In Memoriam: Walter Becker
Walter Becker‘s name will always and forever be associated with sarcastic yacht/ prog rock merchants Steely Dan, of which he was the rhythm guitarist and co-founder (along with keyboardist/ singer Donald Fagen). Sadly, Walter Becker passed over the weekend at the age of 67 and I feel compelled to acknowledge his brilliance and the importance of the group that made his name.
Steely Dan of course, are the much loved though frequently ridiculed act, who are as well known for their snark as for their almost psychotic studio perfectionism. I think part of becoming an adult is coming to the realization that not only do you actually quite like Steely Dan, but that you’ve always secretly liked Steely Dan, often in spite of what your other musical tastes may be.
To Steely Dan‘s credit, they remain heavily sample-worthy, they never really made a bad album, and while the singles are wonderful (I will never get tired of “Bad Sneakers”), the album tracks were often just as good. There is simply no denying the brilliance of songs like “Doctor Wu” or “Your Gold Teeth II”. The Dan operated on the razor’s edge of self-parody: their self-congratulatory, sardonic, frequently sleazy, coke-addled lyrics thrown into direct relief by their (sometimes cynical) exploitation of highly technical studio musicians, often pushing for hundreds of takes before getting things ‘just so’ to their exacting specifications.
The music of Steely Dan is both knowingly ironic while simultaneously dead serious. What else do you expect from a band named for a dildo mentioned in the seminal beat novel, Naked Lunch, by the equally reclusive (and drug addicted) William S. Burroughs. Rarely has a group so stridently abrasive made music as simultaneously accessible, smooth and obtuse. Never ones to play to convention, the duo made use of complex jazz chords and voicings. They were introverted wannabe-beatniks producing highly cerebral music for a purely visceral rock audience that thrived on raw emotion and spectacle, but were also incredibly self-aware of this innate contradiction. They unapologetically cannibalized bits and pieces of jazz standards and relied on jazz musicians such as Gary Bartz and Chuck Rainey or hyper technical studio musicians like Jeff “Skunk” Baxter to sonically nail the complex arrangements they came up with.
Much of the sound of Steely Dan began with Walter Becker‘s guitar chords or riffing. Never showy or front and center, Becker quietly managed to provide the anchor upon which the rest of the group’s signature sound rested. Ten seconds of that opening guitar figure on, for example, “Hey Nineteen” told you a lot about the band and what they were all about. That was Walter Becker. Even Steely Dan‘s critics cannot doubt their talents. For all of their aloofness, Steely Dan also heavily influenced the sound of popular music in the 70s: bringing prog to the masses, all the while hiding behind shades masking cocaine eyes and the conceit of jazz men.
Rest in piece Walter Becker. He (along with Donald Fagen) did more to shape the sound of popular music in the 70s than he will ever likely get credit for. Long live Steely Dan!