Walter Becker (1950-2017)

“I intend to keep the music we created together alive as long as I can with the Steely Dan band.”
–Donald Fagen, in a statement

When you read up on the pop era’s most memorable songwriting teams (Leiber-Stoller, Bacharach-David, Holland-Dozier-Holland, Goffin-King, John-Taupin), it usually emerges that each member was generally responsible for a particular element of the song. One guy does the music, the other the lyrics, maybe they both help arrange the song, but the division of labor is clear. Even Lennon and McCartney had moved away from their “eyeball to eyeball” writing sessions by the end, their shared credit just a gentlemen’s agreement.

The long and innovative collaboration of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen — whose music under the Steely Dan moniker is every bit the equal of those other songwriting teams — was, by all accounts, a genuine and inextricable partnership. It’s not possible to delineate with any assurance who contributed what to each song. Their mutual appreciation of jazz and of sci-fi/beat literature meant they were already in sync, musically and lyrically, when they started to write songs together on demand as Brill Building-type songwriters, and it continued when they created out of thin air a sound that to this day carries an aura and mystique that is unmistakably theirs.

Of course, each member brought his own sensibility to bear. Despite Fagen’s arranging genius (and I believe he is one), without Becker, Steely Dan would have been exactly what its critics always thought they were: antiseptic, vacuum-sealed, and bloodless. Becker brought the edge to Steely Dan (hard-earned, it turned out), an attitude that all the yacht rock successors who superficially imitated their sound could never match (I’m looking at you, Toto).

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