Steely Dan is an American rock band founded in 1972 by Walter Becker and Donald Fagen. The band has received acclaim for its distinctive fusion of jazz, rock, and pop and its meticulous attention to detail in the recording studio. Both Donald Fagen and Walter Becker only accepted pitch-perfect in everything they did, from their smooth R&B tones to introducing jazz and fusion into the world of rock. The outcomes were self-evident, but that doesn’t erase the wounded egos they left in their wake.
Just as many musicians were wounded by the conclusion of the recording session as there were great successes. Although musicians like Larry Carlton and Steve Gadd have always had positive things to say about their time with the band, each of them has spoken about the toxic environment they entered and the necessity of repeatedly running the same recording until they produced something at least passably good.
Even a few titans have vowed never to collaborate with Steely Dan once more. Despite the fact that not everyone had the same concept in mind when writing these songs, Becker and Fagen’s strict rules were always followed.
Even though not all of these relationships had happy endings, Fagen and Becker can’t be faulted for understanding what worked in the Steely Dan style. From the beginning, these two puppet masters were searching for a studio commotion, and they would shift the Earth to record it. Just don’t bring these sessions up to these musicians
Musicians rejected by Steely Dan
Becker and Fagen always offered their listeners a glimpse at the seedy side of life as the ’70s got underway. When the band was just starting out, John Lennon was releasing “Imagine,” which promoted a world of harmony to the general public. Becker and Fagen wrote “Only a Fool Would Say That” as a direct retort to what the “Intellectual Beatle” had to say because a wealthy man who had a past of abuse had performed the song. Steely Dan continued to make fun of the older group by writing tracks that mocked the hippy idealism that was prevalent in the 1960s.
There was never going to be a straightforward path to working with Steely Dan in the studio. The band may be receptive to collaboration, but Fagen and Becker never put up with fools and always wanted the best performance from their musicians. The human aspect of drumming didn’t always work. They have been compared to perfectionists who demand multiple takes and a high level of technical skill by some artists who have collaborated with them.
Fagen talked about how they were not getting the most out of the drummers. He said, “We found there were certain feels that we couldn’t get out of real drummers. They weren’t steady enough. So we had to design something that would do it perfectly, but with some human feeling, the right amount of layback. Wendel can play exactly what the drummer plays”
Steely Dan has always been more of a state of consciousness than an actual rock and roll band. Throughout their time working together, Fagen and Becker had grown accustomed to treating musicians like instruments, hiring the ideal candidate for the position, and structuring a song around the ideal beat. Victor Feldman, a pianist who had gained experience as a session musician in jazz-rock, was enlisted to play on the tune “Green Earrings” while working on The Royal Scam. Feldman’s timing was never appropriate for the song as the ensemble repeatedly worked on it, and none of the improvisations had the same attitude as those by Fagen or Becker.
The band made a compromise by adding another keyboardist as retaliation for Feldman failing to achieve the desired vibe.
Some musicians can support themselves solely through the practice of improvisation. Even though some of the greatest solos in history have been pre-planned, it’s an essential skill for guitarists to be able to create a solo while playing. Although Mark Knopfler was educated for that style of playing, it wouldn’t work with a band that was intended to be precise.
When working on the song “Time Out of Mind,” Knopfler felt like a fish out of water attempting to get a good guitar sound for the recording. Knopfler said he spent hours performing the tune without progressing. To make matters worse, Knopfler was completely absent from the song’s final rendition. Despite his efforts, Becker and Fagen only really appreciate some of his playings in the first 15 seconds of the song. They much favor what the rest of the band contributed.
Every guitarist on ‘Peg’
Out of all of Steely Dan’s hits, ‘Peg’ is the most deceptively straightforward. Fagen always likened the song to a blues number because it has the same lowdown attitude as his favorite songs as a kid, even though it contains many jazzy chords throughout. For this song, the duo put a number of guitar gods through their paces. It requires a lot of skill to play the blues well.
While Larry Carlton and Denny Diaz and other jazz rock legends contributed to the album Aja, Fagen, and Becker were never happy with their work and fired six guitarists before bringing in Jay Gordon and telling him to “play the blues.”
Going through a star-studded ensemble of guitarists wasn’t out of the question, one of Steely Dan’s engineers claimed in the same interview. He said, “A band would come in and record, and two hours later Becker and Fagen would look at their producer, and say, ‘Fire this band. Let’s go with somebody else tomorrow night.’ It’d be different bands every night to get the same song.”