Yesterday I was reading the tweets and saw that the world lost another talented musician and producer, Walter Becker. Becker was the quiet half of Steely Dan, a band I loved in junior high, high school and through college. While “Do It Again” probably was played most on the top 40 AM stations, the FM station in my town played album oriented rock (AOR). Unlike today where the videos and various singing competitions sell singles, 1970’s rock was sold by the album and if an album was played in its entirety on the station, it signified the quality of musicians as much as the melody of the tune. Liner notes were either printed on the back cover of the LP or stashed as a piece inside the album, providing you lyrics, who played which instruments on what tracks, producers, and where the tracks were recorded.
We know from history that AOR really started with the Beatles when they gave up the road to record, creating fantastic works such as “Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” & “Magical Mystery Tour” in 1967. But it was Steely Dan who crafted that smart sophisticated drum machine for their albums (and I think used for some live performances as well), as pointed out in one of the Becker tributes in Rolling Stone this weekend and many of us loved those boutique tunes that you wouldn’t hear on the top 40 such as “Black Cow” from my fav vinyl, Aja. My all-time fav, “Peg” is also on Aja, but it made it into the top 40, along with a shorter version of “Deacon Blue” and “Josie.”
Rolling Stone’s Rob Sheffield explicated the style of Steely Dan fairly accurately in his tribute:
But amazingly, the weirder they got, the bigger they got. When they stopped playing semi-comprehensible pop songs about existential despair, and started playing semi-endless jazz songs about drug dealers, America just wanted more. “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” was a Number Four hit in 1974, a radio staple ever since, though it’s the song of an L.A. hustler operating his own sex-or-drugs-or-whatever den of sin, saying goodbye to this dumb sad kid who’s new in town and who still seriously believes he or she can ever go back home and fit into nice clean society again.
There’s just something lost to me of not listening to albums for the session musicians who were weird but the nuances from their styles were part of the canvass. Musicians such as the Russ Kunkel types who was part of the Warner Bros crowd and played drums for Linda Ronstadt, James Taylor, and Jackson Browne; Billy Preston, who played organ for the Beatles and had a couple of hits of his own; Bill Evans, who played keyboards for Linda Ronstadt and Little Feat. If you want to see how “Peg” was created, track by track with various musicians, go here.
The 60’s through 80’s decades had those kind of musicians, now most of them have retired or like Becker, have passed through the world. One of my regrets was not seeing Steely Dan in concert in the past few years when Donald Fagen and Walter Becker reunited for some tours. But I’m grateful that vinyl as made a comeback, and that Spotify, Pandora, and some of the stream services are offering the opportunities to hear an album as a complete work, not just a couple of songs for videos for additional artistic merits (re: sale iTunes in bypassing the radio). To a certain extent, I give Beyonce credit for producing Lemonade a video that encompasses an album concept in its entirety about the pain she felt when her spouse stepped out on her. It’s not my style of music, but it’s a similar concept akin to AOR.
From what I’ve been reading from Rolling Stone, Becker had a lot of friends who led the rock and roll life we’ve heard about, mainly with drugs and liquor, and lost many of them. Becker had to work through some issues himself, which explains why there are gaps in the touring/recording periods of Steely Dan. But he was the producer for other artists, one of them Rickie Lee Jones. Jones was one of my favs in 1979 when she released her self-titled LP, although Becker wasn’t the producer of that work; it would be 10 years later for Flying Cowboys. Rickie Lee Jones though was one of those albums for sitting in a bar on a Saturday afternoon with a stranger, having a few beers and discussion about this or that. So was Steely Dan.
Jones was the opening act for SD’s Carnegie Hall gigs for the past couple of years. She described her work with Becker and opening sets for SD:
They brought an education and precision to a conversation taking place in the late Sixties of mostly long drum solos and jams. They brought jazz solos to rock, they made being funny in lyrics cool, and they made being cool more important than being handsome. They were the first college band. That’s for sure. And I am nostalgic today for that feeling of all the life being before us, and not behind. All things possible, and not relinquishing to inevitability.
I am Rickie Lee Jones. And I was one of the women Walter Becker took such good care of in his short life. I would want you to know that. He was so funny. And no, I didn’t like the soprano sax on “Satellites,”[Flying Cowboys] but that sound ended up… well, listen to Dave Mathews, for one. Walter knew what he was doing. He planted music. It grows all around us now.
We lost a great musician with Walter Becker. I’m feeling my age with his passing, especially as it’s not known exactly how he died. His long-time collaborator Fagen promises to make the music live on. But I want my FM AOR back, not just silos like all -group channels on XM Radio.