Woke up today to the rumor and then news of Walter Becker’s passing. His and Donald Fagen’s work with Steely Dan is on a very short list of my most formative musical influences. When I was 5 and had access to a handful of cassette tapes; Aja was one of them, and I would listen in particular to “Peg” over and over. When I was in high school I got really into their first album (Countdown to Ecstasy) and listened pretty incessantly to a cassette I had from a 90 minute radio “special” on WPLR (basically a cross-section of songs of theirs from throughout the ‘70s). In college I got into Katy Lied and Aja and eventually made one of my first-ever CD purchases of music I already owned, getting the boxed set of their complete recordings from 1972-1980.
It would be a gross oversimplification to say that their mixture of rock and jazz was THE reason they were so important to me, but it’s a big part of it. I love their songwriting AND I love the jazz soloists and hip chord progressions. With apologies to Stevie Wonder, no other artist I had ever heard married these things in such a compelling, organic way and committed to doing so as often as Don and Walt. My own tastes in lyrics tend not to run in the direction of cynical abstraction that marks their lyrics and my own tastes in singing tend not to run in the direction of Fagen’s sometimes-warbled delivery . . . and yet I still love it and find their music to be perfect for what it is, and what it is has been central to my musical consciousness for literally as long as I can remember. They inspired me beyond the music too, proving to me that possessors of their kind of eggheady, dry wit really can have a place in this kind of music, yet another way that they successfully married things that I previously found to be mutually exclusive.
It’ll take me a while to wrap my brain around Walt’s departure, but in the meantime here are some of my favorite Steely Dan tracks. They are arranged in chronological order, with one tune from each of their non-compilation album (which omits the song “FM” – check that one out too). Other personal favorites from these records included as well.
1 ) “Kings” from Can’t Buy A Thrill
One of my favorite Don & Walt lyrics here is paired with a truly great (and weirdly overlooked) rock melody and groove. Guest guitarist Elliot Randall (better known for his iconic soloing on “Reelin’ in the Years”) gets a tasty, gritty solo in on this one, just one of the moments that hints at their jazz predilections.
(other picks: Midnite Cruiser, Reelin’ in the Years, Fire in the Hole)
2 ) “Razor Boy” from Countdown to Esctasy
Talk about jazz predilections, here we have Ray Brown sitting in on bass and Victor Feldman (a regular contributor, particularly on the Aja album) on vibraphone, but the song is also eerily catchy. When I first got the record I mostly was checking out “My Old School” (and “Skunk” Baxter’s wonderful soloing on it) but this one made a serious mark.
(other picks: My Old School, King of the World)
3 ) “East St. Louis Toodle-oo” from Pretzel Logic
This is maybe not my favorite track on the album, so why is it here? This faithful yet quirky Duke Ellington cover (the only cover song in their recorded history) is the track in their catalog that perhaps best shows the depth of their involvement in jazz, clearly far from a superficial affectation. Heresy perhaps, but I listen to this version as often as the 1927 original – I wonder how Bubber Miley feels from above about the guitar-with-talk-box interpretation of his plunger muted trumpet melodies. .
(other picks: Any Major Dude Will Tell You, Pretzel Logic)
4 ) “Doctor Wu” from Katy Lied
If I had to pick one SD song to demonstrate the line they straddled between rock and jazz, it would probably be this one, with mysterious and evocative lyrics, deep and rich chord progressions, and one of the great “jazz artist on a rock record” guest solos ever, courtesy of saxophonist Phil Woods.
(other picks: Any World That I’m Welcome To, Throw Back the Little Ones)
5 )“ The Fez” from The Royal Scam
This track, featuring their only shared writing credit (with Paul Griffin, who provides the great keyboard melody), is funky as hell and features some of the earliest recorded guitar soloing by Walter Becker on a Dan record, and he surely earns his increasingly prominent role as a soloist with his bluesy, lyrical playing.
(other picks: Kid Charlemagne, Haitian Divorce)
6 ) “Peg” from Aja
There are so many great and iconic moments on this album, but “Peg” is just one of the small handful of songs (like Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” and the Beatles’ “With a Little Help from my Friends”) that’s so etched into my consciousness that it’s basically part of my DNA now. No matter what I’m doing, this song gets my shoulders moving and makes me smile, so infectious are the groove and the core riffs, not to mention Michael McDonald’s background vocals.
(other picks: Aja, Home at Last)
7 ) “Babylon Sisters” from Gaucho
This is one of the best slow-yet-funky grooves in modern pop music, if you ask me. Much of that can be credited to the drumming of Bernard Purdie, but this slinky song and great arrangement have a lot to do with it as well.
(other picks: Time Out of Mind)
8 ) “Book of Liars” from Alive in America
(other picks: Aja, Bodhisattva)
This live album is in one sense the perfect point of re-entry to phase II of SD, their era as a popular and superlatively tight touring unit. Most of the tunes on this record are Dan classics, with the exception of this reworking of Becker’s first studio album, which provides us with not only a new listen to a truly great song but also a chance to hear him sing.
9 ) “West of Hollywood” from Two Against Nature
For a time, jazz saxophonist Chris Potter was a touring member of Steely Dan and this track could be viewed almost as a two-movement suite: the song itself and then the utterly epic extended tenor saxophone solo at the end.
10 ) “Pixeleen” from Everything Must Go
This funky and lyrically insightful tune co-features the vocals of Carolyn Leonhart, one of the key members of their modern-day band (and regular performer of some of Don and Walt’s lesser-known material, such as “Book of Liars” above).