Wednesday, September 6, 2017

The many sides of Walter Becker

Having just contributed to a podcast in memory of Steely Dan's Walter Becker, who passed away this week, I've compiled some examples of his work that casual listeners and readers may not be so familiar with.

The partnership between Becker and Donald Fagen was such that it is often difficult to know where an idea has stemmed from. They were so well-matched in terms of intellect and musical knowledge, they were in the habit of finishing each other's sentences. Nonetheless, it is fairly well accepted that Becker, with his rather more chequered background, contributed the darker, more surreal ideas to The Dan's music.

And there were plenty of them. The new identity fixer in Sign In Stranger; the 'man of science' mixing up his psychedelics in Kid Charlemagne; the ode to "the Cuervo Gold, the fine Colombian" in Hey Nineteen and perhaps most personal of all, Any World (That I'm Welcome To).

-------------------------------------
"Whenever I recorded with Walter and Donald, right before the engineer pushed the red button, Walt would shimmy over to me and in a stage whisper, would say: 
“Just play the blues Elliott… just play the blues”.
- Elliott Randall, session guitarist on Steely Dan's albums 
and most famous for his soloing on Reelin' In The Years
--------------------------------------

We don't know too much about Becker's early years, apart from the fact his parents separated, but we do know he had his demons and, as Fagen noted, his "habits". The song 'Time Out Of Mind' from Gaucho would have been very close to home at that point in his life. The heroin halted his friendship with Fagen at the end of the 1970s and Becker retreated to Hawaii to recover from his addiction.

He re-emerged in the 80s handling production for the band China Crisis (the story of how he was attracted to the British band because he'd misheard their name as Vagina Crisis seems fitting somehow). He produced their album 'Flaunt The Imperfection', which contains the track 'You Did Cut Me', released as a single in 1985. It could easily be a Steely Dan song.

In 1989, he met up with Rickie Lee Jones and the two collaborated on her fourth album 'Flying Cowboys', which contained a lovely song 'The Horses'. Co-written with Becker, a cover version of the song by Daryl Braithwaite made No 1 in Australia.


and this song, Satellites, which shows traces of Becker's influence
Rickie Lee Jones wrote a touching tribute to Walter this week for Rolling Stone magazine. She said Steely Dan made it OK to be educated: "It was the idea that intelligent music was cool".

"I was brought up, you might say, on writing thick with imagery and subtle implication and I loved it. I loved the innuendo, the humor, the sting. The genius was as much in the part we filled in, the lines they didn't write. That was where the sticky stuff of memory made their music a part of our own personal history."

Of Becker, she wrote, "I have often said that so much of what we write seems to be prophetic. Walter lost too many people to drugs. He found too many people laying on the floor. The bed. Too many heartbreaks."

Becker and Fagen were able to move forward with their unique musical partnership in the 1990s, initially working together on Fagen's second solo album Kamakiriad, where Becker was the co-producer, and co-writer of the song Snowbound. He is listed as the bassist/guitarist on the album too.
 

In 1994, the year after the Steely Dan reunion tour, Walter produced his first solo album '11 Tracks of Whack', which was well received but not as commercially successful as his partner's solo records. Becker's sound was less polished and without the rounded melodies of The Nightfly or Kamakiriad. But it did contain some great compositions, demonstrating Becker's vivid imagination and a lyricism few could match.

This, for example, from the track Surf and/or Die, about a friend of his who died in a hang-glider accident:

Earthbound to Johnny boy just picked up your message
‘Bout those Balinese ikats you thought I might buy
Now your voice on my machine is more alive than what you are
Since your daredevil hang glider fell out of the sky
Now Armand’s looked all over but he can’t find your car keys
Were they under the tire? Were they under the seat?
Because as it stands now your beloved white Aires
Is fair game for the vandals up on Makapuu Street
And your grandmother’s number, we know it’s here somewhere
But Suze can’t seem to find it, now she’s losing control
And so what about her, and little Eldon and Layla
And that hypothetical spectre, your gilt-edged soul
Which defied many perils, in the face of all reason
And in so many settings and for all your young years
Insisting on pure freedom for its too-short season
Riding high on its ration of enchantment and fear
Over the hill and into the next meadow and on and on and on
In a near random universe there are still certain combinations
Picked out from all other possible ones
Which, when given some time and the just-right circumstances
Not too far from the earth or too close to the sun
They will dance and they’ll spin in the embrace of the trade winds
Playing havoc with the hearts and the upturned faces down below
Until the laws of curved spacetime, suspended without warning
Kick back in with a vengeance for the last act of the show
Going too far too fast in that final wing over
As your glider comes tumbling out of the clouds
And you clutch at your chest but the chute never opens
And they find you there tangled in that white nylon shroud
When we get Grandma’s number I think I’ll just say to her
Your Johnny’s home for Christmas, it was a hell of a ride
And I know that some day you’ll be showing me those blankets
All covered in glory on the hereafter side, saying
There was never any question, it was always all or nothing
Surf and/or die

 ----------------------------
"My inner Steely Dan geek was extremely anxious to get answers to the many questions I had since the age of 14. What guitar did you use on the solo (perhaps my favorite of his) on “Pretzel Logic”? Answer: an old Epiphone solid body. What is a “squonk”? (now, of course, you can wiki it). Who were some of the others on the legendarily large list of guitarists who took a stab at the solo to “Peg”? (He told me that Robben Ford had recorded an especially awesome solo.)"
- Drew Zingg, lead guitarist on the reunion tour, and heard to best effect on Third World Man from the 'Alive in America' album
----------------------------

Becker didn't produce his second solo album, 'Circus Money' until 2008 and many Dan fans are probably unfamiliar with it, as it received no promotion and virtually no airplay. But it has better production values than the first album and hangs together as a good collection of songs.
 

In the last 10 years, he also collaborated on a couple of albums with Madeleine Peyroux, notably on the 2009 album Bare Bones. One of the co-writes on the album is the song 'You Can't Do Me' which has an undeniable Becker stamp on it.

To round off this review of Walter Becker's musical legacy, if you want to enjoy more of the man's writing and his sense of humour, check out the stories and tour notes he wrote for the Steely Dan website. The site was set up when they first started touring again and many of the early stories are still up on the site - www.steelydan.com - here's one random example. All this stuff is made up, it's just him riffing on an idea: https://www.steelydan.com/fugue07.html

And while they took songwriting to another place, and made it OK to be intelligent in popular music, Becker and Fagen never took themselves too seriously. As here, where they cruise around New York, picking up seemingly random girls to discuss their music: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dimyNC1BytY 

Not that you'd know it from that clip, but Walter was the quiet one of the two, and would have been a rather intimidating presence at times I'm sure, as the wittiest and most urbane guy in the room oft times. But his wit and intellect added much of the spice within the complex flavours of Steely Dan. He was a one off, and he's left a wonderful musical legacy.

Here's what his daughter had to say in memory of her dad:
http://walterbecker.com/daughters.html

RIP Walt.

Further reading and listening:
New York Times: Listen to 13 Essential Walker Becker Songs
https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/04/arts/music/walter-becker-steely-dan-best-songs.html?mcubz=3
Pitchfork: 8 Songs That Show Walter Becker's Brilliance
https://pitchfork.com/thepitch/8-songs-that-show-walter-beckers-brilliance/
Washington Post: Walter Becker was the cynical one, hiding behind the guitar
https://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/celebrities/walter-becker-was-the-cynical-one-hiding-behind-the-guitar/2017/09/03/4cd7d4e8-90d1-11e7-8754-d478688d23b4_story.html?utm_term=.467dbd3c5c9e

If you're looking for a thoughtful and perhaps unusual Steely Dan playlist, may I suggest this one?
https://thevinylfactory.com/news/ed-motta-tribute-walter-becker-steely-dan-playlist/

And someone has thoughtfully packaged the out-takes from the Gaucho Sessions into a 'lost' album compilation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2g21SnPXOTg

Monday, September 4, 2017

Reviewing Pink Floyd at the V&A: Their Mortal Remains


We don't need no Edu-cashun
The enduring nature of classic rock music and its connection with popular culture is reassuring for an aging hippy like me. While my kids may mock a lot of the Dad Rock I still listen to, they do actually listen to it of their own accord and with open ears. That's what brings us to London's Victoria & Albert Museum to see the exhibition Pink Floyd: Their Mortal Remains. It was my daughter's idea, so I'm curious to know what she will make of it, especially the early stuff. 

As we enter the exhibition, headphones up high, we are transported into the world of the 1960s, passing into a psychedelic subterranean scene, with exhibits from the band's earliest days, including examples of Syd Barrett's art and writing. Even for a seasoned Floyd fan such as I, there are some fascinating exhibits and each phase of the band's career (especially the classic period) is brought to life with dramatic set-pieces, interviews and live footage.
Syd Barrett's guitars from 1967
Nick Mason's drumkit from 1974

Throughout, we get to see the actual instruments used during their career, including Syd's mirrored Telecaster, Rick Wright's various primitive electric pianos and Nick Mason's tsunami double bass drum kit. Naturally, Dave Gilmour's guitar playing features prominently throughout the exhibition, including the finale.

If you weren't familiar with the arc of their career, you might miss the significance of the developments that led to The Dark Side Of The Moon and Wish You Were Here. The demise of Syd due to his over-indulgence in LSD and the band's fragmented journey to their second wind in the 1970s are rather glossed over, which is a shame because these are important aspects of the story. But there are illuminating interviews with Waters and Gilmour scattered around to keep the narrative going.

The role of Hipgnosis is highlighted through their cover art, with an infinity mirror used to particularly good effect to accentuate the impact of the Ummagumma cover image from 1969.

Since Dark Side is such a pivotal album, and an image that resonates even for my daughter's generation, the making of the record is at the centre of the exhibition. Again, the technology they used is on show and the band members describe how the recording developed. There are also candid photos from the sessions. We then pass into a room with a 3-D depiction of the pyramid prism image, while The Great Gig In The Sky plays through the 'phones.

The increasingly dark nature of the Floyd's album concepts and lyrics around the time of Animals and The Wall is explained in the context of the social and cultural changes that occurred in the 1970s, particularly in the UK with punk rock and the economic blight that ushered in Thatcherism. The set pieces include giant stage-size versions of the Gerald Scarfe characters from the Wall, a recreation of Battersea Power Station and the flying pig, plus various other props from the Animals tour.
A contact sheet from the Animals cover shoot at Battersea Power Station
For me, post The Wall, there is little of the Floyd's music that grabs me in the same way their classic 1960s and 70s albums and shows did. I was lucky enough to see them playing Dark Side, Wish You Were Here and Animals live in the 70s, topped off typically by an encore of Echoes from Meddle. Nonetheless, the Gilmour-led Floyd era is handled well and there is a touching section just before the end dedicated to the Rick Wright tribute album, The Endless River, which is my daughter's favourite.

The final room is an immersive 3-D effect experience with screens on all four walls showing the reformed original band's last performance together at Live-8. You are welcome to sit, lie down or just stand and watch as the band plays Comfortably Numb. It's a fitting way to end an absorbing show. (if you find this clip is unavailable for copyright reasons, there are other similar ones to be found on youtube).

It's difficult for me to assess what a young person or someone unfamiliar with the Floyd would make of it. I would like to have seen them go into more detail on the early phases and explore the music in more depth. But I'm pleased to say my daughter wasn't overawed by it. Even though I'm sure a lot of the earlier experimental stuff was not to her taste, she picked up a lot of cultural references from the exhibition. She seemed genuinely interested in the Floyd's story and eager to understand their place in the history of classic rock music.

Pink Floyd: Their Mortal Remains at the V&A in London, is open until 15 October.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

50 Years Ago Today: Jimi Hendrix wows Monterey

The most electrifying three minutes in the history of live rock music, made all the more significant because it was Jimi returning to his homeland in triumph video

Click this link to view the same performance but with slightly different camera angles:

On Sunday June 18 1967, The Jimi Hendrix Experience was introduced to the American rock audience, live for the first time, at the Monterey Pop Festival. As milestone moments go, they don't get much better than this. As described in my post about Jimi's shows at the Saville Theatre in London, he crafted a stage act in those first European gigs that reached its first real flowering (man) at his homecoming gig.

Monterey was the first major coming together of rock's foremost talents, including Janis Joplin, Otis Redding, the Grateful Dead, Buffalo Springfield, Simon & Garfunkel, The Mamas and Papas, Jefferson Airplane and The Who. Jimi must have been ecstatic to suddenly be in this rarefied atmosphere - the California sunshine, a groundbreaking festival gathering and, to judge by his performance, he revelled in this talented company: "Yeah, it's really out-of-sight here, it didn't even rain; no buttons to push...". And to top it off he was introduced by rock royalty; Brian Jones being the only one of the Stones or the Beatles who attended Monterey.

And for me, the adrenalin rush of their first song, Killing Floor - that had given Eric Clapton the shock of his life when Jimi first arrived in London - is perhaps the most exciting three minutes in the history of live rock. Jimi, Mitch and Noel, with their frilly shirts and feather boa, give it everything and leave mouths agape, like 'what did we just see?'

During the set, he pulled out all the stops, showing off his unique combination of rhythm and lead playing, cuffing the guitar, playing it behind is back, with his teeth, and then finally setting light to it, to the astonishment of the audience. Remember this is 50 years ago! The 1960s may have been swinging, but what Jimi did, in common with other revolutionaries of that era, was push out the boundaries beyond most people's imagining at that time.

The drugs helped in the mind-blowing, of course. Legend has it that Hendrix was tripping on Owsley LSD at Monterey. Hard to believe he could play and sing like that under the influence of mid-altering psychedelics, but records of the time suggest that may have been the case. At the earlier free festival at Mount Tamalpais, Owsley, the acid king immortalised in Steely Dan's Kid Charlemagne, was said to be dispensing acid to the performers as they were about to go onstage with the words, "do you want the sacrament?"

Robert Christgau noted in The Village Voice that Hendrix, after his famous row with Pete Townshend, (see the comments from John Phillips in the clip above) was stuck with topping the Who's guitar-smashing tour-de-force. "It's great sport to watch this outrageous scene-stealer wiggle his tongue, pick with his teeth, and set his axe on fire." 

The performance, he said, heralded "the dawning of an instrumental technique so effortlessly fecund and febrile that rock has yet to equal it, though hundreds of metal bands have gotten rich trying. Nowhere else will you witness a Hendrix still uncertain of his divinity."
 
This was a legendary performance. The arrival of King Guitar.

Youtube is not your friend when it comes to clips of Jimi playing Monterey. Most of them have been taken down by the copyright owners. What I have presented here - my own archived copy of Killing Floor, Rock Me Baby and the Wild Thing finale, give a taste of the magical set Jimi played. But there's plenty more, including a great version of Dylan's Like A Rolling Stone.

Try to get hold of a copy of the original Jimi Plays Monterey movie. I have it as part of a boxed set that includes Otis Redding's set, the original Monterey Pop movie and a DVD of outtake performances. Well worth checking out if your budget permits.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

My most-viewed Youtube clips 3: Jeff Beck and David Gilmour - Hi Ho Silver Lining

Two for the price of one on this thread. It's actually not so rare now, but back in 2009 when I filmed this at the Royal Albert Hall, I don't think Jeff had ever played Hi Ho Silver Lining live, and certainly he hadn't sung it. As you are probably aware, the song was a hit for him in 1968, but it was so untypical of his style of music that he refused to play it live.
But obviously over the years, he softened his stance.
This all happened during the encore, which began with David Gilmour joining the band on stage. Beck and Gilmour traded licks during a long instrumental passage that concluded with the melody from Jerusalem.

That's the first clip you can view here. This was a real treat, to see Gilmour, who is usually so measured in his playing, batting lines back and forth with JB, the show-off. And clearly there's much respect between them. Jeff at one point feigns shock at one of Gilmour's trademark licks.

The other musicians, Jason Rebello (keyboards), Tal Wilkenfeld (bass) and Vinnie Colaiuta (drums) take a restrained approach to the track, in view of the fairly unrehearsed nature of it. And the comments on youtube show how rare and how much of treat it was for us in the audience.

What could follow that? The last thing any of us expected was for them to start into Jeff's big pop hit! It wasn't immediately obvious that was what they were playing until Gilmour started singing the first verse, "You're everywhere and nowhere baby..." at which point the audience raised the noise levels a notch or two. And then, when Jeff took the second verse, they really did go wild.

Both clips have about 30,000 views at the time of writing, helped by being featured on other sites, I believe.

Enjoy.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Sgt. Pepper is The Beatles... who knew?


50 years ago, in June 1967, the Beatles released a concept album, before the term was ever used of course, but that's what it was. Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was their way of distancing themselves from Beatlemania.

As history shows, it was Paul McCartney's idea that the Beatles present themselves as some kind of vaudeville act, as a means of releasing new material that would reflect their new songwriting and recording innovations.

The first release of this new era was the double A-side single of Strawberry Fields Forever and Penny Lane, which was previewed on TV's Juke Box Jury in February 1967. I can remember seeing the show and, on first listen, being rather baffled by SFF. It really was unlike anything they, or anyone, had done before. I don't remember whether it was voted a Hit or a Miss, but you could understand if the panel of judges were unsure what to make of it. 

Penny Lane was a different matter of course, being a much more traditional song with a strong melody and a jaunty rhythm.

Which led us into the anticipation for the new Beatles album, unveiled on June 1, a Thursday. Was anybody really fooled by this masquerade of the Beatles pretending to be someone else?  Well, to judge from EMI's advertising, they must have been worried that people were confused about the band's identity. Otherwise they wouldn't have felt the need to remind people who was behind the album.

"Remember - Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band is The Beatles"

oh thanks, I was wondering who it was...

My vintage 1967 mono copy of Sgt Pepper, with insert cut-outs and inner sleeve
It was the Summer of Love, Peace, Music and LSD, so not surprisingly, when the band were attending the cover shoot for the album, two of them, John and George, were literally flying.

And consider this: When Sgt Pepper was released on 1st June 1967 (their 8th album) Paul McCartney and George Harrison were still only 24 years old.

For the back story to the making of Sgt Pepper, you could do worse than visit this page:
http://www.thebeatles.com/album/sgt-peppers-lonely-hearts-club-band

And of course, this week sees release of the 50th anniversary edition of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. We hope you will enjoy the show...



Monday, May 22, 2017

Crossing the Bridge of Sighs - Robin Trower live



The rock trio format produced many great bands in the 1960s and 70s, from Cream and the Jimi Hendrix Experience, through Taste, the early Thin Lizzy with Eric Bell and - one of my personal favourites - the Robin Trower Band.
Trower was a member of Procol Harum during their 60s heyday, but by 1970/71 he was forging a new sound and direction. His first post-Procol band, Jude, evolved into the three-piece Robin Trower band and their first album Twice Removed from Yesterday established the blueprint they refined through the 1970s.
Early days of the RT band, with Reg Isidore (right)
Trower's guitar playing drew instant attention because of the similarities in tone and sheer power with Jimi Hendrix. The early comparisons with Jimi were valid to some extent. The Robin Trower sound did borrow from the master, but Trower was soon able to demonstrate that he had his own personal style that was as distinctive as Jimi’s. He was genuinely trying to forge a new direction for the rock trio and, as Charles Shaar Murray’s review of their second album Bridge of Sighs indicates, Trower was able to win people over with the sheer force of his playing.
CSM's review states: "
Trower and his sidemen seem to give the evoking of an atmosphere very high priority, which means that unless you’re prepared to sit down and listen hard, you’re going to miss the point completely. By pursuing a direction totally unlike that of any other three-piece guitar-led band, Trower may well be cutting himself off from a large number of potential listeners who are only interested in guitar pyrotechnics of the kind he is quite capable of playing if he so desires. However, what he is doing here is ultimately far more valuable."
The NME review of  'Bridge of Sighs' from 1973

"It's just a bit of a yawn," said Robin at the time, with regard to the Hendrix comparisons: "I guess it gives people something to talk about. People like to put you in a pigeonhole if they're uncertain. Maybe it makes it easier for people to accept what I'm doing, the Hendrix thing gives them something to hold on to."
Of course, the Trower sound had another key ingredient – the smooth soulful voice of bass player Jimmy Dewar who, along with drummer Reg Isidore provided the dynamic backing on the first two RT band albums. Dewar was undoubtedly one of the great British vocalists and his contribution was crucial in making their albums and live shows so memorable. This video clip shows what a silky smooth voice can really add in a rock context. It's an early (pre-album) version of Day Of The Eagle (from Bridge of Sighs) with different lyrics.

Isidore was muscular and frenetic - a key part of the band in the early days. But he was maybe a little too loose for Trower’s liking. Robin said at the time of the third album For Earth Below, when Bill Lordan joined, “'Reggie just started to drift a bit. I run a very tight ship”. And so in came the tall blond American Lordon, who had previously played with Sly Stone and, it was claimed (somewhat implausibly) with Jimi in the Band of Gypsies. Trower said they all knew when they got together that he was the right choice: “It was classic! He knew he was right for us before we did. He'd been into us from the time the first album came out and he's been trying to get hold of me ever since, cause he knew he was The Drummer. He phoned me up and said, 'I'm the guy you want. Don't listen to anybody else.' And he was right. He was absolutely perfect.”

My vantage point for Robin Trower at the Reading Festival in August 1975
The RTB were one of the best live bands I ever saw. And that run of albums, from Twice Removed… through Bridge of Sighs, For Earth Below and Long Misty Days were constants on my record deck at the time. I saw them live a few times, notably at the Reading Festival in 1975, when they provided the high point of the Sunday afternoon. I have this memory of the crowd getting in such a frenzy – it was a sunny afternoon at the end of what had been a typically sodden weekend (it poured down during the headline set by Yes on the Saturday night) and a kind of delirium came over the crowd during Trower’s set. At the climax of one of the songs, a great wave of cheering could be heard as a (good-natured) rubbish fight broke out across a no-man’s land puddle of mud in the middle of the crowd. I just remember this cloud of paper and empty bottles suspended in the air, the crowd seemingly spurred on by the excitement of the music.

The BBC recorded them for an In Concert show in early 1975 but then ruined the recording by releasing it on CD in the mid 1990s with fake crowd noise. Thankfully, the original tapes survived (see links below). I have the original, recorded off the radio, and Trower is incredible. It’s an old-fashioned ‘wireless’ recording onto a Phillips portable cassette recorder,
complete with Pete Drummond’s between song announcements. I've never heard a better version of Daydream. It’s a must for any fans of the classic era Trower band. The band are at the top of their game, Trower's tone and fluid soloing have rarely been captured so consistently in one show. Apart from the version of Daydream, highlights for me are the new song Gonna Be More Suspicious which really jumps out of the speakers on the BBC version. Lady Love crackles with intensity. Too Rolling Stoned was an instant classic. Here's my recording of Daydream, and I have pasted links to a re-broadcast of the entire show at the foot of this post:


I saw the RTB again at the Hammersmith Odeon on the tour promoting Long Misty Days. Trower provided a jaw-dropping volume on the title track with its wall-of-guitar intro. Although he has continued to make records to this day, his reputation rests on that golden period in the mid 70s and the trio format with Jimmy Dewar on vocals. Dewar sadly died in 2002. Robin Trower can be seen on the gig circuit, still playing the classic material. In 2005, when I saw him playing at the Mean Fiddler in London, the volume knob was still way up at 11. He began the set with a terrific rendition of Too Rolling Stoned. What amazes me about this clip is that my camera was able to process the sound so well. It really was very loud.   

BBC In Concert Program, January 1975
Day of The Eagle, Bridge of Sighs, Gonna Be More Suspicious
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GnGbbd_nU-Q&list=PL-R4Z6A4NVglr89GKkAf-Smwb-SStIlMZ

Fine Day, Lady Love, Daydream
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FAlQN66vOQo&list=PL-R4Z6A4NVglr89GKkAf-Smwb-SStIlMZ

Too Rolling Stoned, I Can't Wait Much Longer
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MPg6b8im6sw&list=PL22xMk52Uk_QUi0CbEMmbUPTJzHJSSboT

Alethea, Little Bit of Sympathy, Rock Me Baby
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gtVtICWvcXE&list=PLA4AD3535D7E692A6

Reading Festival, 23rd August 1975
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LAoVe9CvCHM

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Steely Dan interviewed in 1975, 1976 and 1977


Here are three interviews with Donald Fagen and Walter Becker from the mid 70s, when they were producing some of their most excellent music. They talk songwriting technique and what they look for in the musicians for each session. And true to form, they never take themselves too seriously.

Starting in April 1975, at the time of the album Katy Lied, the first interview appeared in the NME and was based on a meeting in California with the writer Richard Cromelin.  Having moved to the west coast from New York, the two are clearly still adjusting to the change in lifestyle.
"It's about 10 or 15 years behind," says Fagen of suburban San Fernando Valley. "We're going to have to relocate. Our heart is still on Second Avenue, and that's what we like to write about. Our lyrics are basically experience combined with a little fantasy."

Becker explained how he and Fagen like to make each song original: "We'll set up a framework, no matter how bizarre it may be. I'll come up with an idea and he'll come up with a scenario and we'll decide what we think the song is about, and which part of the exposition of what is happening is in each verse and get a title together. And no matter how strange the idea may be, we just go along and hope that we can finish the song."

They met at Bard College, where Fagen was "the dean of the pick-up band syndrome". Turns out there were several bands at the college and Fagen was the leader of all of them. Mostly, this appears to have been because the other musicians were not at his level. "We were writing tunes where some of the chords were not triads, and you couldn't use your capo that much. It was hard to get what we wanted in those days, so it didn't come out in utter magnificence," Becker said of the duo's early collaborations.

They tell the story about how the various band members were recruited, especially Denny Dias, who at this point, in 1975, was the only remaining member from the original band. Apparently Fagen and Becker hooked up with Dias's band and "we used to chastise and abuse them," Fagen recalls. "They all quit. So there was Denny and we'd ruined his band. He had no place else to go."

They also explain how, after some initial success with Reelin' In The Years from the first album, 'Can't Buy A Thrill', the threat of obscurity loomed dangerously near. The next single, Show Biz Kids, from the second album 'Countdown To Ecstasy' was, in Fagen's words "a brutal failure". They followed it with an edited version of My Old School, which saw even less action.
The resounding commercial success of the third album 'Pretzel Logic' and the single Rikki Don't Lose That Number, was consolidated in 1974 by a world tour. But Fagen still felt that "We've more or less abandoned hope of being one of the big, important rock and roll groups. Our music is somehow a little too cheesy at times. and turns off the rock intelligentsia for the most part. And at other times it's too bizarre to be appreciated by anybody."

Becker and Fagen also talk about the sound problems during the recording of Katy Lied that forced them to remix the album and delayed its release. They also address the question of the departure of former member Jeff 'Skunk' Baxter. Skunk, they claim, was only missing from the last album because he was on the road with the Doobie Brothers.
But it's clear they were not content to rely on the same musicians for each album, and wanted to push their session players to stretch themselves. Becker talks about how Rick Derringer was initially freaked out by what was expected of him on the track Chain Lightning. "Then he realised he needed to do something a little different from what he normally does."

click on the image to read the article
June 1976
The NME's Steve Clarke encountered Becker (then still only 26) and Fagen (28) a month after the release of 'The Royal Scam', announcing that the band was ready to tour again, including dates for Britain in 1977 (when in fact they didn't come to the UK again until 1993!). Becker even talks about who will be in the touring band. Denny Dias is the only one who has the stamina to stay the course with The Dan, he says. "He's willing to indulge us a little more than our old compatriots," said Becker.

Both deny being difficult to work with and lead the interviewer a merry dance when he asks what some of the songs are about. Becker denies Kid Charlemagne is about a dealer, more "a man of science. Someone who makes consciousness expanding substances of the most dramatic sensational type no longer in vogue."

(Indeed, it's about Augustus Owsley Stanley, the famous king of the LSD manufacturers). 

At one point, Donald Fagen states that the lyrics on their recent albums have a bit more maturity. When Clarke suggests Steely Dan songs are intentionally obscure, Becker counters that "it seems to us that people are intentionally dumb." Fagen adds that, "You can only do so much with a song, and because we are probably more literary, we use more literary techniques."

Paul Griffin plays the piano solo on Sign In Stranger and also receives a writer's credit on The Fez. This came about because, according to Fagen, "He wrote the main theme". Becker disputes this, saying "I wouldn't call it the main theme. He wrote a melody that is featured. At least he says he wrote it."  They gave him a credit "in case later on some sort of scandal developed".

'Don't Take Me Alive' is very much a song of these troubled times, writes Clarke about a song that still resonates with the times today. Fagen says of the song: "In Los Angeles and through the world in general, terrorism is a way of life for a lot of people."

They feel little affinity with anything else that is going on in rock in '76, though both express a fondness for Single Bed by Fox. They also enjoy The Eagles, Phoebe Snow and Van Morrison. They say comparisons between Steely Dan and 10CC are ridiculous: "Last time here we were being compared to the Doobie Brothers."

Talking of which, former Dan back-up singer Mike McDonald, now livening up the Doobies, told Clarke that Becker and Fagen wished they were Charlie Parker and Duke Ellington. "That's essentially true," says Walter. 
 
 Click on the images to read the articles.

December 1977
Rolling Stone's Cameron Crowe writes about the second coming of Steely Dan, following the release of the stylistically different but nonetheless peerless masterwork 'Aja'.




Thursday, May 11, 2017

My most-viewed Youtube clips: 2. Tommy Bolin live 1976 - 'Delightful'

I put this together using whatever photos I could find of Tommy and the band, which included drummer Narada Michael Walden, fresh from his time with the Mahavishnu Orchestra.

Michael had just released his first solo album, The Garden of Love Light, which features Jeff Beck and Carlos Santana. Tommy's band took the track 'Delightful' and played a beautiful version of it here, catching the groove just right. There's a later show on the CD this was taken from (First Time Live) which is much quicker, and loses the groove as a result.

So here we have just about the best example of Tommy Bolin's short-lived band. And it's obviously captivated folks, to judge from the comments on the YT page. Coming up for 55,000 views at the time of writing. Enjoy.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Expressions to avoid during a recording session

I was reminded of this list by a thread about Steely Dan on the Afterword blog. When SD reformed in the 1990s, their website was an extension of Fagen and Becker's sardonic humour. This list appeared on the site, together with things like '36 Rules for Bands'. Anyone who has been in a band, or in a studio, should get a laugh or two out of this.

EXPRESSIONS TO AVOID DURING A RECORDING SESSION

1.     Ready, Freddie (pronounced red-eye fred-eye)
2.     Bingo, gringo
3.     Uno, Bruno
4.     The phones sound O.K. but I need more of myself
5.     We won't need a click
6.     I like what you're trying to do but not the way you're doing it
7.     An excellent first attempt
8.     Was that the sound you had on the demo?
9.     Make the click louder
10.   That was a pretty good take for this time of night
11.   If you want the tempo any brighter than that, we better wait for a sunny day
12.   No dynamics? We're playing as loud as we can
13.   I think that's a pretty good sounding take for what were getting paid..
14.   That was great, let's do it again
15.   Is that about as tight as you boys want to get it?
16.   Is it possible the click is speeding up?
17.   I'm at the point where I'm making dumb mistakes - before I was making much smarter  mistakes
18.   So many drummers, so little time
19.  Why don't we do the double first and the lead will be easier to get once we've got the double
20.   I never had this problem when I was being produced by Lenny and Russ
21.   We got some things, we need some things
22.   Fabulous
23.   Punch in at the section
24.   You can't make ice cream out of shit
25.   You can't polish a turd
26.   Just let your spirit soar
27.   My spirit's already sore from the last thirty takes...
28.   Close
29.   Less is more
30.   Less is Paul
31.   Less is Brown
32.   Less is less
33.   That's the way I've been playing it all along
34.   I just wish I could get a whole band that sounds as good as I do
35.   This will be a great opportunity for me to show off my chop
36.   Let's hear the bass, if you can call it that
37.   Does your amp have an underdrive channel?
38.   You can erase that one, I remember exactly what I played
39.   We'll catch that in the mix
40.   You guys can fix that in Soundtools, right?
41.   I brought my kid along, he's never been in a recording studio before
42.   My girlfriend sings great background vocals
43.   I know a great drummer
44.   You guys want to try some heroin?
45.   Your girlfriend's been in the bathroom a long time
46.   Please, man, stay away from my faxes, okay?
47.   I'm not going to be any more dishonest with you than I am with Donald
48.   I'd like a little more of a live feeling on this tune.
49.   I also play eleven other instruments
50.   Sorry I'm late, I just got through with my blood test (or CAT scan)
51.   That vocal's not a keeper is it?
52.   That's how I wrote it but that's not how I like to play it
53.   I can't think of any improvements that won't make it worse
54.   That ground loop is a trademark thing for me
55.   That's the new old comp from today - I want to hear the new old comp from last Tuesday
56.   That reverb would sound a lot better if it were coming out of a piece of MY GEAR
57.   How bout we get rid of these 3M machines and get ourselves a frozen yogurt machine
58.   Skunk called, he's on his way down
59.   The frozen yogurt machine is broken
60.   When was the last time we worked together? Tonight.


While we're on the subject of behaviour in the studio, here's a glimpse of what it was like to be in the studio back in the day (early 1980s) with legendary producer Quincy Jones. My reaction in the comments section (from 2009 apparently) is: have they been at the nose candy or what?

"I Love Quincy" documentary from 1982, featuring Patti Austin 
recording the song "It's Gonna Be Special"