Walter Becker and Donald Fagen first crossed paths in 1967, when both were students at Bard College in upstate New York. Discovering they had common musical and literary interests, in addition to a shared dark sense of humor, they became fast friends. Forming a song writing partnership, they would hone their craft over the next 5 years, first by landing a small publishing deal in New York, which then led to work as session and touring musicians with the pop group Jay And The Americans. By 1971, upon the recommendation of ABC/Dunhill producer Gary Katz, they had signed on as staff songwriters and relocated to Los Angeles. During these early years, Becker and Fagen had written a considerable amount of original material that nobody seemed too keen on recording, so they took the next logical step and formed a band to record it themselves.
For the initial Steely Dan lineup, they recruited East Coast friends Denny Dias and Jeff Baxter on guitars, along with drummer Jim Hodder and lead singer David Palmer. Combining a penchant for jazz, blues and R&B with the more commercial leanings of rock & roll and Brill Building-era pop, Becker and Fagen sculpted their songs from a wide-ranging musical palette. Their ability to combine beautiful melodies with lyrics of an often sarcastic and cynical nature would prove a winning formula over the course of the first several albums. Immaculate musicianship and a relentless pursuit of perfectionism in the studio would result in one of the most enduring musical legacies of the 1970s.
Taking their name from the steam-powered dildo in William Burroughs' novel The Naked Lunch, Steely Dan set about recording their debut album, Can't Buy A Thrill, which would spawn two unlikely hits with "Do It Again" and "Reelin'' In The Years." Unlike most New Yorkers striving for success in Los Angeles, Becker and Fagen did not adapt or cater to the West Coast culture in their songs. Instead they conveyed an ambivalence or open contempt for the wealthy Southern California culture now surrounding them. Their talent for creating deft melodies and harmonies within jazz-influenced song structures, combined with the sharp sarcastic wit of their lyrics, would continue to fuel the next two albums, Countdown To Ecstasy and Pretzel Logic. The latter, which drew more fully on Becker and Fagen's love of jazz, would become their first Top 10 album.
When Steely Dan first began touring in 1972 in support of Can't Buy A Thrill, it was as an opening act where they were often treated poorly. During a stint opening for The Kinks that year, the band first encountered Dinky Dawson, whose pioneering company provided sound reinforcement for the tour. Openly defying The Kinks' policy of not allowing the opening act a soundcheck, Dawson went out of his way to help Steely Dan present themselves in the best possible manner. His conscientiousness was not forgotten. In 1974, when Dawson had just wrapped up a year of touring with Lou Reed and The Mahavishnu Orchestra, Steely Dan brought him on board. He was unaware of it at the time, but he was mixing what turned out to be the final tour by the original band.
Other than some questionable experiences in the American South, they encountered highly receptive audiences both in America and during their first visit to England. Despite the fact that the band was finally getting some well deserved recognition and had risen to headliner status, this tour would be the last time Steely Dan appeared on stage together until decades later. Following their concert in Santa Monica on the 5th of July, Becker and Fagen would opt out of touring altogether, preferring to focus all their energies on writing and studio recording. (From then on the band essentially became Becker, Fagen and initially Dias, augmented by an ever changing roster of choice hired hands.)
Including singer Royce Jones, who replaced Palmer in the lineup, the original band now expanded to an eight piece. Now on board was a second keyboard player and singer, Michael McDonald, and a second drummer, Jeff Porcaro, in addition to the original musicians. Instrumentally, they were now capable of more complex arrangements and the vocal harmonies improved significantly with McDonald's voice added to the mix. This was arguably the most compelling touring band Becker and Fagen ever assembled.
Presented here is one of the last performances by the legendary 1974 lineup, recorded at Seattle's Paramount Theater on the 1st of July, just four nights prior to their final concert. The group's superb musicianship is evident throughout this performance and material from the first three albums provides the repertoire. Fagen and Jones trade off most of the lead vocal duties but since such a large part of the band's vocal arrangements require multiple voices, its more often than not Fagen, Jones and McDonald all singing together.
The evening begins with road manager Chris Adamson introducing Steely Dan in his own inimitable way. (If the voice sounds familiar, it is Adamson's explicit diatribe that opens Pink Floyd's "Dark Side Of The Moon" album: "I've been mad for fucking years—absolutely years.") Then the set kicks off with the rip-roaring Countdown To Ecstasy track "Bodhisattva." Poking fun at the pretentiousness of wealthy Californians, this opener conveys just what a tight band this is, with the blazing guitar work of Denny Dias and Jeff Baxter sailing over a boiling groove. From the same album, they follow with the melodious pop rocker "Boston Rag," before venturing into a more extended workout on their provocative first hit, "Do It Again." Revolving around an irresistible melody, dense rhythms, and abstract lyrics that explore compulsive behavior and violence, this may be one of the most unusual songs ever to become a hit single, but its appeal cannot be denied. Clocking in at 8 minutes, this is one of the more expansive songs of their set and provides ample opportunity for both Fagen and Dias to take impressive solos. Another first album number follows with the soulful paean to a prostitute, "Brooklyn (Owes The Charmer Under Me)." Written well before the band actually existed, this is a prime early example of Becker and Fagen's fascination with upper-class decadence, a theme that would continue to fuel their writing and eventually come to reflect their own lives.
Returning to Countdown To Ecstasy material, the jungle rhythms of "King Of The World" is up next, a song that ambivalently explores the threat of nuclear annihilation. With a highly compelling chorus lyric that includes the couplet ""No marigolds in the promised land, there's a hole in the ground where they used to grow" and "Any man left on the Rio Grande is the King of the World as far as I know," Steely Dan skillfully capture the mood of a society obliviously headed toward destruction.
At this point, the group tackle a pair of new songs from the Pretzel Logic album, beginning with the single that catapulted it up the charts, "Rikki Don't Lose That Number." With an introductory riff appropriated from hard bop pianist Horace Silver's "Song To My Father" and a sumptuous groove, it's no wonder this would become a pop radio staple, despite the fact that the subject matter is nearly impossible to discern. The same can be said for the title song, which follows. Although Fagen has gone on record stating it was about time travel, the lyrics to "Pretzel Logic" also seem intentionally open to interpretation, which makes this modified blues all the more compelling. Both of these numbers display the band in great form, especially lead guitarist Jeff Baxter who gets ample opportunity to solo. Both of these new songs are textbook examples of Becker and Fagen's clever and increasingly cryptic songwriting.
Following an introduction of the band members and some humorous stage banter from Baxter, Steely Dan continue with Becker and Fagen's smirking tribute to their time together at Bard College, "My Old School," followed by the sparkling ballad "Dirty Work." On the latter, a song about adultery, uniquely written from the perspective of the other man, Fagen captures self-loathing in a touching and mournful manner. However, what makes both of these songs so memorable are the rousing choruses that simply compel listeners to sing along.
Serving as sort of a prelude to the set closer, Steely Dan serve up an instrumental portion of the salsa-flavored "Your Gold Teeth." This segues directly into a brief guitar interlude that sneaks right up on the blazing opening riff to "Reelin' In The Years." A hate song aimed at a self-professed genius, this features one of Fagen's most vengeful lyrics. Despite the subject matter, this too became a hit single. Baxter's volcanic lead guitar (played by Elliott Randall on the studio recording) and another soaring chorus have the Seattle audience cheering for more.
When they return for an encore, Steely Dan first serve up one more from the second album, "Show-Biz Kids," with Michael McDonald taking over on lead vocals. With an irresistibly funky backbeat and Baxter's moaning pedal steel, this song again explores the decadence of Southern California's idle rich, but does it in an hilarious and satirical manner. Not since Frank Zappa's early work with The Mothers Of Invention has a band so blatantly mocked their own audience, but Steely Dan do it so brilliantly and the song is so irresistible, one can't help being swept up in the groove and hypnotic chant that serves as its chorus.
In typically perverse style, Steely Dan close the show not with another of their most popular songs, but instead dish up a non-album rarity in the form of "This All Too Mobile Home." With a lyric that explores abandonment, loneliness, relentless travel and rip-offs, this song could easily sum up Becker and Fagen's thoughts on the touring life. Following the initial verses, the song becomes an extended jam featuring impressive solos from Baxter, Fagen and eventually the drummers. There's even a brief sequence showcasing Becker's unique bass work. Baxter is responsible for one of the most delightful solos right off the bat, beginning his with a direct quote from the 1960s hit, "Theme From A Summer Place" (originally taken to the top of the charts by Percy Faith and his Orchestra). With the Seattle audience going wild during the jam, each member exits the stage one by one until only Jeff Porcaro is left playing drums. The last few seconds went unrecorded, but in a wash of cymbals, Porcaro's solo would end this performance leaving the audience with the sound of themselves and Dawson's phase shifter unit swirling through the stereo P.A.
Steely Dan's final two performances would follow in Santa Monica on the 3rd and 5th of July; the band attended a private 4th of July party thrown by Elton John for their opener, Kiki Dee, in between. At the time, this week was perceived as the tail end of their most successful tour ever. Before exiting the Seattle stage, Fagen can be heard casually saying "Good night, my friends. We'll see you next time through." Following the Santa Monica gig four nights later, no audience would see Steely Dan on stage for a couple of decades.
-Written by Alan Bershaw