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Music

When Steely Dan destroyed the morale of Mark Knopfler

Steely Dan are one of the most significant bands of all time. A cult group, loved by everyone from your obscure relative to the art school teacher, their misanthropic, surreal lyricism and mind-blowing music marked them out from their peers in the 1970s, giving their music an endurance that lives on. Their work retains a freshness that many of their contemporaries could only have dreamed of achieving, a testament to the skill of their craft.

Formed by Walter Becker and Donald Fagen in 1971 after they met at New York’s Bard College in the late 1960s, Steely Dan’s rise was meteoric. The two bonded over black humour and the music of Charlie Parker, and overall contempt for the counterculture that they saw all around them. The last point is terribly ironic as, aesthetically and musically, they were hippies, just not in the orthodox, flower-power, Donovan Leitch kind of way. One could maybe argue that Becker and Fagen were the original hipsters. Hipsters but so not hippies, man.

Becker and Fagen performed in a string of groups before forming Steely Dan, such as Jay & the Americans, a setting in which they cultivated clinical musical knowledge that would help them light the fire of Steely Dan in the future. Frontman of the Americans, Jay Black, was all too aware of the pair’s off-kilter outlook. He “disaffectionately” dubbed them “the Manson and Starkweather of rock ‘n’ roll”, referring to cult leader Charles Manson and serial killer Charles Starkweather. This account paints a concise of the duo’s temperament. 

When it came to recording Steely Dan’s 1980 album, Gaucho, Fagen and Becker would provide another clear example of their character. For the track ‘Time Out of Mind’, they enlisted Dire Straits frontman and guitar hero Mark Knopfler after being impressed by his work, particularly on the track ‘Sultans of Swing’. Accordingly, they invited the guitarist to play the song’s solo. This broke from the band’s normal way of working, as Knopfler couldn’t read music, the band’s usual modus operandi. 

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Knopfler became frustrated by the long and drawn-out studio sessions. In addition to this, Fagen and Becker had a brazen way of criticising his work and lack of progression, which only compounded his feelings. Showing the extent of the sessions, Knopfler recorded over ten hours of guitar for the band only to use 15 seconds in the intro. 

“It was a strange experience,” Knopfler recalled, “Like getting into a swimming pool with lead weights tied to your boot.” When asked about Knopfler’s frustration, Becker added: “I think he definitely felt that, because he would play something and it was OK, then we’d like it later.”

Notorious slave drivers, there’s no wonder that Steely Dan achieved many miraculous musical feats over their career. This unwavering, stoic attitude was of Whiplash proportions, but boy did it get results.

Listen to ‘Time Out of Mind’ below.