Billboard Reports Virtually unnoticed and certainly not harassed, Walter Becker and his partner in the rock band Steely Dan, Donald Fagen, sat in a booth having lunch in a crowded restaurant near the airport in Maui toward the end of tourist season in 1997.
You couldn’t imagine Mick Jagger doing the same thing. Or David Bowie, Paul McCartney, Paul Simon or any other peer. Becker, who died at age 67 on Sunday (Sept. 3), and Fagen had the gift of relative anonymity in a field where celebrity can do incalculable damage.
Yet anyone who listened to FM rock radio in the 1970s and early 1980s knew their work well. “Deacon Blues,” ″Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” ″Peg,” ″Reelin’ in the Years,” ″Hey Nineteen” ″Do it Again,” ″Black Friday” — it was a formidable canon in a relatively short time.Formative and early years (1967–1972)
Becker and Fagen met in 1967 at Bard College, in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York. As Fagen passed by a café, The Red Balloon, he heard Becker practicing the electric guitar. In an interview, Fagen recounted the experience: “I hear this guy practicing, and it sounded very professional and contemporary. It sounded like, you know, like a black person, really.” He introduced himself to Becker and asked, “Do you want to be in a band?” Discovering that they enjoyed similar music, the two began writing songs together.
Becker and Fagen began playing in local groups. One such group, known as the Don Fagen Jazz Trio, the Bad Rock Group and later the Leather Canary, included future comedy star Chevy Chase on drums. They played covers of songs by the Rolling Stones (“Dandelion“), Moby Grape (“Hey Grandma”), and Willie Dixon (“Spoonful“), as well as some original compositions. Terence Boylan, another Bard musician, remembered that Fagen took readily to the beatnik life while attending college: “They never came out of their room, they stayed up all night. They looked like ghosts — black turtlenecks and skin so white that it looked like yogurt. Absolutely no activity, chain-smoking Lucky Strikes and dope.” Fagen himself would later remember it as “probably the only time in my life that I actually had friends.”
After Fagen graduated in 1969, the two moved to Brooklyn and tried to peddle their tunes in the Brill Building in midtown Manhattan. Kenny Vance (of Jay and the Americans), who had a production office in the building, took an interest in their music, which led to work on the soundtrack of the low-budget Richard Pryor film You’ve Got to Walk It Like You Talk It or You’ll Lose That Beat. Becker later said bluntly, “We did it for the money.” A series of demos from 1968 to 1971 are available in bootleg form. This collection features approximately 25 tracks and is notable for its sparse arrangements (Fagen plays solo piano on many songs) and lo-fi production, a contrast with Steely Dan’s later work. Although some of these songs (“Caves of Altamira”, “Brooklyn”, “Barrytown”) were re-recorded for Steely Dan albums, most were never officially released.
Becker and Fagen joined the touring band of Jay and the Americans for about a year and a half. They were at first paid $100 per show, but partway through their tenure the band’s tour manager cut their salaries in half. The group’s lead singer, Jay Black, dubbed Becker and Fagen “the Manson and Starkweather of rock ‘n’ roll”, referring to cult leader Charles Manson and spree killer Charles Starkweather.
They had little success after moving to Brooklyn, although Barbra Streisand recorded their song “I Mean To Shine” on her 1971 Barbra Joan Streisand album. Their fortunes changed when one of Vance’s associates, Gary Katz, moved to Los Angeles to become a staff producer for ABC Records. He hired Becker and Fagen as staff songwriters; they flew to California. Katz would produce all their 1970s albums in collaboration with engineer Roger Nichols, and Nichols would win six Grammy Awards for his work with the band from the 1970s to 2001.
After realizing that their songs were too complex for other ABC artists, at Katz’s suggestion Becker and Fagen formed their own band with guitarists Denny Dias and Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, drummer Jim Hodder and singer David Palmer, and Katz signed them to ABC as recording artists. Fans of Beat Generation literature, Fagen and Becker named the band after “Steely Dan III from Yokohama“, an oversized, steam-powered strap-on dildo mentioned in the William S. Burroughs novel Naked Lunch. Palmer joined as a second lead vocalist because of Fagen’s occasional stage fright, his reluctance to sing in front of an audience, and because the label believed that his voice was not “commercial” enough.
In 1972, ABC issued Steely Dan’s first single, “Dallas”, backed with “Sail the Waterway”. Distribution of “stock” copies available to the general public was apparently extremely limited; the single sold so poorly that promotional copies are much more readily available than stock copies in today’s collectors market. As of 2015, “Dallas” and “Sail the Waterway” are the only officially released Steely Dan tracks that have not been reissued on cassette or compact disc. In an interview (1995), Becker and Fagen called the songs “stinko.” “Dallas” was later covered by Poco on their Head Over Heels album.