Mr. Steely and Mr. Dan – A Collection of Walter Becker Solos

There are a lot of people, not a few of whom are Steely Dan fans, who think that the Dan brought in studio guitarist because Walter Becker was not up to the task of playing their challenging charts. I am here to tell you that it is

NOT TRUE

According to Rolling Stone, one day in 1967, Becker and Fagen met at an on-campus music club. Fagen recalls hearing someone playing guitar with “an authentic blues touch and feel, and a convincing vibrato.”

An article on NPR website said that “where most guitar heroes of his era charged into the center ring with fistfuls of notes and blazing chords, Becker preferred to sneak in through the back door, and in just a few measures and fewer notes, rearrange all the furniture.

Investigate any of the Steely Dan songs that became earworms, and somewhere in the vicinity of the vocal hook, you will find a slight, seemingly insignificant instrumental gesture, a morsel that lifts the music higher. The angular five-note opening phrase of “Josie” from Aja. The burbling talkbox-guitar counterpoint that underpins the sordid tale of a “Haitian Divorce” or the talkbox emulation of Depression-era brass on “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo.”

First up, perhaps my favorite Becker solo of all time. So beautiful I learned how to play it and of course, have nowhere to use it. It’s on Katy Lied’s “Bad Sneakers” and comes in at about 1:54. I’ve always loved Jeff Porcaro’s (later of Toto) drumming on this.

Back in 1978, when FM radio was great here in the States and not the piece of shit it’s become, they made a movie called FM. Given that it has a rating of 20% on Rotten Tomatoes, I’ve chosen to continue not seeing it.

It’s notable, though, for the reunion of Blazing Saddles’ Cleavon Little and Alex Karras. And there are cameos from Linda Ronstadt, Jimmy Buffett, REO Speedwagon, and Tom Petty. Someone probably got a look at the Steely Dan duo, who Jay Black once called the Starkweather and Manson of rock, and said no thank you to a cameo.

But they did allow the ironic yet cynical duo to do the theme song, a bonus for us. All that they were told is that it had to have FM in the title. The movie celebrates the pushback of radio stations against corporate interests, a battle that was already being lost. Fagen didn’t give a flying fuck about most rock he heard and had no love for FM radio. So naturally, he and Becker undercut the whole thing, basically proclaiming it “nothing but blues and Elvis.”

For whatever reason, multiple versions of this tune exist, one with a Pete Christlieb sax solo, and one with a Becker solo (on the outro). Jeff Porcaro on drums again with Glenn Frey, Don Henley, and Timothy B. Schmitt on backing vocals. (You can only find this tune on compilation albums.)

“FM (No Static At All)”

I have never met Napoleon
But I plan to find the time
‘Cause he looks so fine upon that hill
They tell me he was lonely, he’s lonely still
Those days are gone forever
Over a long time ago, oh yeah

What does that mean? Does it matter? Abandon all hope all ye who enter the strange and wondrous world of a band named for a steam-powered dildo.

“Pretzel Logic” from the same-named album is basically a modified blues. It has a funky, funky beginning and in fact, everything about it is funky. It is also one of the first tunes that Becker soloed on. I love Becker’s outro solo here with that rising and descending wah-wah-wah. Jim Gordon on drums, Tim Schmit on backing vocals:

It surprised me to find out that Becker played the solo on the Dan’s rewrite of the Ulysses saga, Aja’s “Home at Last.” I mean, Hell’s Bells, Larry Carlton is on that tune as well. If it were me, not only would I not play the solo, I would ask Carlton if I could tune his fucking guitar for him. Tim Schmit again on backing vocals. They love this guy.

When Black Friday comes
I’ll stand down by the door
And catch the gray men when they
Dive from the fourteenth floor

“Black Friday,” has nothing to do with the all-American feeding frenzy of post-Thanksgiving Christmas shopping and everything to do with the US gold panic of 1869. The Dan updated it and moved it to Australia. Again, Becker’s solo is excellent and again, we’ve got an outro solo:

Another surprise (at least for me). is that Becker does the solo on Aja’s “Josie.” (I’m not surprised he has the chops. But I thought that by the late 70s he’d pretty much turned over all the soloing to the studio guys.) Tim Schmit on backing vocals!

The Spotify list has just about every song that Becker played solo on. I think the only one I didn’t do was “Blues Beach” from Everything Must Go because there really wasn’t much of a solo on it. The latter stuff is some of the Dan’s yacht-rockiest but there is definitely some tasty stuff.

19 thoughts on “Mr. Steely and Mr. Dan – A Collection of Walter Becker Solos

  1. You won’t be surprised that I tell you I love all of these tunes – and guitar solos! Walter Becker was a very untypical guitar hero – a hell of a player but, as you said, somebody who never sought the limelight!

    Coincidentally, last night, I watched my good music friend’s tribute band, who mostly play Steely Dan songs. Their guitarist Don Regan (they jokingly call him “Steely Don”) really nails all of these crazy guitar solos. And looks so relaxing while playing – it’s incredible!

    Anyway, they played all of the tunes you highlighted except “Bad Sneakers” and “Black Friday”. They used to have these two tracks in their set as well, but they’ve since added some new stuff and took out a few tunes.

    Like

    1. My hat’s off to any band that can pull off Dan tunes. I don’t think I’d ever want to be in a tribute band but I can think of a nice handful of Dan tunes I’d add to the list.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. While I wouldn’t have “a problem” with the tribute band concept, frankly, I wouldn’t be up for the task, especially when it comes to such complex music like the Dan. It’s not a coincidence all the guys in the band have been musicians for decades – one or two even make a living with playing music. While I admire their skill set, frankly, I’m glad I don’t depend on music to support my family!

        Like

        1. You and me both, bro. Every time I go to a camp, frankly, I feel quite inferior. I can play well enough on rock and blues but since I’m not up there on stage night after night, there’s no way I can sound as polished or professional as those guys. I realize too that in a lot of ways I am just not cut out to be a professional musician. It takes a certain “hang=loose, go with the flow” personality type that I completely lack. I will stick with my third shift Fryolator job at McDonald’s and be happy with it.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. That’s a cool idea for a post – I knew he did a bunch of solos but never seen it in one place. Some of my favourite Steely Dan solos (Black Friday, Pretzel Logic) and songs (Gaucho, The Fez).

    It seems like he barely did any solos on the first couple of albums – I guess Baxter was the designated lead guitarist then.

    Also, reading the above conversation, Steely Dan songs are super hard on piano – full of weird jazz chords.

    Like

    1. Actually it was Dias and Baxter right through ‘Pretzel Logic’ album. Nobody thinks of them together in a twin guitar mode, partially I think because they weren’t coordinating harmonized guitars and the star was the song, not used as a vehicle for jamming as such. I think their crowning achievement is ‘Bhodisattva’ where Dias takes the jazz solo, Baxter the rockier one.

      As to Dan difficulty and complexity, the hard bit on guitar, of course, is the solos. But they are fun to play and a good learning tool. The first ones I ever learned were the ones in “Reelin’ in the Years’ which was when I suddenly realized I could play.

      Like

        1. Yes, Dias hung around through Aja although in a less central role as time went on. Ironically, the band started as a result of Becker and Fagen answering Dias’ ad. He pretty quickly realized that they had songwriting and arranging chops he lacked and happily let them lead the way. He actually toured with Toto back in the 90s and I believe he did some session work. But yes, his prime years appear to have come and gone.

          Liked by 1 person

  3. Steely Dan are one of those bands that I’d always heard of but never really heard so this served as a cracking intro, thank you, sir. One of the reasons I’d heard of them was – whether this is true or not probably needs fact checking – that one of the bands the pair were in prior to Steely Dan was a trio with Chevy Chase sitting on the drum stool.

    Like

    1. 100% correct. He was a fellow student at Bard College and so yes, he’d sit in on the drums. I recall Fagen saying he was pretty good. But I’ve seen Chevy in multiple things over many years, never once on the skins.

      Are you serious about having never really spent time listening to this band? That seems unlikely given your immersion in music. And hell, I think I’ve now done more posts on them than any other band.

      Like

      1. Thanks. My ear does the work for me. and then the brain decides if it work for CB. SD always works.
        I have a Larry Carlton/Robben Ford collaboration coming up on my spin list soon.

        Like

        1. Listened to the ‘Carlton/Ford Live’ yesterday. Recommend it to you. I could see Doc and CB sitting at this gig and being in music heaven Bluesy jazz that swings. I guess this is what happens when “two of the best” decide to not go through the motions and just do what they do best. Great stuff.

          Like

  4. Slow reaction (dang day job) but thanks for a great post – a real Who Knew? thing for me. Really appreciate your sleuthing out the Becker solos that I never realized were NOT Carlton, Baxter, et al. Hearing them together like that really captures his funky timing thing that is totally unique. Also reminds me of a Clapton quote I heard on some interview years ago (paraphrased): “I’ve always thought of a guitar solo as a song within a song – it has a beginning, a middle and an end”. Clapton is a master of that, with many great examples (Badge, I Feel Free, the list goes on) and Becker has the same touch. Thanks for bringing it to light.

    Like

    1. Absolutely. That’s the kind of comment that makes the research worthwhile. There are probably some complex solos that Becker could not have pulled off. But the ones he could were damned tasty. He is greatly missed.

      Like

What would you say?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s