Walter Becker (1950–2017)

The world has lost another irreplaceable musical legend in Steely Dan guitarist, bass player, songwriter, and co-frontman Walter Becker. I spent Sunday listening to Dan records, and trying to write about Becker's legacy. The guy was elusive, hard to read and reticent to the point of obsession (footnote 1).

Few rock bands have ever inspired such a sharp cleavage in fan opinion. And both sides are extremely passionate about their beliefs. One side despised the band's precision. For them they were a soulless mob of overprivileged SoCal studio cats (although Fagen was clearly a New Yawker) who played frivolous, overly clever jazz rock confections.

To the other side, everything they touched was genius. Their intricately layered creations were high art. They were Jedi masters of pop music. The lyrics were smart. The abundant hooks were never bettered. I've had friends I literally worried about because they played records like Aja over and over again. A college roommate, who fell into a loop and could not stop turning the record over, killed The Royal Scam for me. To this day I can't listen to it.

Either way, they were for the most part very well-recorded throughout their career. Interestingly, most subsequent LP reissues of the band's surprisingly small catalog of classics—from 1972's Can't Buy A Thrill to 1980's Gaucho—have not improved the sound of the original pressings.

Instead of listing all of Becker vitals, all of which can be found in any number of online tributes and obits, I thought I'd list my five most resonant Steely Dan tracks.

• "Dr. Wu," from Katy Lied
My favorite SD hit tune. Best use of the word "piaster" in a lyric. Happiest song about drug addiction ever written. Phil Woods on sax. One of the band's finest soul jazz workouts.

• "Bodhisattva," from Countdown to Ecstasy
Metalesque guitars, shouted lyrics, even a touch of country twang, this one is all art.

• "Rose Darling," from Katy Lied
A bravura vocal performance from Fagen. One of those deep tracks that made the albums . . . well, albums.

• "Peg," from Aja
Hard to chose from the band's big moneymaker, the one that made them superstars, because FM radio subsisted on this record for nearly two years. Sure, it's blue-eyed soul and Michael McDonald is in the background, but the hooks are sticky.

• "Fire in the Hole," from Can't Buy A Thrill
Hard to choose a track from this one as well only this time it's because they are all fabulous. "Brooklyn (Owes the Charmer Under Me)" and "Kings" are close runners up but as straight ahead pop melodies go, this one edges them out. From an album that changed the world.

Footnote 1: I literally bumped into Walter Becker at an early 1990s Audio Engineering Society Convention. Heck of a nice guy. We chatted briefly and it turned out that he was both an audiophile and a Stereophile reader. A sad loss.—John Atkinson

es347's picture

..Steely Dan is my fav band by far. I've got everything they've ever recorded and then some. I've purchased ar least a half dozen copies of Aja on vinyl...and of course the SKM SACD from Japan. Bless you for choosing Rose Darling John, one of their best that flew below the radar. I'd have to put Any World on my list. Incidentally it's a hoot to play the studio version back-to-back with the garage tape. RIP Walter. If you happen to visit Mizar 5 be aware of the boom..

Catch22's picture

Sad to hear of Becker's passing. Steely Dan has always checked all the boxes I want to hear in music. Although stylistically very different, I've always considered SD and Alan Parsons to be the most polarizing for music geeks. You either love or hate them. I love them, both.

Robin Landseadel's picture

Cousin Dupree, recent favorite, genius lyrics:

Pretzel Logic's picture

Never has Turn That Heartbeat Over Again sounded more poignant. When the tambourine kicks in is still one of my all time favourite moments in music (love your mama/love your brother/love em til they run for cover)...

jporter's picture

However, this is the music of my nightmares. I always find it hilarious that "audiophiles" think this is great.I don't care how great the production is if the music is this bad...Also, see Dave Grusin. I will stick with The Mahavishnu Orchestra, FZ and King Crimson...Cheers and RIP Walter...

WJ ARMSTRONG's picture

It's funny, whenever I attempt to pick ten Desert Island albums, I get down to about forty and then furiously struggle to whittle down the numbers any further.
But... If my house was on fire and I could grab only one, it would be Gaucho. For me, it represents an absolute pinnacle of brilliant writing, inspired musicianship & flawless production that has never been bested.

ken mac's picture

Becker was a customer at NYC's In Living Stereo; I believe he eventually bought his Shindo gear from Matt Rotunda at PitcPerfect in California.
I interviewed Becker and Fagen a few times. The last time I saw Becker at ILS, he gave me his number for a hoped-for "Musicians As Audiophiles" piece. He was always down to earth and very funny.
Bernard Purdie told me once (for a Modern Drummer article, "The Drummers of Steely Dan"), paraphrasing, "Fagen told me everything I did wrong, Becker praised me for what I got right."

ringmeraudioguy's picture

Not only did Walter co-write, arrange and play those eternally fine Dan tunes, he also produced albums for China Crisis in the U.K.. RIP ...the world will miss your genius.

Littlefire 1974's picture

RB, I'd love to discuss our five favorite Steely Dan songs with you one day soon. Your choices are fascinating.

dalethorn's picture

Deacon Blues, Do It Again, Hey Nineteen, Josie, and Rikki Don't Lose That Number are my total Steely Dan songs. My collection of pop tracks averages 2-3 per artist - many one-onlys and a handful that go above ten each. These five, to my ears, have a rhythm and flow like they belong together on a good EP record.

I have a few pop albums where I've ripped and kept nearly all of the tracks, but that's rare for me. Spooky II, Let It Bleed, Led Zeppelin II and IV, a few others. But I never sensed that continuity with Steely Dan, albeit these five tracks are extremely enjoyable for me and I always play through them without distraction.