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Music

How Steely Dan followed The Beatles’ example "to the letter"

@SamWKemp

Donald Fagen and Walter Becker of Steely Dan came together under the shadow of two of the most important events of the 1960s: the Cuban Missile Crisis and the release of The Beatles’ 1966 album Revolver. Both greatly impacted their worldview and allowed them to form a friendship which, in 1968, saw them move into a shared flat in Brooklyn. From there, they laid a plan for their two-pronged assault on the music industry, one that would see them deliberately follow a path carved out by The Beatles. Because, like The Beatles, Steely Dan were never destined to tour the world forever – rather, they found a home in the studio, where they became less of a band and more musical puppeteer’s, crafting a finely honed blend of jazz and rock that has truly stood the test of time.

From very early on, Decker and Fagen had wanted to create a group that would serve as a vehicle for their “special material”. At this time, they were locked into a contract by which they were forced to write teeny-bopper tunes for artists like Tommy Roe, The Grass Roots and Hamilton, Joe Frank and Reynolds, but behind the scenes, they were already putting together the original lineup for the Steely Dan group. After finishing the first Steely Dan album, Donald Fagen’s panic disorder made it impossible for him to front the band on tour, so Dave Palmer was bought in as a replacement frontman. To add insult to injury, money was becoming a real issue. “We didn’t make any money touring,” Becker once revealed. “It was a money-losing proposition and we were beating our brains out. We felt that if we kept on doing this we would burn out very soon”.

By 1974, wobbling under financial strains and tired of watching their bandmates lure intoxicated fans up to their motel rooms after shows, Becker and Fagen decided to quit touring and retreat to the confines of the studio. It had never appealed to them that much anyway, and they’d always felt more at home behind the mixing console than they in front of a hungry audience. Looking for some sort of validating, Becker and Fagen looked to The Beatles for encouragement: “Of course, The Beatles had not long before set the example of concentrating on records and not touring, and we were arrogant enough to follow their example”.

The Beatles’ 1966 world stadium tour, saw the Fab Four reach breaking point. A combination of administrative errors, overcrowding, and Lennon’s divisive statement that The Beatles were “bigger than Jesus” made the whole tour an absolute disaster zone. So, following their final show in San Francisco, they decided to take a break from touring. Contrary to popular belief, they never formally announced that they were retiring from the stage, they simply stopped agreeing to perform live concerts. As Ringo Starr recalled in 2016: “The Beatles were never gone. And they could have come back”.

The Beatles’ decision to take a step back allowed them to spend more time in the studio experimenting with their sound, pulling songs apart and playing with the fundamentals of their songcraft — and the same was true of Steely Dan. From 1974 onwards, they retreated not only from the stage but also from the live room, increasingly relying on the skill of session musicians to perform their complex and increasingly explorative song arrangments. However, Steely Dan would go on to repeat The Beatles’ story in another important way.

After their retreat from public view in 1966, tensions began to weave their way between the respective members, which eventually led to The Beatles infamous implosion in 1970. As Decker recalled of Steely Dan’s decision to stop touring: “We split up shortly after too. We were following their example to the letter…We never make a move without consulting The Beatles chronology.”

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