In Review: “The Dan” (Parts 1 & 2) are linked below:
Following the release of their 1980 album, “Gaucho,” Steely Dan officially disbanded seven months later in the Spring of ’81. Walter Becker promptly moved to Hawaii. Donald Fagen wasted little time in releasing his first solo album, 1982’s “Nightfly.” Between then and as recently as 2012, Fagen released a total of four solo albums. One of them in particular held great importance to the future of Steely Dan…..
Donald Fagen – “Kamakiriad” -1993
Ratings: Rolling Stone – 3 out of 5 stars, Allmusic – 3 out of 5
As mentioned, Donald Fagen has released four solo albums to date. 80s, 90s, 00s, 10s. He’s consistently released one per decade since The Dan originally broke up. 1993’s “Kamakiriad” is the only one that played a significant role in Steely Dan’s history. It’s why I included it in a 3-part blog post on the band. Fagen and Becker started rekindling their friendship sometime in the late 80s, but this album is what professionally brought them back together. You see, “Kamakiriad” (a ridiculous title by the way) was produced by none other than Walter Becker. Additionally, Becker played bass guitar on the album’s tracks. Add to that, he even co-wrote one of the tracks, “Snowbound” with Fagen. This solo album was and is the closest thing you’ll ever find to a Steely Dan album that isn’t officially a Steely Dan album.
More important than the album itself is what its collaboration led to. Following the release (it was Grammy-nominated for Album of the Year) Walter Becker agreed to join Fagen’s band for a supporting tour.
Their time together on the road inspired them to release the fantastic four-disc box set “Citizen Steely Dan.”
The set included their entire catalog from 1972-1980. In other words, all the albums I discussed in “Part II” of this post. (I purchased it in the mid-90s and it’s how I came to know the entirety of their music. Listening to that box set is why I became the Steely Dan fan I am.) Following the box set’s release, Becker and Fagen decided to tour in support of it as well. From this point they would slowly and quietly migrate back to the once-familiar confines of the recording studio to plot The Dan’s grand return.
“Two Against Nature” – 2000
Ratings: Rolling Stone – 3.5 out of 5, Allmusic – 4 out of 5
I found out about this album briefly prior to its release. I recall feeling nervous about it. Even though 1980’s “Gaucho” was a bit of a disappointment, I felt their catalog was so solid overall. I feared them screwing up that legacy by releasing something embarrassing all these years later.
I know bands get back together following long breaks. Yet it’s usually for a reunion tour supporting a greatest hits album or something. It’s what Becker and Fagen did in the 90s. But you’d have to look pretty hard to find a band that took a 20-year break in between studio albums. Just how different would it sound? That’s exactly what’s so amazing about “Two Against Nature.” Regardless of what people thought of the songs, one singular observation I read or heard from anyone regarding the album was how it sounded exactly like their old material. “Two Against Nature” literally sounded like it could have been a follow up to “Gaucho” in 1981 or ’82. The vocals. The instrumentation. The production. The songwriting. It’s like Steely Dan was frozen in time for 20 years and picked up where they left off once they thawed. “Two Against Nature” would go on to surprisingly win the Grammy for Best Album that year. In my opinion it was better than their previous release 20 years prior, and a worthy addition to the catalog. A wonderful surprise.
The songs you know: Probably none
The songs you don’t know: Gaslighting Abbie, Two Against Nature, What A Shame About Me, Janie Runaway, Jack of Speed (my favorite)
“Everything Must Go” – 2003
Ratings: Rolling Stone – 3 out of 5 stars, Allmusic – 3 out of 5
If 2000’s “Two Against Nature” came as a surprise, 2003’s “Everything Must Go” was a downright shock. Though there had been rumblings about Fagen and Becker working on an album prior to “Nature’s” release, I don’t think anyone imagined they’d bounce back just three years later with another album of all-original material. In hindsight, considering the critical and award-winning success of their comeback record, we should have seen it coming. Either way, “Everything Must Go” was an unexpected surprise.
At the time of its release, Fagen and Becker billed it as their last studio album. They announced their intention to continue touring (something they did right up to Becker’s death in 2017), but they were firm on this being their final studio release. The album is even bookended by tracks driving this point home. Its opener, “The Last Mall” – includes the chorus “It’s last call….to do your shopping, at the last mall.” The album’s title and final track closes with the words, “….’cause we’re going out of business, everything must go.”
How appropriate that the concluding words sang on the last Steely Dan song from its final album were “everything must go”? Critics didn’t love this one as much as “Two Against Nature.” There were no Grammy’s awarded this time around. Yet in my opinion, its a better album than their 2000 award-winning comeback. Of their nine studio albums, I think “Everything Must Go” is one of three that can just play from start to finish without any particular weak moments. A very satisfying conclusion to their creative career.
The Last Mall, Blues Beach (my favorite), Godwhacker, Lunch With Gina, Everything Must Go
As the years went by, Fagen and Becker would start to soften during interviews on the subject of a new album. Firm “no’s” became “highly unlikely’s” to “maybe’s” and “eventually’s.” Personally I don’t think it ever would have happened. They were very comfortable with the touring career they’d established over their last near-20 years. With an expansive catalog to choose from, the set lists never got boring for them. More importantly, the friendship remained solid, so working together on the road year after year wasn’t burdensome. Add to this, as I previously mentioned, there’s no money in music anymore. The money is all in touring. So unless they had a creative itch to scratch, there was no monetary motivation for Becker and Fagen to write and record again.
Following Walter Becker’s death from cancer, Fagen continued a handful of shows under the Steely Dan moniker. This of course led to the ugly business of Becker’s family suing Fagen for 50% of Steely Dan’s gate and merch sales. Fagen countered by claiming the band had an agreement dating back to its 1972 inception that if a member quit, died, or was fired, he was no longer entitled to any future Steely Dan earnings. Not sure how this one settled out. I imagine Donald Fagen will continue on under a different band name or just bill as a solo act. I think that’s the right thing to do. It’s just not Steely Dan unless it’s both of them.
So just what was Steely Dan? Some say it was a band. Some say it was a concept. Some simply call it a long-time successful collaboration between two talented songwriters and musicians. I think it was all of the above!
Thanks for reading,