The world has lost another irreplaceable musical legend in Steely Dan guitarist, bass player, songwriter, and co-frontman Walter Becker. I spent Sunday listening to Dan records, and trying to write about Becker’s legacy. The guy was elusive, hard to read and reticent to the point of obsession (footnote 1).
Few rock bands have ever inspired such a sharp cleavage in fan opinion. And both sides are extremely passionate about their beliefs. One side despised the band’s precision. For them they were a soulless mob of overprivileged SoCal studio cats (although Fagen was clearly a New Yawker) who played frivolous, overly clever jazz rock confections.
To the other side, everything they touched was genius. Their intricately layered creations were high art. They were Jedi masters of pop music. The lyrics were smart. The abundant hooks were never bettered. I’ve had friends I literally worried about because they played records like Aja over and over again. A college roommate, who fell into a loop and could not stop turning the record over, killed The Royal Scam for me. To this day I can’t listen to it.
Either way, they were for the most part very well-recorded throughout their career. Interestingly, most subsequent LP reissues of the band’s surprisingly small catalog of classicsfrom 1972’s Can’t Buy A Thrill to 1980’s Gauchohave not improved the sound of the original pressings.
Instead of listing all of Becker vitals, all of which can be found in any number of online tributes and obits, I thought I’d list my five most resonant Steely Dan tracks.
“Dr. Wu,” from Katy Lied
My favorite SD hit tune. Best use of the word “piaster” in a lyric. Happiest song about drug addiction ever written. Phil Woods on sax. One of the band’s finest soul jazz workouts.
“Bodhisattva,” from Countdown to Ecstasy
Metalesque guitars, shouted lyrics, even a touch of country twang, this one is all art.
“Rose Darling,” from Katy Lied
A bravura vocal performance from Fagen. One of those deep tracks that made the albums . . . well, albums.
“Peg,” from Aja
Hard to chose from the band’s big moneymaker, the one that made them superstars, because FM radio subsisted on this record for nearly two years. Sure, it’s blue-eyed soul and Michael McDonald is in the background, but the hooks are sticky.
“Fire in the Hole,” from Can’t Buy A Thrill
Hard to choose a track from this one as well only this time it’s because they are all fabulous. “Brooklyn (Owes the Charmer Under Me)” and “Kings” are close runners up but as straight ahead pop melodies go, this one edges them out. From an album that changed the world.
Footnote 1: I literally bumped into Walter Becker at an early 1990s Audio Engineering Society Convention. Heck of a nice guy. We chatted briefly and it turned out that he was both an audiophile and a Stereophile reader. A sad loss.John Atkinson