop producers loved them enough to sample from. Fagen and Becker moved in the same musical circles as Stevie Wonder and the Isley Brothers while they were in their mid-70s pomp. Go listen to ‘Josie’, ‘FM’, ‘Bad Sneakers’, and ‘Only A Fool Would Say That’, and you’ll hear a band throwing everything they love in the pot. There’s sly nods to jazz, solid party funk, New York Cuban Fania soul, doo-wop, disco, stadium rock, ‘60s girl groups, and so much more… but all passed off with their own unique way of doing things.

When you hear a Steely Dan song, you know it’s them. From the irresistible backbeats, to Fagen’s wiseguy drawl, there’s always the funk.

Yet, the band have always been lumped with this ‘difficult’ tag, which might put people off because they assume the music is the thing that will ask too many questions of a listener trying to get on with their day. If you’re in the business of pulling a song to pieces and looking into every nook-and-cranny so you can work out every motif and syncopated rhythm, sure, there’s enough cryptic crosswording you can do – but for the most part, Steely Dan are a group that never lets experimentation steamroller a good, honest hook.

Naturally, the fact that they’ve been impatient in interviews, haven’t really bothered making promotional videos, and spent years not touring their albums, and being the living embodiment of ‘it’s all about the music, maaan’, doesn’t help their image as pop-miserablists – but that’s really not the whole picture. Fact is, Steely Dan are a funny band. And often, the joke is on them, just as much as it is anyone else.

If there was going to be a reappraisal of the band, it should have been years ago. However, pop-music is a ruthless business and someone has to die to get their dues – which is exactly the kind of snide irony that Steely Dan could turn a great tale from.

Fact is, everything you’ve heard about Steely Dan is true… and it’s probably a half lie as well. That’s the fun of them – they have created so much feverish chatter over the years from die-hard fans, when really, they’re just a great band who made a stupid amount of great music.

With Becker gone, one of pop’s greatest pairs of mad professors is no more. A band named after a dildo, getting everyone all worked up. A band that never felt the need to scream like the rest of the Seventies. A body of work that is one to cherish whether you’re an head, old or new. Steely Dan – never boring; the loser’s band for life.

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