Reelin' in the Years
Formed by Walter Becker and Donald Fagan in 1972, Steely Dan became what Rolling Stone called "the perfect musical antiheroes for the '70s." At this month's "Classic" festivals in New York and L.A., they are sharing a stage with the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac for the first time. Click through for 22 fun facts about the jazz-rock legends who play just what they feel.
The Fateful Meeting
In 1968, Donald Fagen, an English literature major at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, was strolling by the nearby Red Balloon Café when he heard someone inside playing an electric guitar. "It sounded very professional and contemporary," recalled Fagen, who walked in and introduced himself to fellow Bard student Walter Becker. "Do you want to be in a band?"
Busted by G. Gordon Liddy
One night at Bard, police raided a party as part of a drug crackdown authorized by a local prosecutor, G. Gordon Liddy. Becker, Fagen and their girlfriends were arrested and jailed. The experience sparked the 1973 song "My Old School." Liddy later joined the Nixon administration and, in a delicious twist of crime and karma, was arrested for his role in the Watergate scandal and spent nearly five years in prison.
The Jazz Age
As a teenager in the early '60s, Donald Fagen was obsessed with jazz and late-night radio, later the inspirations for his first solo album, 1982's "The Nightfly." He often took the bus from his home in suburban New Jersey to New York, where he would make his way to the Village Vanguard in Greenwich Village for performances by legends like Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk and Sonny Rollins.
Becker and Fagen started three bands in college—the Don Fagen Jazz Trio, the Bad Rock Band and the Leather Canary. They all sounded like "the Kingsmen performing Frank Zappa material," said Fagen. The Leather Canary featured a drummer who left what he called "a bad jazz band" to pursue a career outside the music industry: Chevy Chase.
The Brill Building
After graduating in 1969, Becker and Fagen worked as songwriters in the fabled Brill Building in New York. Their first recorded composition, "I Mean to Shine," appeared on Side 2 of Barbra Streisand's 1971 album, "Barbra Joan Streisand." Fagen played the organ. The decidedly un-Steely Dan-like ballad wasn't released as a single.
Joining Jay and the Americans
Fagen and Becker played keyboard and guitar, respectively, on Jay and the Americans' final Top 20 hit, "Walkin' in the Rain," in 1969. They also toured with the band for more than a year, earning $100 a night under the aliases of Tristan Fabriani (Fagen) and Gus Mahler (Becker). Singer Jay Black dubbed them "the Manson and Starkweather of rock and roll," a nod to cult leader Charles Manson and teenage spree killer Charles Starkweather.
A Movie Moment
Becker and Fagen performed on the soundtrack of one of Richard Pryor's first movies, the 1971 comedy "You've Got to Walk It Like You Talk It or You'll Lose That Beat." The low-budget flop co-starred Robert Downey Sr. (the father of you-know-who) and was edited by Wes Craven, who would go onto direct slasher franchises like "A Nightmare on Elm Street" and "Scream."
Where the Name Came From
The band's name is cribbed from an inanimate character in William S. Burrough's notorious 1959 novel, "Naked Lunch": a steam-powered strap-on dildo nicknamed "Steely Dan III from Yokohama."
The Original Lineup
Though known for his nimble guitar licks, Walter Becker started out as the bass player in Steely Dan's original 1971 lineup, which included Fagen and drummer Jim Hodder. Guitar duties were handled by Denny Dias, who played the sitar solo on the band's first hit single, 1972's "Do It Again," and Jeff "Skunk" Baxter, who moved on to the Doobie Brothers in 1974.
Grabbing the Microphone
Walter Becker—not Donald Fagen—sang most of the songs on Steely Dan's early demos. "I sang a lot of the songs because I sang much louder," Becker once explained. "I realized what a great singer he was and what [an] out-of-tune singer I was."
In Search of a Singer
Donald Fagen never wanted to be Steely Dan's lead singer, but said it was tough to find someone whose voice had the same "smirky feel." The job was offered early on to Loudon Wainwright III (seen here), who turned it down. Fagen later campaigned for Michael McDonald, who joined the band as a keyboard player and backup vocalist in 1975. Becker, however, exerted his veto power.
The First Single
Steely Dan's debut single, "Dallas," tanked in 1972. Fagen and Becker hated the song so much that they refused to include it on their debut album, "Can't Buy a Thrill," and have never performed it live. It would eventually surface on a 1978 compilation album released in Japan, "Steely Dan."
Do It Again
Fagen and Becker are perfectionists in the studio. It took 11 recording engineers, more than 40 musicians and nearly two years to complete the seven songs on 1980's "Gaucho" album.
Under the Influence
Sly and the Family Stone, Ray Charles and Henry Mancini were among Fagen's earliest pop music influences, but none held bigger sway than the Beatles. His favorite track: "Ticket to Ride." Becker's desert island Beatles song: "No Reply."
Beyond the Music
Donald Fagen's lifelong obsession: table tennis.
Pouring It On
Alcohol flows freely through Steely Dan lyrics. The rock 'n' rolling bar cart is stocked with Scotch whisky ("Deacon Blues"), Cuervo Gold tequila ("Hey Nineteen"), Tanqueray gin ("Lunch with Gina"), rum and Coke ("Daddy Don't Live in That New York City No More"), and even fun umbrella drinks like piña coladas ("Bad Sneakers") and zombies ("Haitian Divorce"). The wine list includes retsina ("Home at Last") and cherry wine ("Time Out of Mind"). Cheers!
Even their solo albums are Steely Dan productions. Becker produced Fagen's first effort, 1982's "The Nightfly" as well as "Kamakiriad" in 1993. Fagen returned the favor a year later by co-producing Becker's solo premiere, "11 Tracks of Whack."
The Dark Side
Drugs have fueled Steely Dan's music and lives. Becker's escalating use was reportedly a key reason why it took almost two years to finish the "Gaucho" album, which was released 10 months after his girlfriend died of an overdose at his New York City apartment. The "Gaucho" cut "Time Out of Mind" is all about heroin. ("Tonight when I chase the dragon...")
They've written a bunch of songs about sketchy relationships. The singer of "Babylon Sisters" shakes it with prostitutes, "Hey Nineteen" is about an old barfly hitting on a teenager who doesn't even recognize the music of Aretha Franklin, and "My Cousin Dupree" is a surprisingly chipper tale about incest.
Steely Dan paid tribute to two of their jazz heroes by "borrowing" bits of their music. "Rikki Don't Lose That Number" opens with the same chord progression as pianist Horace Silver's "Song for My Father" while "Home at Last" features a horn riff from Cannonball Adderley's "Jive Samba." Becker and Fagen have returned the favor by allowing their music to be sampled by hip-hop artists like Kanye West, Ice Cube and De La Soul.
The Hall of Fame
Steely Dan was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001, the year after Becker and Fagen reunited to record their first album in 20 years, "Two Against Nature." It won four Grammy Awards, including Album of the Year.
By the Numbers
Eight of Steely Dan's nine studio albums have cracked the Top 20 on the Billboard 200 chart. (The lone exception: 1973's "Countdown to Ecstasy," which peaked at No. 35.) Though known for their 1970s hits, only three of the band's 21 singles reached the coveted Top 10: "Do It Again" did it up to No. 6 in 1972, "Rikki Don't Lose That Number" dialed in at No. 4 in 1978, and "Hey Nineteen" scored a perfect No. 10 in 1980.
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