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Listen to Steely Dan

Steely Dan is a Grammy-Award winning American jazz fusion/rock band centered on core members Walter Becker and Donald Fagen. The band's peak of popularity was in the late 1970s, when it released seven albums that blended elements of jazz, rock, funk, R&B, and pop. Their music is characterized by complex jazz-influenced structures and harmonies as interpreted by rock and pop studio musicians. Steely Dan's literate, often ambiguous lyrics are filled with sharp sarcasm which often touches upon such dark themes as drugs, prostitution ("Babylon Sisters"), and their true-to-life extreme dislike of Los Angeles.

The group toured from 1972 to 1974, but in 1975 became a purely studio-based act. They disbanded in 1981, and throughout most of the next decade, Becker and Fagan remained largely inactive in the music world. Steely Dan had two reunion tours in the summers of 1993 and 1994 and new studio releases in 2000, Two Against Nature, and 2003, Everything Must Go, with accompanying tours. They have sold more than 30 million albums worldwide.

Early years

Donald Fagen and Walter Becker met at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York in 1967 and began playing in local groups (one of these, The Bad Rock Group, included future comedy star Chevy Chase on drums). At that time, the band was called "The Leather Canary."

After Fagen graduated in 1969, the two moved to Brooklyn and tried to peddle their tunes in the Brill Building in midtown Manhattan. Kenny Vance, a member of the pop group Jay and the Americans, who had a production office in the building, took an interest in their material that led to work on the soundtrack of the low-budget Richard Pryor film You've Got to Walk It Like You Talk It or You'll Lose That Beat (1971) and jobs with the band's rhythm section. A series of demos made (supposedly) between 1968 and 1971 while under contract to Vance have been available on unofficial CDs and on various Steely Dan fan sites for some time. This collection features approximately twenty-five tracks, and is unique for two reasons. First, the stripped down production and decidedly "lo-fi" nature of these tracks (many songs are just Fagen and his piano) is completely contrary to known Steely Dan works. Second, although some of these songs (Caves of Altamira, Brooklyn, Barrytown, and a few others) eventually were recorded on a mass-produced album, the majority were never released formally.

Although they had a few notable successes—Barbra Streisand recorded their song "I Mean To Shine" on her 1971 "Barbra Joan Streisand" album—they made little significant headway until one of Vance's cronies, Gary Katz, moved to Los Angeles to become a staff producer for ABC Records. He hired Becker and Fagen as staff songwriters and they flew to California. Katz would produce all their 1970s albums with a collaboration with engineer Roger Nichols.

After realizing their songs were too complex for other ABC artists, at Katz's suggestion they formed their own band with guitarists Denny Dias and Jeff "Skunk" Baxter, drummer Jim Hodder and singer David Palmer, and Katz signed the band to ABC as recording artists. Being fans of Beat Generation literature, Fagen and Becker named the band for a dildo in the William Burroughs novel Naked Lunch. The addition of Palmer as a second lead vocalist was due to a combination of Fagen's resistance to singing in front of an audience and the label's feeling that his voice was not "commercial" enough. Fagen lacked confidence in his voice and was known to have suffered from occasional bouts of stage fright.

In 1972, ABC sent out promotional copies of Steely Dan's first single, "Dallas" backed with "Sail the Waterway." It is unclear if "stock" copies were ever released to the general public, and if they were, the single sold so poorly that promotional copies are more abundant today (whereas the reverse is true for most releases). Neither song has ever been included on a compilation or album of any kind, or re-released in any form, with few exceptions. First was a 12" European EP titled "Plus Fours". This 1978 EP features "Dallas," "Sail the Waterway," "Do It Again," and "Haitian Divorce." The other was "The Probe Family Sampler", released by Music for Pleasure in the UK, which included "Dallas."

Reunion (1993 - present)

Fagen and Becker took the first steps toward reconciliation in 1986, when Gary Katz oversaw the production of Zazu, an album by the former model Rosie Vela. Both Becker and Fagen are featured on that album, and it is believed to be the first time they performed together since the breakup. On October 25, 1991, Becker attended a concert of the New York Rock and Soul Revue, co-founded by Fagen and producer/singer Libby Titus (who was for many years the partner of Levon Helm of The Band and would later become Fagen's wife). 1993 saw Becker's production of Fagen's second solo album Kamakiriad. Fagen later said it was the most satisfying recording experience of his career. Returning the favour, Fagen co-produced Becker's solo album 11 Tracks of Whack in 1994.

During the same year, MCA released Citizen Steely Dan, a boxed set featuring their entire catalog on 4 CDs, plus 4 extra tracks: "Here at the Western World" (originally released on 1978's "Greatest Hits"), "FM" (1978 single), a 1971 demo of "Everyone's Gone to the Movies" and "Bodhisattva (live)", the latter recorded on a cassette in 1974 and released as a B-side in 1980.