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Steely Dan Biography


Home > Music > S > Steely Dan > Biography


Birth Place: Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, United States
Years Active: 1972–1981, 1993–present
Genres: Jazz Rock, Rhythm And Blues


Steely Dan is an American rock band; its core members are Donald Fagen and Walter Becker. The band's popularity peaked in the late 1970s, with the release of seven albums blending elements of jazz, rock, funk, R&B, and pop. The band's music is characterized by complex jazz-influenced structures and harmonies played by Becker and Fagen along with a revolving cast of rock and pop studio musicians. The pair are well-known for their near-obsessive perfectionism in the recording studio, with one notable example being that Becker and Fagen used at least 42 different studio musicians, 11 engineers, and took over a year to record the tracks that resulted in 1980's “Gaucho” — an album that contains only seven songs.

Their debut album, Can't Buy a Thrill, was released in 1972 and made an immediate impression with the hit singles "Do It Again" and "Reelin' In the Years", reaching #6 and #11 respectively on the Billboard singles chart. Those and the David Palmer-sung "Dirty Work" eventually became staples on classic rock radio.

“Countdown to Ecstasy,” released in 1973, failed to match the level of commercial success of the first album. It went gold, and then platinum, peaking at #17 on the charts. The album's singles included "Show Biz Kids" (curiously chosen for release as a hopeful hit) and "My Old School", both failing to make any significant impact on the charts. However, "My Old School" (and, to a lesser extent, "Bodhisattva") did become a minor FM Rock staple as years passed.

Steely Dan returned with their third LP “Pretzel Logic” in early 1974, a diverse set that produced "Rikki Don't Lose That Number", which reached #4 on the Billboard chart. The piano riff for "Rikki" was lifted directly from the title track to “Song for My Father” by hard bop pianist Horace Silver. It also included their note-for-note rendition of Duke Ellington and James "Bubber" Miley's "East St Louis Toodle-oo". This is the only instrumental ever done by Steely Dan, the only Steely Dan song to feature a banjo, and the only song on which Donald Fagen is credited with playing the saxophone (he also plays the piano solo). The album itself went gold, and then platinum, reaching #8 on the charts.

Steely Dan toured from 1972 to 1974, but in 1975 became a purely studio-based act.

The 1975 LP “Katy Lied” went gold on the strength of "Black Friday" and "Bad Sneakers", but Becker and Fagen were so dissatisfied with the sound of the album that they publicly apologized for it, and for years refused to even listen to it in its final form.

“The Royal Scam” was released in May 1976 on ABC Records and is the group's most guitar-oriented record and it sold well without the strength of a real hit single, although "Kid Charlemagne" and "The Fez" would become two fan favorites.

Their sixth LP, the jazz-influenced “Aja” saw Becker and Fagen employing the services of a wide array of top-notch jazz and rock musicians. “Aja” won several awards, shot into the Top Five in the U.S. charts within three weeks of release, and was one of the first American LPs to be certified platinum for sales of over 1 million albums. The first single off the album was "Peg", which featured Michael McDonald's backing vocals and peaked at US #11. Other singles included "Deacon Blues" (#19) and "Josie" (#26). The album cemented the duo's reputation as songwriters, as well as their reputation for studio perfectionism. The album features such jazz and fusion luminaries as guitarists Larry Carlton and Lee Ritenour, bassist Chuck Rainey, saxophonists Wayne Shorter, Pete Christlieb, and Tom Scott, drummer Steve Gadd, and ex-Miles Davis pianist/vibist Victor Feldman. It also featured Becker's trademark clean, jazzy guitar leads as a prominent solo voice where they had only appeared sporadically in prior releases.

“Gaucho” was released in November 1980 and was another major success reaching #9 on the charts and was certified platinum. The first single, "Hey Nineteen", peaked at #10 on the pop chart in early 1981, and "Time Out of Mind" (featuring Mark Knopfler from Dire Straits on guitar) became a moderate hit in the spring. The album subsequently received a Grammy award for "Engineer - Best Engineered Recording - Non-Classical."

Becker and Fagen announced the hiatus of their partnership in June 1981. In 1993, the group resumed playing live concerts to support Fagen's solo album.

In 2000, they released their first studio album in twenty years, “Two Against Nature.” It was not only a return to form but proved to be one of the surprise successes of the year, and in February 2001, it earned them four Grammy Awards. They won in the categories for Best Engineered Album - Non-Classical, Best Pop Vocal Album, Best Pop Performance by Duo or Group with Vocal ("Cousin Dupree"), and Album of the Year.

In 2003 Steely Dan released another album, “Everything Must Go,” which remains their only studio album not to have been certified at least gold. They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in March 2001 and have sold more than 30 million albums worldwide.