Steely Dan — Who Are These Guys?

Seventies avant-jazz duo surprise many by picking up three Grammys.

Each time Donald Fagen and Walter Becker strode to the podium to pick up a Grammy on Wednesday night, it was hard not to notice stark differences between the two men and the artists they were up against.

The 50-something pair, who are the songwriting, arranging and producing nexus of Steely Dan, are not terribly colorful. Looking at best like relatively hip accountants, they made cursory, brief remarks, thanking fans and associates and behaving nothing like their usual eccentric selves.

Backstage, it was another story. Becker cracked wise about possibly apocryphal Grammy perks: "Well, we get a free trip to Orlando. To Disney World for us and our escorts. A weekend, an extended weekend."

"Four E tickets," Fagen reminded his partner.

"Four E tickets, and all our breakfasts are covered as long as they are continental breakfasts," Becker said.

Steely Dan are nothing if not singular — an assertion only strengthened by the duo's win in the Album of the Year category for Two Against Nature, their first studio album since 1980's Gaucho. The record debuted at #6 on the Billboard 200 albums chart in March and has sold 803,429 copies, according to SoundScan.

The very title of Two Against Nature conjures images of a united Becker and Fagen defying the trends that have evolved and enveloped the pop music playing field. Other recent Album of the Year recipients, such as Santana's Supernatural last year and Lauryn Hill's The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill in 1999, were by contrast self-evident as products of the pop music environments of the time.

Steely Dan have always run counter to the prevailing pop music mould, dating back to their initial run that began with 1971's soundtrack to the film "You Gotta Walk It Like You Talk It." But after winning three Grammys, Fagen joked, "I think we're in real danger of losing our outsider status."

"Indeed what does he mean by that?" asked Becker. "I think what it shows, amongst other things, is that our fans, the ones that have survived, have exceeded to positions of power and influence. It's very flattering that there are still so many people listening to what we're doing."

Despite their level of popularity, there is nearly no precedent whatsoever for Steely Dan's music. It involves lyrics amounting to meta-narratives, abnormally sophisticated harmonies, bewildering time changes and a knack for a pop hook that, despite the preceding qualities that seem to be commercial impediments, regularly sent the duo's albums up the charts in the 1970s.

The pair's music has long been admired by other artists, and especially by members of the audio community, which has lauded the faultless, exacting standards of Steely Dan's recordings as the pinnacle of studio craft. (The engineers who worked on Two Against Nature took home this year's Grammy for Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical.) This quite possibly came to bear on the duo's Grammy wins, since audio professionals make up a large portion of the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences, the group that hands out the awards.

Becker and Fagen grew up around New York and mutually developed a taste for jazz music as well as the songcraft of Brill Building. They met as undergrads at Bard College in 1967, forming a variety of bands together. After touring with the '60s pop band Jay and the Americans, Becker and Fagen resolved to become songwriters. But their tunes were too abstract for most pop singers in the early '70s, so with the encouragement of producer Gary Katz the two recruited session musicians and formed Steely Dan.

Can't Buy a Thrill (1972) was the first proper Steely Dan record, finding Becker playing guitar and bass and Fagen singing and playing keyboards. The album's "Do It Again" (#6, 1972) and "Reelin' in the Years" (#11, 1973) became radio standards, and the band embarked on its first tour. There would be only one other, in 1974, until 1993.

From 1974 to 1980, Fagen and Becker became consummate studio rats, spending an inordinate amount of time crafting songs with the best studio players of the day. The ambitious Pretzel Logic included "Rikki Don't Lose That Number" (#4, 1974), and the knotty Aja featured "Peg" (#11, #1977) and "Deacon Blues" (#19, 1978). Becker and Fagen hardly played on Gaucho, which included the single "Hey Nineteen."

And that was it for Steely Dan for another 13 years. After completing his first solo album, 1982's The Nightfly, Fagen busied himself with soundtrack work and wrote about film music for Premiere magazine. It has been said that he began work on a follow-up to The Nightfly the day after it was completed, but the bluesy sci-fi-oriented Kamakiriad, which Becker produced, was not released until 1993. Becker produced such artists as Rickie Lee Jones in the interim.

The pair's collaboration on Kamakiriad was occasioned by Becker and Fagen's all-star pickup band the New York Rock and Soul Revue, which gigged around New York in the early '90s. Once the album was released, the two assembled a band for a genuine Steely Dan tour, which was followed by another in 1996.

Then it was on to the recording of Two Against Nature. The first Steely Dan studio record in 20 years was a departure from its predecessor. In terms of song form, it is more blues-based and not as compositionally elaborate. Furthermore, it's story lines are more clearly articulated.

Strange then, that Two Against Nature's "Cousin Dupree," which won Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group With Vocal, didn't spark near the controversy that rapper Eminem's lyrics did. The song details a man's lustful longings for an underage cousin. Other songs on the album have lyrics about three-way sex and drug use, but none of it is as gleefully explicit as Eminem's The Marshall Mathers LP.

"We don't actually have any lyrics about pedophilia, per se, in our songs and most of our lyrics," Becker explained. "Most of our songs are about relationships. As far as Eminem — I haven't really heard Eminem very much, so I don't know what to say."

Fagen and Becker were typically obtuse as to why they thought they prevailed over Eminem when they spoke to VH1's Rebecca Rankin backstage. Fagen said, "We were both surprised, 'cause I think both of us figured probably Eminem would win because he's such an attractive young man with so much to say, but we were surprised."

"I'm beginning to think that maybe the whole thing is fixed, just like professional wrestling or professional football or something like that," Becker said, possibly alluding to the group's popularity with NARAS' many audio engineers.

Steely Dan's entrance into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, whether a fix or merely another result of consensus among music industry professionals, will take place March 19.

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