To the Gilletts of Planet Pop, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen are too jazz-funk-tasty, too close to the Boy Racer Fusion of Level 42. As cyberpunk eminence Gibson himself told me in 1993, “a lot of people think of Steely Dan as the epitome of boring ’70s stuff, never realizing this is probably the most subversive material pop has ever thrown up.”
Liberally sprinkling his novels with such arcane nods to the Dan, net prophet Gibson takes pride of place among the rock intelligentsia who see Becker and Fagen as the smartest duo ever produced by American pop – a kind of post-Naked Lunch version of Rodgers & Hart. Danheads like to think of themselves as being in on a splendidly arcane joke, a joke closed to those who perceive only the jazz-funk sheen of albums like Aja. (No offence, Charlie.)
Twenty years after they last collaborated on a studio album – the endlessly delayed but witheringly brilliant Gaucho – Becker and Fagen are to be found in a midtown Manhattan office suite pondering the question of the Gibsons versus the Gilletts. Walter Becker, the meticulous scientist to Fagen’s unworldly English prof, rolls the notion around his domelike head.
“I think it’s a stylistic issue,” he says finally. “Basically, many people who listen to pop music don’t wanna hear that kind of harmony. They don’t wanna hear that sort of attidude towards the lyrics or towards making music. And I think that’s fine. I wouldn’t even go as far as saying that they’re only giving us a superficial hearing. I think they’re probably people who get it and just don’t like it. It’s not anything that they wanna hear from rock music.”
Fagen takes up Becker’s slack. “They want to be physically liberated in some way,” he says of present-day rock fans. “I think our music is associated with something they don’t wanna hear. As to what they do wanna hear, that surprises me sometimes. All those white singers with those fake gravelly voices. You can’t tell the difference between TV rock and actual rock and roll anymore.”
“Rock music is being systematically merged with fashion,” chips in Becker. “A lot of the aesthetic questions that we’re talking about are gonna be declared obsolete, essentially.”
“It’s more to do with midriff display, really, than with music,” concludes Fagen.
Two Against Nature, the excellent new Steely Dan album, is at least partly about the struggle of two middle-aged rock boffins to compete in a world of midriff display and what Becker calls “nominal generational anger.”
“I think the audience for Limp Bizkit is probably not going to be particularly interested in what we’re doing,” says Becker. “I don’t think they’ll find much that satisfies them in what we do.”
“If you just compare the names Steely Dan and Limp Bizkit, you have the answer right there,” adds Fagen.
On the album’s title track, Fagen sings an almost inscrutably dense lyric about standing firm in a shifting and turbulent universe – a lyric proving that the duo’s allusive wit has been undimmed by the years. “It’s about the songwriters’ invocation of their own powers to overcome the natural and supernatural forces arrayed against them,” Becker elucidates. “They’re offering to help their audience prevail in the face of all sorts of mysterious and frightening beings.”
Other tracks on Two Against Nature are like outtakes from Woody Allen movies (‘What A Shame About Me’, with its “major Jane Street sunrise” and “goddess on the fire escape”) or offer sketches of bewitchingly damaged women (‘Negative Girl’, ‘Almost Gothic’, ‘Janie Runaway’). With the exception of the eight-and-a-half-minute closer ‘West Of Hollywood’, most of them are rooted in the New York City where both men have been based for the last three years.
“As we were writing these songs we would take breaks and go for walks and that sort of got us a little more into the mood of that sort of stuff,” says Becker. “And we wanted the lyrics – without being specifically about us or our own personal feelings – to be true to who we are and what we’re doing now in our lives.”
“I guess in my mind the Lower Broadway of ‘What A Shame About Me’ was the Lower Broadway of about 1966 rather than of today,” says Fagen, who recalls selling college textbooks on Lower Broadway’s timeless Strand bookstore .
College, of course, is where the Steely Dan story began all those years ago: two nerds against normality, defying their suburban origins, bonding through a mutual love of jazz and beat poetics. When Kenny Vance of cheesy popsters Jay & the Americans first hired them as backing musicians in 1969, he characterised Becker and Fagen as “librarians on acid”.
“I doubt Kenny really knew that much about librarians,” remarks Becker.
“Acid I think he knew about.”
“Both of us were big readers and generally fairly studious as kids,” concedes Fagen. “But then on the other hand we were definitely part of the ’60s community as it developed.”
“Kenny probably saw us with books at one time or another.”
Fagen has admitted that without Steely Dan he’d have ended up as an academic. What about Becker?
“I’m not exactly sure… which is one of the reasons I ended up becoming a musician! I didn’t have another clear career path that was calling out to me.”
Fagen: “You used to talk about that metal parts factory…”
“Oh sure, but that was just a dream.”
From the off, the dynamic duo were at odds with the culture around them. Too eccentric to play ball with Jay & the Americans but too cynical to buy into the hippie dream of rock revolution, they occupied a kind of uncharted middle ground between Burt Bacharach and the Velvet Underground – craft and deviance.
“We were a little younger than the ’60s bands,” says Fagen. “A lot of the 60s foundation was starting to collapse by the time we put out our first record.”
“There was a rock aesthetic that existed that we weren’t connected to,” adds Becker. “It was definitely isolating, because in some ways we were trying to do something that was so different musically -”
“And that included a lot of traditional forms that predated rock -”
“And that were considered antithetical to rock -”
“Whereas we weren’t afraid to listen to our parents’ music.”
Through an odd sequence of events, Becker and Fagen ended up in Los Angeles, an environment very unlike the New York and New Jersey of their youth. Here, in blandly sunny La-la land, they attempted to assemble a conventional rock band of the time, a five-piece unit built around their old East Coast guitarist friend Denny Dias. Three classic albums of sassy, melodically irresistible songs later – songs like ‘Dirty Work’, ‘My Old School’, ‘Rikki Don’t Lose That Number’ and so many, many more – Becker and Fagen decided they didn’t want to tour anymore.
“It didn’t work beyond a certain point with that particular band for a lot of reasons,” says Becker. “We found ourselves in an uncomfortable position with some of our early bandmates of constantly not wanting to do things that they wanted to do. You end up being this sort of un-generous collaborator who’s constantly pissing on somebody’s parade and doesn’t wanna do the beer commercial or whatever the hell it is. In a way, it was very liberating not to have to deal with that afterwards. To be able to say, Let’s not work for a while, or Let’s hire this guy to play the drums.”
After 1974’s Pretzel Logic, Becker and Fagen slowly moved towards the meticulous perfectionism of Aja and Gaucho, albums featuring battalions of expensive session wizards playing intricate jazz-funk songs about criminals and junkies (and bewitchingly damaged women). The fact that by the end of Steely Dan’s first phase Becker had himself become a drug casualty didn’t make the duo any less fastidious in their methodology.
“Gaucho was a struggle for us for a lot of reasons, and in the end we just sort of survived it,” says Becker circumspectly. “Whereas with Two Against Nature, although it took longer than we thought it was going to, in the end I think we finished it feeling we’d accomplished what we set out to do.”
“We don’t think of ourselves as being perfectionist, really,” says Fagen. “To us it’s more about desperately trying to have it sound more or less okay.”
“We’re just trying to spruce things up a little bit for people, you know. We want to sort of tie up the loose ends. And then the next thing you know, a couple of years have gone by.”
“The studio is all about the idea of the set-up, particularly for men. A room where you have all this technology to help you, and where you have some toys. It’s about that space-age bachelor-pad vibe. The studio satisfies a lot of those urges.”
“And you need air-conditioning, and a book with menus in it. It’s kind of a minimum livable standard, really.”
In the ’80s, Fagen made a sublime solo album called The Nightfly , then endured a long period of blockage. Becker meanwhile cleaned up, moved to Hawaii and produced China Crisis and Rickie Lee Jones. Only when Fagen finally prepared to record Kamakiriad in the early ’90s were the two men reunited. Becker produced the album and then set to work with his partner on the first live Steely Dan tour in two decades.
“The fact that we didn’t play for so long wasn’t because we particularly meant to be inaccessible in some way,” explains Becker. “It was just because there were standards of performance that we wanted our audience to get when they came to hear us, and we weren’t in a position to have them back in the 70s. And I think the extent to which we’re happier now with being able to perform for audiences is the extent to which the performances and the shows are closer to the quality and the control and the sonic clarity of a recording.”
When work began on Two Against Nature in Hawaii in the winter of 1997, it was as though they’d simply picked up where they’d left off with Gaucho. Sitting opposite them on this December morning, I find myself wondering aloud to what extent Walter and Donald are actually aspects of the same cerebral character.
“At the very least there’s some kind of parallel development,” offers Fagen. “Chances are we would have developed differently having never known each other.”
“With any relationship that goes on this long and is productive over a long period of time, there have to be some sort of interlocking qualities in those personalities that make it possible to survive,” adds Becker. “There’s a lot of obstacles to doing something together in the way we’ve done it, ranging from personal situations to external factors in your life, willingness to clear space and share objectives… how you negotiate when something comes up that you disagree about. In most cases, all that’s there is a series of ill-considered and regrettable compromises where both people have compromised pretty much everything that mattered to them! I think that’s why there probably aren’t that many of these collaborations going on over a long period of time.”
“It may also have to do with what’s not there,” says Fagen. “There can’t be a sort of high degree of stress, because that wears you down. It’s like a marriage. We’ve had a fairly stress-free relationship, at least in terms of us relating to each other.”
Are pop’s great songwriters doomed to decline in middle age? How did Fagen overcome the blockage of the ’80s?
“You have to evolve, or else you devolve,” he says. “At this point I’m very comfortable writing and feel that there’s a lot of juice there. I think what happens with a lot of people is that after that initial youthful spurt, they never come out of it. They either succumb to despair or intoxicants. Part of it is that you have to throw off the narcissism of youth, which is your energy when you start. When that’s gone, you have to find another source.”
So what impact will Steely Dan have on narcissistic youth in the year 2000?
Fagen: “We’re looking for global domination.”
Becker: “I think this is gonna pretty much change everything.”