Steely Dan – 9/10

Two baby boomers from the Greater New York Metropolitan Area, Donald Fagen (keyboards/vocals) and Walter Becker (guitar/bass), met as students at Bard College in 1967. Realizing that they liked a lot of the same things – jazz, r&b, comic novels, science fiction – they began composing songs together on an upright piano in the common room of Walter’s dorm. They played in various pickup bands at school and on recording sessions for classmate Terence (Boona) Boylan (Alias Boona {1969}).

After Donald’s graduation in ’69 (Walter had dropped out), the duo found digs in pre-gentrification Brooklyn where they sat around on ancient, shabby couches and plotted their assault on the music business. One bitterly cold morning, notebook in hand, they subwayed to the Brill Building in midtown Manhattan (now in it’s declining years) and knocked on the doors of music publishers with the idea of presenting their collection of eccentric compositions. Unfortunately, on that day, most of the offices were empty owing to the annual publishers’ conference (MIDEM) in Cannes. Feeling discouraged, they finally knocked on a door with a name plate that read “JATA”. This turned out to be the production office of Jay and the Americans, a hit pop group of the mid-’60s, then on the verge of a comeback with a remake of of the Ronettes’ “Walking in the Rain.”

One of the Americans, Kenny Vance, took an interest in the duo’s compositions and found them studio work, both playing and arranging. They also started touring with the group as members of their backup band.Vance managed to place one of their pop efforts on a Barbra Streisand album that featured songs by the new, groovy generation of writers.

Donald and Walter also played sessions for Vance crony Gary Katz. By the early 70s, they had worked with many top NYC session pros including drummers Herb Lovelle and Buddy Saltzman; bassist Chuck Rainey; pianists Paul Griffin and Artie Butler; and guitarists Elliot Randall, Dom Troiano, Ricky Zehringer (later Derringer) and Jeff “Skunk” Baxter.

In 1971, the lads relocated to sunny Los Angeles where Gary Katz, now an A&R man for ABC/Dunhill Records, had secured them a job as staff songwriters for the label, one of the last to employ house writers to write material for the artists on the roster. At that time, ABC was concentrating on “singles acts” aimed at the pre-teen and teen markets, such as Tommy Roe, The Grass Roots and Hamilton, Joe Frank and Reynolds. Officially tasked with writing pop tunes for these artists, Donald and Walter secretly began to the assemble a band to act as a vehicle for their “special material”. With Katz’s help, they began to import players from the east coast.

Early in ’72, the original Steely Dan group – guitarist Denny Dias, guitarist Jeff Baxter, drummer Jim Hodder, and with Donald and Walter on keyboards and bass respectively – began rehearsing in an unfinished wing of the ABC building. Several weeks later, the group began recording their first album at Village Recorders in West Hollywood with engineer Roger Nichols. After being informed that ABC expected the group to tour extensively, Donald, who wasn’t prepared to front a band at that time, insisted on finding another singer/frontman, and David Palmer was added to the group.

Can’t Buy A Thrill, released that November, yielded two hit singles, “Do It Again” and “Reelin’ In The Years”, which featured a notable solo by guest guitarist Elliot Randall. A third single, “Dirty Work”, with a vocal by David Palmer, also got a lot of airplay.

The band toured behind Can’t Buy A Thrill and the following two albums, Countdown to Ecstasy and Pretzel Logic, both in the States and Britain. The band, now with Donald as the lead vocalist, expanded to include drummer Jeff Porcaro, keyboard/vocalist Michael McDonald and percussionist/vocalist Royce Jones. By 1974, Donald and Walter decided they’d had enough of road for the time being, and retreated to the studio to concentrate on recording. Naturally, the band wanted to work, and so departed for greener pastures. Donald and Walter, who had already started working with studio players on the Pretzel Logic sessions, began to write with certain musicians in mind. Over the next five years, four more albums were released: Katy Lied (’75), The Royal Scam (’76), Aja (’77) and Gaucho (’80), which was completed after the boys moved back home to New York.

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