Looking back on Steely Dan’s immense success and impact it’s hard to envision a time when the supremely-honed and highly original jazz-rock group weren’t at the top of their game.
Keyboardist Donald Fagen had stumbled across guitarist Walter Becker practising in the campus café of New York’s liberal arts school, Bard College, in 1967. He’d struggled to find a guitarist who could play jazz and blues the way he wanted to, not “like Dick Dale,” as was the trend, he said. Becker was playing a wild blues-based style and Fagen had “never really heard anything like that.”
The duo soon started writing together, and played in various musical configurations such as Fagen’s own Jazz Trio, and an outfit called Leather Canary, where a young Chevy Chase featured on drums.
Incongruously gaining employment as part of the touring band for doo-wop crooners Jay & The Americans, lead singer Jay Black memorably remembered the two as ghoulish-looking “yoghurt-skinned” beatniks who seemed to only surface at night. “The Manson and Starkweather of rock'n'roll,” Black called them.
Graduating in 1969, Fagen took the duo’s songs to Manhattan’s legendary Brill Building, the hub for popular songwriters and publishers of every stripe, from Burt Bacharach to Lou Reed, Carole King to Ellie Greenwich.
Becker and Fagen had little success there – the musical climate was not quite ready for their hipster hybrids. However, a Jay & The Americans connection clicked. Group member Kenny Vance was now a Brill resident and he commissioned a soundtrack to 1971 screwball hippie film You've Got to Walk It Like You Talk It or You'll Lose That Beat, which starred Robert Downey Sr and Richard Pryor. Their style caught the attention of producer Gary Katz, newly installed at ABC/Dunhill Records, and with acts such as the Mamas And Papas, James Gang and Steppenwolf under his care. “I don’t have much to do with the songs,” Katz told RecordProduction.com in 2000, “but I can spot talent.”
Katz concluded that Becker and Fagen’s stuff was too weird for anyone to handle but them, and their own band. Relocating from New York to LA, by day they wrote for the label roster; by night they had a group that included jazz guitarist Denny Dias, ABC-signed drummer Jim Hodder, session guitarist Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter and vocalist David Palmer, brought in due to Fagen’s lack of live vocal confidence.
Now named Steely Dan – a nod to their beatnik roots, using the moniker of the steam-powered strap-on dildo from William S Burroughs’ mind-bending 1959 novel Naked Lunch – Katz took the group into The Village Recorder studio to make their debut album, Can’t Buy A Thrill. Starting with the chilled Latin groove of Do It Again - their first single from the record - Becker and Fagen’s moment had arrived: slick musicianship, arch lyrical commentary and pristine production that blended soft-rock, jazz, blues and soul in a singular 70s – and Steely Dan – fashion.
But the highlight would be Reelin’ In The Years. Fagen stepped up to the mic for an effervescent breakup narration as the band galloped along in shuffle time. The main guitar part required something special, and this marked the Dan’s first dabble with swapping-in hand-picked aces. They called another old contact from Jay & The Americans, just out of orchestra pit of the Broadway version Jesus Christ Superstar and now getting some freelance muso rep: Elliott Randall. “It was my first session for them,” Randall told Produce Like A Pro. “I thought they were really special, and they must have thought I was special too.”
“They were having trouble finding the right ‘flavour’ solo for Reelin’ and asked me to give it a go,” Randall told Guitar World. Randall read the lyrics, got a sense of what the song was about, picked up his Strat and played. Katz called to the recording engineer, “Did you get that?” – but the engineer had missed it, thinking it was a practice.
Take two was recorded, Randall admitting his imagination was fired up: “Something got me going,” he told Produce Like A Pro. He jazzed up the chorus for the intro, and, using a sprinkling of salsa technique, pulled off the most joyous, expressive musical conversation, from start to finish. “That was it! Nobody said, ‘Can we try that again?’,” Randall noted. “I was delighted; they were happy.”
The song has made millions of listeners happy too, including Jimmy Page, who knows a thing or two about guitar licks. He called Reelin’s solo his favourite in Classic Rock in 1999, and in 2016 he rated the solo 12/10 to YouTuber Oliver Patrick Loughnan.
“I’m flattered [by that],” said Randall in 2021. “It was actually very easy [to do]… The song virtually played itself.”