WALTER BECKER: FEBRUARY 20, 1950 – SEPTEMBER 3, 2017
Are you reelin’ in the years
Stowin’ away the time
Are you gatherin’ up the tears
Have you had enough of mine
For music fans, the year 2016 was savage. We lost Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen, Leon Russell, Keith Emerson, Greg Lake, Maurice White, and Glenn Frey to name a few. There were many others but those were the ones I felt a connection to. Bowie hit me hard. I wasn’t expecting that one. Who was? I shed a tear. A year on, I travelled to LA to experience the Celebrating Bowie concert featuring past members of his band. The show came to Sydney too but I was going to be in America at the time and thought the LA vocal guests would be pretty special and they were.
It’s amazing how big a chunk of your life that music takes up. Albums and concerts are signposts that remind you of where you were and what you were doing at certain points in your life. I know that as a young kid in the early 70s I was sitting in front of the TV, watching a show from America called Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert and I saw a band called Steely Dan playing a song called Reelin’ In The Years. They were long haired, hippy looking dudes, especially Walter the bass player, playing pop rock but not as I’d ever heard it before. The sound was unique … quirky … featuring clever chord changes and vocally they were unusual too. I rushed out and bought the album Can’t Buy A Thrill from an import shop in the city the next day. I bought every album they released after that and devoured them with my mates. I observed as this band developed, getting more and more sophisticated with each release. Band members came and went but the constants were Donald Fagan (vocals and keys) and Walter Becker (bass and vocals), they were the songwriters, arrangers … it was their band. To me, they were like a New York City, jazz, pop-rock version of Lennon and McCartney, creating magic with each new album.
From Countdown to Ecstasy to Pretzel Logic to Katy Lied, I marvelled at their arrangements and obscure lyrics. Then with their 5th album The Royal Scam (1976) shit got serious. The production values and song construction leapt a notch. The musicians employed to lay down tracks included some of America’s finest session guys. The track Kid Charlemagne featured a guitar solo from Larry Carlton which is to this day considered one of the finest in contemporary music history. Yet as brilliant as The Royal Scam was, it was merely a rehearsal for what was to come next … Aja. Widely considered to be one of the greatest album in rock music, Aja was Steely Dan’s masterpiece. By this time, every musician on earth dreamed of playing on a Steely Dan recording. Becker and Fagan had earned enough respect to ask anyone they wanted to appear on their recordings. It was akin to being in Miles Davis or Frank Zappa’s band. If you’d worked with The Dan, you’d made it. The session invites were sent and the cream of the crop came running; Bernard Purdie (drums), Victor Feldman (piano), Larry Carlton (guitar), Tom Scott (sax), Steve Gadd (drums), Chuck Rainey (bass), Joe Sample (Piano), Wayne Shorter (tenor sax), Lee Ritenour (guitar), Jim Keltner (drums) and more.
With Aja, Becker and Fagan were seeking perfection. Musicians were called in to lay down their parts … again and again until they had it right. Often they didn’t get there and takes from some of the world’s finest session guys were simply discarded. So finicky were Becker and Fagan that musicians at their wit’s end were said to be brought to tears. There’s a much-watch documentary on the making of Aja in the Classic Albums series. However, the meticulous approach to the recording of Aja paid off for Becker and Fagan, it was Steely Dan’s most successful album and created a legacy of raising the recording quality bar for everyone else to a new level.
Comparatively speaking, their next album Gaucho (1980) was a disappointment, created amid personal and business set backs. Becker and Fagan were over it and packed the band away for well over a decade, turning to occasional solo projects instead.
To Steely Dan fans’ delight, in 2000 the band reformed to record their first studio album in 20 years: Two Against Nature, which won four Grammy Awards. It was also the beginning of a new era of touring internationally and was followed three years later by yet another album Everything Must Go. It also gave Australians the opportunity to see the band live for the first time and nobody was disappointed, they were amazing. At the time I’d arranged for an interview with the support band, World Party’s drummer Chris Whitten (who had also played with Paul McCartney) and luckily found myself backstage at soundcheck for the Steely Dan Melbourne concert, so it was a significant day for a Dan fan who grew up in a bungalow in the northern suburbs of Melbourne listening their music.
This wasn’t my first personal connection to Steely Dan though, that had happened many years prior. Australian actor, singer songwriter John Waters had created a John Lennon tribute show called Looking Through a Glass Onion and had employed the services of an American guitarist named Elliott Randall. Elliot was responsible for the famous guitar solo on Steely Dan’s tune Reelin’ In The Years, the first Dan song I ever heard. I got to interview Elliott in his hotel room to discuss not only the Waters’ Lennon show but his time with Steely Dan as well. We were discussing the Reelin’ In The Years guitar solo and Elliott suggested that the first take of his solo was the best version but Becker and Fagan went for another, take number six I think it was. As he was telling me the story, he handed me a Fender Strat and said here, that’s the guitar I recorded that solo on. Clearly, Elliott had no idea of the gravity of the situation he’d just created. The guitar was like the Holy Grail for me and I was holding it. He probably expected me to have a strum but I froze. It was just a Strat but the metaphoric weight of the guitar rendered me incapable of doing anything but hand it straight back to him.
I had fully intended to catch Steely Dan on their return Australian tour in 2011 but life had other ideas. By this time I had interviewed or got to know several Steely Dan band members and was looking forward to meeting drummer Keith Carlock, guitarist Jon Herrington and also a Brazilian percussionist named Cafe who I’d met at a NAMM show and struck a friendship with. Cafe was playing with Steve Winwood (another of my music heroes), the support band on the last Australian tour. With so many contacts within the band, I felt confident that I might potentially get to meet Becker and Fagan, or even Winwood too. In a cruel twist of fate, while Steely Dan was taking to the stage in Melbourne I was undergoing heart surgery at the Austin hospital instead. Next time I kept thinking to myself. Next tour I’ll go out of my way to ensure I get to meet Walter Becker and Donald Fagan, who were such a large part of the soundtrack to my life. As it turns out, 2017 has been a cow of a year too, a big black cow that can get out of here. Walter Becker died on September 3rd after what seems like a brief illness. Details of his death at this stage are sketchy. In Fagan’s heartfelt tribute to the press, he promises to keep the Steely Dan legacy alive but really, things just won’t be the same again. Vale Walter and thank you for everything you did.
By Greg Phillips, editor Australian Musician