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
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.