Here’s to You, Sir…
MY promise of chirpier and more uplifting pieces…
IN THIS PHOTO: Walter Becker with Donald Fagen
has lasted a matter of hours. To be fair; few of us imagined we’d lose a music giant today. Steely Dan’s Walter Becker has died and, with it, left a huge hole in music. Social media is filling up with tributes and remembrances of a giant of the music world. I had to have my say for a number of reasons. I will come to those but Becker’s death is extra-poignant as Steely Dan has gigs lined up before the end of the year. I can only imagine how his Steely Dan brother Donald Fagen is feeling right now. Becker’s death, aged sixty-seven, is a shock to the world: few expect him to die at such a young age. Fagen has written a tribute already - claiming how smart he was and funny; a terrific songwriter and cynical human. Becker was due to perform at Steely Dan’s Classic East and West concerts but missed it – due to an unnamed and unspecified ailment. One assumes there is a connection – it will be interesting discovering what the illness was and why things deteriorated so soon. Becker and Fagen met one another and started collaborating as students at New York’s Bard College. From there, an instant bond was forged – they moved to L.A. in the 1970s and formed one of the most influential and spectacular acts in all of music. I think Steely Dan were due to play in the U.K. very soon - it would have been great to catch them - that was a ticket I was keen to get my hands on. It is weird knowing we will never get another album from Walter Becker. His death has not sunk in yet but the realisation he will make no more music is a hard thing to take. My exposure to Steely Dan was a chronological one.
PHOTO CREDIT: Chris Walter/WireImage/Getty Images
I discovered their debut album, Can’t Buy a Thrill, through my parents, when I was a child. That album, released in 1972, remains a Jazz-Pop masterpiece with so many different styles and wonderful moments. The line-up changed after the debut album but hearing David Palmer (who took lead vocals on Dirty Work and Brooklyn (Owes the Charmers Under Me) and Jim Hodder (an exceptional turn on Midnite Cruiser) is fascinating. The band, at that time, was more a collection of musicians finding their feet. To me, Steely Dan stood out and cemented when they released their second album, Countdown to Ecstasy. By then, David Palmer has been let go: the dynamic had changed and there was a more streamlined, focused unit. Songs (on Countdown to Ecstasy) like Show Biz Kids and My Old School are classic cuts – in no small part because of Walter Becker’s role. In fact; go back to Can’t Buy a Thrill and one hears the development and genius of Becker right through the album. Incredible bass-lines on songs like Do It Again and Reelin’ in the Years; the phenomenal command and inventiveness on Kings and Dirty Work - such a master of all he surveyed!
It was not only about the bass: harmonica and backing vocals were all part of Becker’s Can’t Buy a Thrill legacy. Becker said, in 1974, how uninterested he was with Jazz/Rock fusions – he felt that marriage was ponderous. Steely Dan played Rock & Roll with a swing. That desire for rush and energy was crystallised on albums like Countdown to Ecstasy and Pretzel Logic. That, in many people’s view, is the high-point of Steely Dan. To me, Pretzel Logic is the moment when everything fell together and became Steely Dan. The exceptional bass on Night by Night and Any Major Dude Will Tell You; the groove of Rikki Don’t Lose That Number and the eccentricity and delight of Charlie Freak – so much talent and variation from an incredible player. The bond Becker has with Donald Fagen meant every song was a display of the telepathic and telekinetic. I won’t go into the back-catalogue but it is worth mentioned the albums and moments that made Steely Dan one of the biggest and most important bands of the 1970s. Walter Becker often gets overlooked - as Donald Fagen took lead vocals and was at the front. All the songs were co-written by Becker and he was as essential and pivotal. Throughout the 1970s; Steely Dan created wonderful album-after-album – the cerebral and beautifully crafted Katy Lied (1975); the stunning moments of The Royal Scam (1976).
There were some who felt Steely Dan failed to evolve between those two albums but there was no need for giant leaps: they had reached a point where they were on fire and near the peak of their abilities. Becker, especially, growing in confidence and providing some of the finest bass-work on any album of the period. Aja, perhaps, represents the band at their most celebrated and flawless. The title-track is a sweeping, multi-part song that goes through stages and sweeps. It is mostly instrumental a fantastic odyssey from Steely Dan. Becker, as a central cog in the machine, provided so much fluidity, drama and beauty with his bass – able to direct the song but produce groove, rhythm and passion. Black Cow and Peg are funky and sassy: Becker, again, cool-as-a-cat and sensational throughout. For so many out there; Steely Dan can be defined by the exceptional masterpiece, Deacon Blues. From 1975, Steely Dan has surrounded themselves with a team of expert musicians and Becker assimilated more guitar duties. Becker and Fagen did not feel a large supply of musicians was an embarrassment. To them; they had options and were allowed to give full flight to their imaginations and ambitious songs. Without that crew of musicians, Deacon Blues would be a weaker song. It is, to me, the greatest song ever – Walter Becker is a huge reason for that assumption.
It is the moment music made sense and meant so much to me. I have been listening to it on-repeat today and finding new brilliance in the song. The sublime and titanic composition packs in so much. I imagine Walter Becker and Donald Fagen sitting in a Malibu apartment – where the song was conceived – and chatting about the composition and swapping lines. The song was written for an Alabama football team who called themselves ‘The Crimson Tide’. Steely Dan’s duo, finding this beyond pretentious, came up with their rejoinder: ‘Deacon Blues’ would be the name given the losers in the world. It is a wonderful idea and, from there, the song came to life. They have said how it was one of the easiest songs they ever wrote – and the fact they listened to it over and over again. It is an addictive and epic track that involves the listener and brings them into the music.
PHOTO CREDIT: Danny Clinch
I implore everyone to listen to the track and discover why is regarded as the band’s best song. Steely Dan would go on hiatus after their album, Gaucho – featuring the incredible Hey Nineteen and Babylon Sisters – in 1980. They returned in 2000 with Two Against Nature and followed that album with Everything Must Go (2003). The records did not represent the best days of Steely Dan but are solid and interesting listens. Walter Becker produced two solo albums: 11 Tracks of Whack (1994) and 2008’s Circus Money. Both were well-received by critics and showed he could stand on his own and still shine. It is a testament to a fantastic and adaptable musician whose supply of brilliance and nuance was not reserved for the albums of Steely Dan.
I was hoping for a new Steely Dan album and cannot believe a musician who played on Deacon Blues is not with us anymore. There are so many reasons why that song is the one that takes me somewhere special and safe. I love the drive and energy of My Old School; the experimentation and multi-genre-desires of Can’t Buy a Thrill: I love everything they ever produced. Walter Becker was, as Donald Fagen said, a hugely funny and cynical human. That wit and brilliance made their way into the lyrics and the compositions: an artist who was quick with a line but could provide myriad emotions and oblique sentiments through his bass and guitar. Becker and Fagen loved the fact Deacon Blues made its way into the public consciousness. It slipped through the cracks and, a song from two outsiders, getting into the collective bosom was a huge surprise – they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001 and used the opportunity to take questions from the crowd! It is sad knowing Walter Becker is gone from the world but his music and incredible legacy will never fade. He is one of the finest musicians we have been lucky enough to witness and to me. To his millions of fans out there; Walter Becker is someone who will always…
REMAIN in our hearts.