Walter Becker 1950-2017
Chinese music always sets me free / Angular banjos sound good to me
In a single couplet, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen made fun of themselves with wonderful grace and wicked sophistication: the qualities that imbued the music they made together. It’s so sad to think that the announcement of Becker’s death today, at the age of 67, puts an end to one of popular music’s great songwriting and record-making partnerships.
Amid the booming rock scene of the 1970s, in which anything seemed possible, Steely Dan made music that will last. That doesn’t make them unique, but it is a tribute to the enormous care and effort Becker and Fagen put into constructing the nine studio albums they made together under that name between 1972 and 2003. Their clever words, clever time-signatures and clever chords were the product of two enthusiasts dissatisfied with anything but the cleverest music they could possibly produce.
Fagen first encountered Becker at Bard College in upstate New York. He was walking past a building used for musical practice and heard someone playing a guitar in the style of Howlin’ Wolf’s records. The two bonded quickly over their shared interest in, as Fagen put it in his statement today, “jazz (from the ’20s through the mid-’60s, W.C Fields, the Marx brothers, science fiction, Nabokov, Kurt Vonnegut, Thomas Berger, and Robert Altman films… Also soul music and Chicago blues.” All that, and much more, was in their music.
They were also unique in that, as musicians in their own band, they usually preferred to call on others to enhance their vision. Becker started as Steely Dan’s bass player, but he was also very fine rock guitarist — just listen to his lead parts on “Black Friday”, from Katy Lied, “Josie”, from Aja and “West of Hollywood” from Two Against Nature. Yet he was happy to hand that job to a succession of players with different skills and sensibilities. Some of them were Denny Dias, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, Elliott Randall, Dean Parks, Hugh McCracken, Lee Ritenour, Jay Graydon and Steve Khan. The same would be true of the attitude he and Fagen shared towards the keyboard players, drummers and saxophonists they chose to articulate their vision: only the best, on their very best day, would do.
And so, very unusually in their chosen field, their wild imaginations were matched by their obsessively exigent craftsmanship. They were also some kind of weird cats. They were lucky to have their partnership, and so were we.
* The photograph of Becker (left) and Fagen is, I believe, by Anton Corbijn. I hope he doesn’t mind my use of it on this occasion. For the story of the duo in great detail, concentrating on the music, I recommend Anthony Robustelli’s Steely Dan FAQ (Backbeat Books, 2017).
We were certainly were. WB also produced Donald Fagen’s second album, Kamakiriad, still a personal favourite.
One little typo in there – Hagen should be Fagen .. Thanks for the nice piece …
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Barely a day has passed in the last 40 years when I haven’t listened to or heard in my head a Steely Dan song. I am so sad. Farewell to a “major dude”.
Know every album inside out, the Soundtrack (8 track) of my life on the road for Island Records in the 1970s.
“Kick off your high-heeled sneakers…” the opening phrase from their FM — classic, sardonic Steely Dan.
Arguably their masterpiece .
Lovely tribute Richard
One major significant guitar player that contributed to multiple Steely Dan albums missing from the list ; Larry Carlton
Yes — funnily enough, I had his name in my head while I was typing out that list, and somehow omitted it.
Fine tribute to my favourite band/partnership. Never tire of their music ever since I heard “Do It Again” on Radio 1, and I like to think my taste is almost as eclectic as Richard’s.
“Two Against Nature Stand Alone”.
Walter produced and engineered this gem Liquid Krystall Displayed
Click to open expanded view
was fortunate to spend five days in the studio with Calvin Keys, Jerry Peters, Peter Erskine, and Walter’s great ears !
RIP, man ! see you soon !
Featured on both his own “11 Tracks of Whack” and Steely Dan’s “Alive in America”, Walter Becker’s beautifully poignant “Book of Liars” is what I probably cherish the most among his countless achievements:
“Santa Claus came in late last night / Drunk on Christmas wine.”
Well said Richard. I remember when their first album arrived at MM we played it to death on the office record player without knowing who they really were.
I remember Harry Doherty attempting to belittle their music in MM while
NME’s headline for their “Aja” review had run “Beyond The Cerebral Cortex.”
Becker’s two solo albums are also very fine :”11 Tracks Of Wack” and “Circus Money”. I’m particularly drawn to “Bob Is Not Your Uncle Any More” from “Circus Money” as well as the title track. He also produced a number of jazz recordings : Roger Rosenberg’s “Baritonality” being particularly fine. He will be sorely missed.
I used to study these albums and play along to them on guitar. Oh what happy memories! I couldn’t possibly name my favourite songs but my favourite solos were Bodhisattva, Haitian Divorce, Black Friday and Peg.
However, recent listening has made me realise there’s only so far you can get with cynicism and cleverness – SD’s absence of tenderness and inability to write a love song is why the band garners so few female listeners.
For all of his weirdness Walter Becker was a down to earth kind of guy away from music. I was close to his orbit in the early 90s when I lived in Kauai here in Hawaii. Friends of mine were old acquaintances of his wife Elinor from their days in Maui. Whenever Walter and Elinor came to Kauai in those years they hung out with my friends. The husband was a coworker at the Pahio Ka’Eo Kai Condos in Princeville, he ran the landscaping, I was a supervisor in the maintenance department. His wife was a nurse and helped her husband on occasion. Along with the work we all shared music as a common bond. I never got to meet Walter Becker but made sure and probed for details whenever the Beckers visited. There are no hot juicy details I have to tell, just this: Walter Becker chose an out of the way spot of land like Kauai to go when he needed a break. My friends, a nurse and a landscaper, wonderful remarkable folks, were his 1st choice for who to hang with. That’s Cool. These were the first post-Dan years, KAMAKIRIAD was coming out around then as well as Rickie Lee Jones’ FLYING COWBOYS, just getting some first hand details of the sessions from my buddy’s conversation with WB was like manna from heaven to this musichead. When Steely Dan reunited in ’94 my friends got a backstage pass to their San Francisco show. That had to be the hot ticket of the year. RIP Walter Becker. Thanks for the music.