If you love Steely Dan, you likely consider yourself “King of the World.” You probably enjoy sitting on “Blues Beach” with the “Babylon Sisters,” wearing your “Green Earrings” while you lazily sip a “Black Cow.” And as you ruminate about “The Things I Miss the Most,” you’ll likely decide whether “Everything Must Go” before you head “Home at Last.”
But enough daydreaming. Steely Dan, long the audiophile’s icon, have emblazoned a career of mastery filled with album after album of ear-friendly, funky, smooth tunes. The “band” is really two members-Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, namely-but their 30-year stable of studio and touring personnel reads like a who’s-who of gifted rock n’ roll musicians.
From their remarkable string of albums in the 70’s, working with greats like Michael McDonald and Jeff “Skunk” Baxter (of Doobie Bros. fame), to their “rebirth” in 2000 with the Grammy-winning Two Against Nature, the Dan are known for their quirky perfection and their disdain for the public eye.
One of their most curious career twists is that after their seventh album, Gaucho, in 1980, the duo didn’t release another album for twenty years. Not because countless fans weren’t begging for it, though; in a bizarre finger-flip to the record biz, Becker and Fagen simply turned the usual rock-star mid-career break into a two-decade-long vacation, finally releasing another album when they got around to it.
Back in the late 60’s, at the height of the Flower Power era, Becker and Fagen graduated from Bard College in upstate New York, discovering along the way their common love of jazz, blues, and contemporary literature. The pair also noticed their shared affinity for the “black humor” of Lenny Bruce and other controversial artists of the time, and they developed a peculiar air of skepticism and brashness that has since become one of their trademarks.
Deciding to peddle their services around the Big Apple, Becker and Fagen began collaborating on songs and performing in various pickup outfits. (A bit of trivia: One such configuration was “The Bad Rock Group,” featuring a young Chevy Chase on drums.) After a brief stint in 1970 accompanying aging rockers Jay and the Americans on a nationwide tour, the pair were hired as staff songwriters at ABC/Dunhill Records in Los Angeles.
And soon, nights in the tiny cubbyhole of their L.A. office were filled with the sounds of the rough versions of “Do It Again” and “Reelin’ In the Years”-two songs that later appeared on the debut Steely Dan LP, Can’t Buy a Thrill (1972). Though Thrill was only a mediocre commercial success, critics dumped praise over Becker and Fagen’s fresh jazz-pop grooves-and the two were on their way.
They followed with a string of unique, remarkable albums, all the while distancing themselves from the other original members, preferring session musicians to record and tour with. An outward sign of their by now well-known cynicism, the duo seemed to have little trust in their fellow musicians, and only take after take with ingenious players would satisfy them. (And if they didn’t like it, hell, they just fired that guy, too.)
The Dan continued at a fevered pace, releasing albums yearly from 1973-76. But they struck rock n’ roll oil with Aja(1977). Considered the band’s masterpiece, four of the album’s seven tracks-“Deacon Blues,” “Josie,” “Black Cow,” and “Peg”-reached Billboard’s Top Forty. With Aja, the pair lofted themselves into the realm of musical godliness alongside Fleetwood Mac and The Eagles.
By then, it seemed, Becker and Fagen were growing even more misanthropic and disconcerted by the music business. Gaucho(1980) seemed an afterthought to Aja’s success, and sparked only one single (“Hey Nineteen”). Then, seeming bored of releasing platinum records, Becker and Fagen entered a twenty-year stretch of non-production that Dan Fans refer to as “the Dark Ages.” Even though Fagen released a couple of solo albums (with Becker producing) in the ’80s, and they toured sparingly as Steely Dan in 1994-96, the absence of a studio album left fans desperate for more-and some even a little perturbed.
Finally, when they were on the verge of becoming rock n’ roll footnotes, Steely Dan had a Second Coming with Two AgainstNature(2000). Winning four Grammys (including Album of the Year), the Dan picked right up where they left off-almost as if time and maturity had zero effect on their sense of musical hipness.
The next year, Steely Dan were shoo-in inductees to the Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame. But even this paramount honor allowed the pair a chance to show off their renowned cynicism and wit: in 1997, they wrote a scathing letter to the Hall’s Executive Board, saying that they deserved to be inducted into the hallowed institution-but that only Becker and Fagen deserved the credit. (A bit of trivia part three: Along with the letter, they openly bribed Vice-Chairman Jann S. Wenner with a case of gourmet honey mustard.) At the induction ceremony, the pair seemed bored as usual, almost as if they’d rather be at home eating nachos and watching TV than be receiving that ultimate commendation.
In 2003, the Dan released their most recent offering-the introspective Everything Most Go. With this record, Becker and Fagen continued to write twisted tales about personal epiphanies and everyday events: divorce (“The Things I Miss the Most”), shopping (“The Last Mall”), even business (the title track, originally called “Greenmailing Bastard,” was inspired by the Enron scandal). After its release, they embarked on another nationwide tour-and rumor has it this was their last one. Seen live, the tour had no hoopla or hullabaloo-so only Becker and Fagen know for sure what their next move (if any) will be.
After thirty-plus years of churning out hits, selling millions of records, and being stunningly revered by musicians and critics….Steely Dan could care less. Having relocated to Hawaii, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen seem content with spending their immense royalties on nachos and beer. But whether aloof, cynical, or just plain bored, the two have a magical career under their belts. And it’s true: they really are Kings of the World.