Steely Dan: Dual purpose

Steely Dan are troubled by the debris of capitalism's dream and the lot of teenagers today. But they still make for an exceedingly droll double act, Gavin Martin discovers in Santa Monica, California
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It is late afternoon before Walter Becker and Don Fagen greet their first interviewer of the day. The two men, who first fronted a band called Steely Dan in 1972, are lounging in a fifth-floor suite of the ocean-front Fairmont Miramar hotel in Santa Monica, California. The venue, midway between Becker's home in Hawaii and Donald's upstate New York residence, has a faded grandeur perfectly in keeping with the Steely Dan canon, in which musical opulence and a longing for a distant past are so often intertwined.

Sat on the couch in front of me, Becker, at 53 the younger by two years, momentarily stops reading the morning paper to offer an amiable welcome. Fagen hovers uncertainly behind my chair; slurping from a bowl of raspberry sorbet, the singer/ pianist has the most painfully ill-at-ease body language of any interviewee I've ever encountered. Like Becker, Fagen has a rapidly receding hairline, and middle-age spread, visible beneath his rumpled sweatshirt. But his head has all but vanished deep into hunched shoulders and his eyes dart furtively round the room, as if he were a trapped animal.

The new Steely Dan album Everything Must Go was made in a comparatively short space of time. Mostly recorded live it is a stark and punchy counterpart to its predecessor the Grammy Award-winning album Two Against Nature, released three years ago.

Though Steely Dan have seldom been considered an overtly political band, from its opening "The Last Mall" to the closing title track, Everything Must Go is an unflinching look at venal greed, mindless consumption and ersatz realities. The album's recurring concerns are the debris of the capitalist dream (the impoverished divorcée of "Things I Miss the Most") and the victims of counter-culture utopia (the junkies of "Blues Beach"). Neither Fagen nor Becker it transpires is aware that the Welsh agitpoppers Manic Street Preachers have already used the record's title. "So what? Every set of words has been used by someone somewhere already, it's a common phrase. Anyway I think capitalism has got everybody's goat, don't you?" grins Becker.

"Only for the last 50 years or so. Actually, I think you will find these same themes on our very first record," argues Fagen. After further consideration, Becker decides: "If it wasn't capitalism it would be something else - we'd be complaining about whatever system was calling the shots." As Donald continues to slurp his sorbet, Walter returns to the paper to brief his partner on the issues of the day, namely current uneasiness in Europe over US foreign policy. "The actor Vince Vaughn says we just have to try to remind Europeans about the Marshall Plan."

"Oh I see, so he's just like all the other scumbags," moans Fagen noticeably relaxing as he sits down at the opposite end of the couch to his pal. Becker shrugs, "Well I suppose you can take historical details and twist them whatever way you want."

Indeed. In the late 1960s Becker and Fagan were two smart, jazzy, savvy kids fresh out of Bard's College, New York. When their attempt to establish themselves in The Brill Building song-writing stable met with meagre success, they set about rewriting the pop rule book as Steely Dan, a hastily convened group named after a steam-powered dildo in William Burroughs' junk-fuelled amalgam of sci-fi and Beat-era prose, The Naked Lunch - though the author never became a fan. "I think he found we were marginally less unpleasant than other popular music but no more than that," says Becker.

Apart from the striking appendage, did Burroughs' writing particularly inspire them? "He brought something new into literature - but most of his work is unreadable," says Fagen. "The way he influenced us was through his use of science fiction and the erotic, though his flavour of the erotic was not the same as ours."

"And the use of addiction as a metaphor for existence was very interesting. He wasn't just a Bohemian joker: he had points to make," says Becker.

And so of course did the Dan. Between 1972 and 1980 Walter and Don were the unassailable hepcats of East Coast Cool, subverting the West Coast mainstream with lyrical intrigue and dazzling crafted intelligence, their twitchy finger on the pulse of popular taste.

They wrote about gambling addicts ("Do It Again"), a stock-market crash ("Black Friday"), cruel decadence ("Showbiz Kids"), drug dealers ("Kid Charlemagne"), fugitive gunmen ("With a Gun" and "Don't Take Me Alive"). Albums such as Pretzel Logic and Countdown to Ecstasy presented a quintessential American songbook filled with characters that ranged from the seedy and desperate to vengeful dreamers ("My Old School") and lost romantics ("Midnight Cruiser").

Steely Dan has always been the duo supplemented by an ever-changing line-up of the finest musicians money and talent can buy. "As musicians we have had dream careers, just being in the studio or in the control room with those guys was all you could ask for really," reflects Becker.

Looming large in Dan mythology is Jeff "Skunk" Baxter, the moustachioed guitarist responsible for jaw-dropping solos on "Reeling in the Years" among others. Bizarrely, as Becker explains how their former associate is now "a self-instructed expert on numerous weapons systems", a military helicopter thunders up the coast rattling the windows of the hotel as it passes. "See what you get when you mess with The Skunk. Don't fuck with him," exclaims Becker. "His U2 plane will be along in a minute," warns Fagen.

In 1974, before they'd recorded their biggest hits, Steely Dan ceased to function as a live band, and by 1981 signs of studio exhaustion were evident beneath the meticulous design of Gaucho. Shortly after it was released they ceased operations completely. For the rest of the decade they engaged in fitful solo careers and waged personal battles against tragedy and depression. Becker's girlfriend OD'd in his New York apartment and he struggled to conquer heroin addiction, Fagen had a breakdown and suffered a long period of writer's block.

Their comeback took time to blossom after the 1993 reunion tour, but they are now on a creative roll, which even their deeply imbued cynicism can't stop. Listening to their repartee it is hard to imagine how they coped with being apart from each other during their extended separation. Did the duo each feel they were only half there without their sparring partner? "By that time I was only half there," laughs Becker, alluding to his drug problem, "but I managed to get about 30 per cent of it back."

The comment causes Fagen to guffaw uncontrollably - a weird whinnying sound that resembles a mule in traction. Other artists who have undergone trauma and recovery favour personalised songs of survival and anguished confessional interviews. That is not the Dan style: gallows humour has been an essential part of their survival mechanism, although past personal experience does feed into their lyrics, however obliquely. "We are constantly competing with the monsters from the id," as Becker puts it. "The unseen reptiles within," Fagan adds. Becker: "All of the good things we tried to do and all the bad things we tried not to do, as James Brown once said."

Becker and Fagen are many things - laconic revolutionaries, mischief-makers who seem irrevocably altered by past chemical intake, jazz buffs with a still bright pop sensibility and, perhaps most surprisingly, concerned parents too. On the new album, "Pixeleen" is born out of unease with present-day teenage reality.

"I have step-kids but Walter has had experience of parenting teenagers, he contributed his knowledge of teenage mores," says Fagan.

Becker: "I think what television and video games do is reminiscent of drug addiction. There's a measure of reinforcement and a behavioural loop. Even from a metabolic point of view, a person sitting on a couch watching television burns fewer calories than a person sitting on a couch. Though far be it from me to preach."

"You mean you can lose weight just by turning off the TV?" says Fagen, "that sounds like a good diet."

'Everything Must Go' is released on Monday on WEA