Sophisticated with a sly, at times cynical, sense of humour, Steely Dan is one of the definitive bands of the 1970s with a distinctly un-1970s sound. Combining complex time signatures and cryptic lyrics, the group garnered a cult following that quickly bubbled over into the mainstream. The mastermind of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, both renowned perfectionists in the recording studio, Steely Dan polished rock music to a brilliant sheen with smooth jazz harmonies and catchy pop hooks. Although it was together for less than a decade, the innovative band remains a major influence.
Bassist Walter Becker and singer-keyboardist Donald Fagen met in New York in 1967, playing together in jazz and progressive rock groups before joining the backing band of Jay & the Americans in 1970. They both stayed one year before breaking out as songwriters with the single I Mean to Shine, which Barbara Streisand recorded for her self-titled 1971 album.
The duo moved to Los Angeles that same year to work as staff songwriters at ABC/Dunhill under producer Gary Katz, who suggested they form a band. Soon after, Becker and Fagen created Steely Dan, cheekily named after a certain apparatus in William Burroughs's Naked Lunch.
In 1972, after they recruited guitarists Denny Dias and Jeff "Skunk" Baxter, drummer Jim Hodder and keyboardist-vocalist David Palmer, the group became official. Its debut, Can't Buy a Thrill, was released that same year, featuring the hit singles Do It Again and Reeling in the Years. However, the supporting tour wasn't as successful as the album and resulted in Palmer leaving the band.
Following their 1973 sophomore effort, Countdown to Ecstasy, a critical success that nevertheless failed to score a hit single, Becker and Fagen replaced Hodder with Jeff Porcaro and added keyboardist Michael McDonald. Released in 1974, Pretzel Logic brought the reformed Steely Dan back into the Top Ten charts with the single Rikki Don't Lose That Number. That same year, Becker and Fagen decided to focus on writing and recording, and the band gave its last live performance for nearly two decades.
Retreat to the studio
Shifting from a performing band to a studio project, the duo hired a diverse group of musicians for the recording of Katy Lied, which seamlessly incorporated jazz, blues, pop and soul influences. The Royal Scam, which came out in 1976, featured a similarly textured musical tapestry.
For Aja, Steely Dan assembled a group of notable jazz musicians, including saxophonist Wayne Shorter and guitarist Lee Ritenour. In place of the band's ironic lyrics and challenging music was a clean, cool recording of lush instrumentals and accomplished solos. Three weeks after its release, the 1977 album reached the Top Five and was one of the first to be platinum certified. Aja's influence extended beyond the charts: Jazz clarinettist Woody Herman recorded an album of Becker/Fagen songs the following year.
In 1979, ABC (the band's label) was bought by MCA Records, resulting in a lengthy contractual dispute. In fact, Steely Dan's follow-up, Gaucho, was delayed by personal, legal and technical mishaps before it was released in 1980.
After several weeks of studio work on the first track, The Second Arrangement, a large part of the recording was accidentally erased by an assistant engineer. Meanwhile, Becker's girlfriend was found dead of a drug overdose in his apartment. He was charged with a wrongful death suit, but settled the claim out of court.
Not long after, the musician was hit by a taxi, shattering his right leg. Another legal battle ensued after jazz pianist Keith Jarrett sued the duo for copyright infringement, citing Gaucho's title track as too closely resembling his song Long As You Know You're Living Yours.
Separation and reunion
This turbulent period ended with triumph: Gaucho was nominated for Album of the Year at the Grammys in 1980. But the celebration was temporary. In the summer of 1981, Becker and Fagen announced that they were parting ways. The next year, Fagen launched his solo career with The Nightfly. His 1993 follow-up, Kamakiriad, featured Becker as producer. The next year, Fagen returned the favour, serving as producer on Becker's first solo effort, 11 Tracks of Whack.
The successful collaborations soon led to a Steely Dan reunion tour. In 1995, a selection of the duo's concert recordings were released on the album Alive in America. The band followed up with Two Against Nature (2000), which won the Grammy Award for Album of the Year, and Everything Must Go (2003).
In early 2008, Becker and Fagen announced that they were launching a tour of the U.S. and Canada entitled Think Fast. Audiences took heed, purchasing tickets and arriving in droves when the legendary band performed at the Festival, gracing a Montréal stage for the first time ever.