Tag Archives: Aja

Walter Becker RIP

I was away last week and read about Walter Becker’s passing in the New York Times. They gave him a full-page obituary – indicative, I thought at first, of the band’s  higher profile in the US compared to here, until I opened up the BBC News app on my phone and saw that his death was a top story there, too.

I’m no different from any other pop fan, and can’t keep the music and the artist entirely separate. It requires a particular cast of mind to do that, and I don’t have it. My thoughts about the character of the musicians whose work I admire (none of whom I know) feed into my understanding of that work.

But with Walter Becker, I had to make an attempt to consider the music as separate from the man, as he was always something of an enigma. His partner Donald Fagen made a somewhat autobiographical solo album (The Nightfly) in the 1980s, and published a book a few years ago detailing his teenage art-cultural obsessions. Moreover, he was the singer, and it’s hard not to hear the words being sung as a reflection of the singer, even when you know that he didn’t write all of them.

Reticent though Fagen is next to his rock’n’roll peers, Becker was even less forthcoming. Photographs of him suggest a stern character, or perhaps a supercilious one (his friend Rickie Lee Jones said in her tribute to Becker that he hated to be photographed, which may explain why he could look off-putting in photos). His work suggests a bottomless sarcasm and cynicism. In the Classic Albums documentary on Aja, he’s gimlet-eyed and brutally dismissive about the faults he hears in recordings and performances that appear faultless to we ordinary mortals. Yet those who knew him speak of a gentle, patient man, generous with his time, but shy and affected by a difficult childhood and some troubled adult relationships.

What we know for sure is what we know from his work. Like Fagen, he was a studio perfectionist. He was egoless in pursuit of the best record possible, handing over tracks to trusted players whenever he thought someone else would do a better job than he could – despite being a crackerjack guitarist himself. For years, I didn’t know that he played one of my favourite ever guitar solos (the one on Aja‘s Home at Last), simply because he so rarely allowed himself the luxury of taking a solo when Denny Dias, Larry Carlton, Jay Graydon, Elliott Randall, Rick Derringer and Mark Knopfler were a phone call away. Think about that: a guitarist working in rock music who was self-effacing to the point where he was willing to not play on songs off the last two albums at all (songs that he wrote) in pursuit of the best possible records.

That kind of musical humility deserves applause. But really, everything he did as part of Steely Dan deserves applause.

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10 of the best Steely Dan lines

Presented without comment or context, 10 magnificent lines from Steely Dan songs:

Bodacious cowboys such as your friend/Will never be welcome here high in the Custerdome
Gaucho (Gaucho)

Don’t believe I’m taken in by stories I have heard/I just read the Daily News and swear by every word.
Barrytown (Pretzel Logic)

Is there gas in the car?/Yes, there’s gas in the car
Kid Charlemagne (The Royal Scam)

Double helix in the sky tonight/Throw out the hardware/Let’s do it right
Aja (Aja)

I loved you more than I can tell/But now it’s stomping time
My Rival (Gaucho)

Hey Nineteen, that’s ‘Retha Franklin/She don’t remember The Queen of Soul
Hey Nineteen (Gaucho)

Now you swear and kick and beg us that you’re not a gamblin’ man/ Then you find you’re back in Vegas with a handle in your hand
Do It Again (Can’t Buy a Thrill)

Jive Miguel, he’s in from Bogota/Meet me at midnight at Mr Chow’s/Szechuan dumplings after the deal has been done/I’m the one
Glamour Profession (Gaucho)

Agents of the law/Luckless pedestrian
Don’t Take Me Alive (The Royal Scam)

Lonnie swept the playroom and he swallowed up all he found/It was 48 hours till Lonnie came around
The Boston Rag (Countdown to Ecstasy)

Thanks to Nick Elvin for a couple of killer suggestions.

163.Steely_Dan_1993

When did the eighties become the eighties? or, transition periods in mix fashion

I had an interesting conversation with Yo Zushi the other night about fashion in music production and mix.

Both of us have a soft spot for Boz Scaggs and his super-cool ultra-smooth blue-eyed soul, and I remarked on Middle Man being one of the best-sounding records I could think of. For all its song-for-song quality, Scaggs’s masterpiece, Silk Degrees, doesn’t have the drum sound that graces Middle Man cuts like JoJo. It’s precise, it’s powerful, and it seems to me to retain far more of the sound you hear when you’re seated on the drum stool

Middle Man, released in 1980, was recorded at the back end of 1979, using old-school analogue technology. By then, recording and mix engineers had had a few years to become familiar with the technology of 24-track analogue, learn how to compensate for the reduced track width caused by cramming that many tracks into two inches of tapes, discover ways to warm up the relatively sterile transistor-based desks that were now the rule rather than the exception, and begin to derive the benefits of new automation technology, which allowed for more precise mixing, particularly of vocals (automation allows you to program your fader moves in advance, rather than having to do them on the fly).

So Middle Man, produced by Bill Schnee (who’d engineered Steely Dan’s Aja three years before) came out during a sort of period of grace. It was also a period where fashions were changing. The tight, dry West Coast sound of Middle Man was falling out of favour, especially in New York and in the UK: Jimmy Iovine (an East Coast guy through and through, even when he was working in LA) had already made Darkness on the Edge on Town (at the Record Plant New York) and Damn the Torpedoes (at Sound City in Van Nuys), and soon he’d apply that same absurd cannonball-hits-crash-mat drum sound to Stevie Nicks’s Bella Donna. In the UK, meanwhile, Hugh Padgham had stumbled across the gated reverb effect while recording Peter Gabriel’s third solo album. In 1981 Phil Collins would unleash his gated mega drums on In the Air Tonight and it would be all over for the Californian aesthetic.

Except, no. I wouldn’t.

Things aren’t that neat. There were still plenty of records made in the first few years of the 1980s with the dead sound associated with the 1970s (think of something like Michael McDonald’s 1982 hit album If That’s What it Takes, which sonically speaking could have been made the same year as Aja), and a lot of the things we think of as being key to the eighties sound were invented so late in the 1970s or so early in the 1980s that their true impact wasn’t felt until the decade was well underway: the Linn drum machine, the Fairlight CMI, the Emulator, the Synclavier, digital reverb units like the Lexicon 224 and so on.

The same was true at the start of the 1990s. Sure, Matthew Sweet’s Girlfriend, with its startlingly bone-dry sound, may have pointed to the way things were going and acted as a necessary corrective to the never-ending decays on vocals and snare drums that were so prevalent at the arse end of the eighties. Sure, Bob Clearmountain’s mixes were coming back down to earth (by 1993 he’d be doing his best ever work on Crowded House’s Together Alone) after his big bam booming period mixing Hall & Oates, Huey Lewis and Bryan Adams. And sure Andy Wallace’s Nevermind mix was, despite its use of reverb samples, far drier than it could have been in someone else’s hands. But as late as 1993, Big Head Todd and the Monsters could have a platinum record with an album that deployed extremely prominent gated reverb on the drums* That’s to say nothing of Brendan O’Brien seemingly tracking Pearl Jam’s Ten in a cave**.

At some point a trend gets overdone and a small vanguard starts going the other way to distinguish themselves from the herd. The question is, in our own era, who’s going to do it and what’s going to change?

big head todd
Promo shot, circa Sister Sweetly: Todd Park Mohr, Brian Nevin, Rob Squires

*If you’re not American – hell, if you weren’t living in the Mountain States in the early 1990s – you may not be aware of Big Head Todd and the Monsters. Let me assure you, then, that this was not a case of a behind-the-times band from the boondocks getting lucky: Sister Sweetly was produced and mixed by Prince sideman David Z at the Purple One’s own Paisley Park studio. The record, for whatever reason, just completely ignored the production trends of the preceding two years or so, and must have sounded almost laughably old-fashioned the moment it was released. Nonetheless it’s a decent record and it sold a million in the US.

**The Pearl Jam guys disliked the mix enough that the 2009 re-release included a remix of the whole album. It’s noticeably drier.

The shuffle

I started my current job a little over two years ago, going from three days a week up to four after a few months. From next week I’m going to be working full time, which is going to leave me a little less time for blogging. I’ve got a couple of options, I think: reduce the word count and the attendant research and fact checking that goes into one of these posts (it typically takes between 90-120 minutes to put one of these together, depending on how many books I have to search through to find exact quotes and so on) or go down to one post a week. I’m a bit loath to do that, so I think slightly reduced word counts of between 300-600 words per piece is going to be a better solution (nowadays I regularly reach 1000 words for substantial pieces like the Holst thing I did the other day).

And I’ll probably just do more pieces where I just shoot from the hip about whatever happens to be in my head that day.

Like this piece to follow.

The shuffle

What is a shuffle anyway?
When you google “songs shuffles drums” or similar, you’ll come across drummer’s forums where the participants suggest a bunch of songs, at least half of which aren’t shuffles. Not even nearly. A whole discussion of the quality of Talking Heads’ version of Take Me to the River passed before someone piped up to say, Hey guys, it’s straight eights, not a shuffle.

It does bring home how slippery some of these concepts are. For example, one drummer suggested Killer Queen, so I went and took a listen, sceptically (Roger Taylor’s style tended towards stiffness). It’s an interesting case, as Roger Taylor is decidedly not shuffling. In his usual ham-handed way, he’s playing big straight quarters. The shuffle feeling comes from Freddie Mercury’s piano playing – not enough where you feel, “Yes, ah ha! A shuffle!” But enough to introduce some swing into the track.

Drummers love their complex half-time shuffles
Jeff Porcaro’s work on Boz Scaggs’s Lido Shuffle and Toto’s Rosanna, Bonham on Fool in the Rain, Bernard Purdie on Home at Last and Babylon Sisters. These are beats drummers continue to deconstruct and learn how to perform. With good reason – they’re awesome, those ghost strokes on the snare (present in all four beats) in particular.

Country would be nowhere without it
Of course, the shuffle is most associated with the blues (in a pub near you right now, some guys are cranking out Sweet Home Chicago, with varying degrees of success), but I learned all about the shuffle by playing bass on country songs and watching drummers do what I couldn’t: alternating right and left feet (bass on one, hat on two, bass on three, hat on four) while playing a shuffle rhythm on the snare drum with brushes. I’m getting there, but it’ll be a while yet before you see me playing any kind of shuffle it in front of an audience.

Motown
You might associate Motown principally with a big stomping drum style (something like Reach Out, I’ll be There, say). To which I’ll add, sure. But also: My Guy. Baby Love. Where Did Our Love Go. How Sweet it is to be Loved by You. Shuffles all.

bernardpurdie
Bernard Purdie, master of the half-time shuffle

New Frontier – Donald Fagen

Note: The songs on this album represent certain fantasies that might have been entertained by a young man growing up in the remote suburbs of a northeastern city during the late fifties and early sixties, i.e., one of my general height, weight and build. D.F.

Fagen’s liner notes from The Nightfly

To the extent that he has an image, Donald Fagen’s will always be defined by the cover of his 1982 debut solo album The Nightfly – a super-cool late-’50s hipster miraculously still around in the present day, spinning jazz records and smoking endless cigarettes long into the night (the time on the clock to his right reads ten past four).

Fagen’s accidental memoir, Eminent Hipsters, suggests that he pretty much was the young man whose persona he adopts on The Nightfly: a precocious wannaBeat in love with the culture of jazz and outsiderdom; “sentenced to a long stretch at hard labour in Squaresville” but not yet the hip sophisticate he needed to be to fully escape it. The Nightfly is the work of a man approaching middle age, looking back on his younger self and the world he grew up in with fond affection. Compared to Steely Dan, Fagen’s old band, it’s almost cuddly.

True, it’s the creation of a well-read and impressively self-educated man who doesn’t mind making you work a bit (the video for New Frontier wisely doesn’t assume its audience will know who Tuesday Weld or Brubeck were, or what Ambush is, or how you might wear a French twist – note that the girl in the video does not have one), but the mood is friendly and warm. After the bitterly cynical and ultimately tragic Gaucho (the final Dan album, from 1980), The Nightfly is probably the only music Fagen could make without driving himself crazy.

New Frontier shows he’s still the incorrigible craftsman of old, though. There are beautiful little details all the way through it: the way the backing vocalists hang on the last word of every line, making each terminal word into a hook; Fagen’s hilarious enunciation of “wingding” (how many other lyricists would have chosen that word over the more prosaic “party”?); the guitar playing of Rick Derringer and Hugh McCracken; the little riff the backing vocalist in the right-hand channel does on “Brubeck”; the tone-cluster piano squonk just before the guitar solo; the contrast set up in the lyric between the bright optimistic future the singer imagines for himself (studying design overseas, of course) and the suburban nuclear paranoia he’s living in right now. Fagen is a guy with warm memories but a clear-eyed view of his atomic-age youth.

As he doubles down on what I hope is merely his crusty-old-geezer routine in his new Rolling Stone tour diary (his Eminent Hipsters tour diary is, while very funny, also very crusty), it’s refreshing to relisten to The Nightfly and certain songs off Aja (the title track, Deacon Blues, Josie) and hear a Donald Fagen that meets the world with neither a defiant snark nor a cane raised in the air.

Nightfly

The author’s own recently recorded work:

First world problems: Gaucho & Third World Man – Steely Dan

Third World Man is the bleak conclusion of the bleakest album of Steely Dan’s frequently bleak discography. Bleak, I say? I’ll go further. It’s horrifying.

The cynicism they displayed throughout the seventies curdles into something rank and foul-smelling on their last album Gaucho. Their previous album Aja had been perhaps their warmest effort: Peg, Home at Last, the title track and Deacon Blues are hymns to the companionship of a good woman or, in the latter case, of jazz music. What mockery is evident is light-hearted (I Got the News) or regretful (Black Cow). More than on any other Dan album, you sense that the songs’ first-person narrator and Donald Fagen are the same person, or at least that Fagen and Becker have put themselves into their lyrics more than before.

Gaucho, in contrast, is populated with losers, cheaters, stalkers, dealers, users. Fagen and Becker have their fun with all of them. The narrators of Glamour Profession (a drug dealer who thinks he’s a Hollywood star in the making), My Rival (obsessive jilted lover), Gaucho (middle-aged gay man with unfaithful younger lover) and Hey Nineteen (incorrigible pussy-hound falling headlong into an age gap) all deserve his contempt, and they’re the targets of some of his funniest one-liners, while spinning off some good ones themselves: ‘Bodacious cowboys such as your friend will never be welcome here,’ says the narrator of Gaucho to his boyfriend, having found him and the Gaucho in a compromising position. Yet the sum of all this is an album dripping with contempt, a record that surveys the last days of the Me Decade with evident disgust.

That is, until we get to the ambiguous subject of album closer Third World Man, the only character in the whole album whom Fagen treats with any sympathy or compassion, the only one who deserves any.

Who is Johnny? Is he a veteran with PTSD? Is he an immigrant driven mad by the disparity between his circumstances and the privilege taken for granted and squandered by the sort of people who appear throughout the rest of the album? Fagen declines to specify why the sidewalks aren’t safe for a “little guy” like Johnny, or why he wears a disguise, or why the fireworks start (or whether the fireworks and disguise are metaphorical or literal). And surely no one in the narrator’s world had ever tried to find out.

Third World Man is the album’s conscience – the conscience of Steely Dan’s whole career really – and yet it only made the cut because some hapless tape operator recorded test tones all over the master tape for The Second Arrangement, a track Becker and Fagen had previously deemed the best thing they’d ever recorded. TWM (an Aja outtake?) was pulled from the vaults and completed by the addition of Larry Carlton’s guitar solo, the most nakedly emotional playing I’ve ever heard from him, a career highlight for a supremely technical but sometimes bloodless player.

Fagen was dumbfounded by the loss of The Second Arrangement; it was yet another setback in what had already been a tough project, during which he had been shouldering the load almost on his own. Becker had been mired in a heroin addiction, before being hospitalised with a broken foot sustained in a freak car accident. Then he suffered the death of his girlfriend from an overdose. Her family sued him for, they claimed, getting her hooked in the first place (Becker was eventually found not guilty). Left on his own and weary of the work and the responsibility, Fagen’s use of Third World Man in place of what he saw as the band’s ruined masterpiece was an admission of defeat, a rare “will this do?” shrug of the shoulders from a guy for whom no amount of work in the studio had ever been too much. Yet had he chosen to persevere with re-recording The Second Arrangement, we’d have been denied one of the greatest, most humane Steely Dan songs and one of the most affecting album closers in the history of popular music.

Steely Dan chris walter
Walter Becker, Donald Fagen