In this post we celebrate the musical contribution of Walter Becker, who passed away last week at age 67.
“I like Steely Dan, his songs are pretty cool…”
Possibly the most frequently-uttered, mistaken statement in the era of 1970s “soft rock.” The average listener knew the songs, but didn’t realize Steely Dan was actually a group, led by a couple guys known as Becker and Fagan.
In defense of the average listener, they had probably seen photos of the rather average-looking guy with the thinning hair, droopy mustache, and figured he was Steely Dan. In a way, they were right.
He was Walter Becker, and the camera made him look like he knew he was the un-cool average guy but he didn’t care. And that made him unforgettable. The “other guy” was Donald Fagan, and yeah he looked like a rock star or artiste or something. Walter Becker could’ve been one of us, except that his gaze implied that he was too smart to spend his days waiting for a bus or fumbling for change to pay a library fine the way we did. And we knew it too, because we knew that he backed up that stare by writing music that burrowed in your ear and wouldn’t get out.
Steely Dan fans will claim that Becker & Fagan were not about pop, they were on a higher plane where jazz fusion met 1970s experimental rock or something like that. That’s fine, but there is enough influence in Steely Dan’s documented pop hits that some discussion of their impact on American popular song is necessary to do justice to the man’s biography. So for the purposes of this entry, we’ll leave the jazz-fusion/rock whatever and minutiae of the musical construction to the cognescenti, and focus on the what & why of Walter Becker’s and Donald Fagan’s contribution to pop.
If you assembled a “hits” album, you could probably cobble together over a dozen tunes penned by Becker and Fagan that would be recognizable to most baby boomers with even a passing interest in rock music. If we pare it down to the hit songs, many of those same boomers would say something like, “oh yeah, of course.” In most cases the music is so timeless that they would have no clue what year these tunes date from.
Purely as a refresher, here’s the abbreviated chronology:
Do It Again — 1972
Reelin’ In the Years — 1973
Rikki Don’t Lose That Number — 1974
Peg — 1977
Deacon Blues — 1978
Hey Nineteen — 1980
We could make the argument that 1981’s “Time Out of Mind” should be added, however it has something of a very 1981 sound feel to it and lacks the timelessness of “Hey Nineteen” from the same album. If anything the group’s non-hit but well-known “Bodhisattva” would be the wild card added to the above roster. Songwriting credits for this short list are entirely Becker and Fagan; if you add in the rest of their catalog they would have to rank among the top songwriting duos of the 1970s.
The musical roots of Becker and Fagan unquestionably revolve around Charlie Parker and the 1950s New York jazz scene. At the same time this would’ve been tempered by the still-echoing influence of Irving Berlin and George Gershwin, and the then-current sounds of Ella Fitzgerald, Leonard Bernstein, and even Frank Sinatra. Wrap this all up and you’ve got the Steely Dan sound: jazz harmony layered over a pop melody.
Their influence reverberates through almost any smooth jazz rock styling you’ll hear today. The earliest ramifications were a bit of a synthesized cartoon of the Steely Dan sound, found in the form of Michael Omartianesque productions that were ubiquitous in the early 1980s. (That’s not a swipe at Omartian; he played on many of Becker & Fagan’s best recordings. Although wildly successful, the synth sound is seriously dated.) Today it is echoed by the likes of Kenny G and even Lady Gaga.
As for longevity, have no doubt. Years from now when you hear a rhythmic pop song that is so very familiar, but you can’t place it exactly, that’s the sound of Becker and Fagan — still burrowed in your ear.
You go back, Jack, do it again
Wheel turnin’ ’round and ’round
You go back, Jack, do it again…