Few bands, more accurately, songwriting and performing duos like Becker and Fagen, remain supremely relevant for more than one or two albums let alone decades as in the case of the Becker-Fagen creation “Steely Dan”. Clearly their work evolved and arguably improved over the years but always stayed true to the Steely Dan style; so distinctive and brilliant.
Walter Becker was a classic nerd musician always tinkering with technology but had a visceral, uncanny sense of style that is found eminently present in every studio effort regardless of the use of ever advancing technological aids. This, combined with the abandonment of a “band” construct notion, led to masterful collaboration efforts with partner Donald Fagen and a host of the best session players the industry had to offer. The premise for reaching their creative musical goals was simple; seek perfection and then surpass it until perfection was achieved with natural ease. By engaging the best musicians in the business, these surrogates became virtual band members for a single track or two. Very specific guidance, followed by focused rehearsal, led to achieving the exact desired sound. Repeated rehearsal gradually gave way to a natural ease in achieving the precise musical performance recorded in a fashion that implied those engaged had spent years perfecting this beautiful sound.
As American Songwriter so well describes, “because Becker & Fagen’s song spirits were forever linked, as people they were different. Walter was a genial, funny and intellectual guy. He produced Rickie Lee Jones’ great Flying Cowboys, one of many non-Steely projects which distinguish the Becker sensibility. Like his own solo albums, it’s got a looser, funkier vibe, more bluesy and acoustic than electric jazzy, and with a gentle, crystalline focus of purity on each song.
Asked how to describe him, Rickie Lee said, “Well, you know he is way smarter than the other humans.”
It’s true. As Dan fans know well already. As soulfully funky, precise, fluid and expansive were their songs and records, it is the sheer brilliance of their accomplishment – their ability to wed the complex harmonies of jazz with the groove and funk of rock and R&B, combined with lyrics of richly dimensional, often sardonic humor – that distinguishes the Dan forever.”2
As noted in The Pitch piece by Stephen Thomas Erlewine, “Donald Fagen fronted Steely Dan but that was a matter of circumstance….Fagen took over vocal duties but Becker remained somewhat in the shadows, especially after Steely Dan retired from the road in 1975 so they could craft albums with the best studio musicians money could buy. This raised a question: if Steely Dan could hire the best guitarists in the world, why would they need Becker to play a solo?
The answer is pretty simple: Steely Dan always favored “feel.” Those endless hours in the studio were a quest for the right sound, one with precision and vibe—the kind of sound Becker could achieve. Once he and Fagen holed up in the studio, he started to play more guitar, not less, soloing on nearly half of their 1977 landmark Aja. Becker developed a fluid style, one based on the blues but as fleet as hard bop. It was the perfect complement to Fagen‘s keyboards, adding a bit of grit to the sophisticated chords and rhythms. This hint of dirtiness also underlined how the characters populating Steely Dan songs were often unsavory types; underneath that shiny surface, there was dirt.
Since it’s impossible to discern precisely what lyrics belong to either Becker or Fagen—the two shared the same sardonic sensibility and gift for wordplay, something that becomes evident on the pair’s solo albums, records that feel as if they’re part of the Steely Dan canon—guitar winds up as the place where it’s the easiest to hear Walter Becker’s individual voice. Alternately sharp and eloquent, his solos suit the beautiful, cynical spirit of Steely Dan.
Pretzel Logic is the first of Steely Dan’s albums to be recorded with numerous studio musicians and this coincided with Walter Becker dropping bass for guitar. On the title track for this 1974 record, Becker doesn’t have the finesse of Jeff “Skunk” Baxter or Denny Dias—the recording fades out as he’s bending notes as if he’s in a garage rock band—but this rawness suits the song’s loping, winking blues.
Like “Pretzel Logic,” “Black Friday”—the opening track to 1975‘s Katy Lied—is a blues song, but this one is hyper-charged and filled with complicated chords. Against this cloistered swing, Becker spits out shards of blues runs. It’s tense but his solo also benefits from elongated phrases that make his flurries of notes sting harder.
Arriving right after “Black Friday” on Katy Lied, “Bad Sneakers” is the song’s polar opposite: a jazzy, hooky slice of elegant isolation. Becker’s solo is wonderful, its long phrases seeming especially lyrical when contrasted with the band’s hard swing.
The concluding cut on Aja, “Josie” finds Becker playing off Fagen’s vocal, at first mimicking the melody before sliding into a solo that pushes the song from its soul foundation toward jazz. On an album as impeccable as this—the VH1 Classic Albums documentary on its making is a masterclass on album production—it’s notable that Becker’s solo has an airiness that gives the illusion that it was tossed off, not constructed with an ear for every slight pause.”1
The pitch piece goes on further describing subsequent efforts by the duo after Aja in an attempt to exhaust their creative magma below the lava dome. The truth is, unlike many quality songwriters who experience a single yet cataclysmic display of talent, Becker and Fagen’s ability to tell stories about life in a beautifully melodic and profoundly lyrical fashion seemed inexhaustible. They continued to constantly attempt to surpass themselves, and together, to achieve more than what many thought were previous seminal and final efforts.
Finally, American Songwriter notes, “Steely Dan was a band formed around a songwriting collaboration, that of….Walter Becker & Donald Fagen….It was always about their brilliance, their friendship, and their singular mission of merging soul and rock with jazz in compelling, sardonic and remarkable songs.”1
Together, Becker and Fagen were a precious gift and inspired match. The fact that they came together at all is arguably fodder for fate devotees versus those who see divine intervention. Their musicality presented itself through brilliance with different instruments but their dazzling collaborations in song writing, arranging and production can be described as unsurpassed in a generation of immense talent spanning the sixties through the nineties. Yet Becker can be singled out for his brilliance in all those things but especially in his rhythm section support of melodic genius.