WALTER BECKER, DONALD FAGIN and the SOUND OF STEELY DAN
Discussing Little Feat, music critic Robert Christgau ventured to say that the honorable group wasn’t just another jam band from Los Angeles but were, in disguise, Euro prog rockers at heart. Sure, LF had slide guitar, soulful vocals and was able to boogie well enough to satisfy anyway speedway inclination, but the modernist jazz coloration, the sly classicism of Bill Payne’s slippery keyboard work, the funky but sneaky switching up of time signatures amid the riffing improvisation, Christgau pegged them as a smarter version of the Continental art rockers in that they wanted their music to something that reflected the best use of their musicianship; skilled, but never busy, lyrically vague,but not far from the American mythos of Robert Johnson country blues or Bukowski/Selby/Algren take on seeking transcendence as well as survival in a post war American city.
To Christgau’s point I would add Steely Dan, perhaps the most inscrutable band to achieve a long line of radio hits, platinum albums and sold out tours . More so than Little Feat, Steely Dan was especially sharp at composing superb hooks for their songs, those brief introductions at the start of tunes or coming midway during the chorus, or appearing else, unanticipated, that lures you into the story and the musical moods that underscore the emotional journey. Beyond hooks, though, SD was eclectic in the styles they drew from in putting their albums together — generous bouts of guitar boogie for the stadium crowd, a mid tempo bottom of jamming funk keeping matters on a constant low boil, Ellington like tone poems where the horn players managed brass and reed orchestrations only to give way to a lone, searching cry and lilt of sax improvisation.
All this and the hooks, and the lyrics,managed by keyboardist and lead vocalist Don Fagin, an opaquely and vaguely presented universe of people , places, things and situations that rarely come into sharp focus; surreal,witty, allusive, cruel and kind in different turns of mood, Fagin didn’t have a large world he wrote about, or rather, wrote around. But his word craft was generally superb, like the music, artful but not crowded, smart but chatty.
Making this work all of piece was the recently deceased Walter Becker, dead at age 67, Steely Dan co-founder with Fagin, a writing partner in a beautifully realized team effort.His was the work of arranging the music, of turning mere hooks and stray ideas into whole pieces. As often as not centering an arrangement around Fagin’s keyboard, with its affection for minor-key flirtations at the end of chord progressions that just as often seemed like an awakening and eventual arousal from dream you wish you could return to once confronted with the curt light of morning sun, Becker’s work on the arrangements,the ideas of how to extend and compress sections of a song under construction, his ability to have their best material convey an immediately graspable clarity of riff, flourish and hook and an aesthete’s ear for things more diffuse, abstract, opaque in formal response to emotional states under an artist’s scrutiny, made Steely Dan unique even in a time when there scarcely a shortage of quality musicians and experimenters advancing their way to their respective versions of a true and only heaven.
Add to this surrealistically pleasurable slurring of motifs, literary conceits and hard-bop resolve we have Becker’s signature guitar work, stinging , serpentine solos, short fills and spatially sublime solos with phrasing that seemed to move in a coiling, sideways motion. Becker was never in a hurry with his fretwork; his note choices investigated the chords and the space between them, popped, stung and soothed as motif and mood required. Becker co-created something priceless, alluring,daunting yet readily approachable in pop music. It’s a pity there is no real equivilent prize such as the Nobel for rock and roll.