Dirty Work: The Complete Oral History of Recording with Steely Dan
Fifty years after Steely Dan’s debut, musicians, producers, and engineers recall the painstaking process of making beautiful music with Donald Fagen and Walter Becker.
What follows is “Dirty Work,” my oral history of recording with Steely Dan from 1972 through 1980. It was previously serialized in this newsletter and is presented here in full. (You’ll also find it in the latest print edition of Wax Poetics magazine.)
One day at the tail end of the 1970s, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker of Steely Dan were doing what they had spent much of that decade doing: sitting in the control room of an expensive recording studio, listening to one of the world’s top session musicians, and responding with a vague sense of dissatisfaction.
Over the speakers of Studio A-1 at A & R Recording in New York came the sounds of a still-embryonic “Time Out of Mind,” the jaunty heroin ditty that would be the second single from 1980’s Gaucho. That anal-retentive masterwork would cap off Steely Dan’s golden-age run that began 50 years ago with 1972’s Can’t Buy a Thrill and continued across six more albums, all chock-full of tight rhythms and sophisticated harmonies against which Fagen and Becker spun sardonic tales of losers and criminals with names like Kid Charlemagne and Jive Miguel. On the 24-track tape that day was piano and bass, but Fagen, Becker, and their longtime producer, Gary Katz, cared only about the drums being played by Rick Marotta, the first-call stickman who appeared on the duo’s edgy 1976 colossus The Royal Scam before carving an indelible groove into “Peg,” from their 1977 landmark Aja.
Unbeknownst to the Dan’s principals, an assistant at A & R had placed a cassette recorder in the room, essentially bugging the session. The bootleg audio that resulted, a kind of Troggs Tapes for the jazz-rock set, is perhaps the only document showing Fagen and Becker in real time behaving as the persnickety studio craftsmen of legend: the bookish and inscrutable pair infamous for requesting take after take, pushing musicians to their breaking point, all in the quest to capture on magnetic tape something nearing perfection and grace.
That day in the studio, Fagen sounds characteristically dyspeptic. “I would ask Rick if he wants to do one more round,” he says.
“You always think it can be significantly better?” Becker replies.
“Tell him we’ve got it, but will he please do one more round?” Fagen says. “Because it really is good. I just think it could be better.” (A more Fagenesque quote could not be scripted.)
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