Walter Becker – Everything Must Go

 

 

By Daniel G. Moir

I hit a musical wall during my Sophomore year at St. Olaf College. I had just turned nineteen and could not find any music I really wanted to listen to. This is unusual for me, and only happens rarely. I was telling this on the phone to a good friend of mine named Dan Considine. Dan’s quick response was “Hold on. I’ve got something for you.” Within minutes, Dan appears in my dorm room with a single, important question. “Turntable?” I point to the far corner and he gets to work. Moments later the sounds of “The Highest High” by China Crisis fill the room. Dan sits on my couch to watch my expression. My eyes widen as I hear a sound that is both familiar and new. By the time the second chorus hits, I am deeply hooked. Dan walks over to me as I sit by my desk with an open, gaping mouth and places three vinyl albums in my lap-Flaunt the Imperfection by China Crisis, Low Life by New Order and Standing on a Beach by The Cure. “My work here is done.” Dan tells me as he exits the room. I flip the China Crisis album over to read the list of songs and production notes. I see the words “Produced by Walter Becker.”

“Hey nineteen, that’s ‘Retha Franklin. She don’t remember the Queen of Soul.”

Becker in the early 1970’s

Becker, who died on Sunday, September 3rd, co-founded Steely Dan with Donald Fagan. While Fagan may get the greater focus, the band is really the work of a true partnership. Becker’s primary talent served him as a writer, arranger and producer. He was also a chief contributor to the deep cynicism that ran throughout the band’s work.

Walter Becker was an interesting character in Rock Music. Both he and Fagan seem more like College Professors than “Rock Stars.” The music they wrote was complex and inventive. In order to record it, they required the services of the very best session musicians of their time. People like Bernard Purdie, Lee Ritenour, Vinnie Colaiuta, Wayne Shorter, Steve Gadd, Michael McDonald, and Jeff Porcaro all laid their chops out in the studio in service to Becker and Fagan’s material. The attention to sound was as legendary as their deviant tendencies in lyrical subject matter. One of my favorite musical legends is the story of the pair using nearly 1,000 takes to get a single snare drum hit perfect. Even if not true, I like to believe that it is. Such was the obsessive nature of their desire for studio perfection.

Becker, like Fagan, never seemed to be very comfortable in a starring role. He always seemed more comfortable somewhere in the back. In the early years of Steely Dan, he served as the Bass Player on stage during Jeff “Skunk” Baxter’s tenure on guitar. He would later go on to cover guitarist duties in future appearances after Baxter’s departure. An artist who always served the song, Becker saw no issues with letting more a more skilled virtuoso like Larry Carlton play the guitar solo on The Royal Scam’s “Kid Charlemagne.” It was about the song first & last.

The cause of Becker’s death has yet to be revealed, and likely never will. Such was the way he seemed to be on both record, and in life. He had

Becker at the the Hollywood Bowl on June 18, 2016

a complex way of looking at, and constructing music. There was a true sound, and style, in his work that was unmistakable. It was subtle, it was nuanced. It could be found in every meticulously crafted millisecond of music recorded under the Steely Dan banner. It can be found in the two records he handled for the aforementioned China Crisis. (Editor’s Note: For another example of Becker’s exquisite abilities as a producer, check out Rikki Lee Jones’ 1989 album Flying Cowboys)

Through his partnership with Fagan, Becker helped bring a higher level of intellectualism to rock. There was also a heavy

sardonic cynicism that permeated their work and public lives. Upon induction to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2001, it was Becker who said “Everything we’ve had to say about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, we’ve said on our Web site, so I’d just like to open the floor to questions.” The duo were the very definition of jaded. Their work was as subversive as it was catchy. The soundscape base may have been pop, but it came with intricate jazz harmonies superimposed over the top and accompanied lyrics that took perverse delight on the darker tendencies of human behavior. By way of example, a song like “Everyone’s Gone To The Movies” from Katy Lied sounds like nothing more than a fun jazz-influenced Calypso song. The sunshine feel of the song obscures the sleazy tale underneath; that of an old man in the neighborhood named Mr. LaPage who shows dirty movies to the kids when their parents are away. Their work was both the accessible and subversive. They were cool, they were nerds. The poked fun at “the establishment” at the same time as they became it, winning a Grammy for “Album of the Year” in 2001 for Two Against Nature. Becker may have played his role from the back of the stage, but his sound and vision pushed his music to the very front.

 

Steely Dan-The N10W Playlist

Bodhisattva (Countdown to Ecstasy 1973)

Aja (Aja 1977)

My Old School (Countdown to Ecstasy 1973)

Any Major Dude Will Tell You (Pretzel Logic 1974)

Through With Buzz (Pretzel Logic 1974)

Hey Nineteen (Goucho 1980)

Here At The Western World (Greatest Hits 1978)

Kid Charlemagne (The Royal Scam 1976)

The Last Mall (Everything Must Go 2003)

Rikki Don’t Lose That Number (Pretzel Logic 1974)

Everything You Did (The Royal Scam 1976)

What A Shame About Me (Two Against Nature 2000)

Peg (Aja 1977)

Black Friday (Katy Lied 1975)

Babylon Sisters (Goucho 1980)

Everything Must Go (Everything Must Go 2003)

Haitian Divorce (The Royal Scam 1976)

Green Earrings (The Royal Scam 1976)

Josie (Aja 1977)

F.M. (No Static At All) (FM Soundtrack 1978)

Things I Miss The Most (Everything Must Go 2003)

Deacon Blues (Aja 1977)

Cousin Dupree (Two Against Nature 2000)

2 Comments

  1. Brian Johnson on September 13, 2017 at 8:02 pm

    Thanks Dan. “Tonight when I chase the dragon. The water may change to cherry wine and the silver will turn to gold. Time out of mind.”

  2. Pete Sandberg on September 13, 2017 at 9:06 pm

    Very nice.

    I got to see them open for The Eagles with Baxter. I actually liked Walter on the records better, but it was still very cool.

Leave a Comment