Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



Jazz-influenced pop band, renowned for meticulous production and superb playing in the studio, and cryptic lyrics, described as a 'deftly satirical view of the American Dream'. They were named after a dildo in William Burroughs's Naked Lunch. They were basically a duo of songwriters/vocalists Walter Becker (bass and guitar, b 20 February 1950, d 3 September 2017) and Donald Fagen (keyboards, b 10 January 1948) who met at college in New York State; actor Chevy Chase played drums in one of their early groups. They wrote the soundtrack for film You Gotta Walk It Like You Talk It '71, produced by Kenny Vance of Jay and the Americans (whose backing group they played in). Then they went with producer Gary Katz to ABC Records as songwriters and began making their own albums: Can't Buy A Thrill '72 with vocalist David Palmer, Countdown To Ecstasy '73, Pretzel Logic '74 with future Doobie Michael McDonald on backing vocals, Katy Lied '75, The Royal Scam '76, Aja '77 (with Jim Keltner on drums), Gaucho '80 with Patti Austin, Mark Knopfler, the Brecker brothers and David Sanborn. They disliked touring and largely ignored the singles market; their music was slick, jazzy and soulful, the lyrics described recently in the New Yorker by Sasha Frere-Jones as 'creepy and astonishing...jaded assessments [of] our least flattering moments.' It was easily some of the best pop in a dismal decade, and enormously popular: all the albums charted in the USA with Aja at no. 3; the last two won Grammys for engineering. Guitarist Denny Dias played on all albums, Victor Feldman on most; sidemen on various tracks/albums included Ray Brown, Wilton Felder, Larry Carlton, Phil Woods, Plas Johnson. Compilations etc included Fagen and Becker's The Early Years.

Fagen made The Nightfly '82 on WB with Carlton, Rick Derringer, Randy Brecker, Hugh McCracken and others; later Kamakiriad on Reprise; he composes at the keyboard but lacks confidence in his playing: he tries to get someone else to play on recordings and then has to do it himself because no one else can play it the way he wants it. Becker and Fagen played on Zazu '87, a debut album by model Rosie Vela (b c.1954; she had sung and written songs since childhood); they worked together again '93, recorded Alive In America on tour '93-4, back in the top 40 albums '95 on Giant. Other albums, scraps, compilations etc included Becker's 11 Tracks Of Whack on Giant, with Fagen and others; Roaring Of The Lamb on Griffin, Stone Piano '68-71 and Sun Mountain on Magnum. Citizen Steely Dan was a four-CD collection on MCA.

Fagan and Becker got back together in the studio for Two Against Nature 2000 (won a Grammy for Album of the Year) and Everything Must Go '03; on their Rent Party tour in 2009 they recreated some of their classic material. Tribute albums have included the instrumental album No Static At All 2000 by Garden Party and others; Maestros of Cool 2012 was a 2-CD compilation of covers by various excellent studio musicians. Fagan published a collection of memoirs called Eminent Hipsters 2013, described by Lou Glandfield in the Times Literary Supplement as 'Like his early collaborations with Becker, "never less than fun".' Becker passed away suddenly at only 67, after missing some engagements earlier in 2017 for medical reasons.