“We were gonna get matchbooks and have a picture of Donald with the legend, ‘Can you sing like this man?’”
Peg – Steely Dan
Donald Fagen (vocals/keyboards) and Walter Becker (guitar/bass), a decidedly quirky pair of jazz fans who would probably shudder at the thought of being described as ‘rock stars’, have never made a secret of the fact that they made their music to please themselves, and if anybody else liked it – well, that was just a bonus. Despite their record company’s expectations, they certainly weren’t into creating hit singles. Originally signed as writers to ABC but then given a record contract (they’d managed to place one composition, ‘I Mean To Shine’, with Barbra Streisand), their first hit, ‘Do It Again’ (1972), was not rated by either group or record label as a potential single and only took off by accident after radio deejays began playing the lengthy album track. The guitar solo on the follow-up, ‘Reelin’ In The Years’, played by hired hand Elliott Randall, is Jimmy Page’s favourite solo of all time. While Becker and Fagen were happy to admit that the various musicians they hired contributed to the end product, they had a pretty good idea of what they were looking for (even though it often took them ages to get there) and seldom gave a writing credit to anybody else. It’s said that as time went by, the cream of the US session musicians were simply honoured to have a Steely Dan session on their CV’s.
Aja, released in September 1977, was Steely Dan’s 6th album, a year in the making, and is generally considered to be the group’s masterpiece, a fine example of their unique brand of jazz-rock. However, calling Steely Dan a ‘group’ is perhaps somewhat misleading. Though it began as such in 1972, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen’s quest for perfection, coupled with a serious dislike of appearing live, ultimately led to the departure (or discarding) of the original members, and the hiring of the best studio musicians for the task in hand. Since Becker and Fagen wrote all the songs, the other members of the group had to survive on tour income and when it became apparent that Becker and Fagen were going to quit touring in 1974 (they didn’t play live again until 1993), the band was effectively broken up. By that time the duo had already supplanted their drummer in the studio with 19-year-old Jeff Porcaro (later of Toto fame) and had in fact toured with 2 percussionists – original drummer Jim Hodder and Porcaro. Jeff Porcaro arrived in the fold in early 1974 and played on several tracks on the group’s 3rd album, Pretzel Logic.
Fagen didn’t like singing live either (!) so the touring band was further expanded when various vocalists were hired including Michael McDonald, who also doubled on keyboards. Walter Becker once joked, “We were gonna get matchbooks and have a picture of Donald with the legend, ‘Can you sing like this man?’ so we could get another singer. He’d just have to play piano.” Steely Dan’s original guitarist, Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter, departed for the Doobie Brothers in 1974 while Michael McDonald followed him in 1975, though McDonald still sang on some later Steely Dan studio material, including ‘Peg’. Aja was the final Steely Dan album that their other guitarist Denny Dias played on – it was Dias’ band ‘Demian’ that Becker and Fagen had originally joined in answer to an advertisement for musicians with “jazz-chops” in 1970, and ultimately turned into their own.
Perfectionists when it came to both writing and recording, in particular Becker and Fagen demanded a solid and perfectly-timed human drum beat as the basis of their tracks – thus the hiring of Jeff Porcaro in 1974. Soon they’d be flying in all the top drummers (at ABC’s expense*) including Steve Gadd, Jim Gordon, Jim Keltner and Hal Blaine. This obsession with perfect time-keeping is perhaps most apparent on Aja where the 7 tracks were nailed down by 6 different drummers – the only one who appeared on 2 tracks was legendary New York drummer Bernard Purdie, a man who used to set up his kit in the studio with a sign on each side. One said “You done it!” while the one on the other side read, “You done hired the hit-maker! Bernard ‘Pretty’ Purdie.” He also had a neon sign that proclaimed, “Another hit being made” and often placed the covers of albums he’d played on in front of his kit. Mr Purdie worked as an in-house drummer for Atlantic Records and has played for James Brown, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Quincy Jones, B. B. King and the Rolling Stones, to name but a small few.
*(Messrs Becker & Fagen once ordered a $17,000 grand piano they particularly liked the sound of for studio sessions and sent the bill to ABC, though it’s likely the company deducted these extracurricular expenses from Steely Dan’s royalties)
‘Peg’, the major hit from Aja, was particularly noticeable for its’ ingenious descending musical intro. It was the final track recorded for the album – while the rest of Aja (recorded in Los Angeles) was being mixed, ‘Peg’ was recorded in New York. Drums were played by Rick Marotta, Lyricon (an electronic wind-instrument) by Tom Scott and the guitar solo was by Jay Graydon. Highlighting Becker and Fagen’s unrelenting quest for perfection, Mr Graydon has since revealed that he was the 8th guitarist of note to try out the 25-second solo (Larry Carlton and Robben Ford were among the others), and even he was kept at it for 6 hours until his employers decided they finally had a take they wanted to keep. (On the Steely Dan ‘Making of Aja’ dvd you can hear some of the other guitarists’ discarded solos, though identities are not revealed!) Chuck Rainey, who played bass guitar on ‘Peg’, was particularly renowned for his ‘slapping’ bass sound, but was specifically told by Becker and Fagen not to play that way. However, he managed to sit in a low chair behind a screen where he couldn’t be seen and did it anyway! Nobody noticed and all involved thought the track was great. Rainey and drummer Marotta, who had frequently played together, put down the rhythm track and swiftly had it nailed – according to Marotta, “Once Chuck and I started playing, you could have hung your coat up on the groove!”
Lyrically speaking, it’s fairly obvious that ‘Peg’ is about a movie actress, and while Becker and Fagen are notoriously less than enthusiastic regarding explanations of their songs, an oblique lyrical reference to ‘your favourite foreign movie’ has given rise to speculation that ‘Peg’ might have been a ‘porn’ actress. It’s probably as far from the truth as one can get, but has doubtless given the far from ‘dynamic duo’ a good laugh if nothing else. ‘Peg’ was one of 6 US Top 20 singles for Steely Dan, though their only UK Top 20 hit was the reggae inspired ‘Haitian Divorce’ in 1976, a single not released in the States. Aja, a platinum album in 1977, has since sold several million. Indeed, in their obtuse fashion, Becker and Fagen are almost inclined to admit that it might not be a bad album. Fagen has described it as, “a wide range of listening experience” while Becker goes even further calling it, “dangerously ambitious”. More recently, Fagen has said he considers Aja the pairs greatest achievement; “It had soul and rhythm, great jazz chords, fantastic musicians. It’s pretty good!”
Fans of Steely Dan have become used to waiting for new material. Gaucho, the follow-up to Aja, finally appeared in 1980 before there was something of a Guinness record-breaking pause until the next album Two Against Nature appeared in 2000. While maintaining the sonic perfection of earlier recordings it also sounded as if it could have been recorded two weeks after Gaucho. With twenty years in-between and a myriad of technical developments in the meantime, this only highlighted just how well recorded the earlier Dan albums actually were. Fagen did manage two solo albums in the interim, including The Nightfly in 1982, which sounded pretty much like a Steely Dan album anyway due to Fagen’s distinctive voice, and included a virtual who’s who from the session world. If anything the album, a concept set late at night at a fictional jazz radio station, was surprisingly upbeat and ‘commercial’ for a Fagen product. (Steely Dan’s 1978 one-off movie-related single ‘FM (No Static At All)’ would also have slotted rather well into this concept)
In closing, no story about Steely Dan would be complete without the chilling tale of the lost gem, ‘The Second Arrangement’. The first track recorded for Gaucho, Becker and Fagen were very pleased with the result and the track was pretty much completed when producer Gary Katz was asked to prepare the master tape so it could be heard when they returned to the studio. Katz passed on this chore to an assistant engineer who, due to a technical misunderstanding, erased all 24 tracks until about three-quarters of the way through the song when he discovered his catastrophic error! All involved were stunned – unusually, there was no safety-copy – the track had taken several weeks and several thousand dollars to record, and despite attempts to re-record it to their satisfaction, they couldn’t get the magic of the original recording back and ultimately gave it up as a lost cause.
‘The Second Arrangement’, a fine song that would have been a worthy addition to Gaucho only exists in demo/re-recorded form, has never been officially released, but appeared on numerous bootlegs over the years and at the time of writing can be heard (in pretty dodgy quality) on YouTube and via various mp3 downloads. Wouldn’t like to have been in that engineer’s shoes though… Steely Dan’s most recent studio album Everything Must Go appeared in 2003 while Mr Fagen has surpassed himself in the new millennium releasing a massive 2 solo albums, Morph The Cat in 2006 and Sunken Condos in 2012. The Dan haven’t played in Europe for a while but undertook US summer tours in both 2013 and 2014, further tours are likely and it’s always possible that a new album might appear at some future date, though it would probably be foolish to expect anything before around 2020!
Copyright © 2015 SongStories/Tony Burton
Originally published by Tony Burton, Stavanger bibliotek og kulturhus.