Mr. Steely and Mr. Dan – Swing out to Lake Nostalgia

They stab it with their steely knives
But they just can’t kill the beast
—-Eagles in “Hotel California” as a nod to Steely Dan’s mention in their song “Everything You Did.”

As you know, we lost Walter Becker last year. The guy’s contribution as guitarist, bass player and – especially – songwriter is unassailable. I got to thinking though, about how both Becker and his partner Donald Fagen had done some solo work and how maybe over time it had gotten lost in the shuffle.

So I decided to post a couple of songs by each from some of their solo albums, finishing up with a great Steely Dan tune with a sweet Becker guitar solo. On the solo stuff, don’t go into it thinking “Reeling in the Years” or “Black Friday.” Think of later albums like Aja and Gaucho and you’ll catch the right vibe.

Unless you listened to either of Walter’s solo albums, 1994’s 11 Tracks of Whack (1994, co-produced by Fagen), or Circus Money (2008), you wouldn’t know he sang as well. Is he a good singer?

Actually, I think he’s pretty good and in retrospect, it might have been nice to hear his occasional vocal on Dan songs as a counterpoint to Fagen. He has a certain nasally quality like Warren Zevon and a definite sense of world-weariness.

From 11 Tracks, this is “Book of Liars.” Love this tune.

I can’t remember
Exactly what it was I thought we had
‘Cause I waited so long girl and I came so far
To find out you’re not always who you say you are
And there’s a star in the book of liars by your name

Spotify link

Donald Fagen’s followup to his successful Nightfly album is called Kamikiriad.* Released in 1993, according to Wikipedia, “the album is a futuristic, optimistic eight-song cycle about the journey of the narrator in his high-tech car, the Kamakiri (Japanese for praying mantis). It was nominated for a Grammy Award for Album of the Year.”

I hadn’t heard the tune “Springtime” in quite a while so it was a pleasant surprise to dig into it again. It doesn’t even sound like Fagen singing at first. The song has a terrific groove. It’s the kind of tune the ladies sashay to when they hear it at the bar. (Love that little descending guitar pattern at 2:50 and that organ swirl at about 2:17).

Spotify link

Becker’s second and final solo album Circus Money has a decided reggae feel to it. In the Dan-ishly named “Bob Is Not Your Uncle Anymore,” he takes us on a trip down Jamaica way, mon. I don’t quite know why Bob is not your uncle but with Becker and Fagen I’ve learned it’s better not to ask questions.

Spotify link

I mentioned Fagen’s Nightfly album earlier. Terrific album, big hit back in the day. I’ve always loved the tune “Walk Between Raindrops.” It swings like mad. “Oh, Miami!”

A shadow crossed the blue Miami sky
As we hit the causeway by the big hotel
We fought
Now I can’t remember why
After all the words were said and tears were gone
We vowed we’d never say goodbye

Spotify link

A largely forgettable movie called FM was released in 1978. Basically, it celebrated FM radio music and culture. Contrary to popular belief, the TV show WKRP in Cincinnati was not based on it but had already been in production.

Steely Dan were at the height of their popularity and so were asked to write a song for it. Told they could say whatever they wanted, the acerbic duo, of course, wrote a tune decrying FM radio for being “nothing but blues and Elvis and somebody else’s favorite song.”

For whatever reason, there are multiple versions of this song. (Wikipedia has more on this one tune than I would have thought possible.) “FM (No Static at All)” was recorded around the time of the Aja sessions and uses some of the same musicians. Eagles Timothy B. Schmit, Glenn Frey, and Don Henley sing backup.

The soundtrack has a really nice outro guitar solo by Becker and in fact, most of the instrumental work was done by Becker and Fagen. There is another version that has an outro sax solo by jazzer Pete Christlieb but I really prefer Becker’s solo. And in any event this post is to some extent a tribute to him.

So let’s hear him groove and fade off into the sunset.

Spotify link

So long Walter and thanks for all your twisted pretzel logic.

*Fagen has two more solo albums, neither of which I’ve heard at all. Morph the Cat was released in 2006, Sunken Condos in 2012.

35 thoughts on “Mr. Steely and Mr. Dan – Swing out to Lake Nostalgia

  1. I haven’t heard Becker’s solo records, but he produced two records by the English band China Crisis back in the ’80s, and both are very good, especially “Flaunt the Imperfection,” where he’s so important he’s credited as a band member. His crisp production is vintage Dan and lifts the record way above most New Wave of the time.

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    1. Good intel Pete, thanks. And of course he famously produced Rickie Lee Jones’ Flying Cowboys, a good album and the first CD I ever bought. She did a nice tribute to him when he passed.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Great idea to do a post about Becker’s and Fagen’s solo work. I think pretty much anything these guys did is pretty cool!

    Of their solo albums I really only know Fagen’s “The Nightfly,” which I totally dig. From the tunes you highlighted here, I particularly like Fagen’s “Springtime” and Becker’s “Bob Is Not Your Uncle Anymore.” Both have an awesome groove! I also like FM.

    BTW, I also happen to know China Crisis’ “Flaunt The Imperfection” and agree with greenpete58 it’s a nicely produced album.

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    1. I happened to pick up a magazine that featured their stuff with zero thought of doing a post. Then when I realized there was solo stuff I hadn’t heard along with Becker passing, I thought, Shit, gotta do a post. Some good grooves from those guys for sure. “Nightfly” is terrific and was a pretty big hit. I was pleasantly surprised by Becker’s voice. Totally fits into the Dan scheme of things. I’ll check out China Crisis for sure, And “FM” is SO fucking tasty.

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  3. Becker’s voice is very soulful (I’m hearing somebody else in there other than Zevon). Never heard his solo stuff. Really dig it. Will search it out. Familiar with Fagen’s solo work. Totally agree on your comment on Walter taking more vocals with SD. Good stuff Doc. These guys make some very cool music. I’ll have to check out Pete’s and Christians recommendation . I have the Jones album. Good stuff.

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    1. Becker’s voice surprised me. I guess it was felt that Fagen had more range. But a Becker vocal or two per album would not have been a “let’s-throw-Ringo-a-bone” move. I’m gonna spend more time with their stuff. Not only Fagen’s but I also haven’t spent much time with their last couple of albums after they got back together.

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      1. You think after hearing Walters vocals that him taking a few songs would have been a no brainer. From what I gather Donald and him were a pretty tight pair. Maybe Walter just made a choice to be Silent Bob. Out of all the music that you’ve covered, your love of these guys comes out strong.

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        1. It’s all there, CB – the visceral energy of rock ‘n roll in stuff like “Black Friday”” or “Reelin.’ But also the complex chord harmonies and incredible virtuosity of jazz. And then there are the solos, especially guitar. I’m on a quest to learn as many of theirs as I can. So far, I’ve got all the “Reeln'” and “Kid Charlemagne” solos. I learned Becker’s solo on “Bad Sneakers” when he passed. I want to learn Skunk’s on “My Old School.” And a real challenge would be Dias’ on “Bhodisattva.” The music world is a much poorer place minus the Dan and Zappa. Although Fagen says he’ll keep on keepin’ on touring as Steely Dan.

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        2. I was just thinking, CB, after visiting Christian’s site and listening to the Stones live how much I love THAT band. Even more than the Dan if you can believe that. I am a straight-up, total fucking Stones junkie, man.

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        3. Yeah, he said he saw my post, credited it and took off from there. Like you CB, a good citizen of the blogosphere. Yeah, and the Stones are it for me, man. Fucking love them. Did a series a while back. Their country stuff is as close as I come to loving country. And that blues album they recently did kicks ass. Like I told Christian, the Stones aren’t just some other band. Apart from the Beatles, the holy grail, I’ve easily read more about those guys than any other band. Seen ’em a few times too.

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        4. They don’t make if easy for guys like us who move our mouths when we read, do they CB? Dickens! Jesus, by now there’s gotta be a comic book of the fucking thing. That’ll cut your reading time way down then you can grab a nap.

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        5. No kidding. I used to do book reports from comics. No bullshit. Problem is I like Dickens and it’s a good story but Charlie give me a fuckin break . I’m looking forward to your 194 pages.

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  4. I don’t know much Steely Dan and I’ve made checking them out one of this years aims. I like some of this stuff too, so reckon I’ll add some solo stuff while I’m at it.

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    1. The Dan’s sound changed dramatically over the years, from a jazz-oriented rock band to almost a smooth jazz sound with vocals. If you get a chance, check out any Greatest Hits compilation of theirs online. Or if you want a nice early rockier album first, check out “Countdown to Ecstasy” then move on to “Aja.”

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    1. A mixed bag. Some really good stuff and then both solo and as s band, they sometimes fall into lethargic soft-rock. Their “comeback”, Two Against Nature won a Grammy. But I usually find myself going back to the older, classic stuff.

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        1. Yeah, Fagen talked about this in an interview. Eminem was the “anointed” guy that year. And so, rap in, rock out. So when they gave it to “old fogeys” Steely Dan, in the eyes of some of the shocked attendees they might just as well have given it to Tony Bennett.

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        2. That’s interesting although Radiohead make more sense as champions of the album format in 2000. Jam-band is a weird description- they’re almost the exact opposite, tightly constructed songs.

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        3. Right. But combine that with your observation on the consolation prize and, well, there you have it. And yeah, they are not a jam band and would probably be put off by that description.

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