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Steely Dan is an American jazz rock/rock band founded by core members Walter Becker and Donald Fagen. The band's popularity peaked in the late 1970s, and their seven albums over that period of time blended elements of jazz, rock, funk, R&B, and pop. Rolling Stone has called them "the perfect musical antiheroes for the Seventies."
Steely Dan's music is characterized by complex jazz-influenced structures and harmonies. Often sharply sarcastic lyricists, Becker and Fagen have written "cerebral, wry and eccentric" songs about drugs, love affairs, and crime. The pair are known for their near-obsessive perfectionism in the recording studio: Over the year they took to record Gaucho (1980), an album of just seven songs, Becker and Fagen hired at least 42 studio musicians and 11 engineers.
Steely Dan toured from 1972 to 1974 before retiring to the studio. The group took a break in 1981, and throughout most of the next decade Becker and Fagen were largely inactive. In 1993 the two reunited and began playing concerts. Steely Dan has since released two albums of new material, the first of which earned a Grammy Award for Album of the Year. They have sold more than 40 million albums worldwide and were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in March 2001.
Their success began when Gary Katz, moved to Los Angeles to become a staff producer for ABC Records. He hired Becker and Fagen as staff songwriters; they flew to California. Katz would produce all their 1970s albums in collaboration with engineer Roger Nichols, and Nichols would win six Grammy Awards for his work with the band from the 1970s to 2001.
After realizing that their songs were too complex for other ABC artists, at Katz's suggestion Becker and Fagen formed their own band with guitarists Denny Dias and Jeff "Skunk" Baxter and drummer Jim Hodder and Katz signed them to ABC as recording artists.
In 1972, ABC distributed promotional copies of Steely Dan's first single, "Dallas", backed with "Sail the Waterway. The two songs were re-released on vinyl several times as B-sides and on EPs throughout the 1970s and 1980s. As of 2012, "Dallas" and "Sail the Waterway" are the only officially released Steely Dan tracks that have not been reissued on cassette or compact disc.
Can't Buy a Thrill, Steely Dan's debut album, was released in 1972. Its hit singles "Do It Again" and "Reelin' In the Years" reached No. 6 and No. 11 respectively on the Billboard singles chart. Along with "Dirty Work", the songs became staples on classic rock radio.
In 1973 they released Countdown to Ecstasy. The album's singles were "Show Biz Kids" and "My Old School".
Pretzel Logic was released in early 1974. A diverse set, it includes "Rikki Don't Lose That Number" (No. 4) and a note-for-note rendition of Duke Ellington and James "Bubber" Miley's "East St. Louis Toodle-Oo".
During the previous album's tour, the band had added vocalist-percussionist Royce Jones, vocalist-keyboardist Michael McDonald, and session drummer Jeff Porcaro). Porcaro and McDonald contributed significantly to Pretzel Logic (as they would to future Steely Dan recordings), reflecting Steely Dan's increasing reliance on session musicians (including Dean Parks and Rick Derringer). Striving for perfection, Becker and Fagen sometimes asked musicians to record as many as forty takes of each track.
Pretzel Logic was the first Steely Dan album to feature Walter Becker on guitar. "Once I met (session musician) Chuck Rainey", he explained, "I felt there really was no need for me to be bringing my bass guitar to the studio anymore".
Becker and Fagen recruited a diverse group of session players for Katy Lied (1975), including Porcaro, Paich, and McDonald, as well as guitarist Elliott Randall, jazz saxophonist Phil Woods, saxophonist/bass-guitarist Wilton Felder, percussionist/vibraphonist/keyboardist Victor Feldman, keyboardist (and later producer) Michael Omartian, and guitarist Larry Carlton—Dias, Becker, and Fagen being Steely Dan's only original members. The album went gold on the strength of "Black Friday" and "Bad Sneakers". Katy Lied also included "Doctor Wu" and "Chain Lightning".
The Royal Scam was released in May 1976. Partly because of Carlton's prominent contributions, it is the band's most guitar-oriented album. It also features performances by session drummer Bernard Purdie. The album sold well in the U.S.A, "Haitian Divorce" (Top 20) drove sales in the UK, becoming Steely Dan's first major hit in that country.
Steely Dan's sixth album, the jazz-influenced Aja reached the Top Five in the U.S. charts within three weeks, winning the Grammy award for "Engineer – Best Engineered Recording – Non-Classical" and becoming one of the first American LPs to be certified 'platinum' for sales of over 1 million albums. Featuring Michael McDonald's backing vocals, "Peg" (No. 11) was the album's first single, followed by "Josie" (No. 26) and "Deacon Blues" (No. 19). Aja solidified Becker's and Fagen's reputations as songwriters and studio perfectionists. It features such jazz and fusion luminaries as guitarists Larry Carlton and Lee Ritenour; bassist Chuck Rainey; saxophonists Wayne Shorter, Pete Christlieb, and Tom Scott; drummers Steve Gadd, Rick Marotta andBernard Purdie; pianist/vibraphonist Victor Feldman and Grammy award-winning producer/arranger Michael Omartian (piano).
After Aja's success, Becker and Fagen were asked to write the title track for the movie FM. The the song was a hit, earning Steely Dan another engineering Grammy award. It was a minor hit in the UK and barely missed the Top 20 in the U.S.A.
Becker and Fagen took a break from songwriting for most of 1978 before starting work on Gaucho. Gaucho was released in November 1980, and it was another major success. The album's first single, "Hey Nineteen", reached No. 10 on the pop chart in early 1981, and "Time Out of Mind" (featuring guitarist Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits) was a hit in the spring. "My Rival" was featured in John Huston's 1980 film Phobia. Roger Nichols won a third engineering Grammy award for his work on the album.
Steely Dan disbanded in June 1981. Becker and his family moved to Maui, where he became an "avocado rancher and self-styled critic of the contemporary scene.” Meanwhile, Fagen released a solo album, The Nightfly (1982), which went platinum in both the U.S. and the U.K. and yielded the Top Twenty hit "I.G.Y. (What a Beautiful World)." In 1988 Fagen wrote the score of Bright Lights, Big City and a song for its soundtrack, but otherwise recorded little. He occasionally did production work for other artists, as did Becker: one credit was British group China Crisis, who were strongly influenced by Steely Dan.
In 1986 Becker and Fagen performed on Zazu, an album by former model Rosie Vela produced by Gary Katz. The two held songwriting sessions between 1986 and 1987, leaving the results unfinished. On October 25, 1991, Becker attended a concert by New York Rock and Soul Revue, co-founded by Fagen and producer/singer Libby Titus (who was for many years the partner of Levon Helm of The Band and would later become Fagen's wife), and spontaneously performed with the group.
Becker produced Fagen's second solo album, Kamakiriad, in 1993. Fagen called it the most satisfying recording experience of his career.
Becker and Fagen reunited for an American tour to support Kamakiriad, and received a Grammy nomination for Album of the Year. With Becker playing lead and rhythm guitar, the pair assembled a band that included a second keyboard player, a second lead guitarist, a bassist, three female backing singers, and a four-piece saxophone section. During this tour, Fagen introduced himself as "Rick Strauss" and Becker as "Frank Poulenc".
The next year, MCA released Citizen Steely Dan, a boxed set featuring their entire catalog (except their debut single "Dallas"/"Sail The Waterway") on four CDs, plus four extra tracks: "Here at the Western World" (originally released on 1978's "Greatest Hits"), "FM" (1978 single), a 1971 demo of "Everyone's Gone to the Movies" and "Bodhisattva (live)", the latter recorded on a cassette in 1974 and released as a B-side in 1980. That year Becker released his debut solo album, 11 Tracks of Whack, which Fagen co-produced.
Steely Dan toured again in support of the boxed set and Tracks. In 1995 they released a live CD, Alive in America, compiled from recordings of several 1993 and 1994 concerts. The Art Crimes Tour followed: Steely Dan performed across the U.S.A. before playing in Europe for the first time in 22 years and touring Japan in October. After this flurry of activity, Becker and Fagen returned to the studio to begin work on a new album.
In 2000 Steely Dan released their first studio album in 20 years: Two Against Nature. It won four Grammy Awards: 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 the summer of 2000, they began another American tour, followed by an international tour later that year. They released the Plush TV Jazz-Rock Party DVD, documenting a live-in-the-studio concert performance of popular songs from throughout Steely Dan's career. In March 2001, Steely Dan was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
In 2003 Steely Dan released Everything Must Go and began a new tour. In contrast to their earlier work, they had tried to write music that captured a live feel. Becker sang lead vocals on a Steely Dan studio album for the first time ("Slang of Ages" — he had sung lead on his own "Book of Liars" on Alive in America). Fewer session musicians played on Everything Must Go than had become typical of Steely Dan albums: Becker played bass on every track and lead guitar on five tracks; Fagen added piano, electric piano, organ, synthesizers, and percussion on top of his vocals.
After Everything Must Go, Steely Dan devoted themselves to performing and touring. During a break from live music, Fagen released Morph the Cat: so began the "Sugartooth" McDan and The Fab-Originees.com Tour of 2006. Former collaborator Michael McDonald played with Steely Dan during their encore. The Heavy Rollers Tour followed in 2007, including dates in North America, Europe, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand, making it the largest and most geographically diverse Steely Dan tour.
The 2008 Think Fast Tour was smaller, and shows were predominantly limited to the United States and Canada. Steely Dan performed at the Montreal Jazz Festival in July. That year Becker released a second solo album, Circus Money, produced by Larry Klein. In 2009 Steely Dan toured Europe and America extensively for their Left Bank Holiday and Rent Party Tour, alternating between standard one-date concerts at large venues and multi-night theater shows that featured, on given nights, performances of The Royal Scam, Aja, or Gaucho in their entirety. The following year, Fagen formed the touring super-group Dukes of September Rhythm Revue with McDonald, Boz Scaggs, and members of Steely Dan's live band, whose repertoire included songs by all three songwriters. The 2011 Shuffle Diplomacy Tour included an expanded set list, and Steely Dan toured Australia and New Zealand. Fagen released a fourth solo album, Sunken Condos, in 2012.
A 2013 American tour, Mood Swings: 8 Miles to Pancake Day, began in July, featuring one show in Toronto and an 8 night run at the Beacon Theater in New York City.