Walter Becker was the co-founder of Steely Dan, and because many people have strong opinions about Steely Dan’s music, they have strong opinions about Becker as well. But with co-founder Donald Fagen, Becker produced an amazing body of music, characterized by jazz-influenced rhythms, perfectionism, opaque, elliptical lyrics and absolutely impeccable production values. Their 1977 album, Aja, is widely recognized as a masterpiece.
Steely Dan only released nine studio albums, and Becker individually released two solo albums. But Steely Dan was hugely influential, won multiple Grammys and sold millions of records.
Musically, Becker and Fagen brought jazz influences to rock. Their music explores the tension between traditional pop sounds and jazz. In particular, they are known for their use of the “add 2” chord, a type of added tone chord, which they nicknamed the mu major. Their use of horns and saxophones gave them a distinctive sound. And their arrangements of backing singers is very impressive. In some ways it is soul influenced; in others it’s jazz.
Becker was an infamous perfectionist in the studio. On Gaucho, for example, Becker and Fagen recorded as many as 40 takes of some tracks, and ran through a a reported 42 studio musicians in their quest for the perfect track.
Lyrically, Steely Dan’s songs are about losers, creeps and failures. The would-be sax player in “Deacon Blues” can’t play the sax at all; he’s thinking about learning. The failed Lothario in “Hey Nineteen” strikes out trying to seduce a young girl. “Cousin Dupree” is a guy attempting incest. Peg’s “very foreign movie” is about pornography. “Kid Charlemagne” is mostly about Owlsley, outlaw LSD chef, who outlived his fame but not his brushes with the law. Dark, obsessive images with bouncy, catchy music. There’s not a genuine, un-ironic love song in their discography. For a musician who struck out at the Brill Building and was a backing band member for Jay and the Americans, it’s an impressive feat. Rolling Stone called them “the perfect antiheroes for the 1970s.” Yep.
But if there was one thing that characterized all Steely Dan songs it was impeccable, near-perfect production. Credit for that goes in large part to Roger Nichols. Nichols won three Grammy Awards (Best Engineered Recording — Non-Classical) for his late 70’s-early 80’s “meticulous studio work” with the Becker on Aja, “FM (No Static at All)” and Gaucho and won three additional Grammys, including ‘Album Of The Year‘ for his efforts on the Steely Dan comeback album, Two Against Nature (2000).
Walter Becker took irony, gave it a brilliant musical arrangement and made it rhyme. The result is immortality.
R.I.P. Walter Becker, 1950 – 2017. Reeling in the years.