How Steely Dan's "Second Arrangement" was erased
In his first-ever interview, the engineer who recorded over the song tells all.
One morning late last year, I cold-called a man I was almost certain was responsible for one of the biggest technical blunders in the history of rock music: the erasure of the Steely Dan song “The Second Arrangement.” During the making of what would become Walter Becker and Donald Fagen’s 1980 album Gaucho, a New York studio engineer calibrating a tape machine recorded over the one and only multitrack master of a nearly finished song—a track that the band’s longtime producer, Gary Katz, believed would be the group’s next single.
To a pair of famously exacting figures like Becker and Fagen, the event was nothing short of their worst nightmare made real. At the time, Katz called it “one of the most serious emotional setbacks we’ve had in the studio.” They attempted to re-record the song but ultimately decided the do-over didn’t match the perfection and grace of the original. And so the song was scrapped.
Expanding Dan is funded by readers like you. The best way to support the work that goes into stories like this one is by becoming a paid subscriber.
In the more than 40 years since the incident, the legend of “The Second Arrangement” has only grown alongside the groundswell of general interest in Steely Dan. For a piece of music now considered a “lost” classic, a great deal is known about the song and its deletion. At least three versions, in various states of completion and frustratingly low fidelity, have been readily available on the internet for more than a decade. Audiophiles operating in a realm approaching jazz-rock fanfiction have attempted to fabricate a finished “Second Arrangement,” building off existing parts, and applying a combination of musical prowess, recording know-how, and even advanced artificial intelligence technology. Meanwhile, Becker and Fagen scarcely acknowledged the song’s existence until 2011, when Steely Dan played it live along with other rarities at the Beacon Theatre in New York. “That’s the first and maybe only time that will ever be performed,” Fagen told the audience.
Amid all the fascination surrounding “The Second Arrangement,” the person who erased the song has remained in the shadows. Speculation abounds on social media and audio forums, with a number of recording engineers falsely named and shamed. Without the perspective of the man who deleted the track, the full story of “The Second Arrangement” could not be told. This is why I needed to talk to him.
As the phone rang on the other end of the line, I wondered for a moment if this was how it felt to be a bounty hunter who shows up at the doorstep of a long-sought fugitive to finally make him answer for his crimes. At that point I’d spoken to numerous producers, engineers, and musicians who were credited on Gaucho. Sources who had known and worked with the man would suddenly clam up when asked to reveal his name, as if it would violate some recording industry code of silence. “If you were asking for the name of a person who had committed a murder, I would tell you,” one veteran engineer told me. “But with this ‘Second Arrangement’ thing, I just feel odd.”
Eventually, after months of interviews and connecting dots and eliminating suspects, the breadcrumbs accumulated along the trail that led me straight to the eraser, whom I will refer to henceforth as M. He agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity. “To this point my name has been kept out of the discourse and rumor mill,” he told me. “For obvious reasons I would like to keep it that way.”
M.’s phone number was in my possession for months before I felt the time was right to dial it. When he answered, I explained I was a journalist writing about Steely Dan. “One of the unavoidable chapters in the band’s history is ‘The Second Arrangement,’” I said, “and I’d like to give you a chance to finally tell your side of the story.”
In the awkward silence that followed, I could tell M. was behind the wheel of a vehicle, probably on a highway somewhere out east. Ambient sounds of the road—the wind whipping by outside the windows, the hum of the car’s engine—filled the space. I feared he might hang up.
“Uhhh. Wow. Interesting,” he finally said. “It’s been a while since I’ve thought about this.” He sounded flustered. “Hang on a second—I’m navigating an exit. Agh! I think I took the wrong one.”
Clearly this was not the right time for a lengthy conversation about a traumatic event that had altered the course of his life and work. At that moment, it turned out, M. was en route to an audio production job. He still works in the industry, though what he does these days is not exactly a glamour profession. I inquired about a more convenient date for an interview. “I’m booked pretty much all of next week,” he said, “and this weekend is really busy too.” It sounded like a brush-off after a bad date. “If I don’t get back to you right away, please understand that it’s not for lack of interest.”
When we said our goodbyes, I thought I’d never hear from M. again. But a few days later, to my surprise, we were back on the phone—and this time he was ready to go deep. “It’s actually refreshing to be able to finally talk about this openly,” he told me. At the time of the “Second Arrangement” debacle, M. was in his mid-20s. He’s now knocking on the door of 70. He has a shaved-bald head and a goatee that’s gone white at the chin. The frames of his glasses appear to be made of some kind of high-performance flexible material. He looks, in essence, like a guy who has spent most of his life thinking about stuff like the frequency response of studio monitors.
“Over all these years, I’m sure that there has been tons of speculation about this incident,” he said. “But no one knows the full story, because there was nobody else in the room with me when it happened. And nobody has ever asked me until now.”
There were so many questions I’d wanted to ask since I first became aware of the “Second Arrangement” erasure. First among them was this one: What goes through your mind the moment you realize you’ve recorded over a Steely Dan song?
“My first thought,” M. said, “was, Oh, shiiit.”