Now here were a couple of guys who knew, like Ray Charles before them, how to use heroin in a semi-responsible manner. Oh, sure; Walter Becker's girlfriend, Karen Stanley, died of an overdose which got him in a little hot water, but let's get past that and look at the music these guys made when they were not staring at their big toes.
In the beginning, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker would put out one album each year, starting in 1972. The first was Can't Buy a Thrill, which had the radio hit, "Do It Again." (I always associate this with America's lame song, "A Horse With No Name". It seemed as if you couldn't turn on the radio without hearing these two back to back.) The best songs on this album were actually "Kings," "Reelin' in the Years," "Turn That Heartbeat Over Again," and, my personal favorite, "Only a Fool Would Say That." "Kings" had the best guitar line in the whole album, and that would become Steely Dan's trademark; a very hot guitar line that was actually the hook in the song. "Reelin' in the Years" had a great guitar solo which, along with the keyboard accompaniment, still stands as a musical milestone.
1973. Countdown to Ecstasy. The best songs here were "My Old School," "Razor Boy," and "Pearl of the Quarter." However, one senses the noodle creeping into this album.
1974. Pretzel Logic. The title song was marvelous, but "Rikki Don't Lose that Number" and "Any Major Dude Will Tell You" were the better songs on this effort, I thought.
1975. Katy Lied. The boys were really beginning to get it by this time. There were no bad songs on this album, even though they felt as if they got screwed by the mix. Donald Fagen, in particular, felt as if the sound they got from this pressing was sub-par at best. "Dr. Wu" is one of the greatest songs ever written about addiction. And "Bad Sneakers" is the only great song ever written with the mention of the pina colada drink.
1976. The Royal Scam. A dark effort which included the hilarious "Haitian Divorce." The sick side of addiction began to prevail in songs such as "Green Earrings" and "Don't Take Me Alive." "Kid Charlemagne" is not much cheerier; a song about a drug dealer who is so well known that his clients keep his phone number written on the wall of their a-frames. It's actually about what do you do when you are no longer the golden child.
1977. Aja. The addiction reaches a softer point with numbers such as "Black Cow," "Deacon Blues," "Peg," and the title track, which has the best drum solo in the history of rock.
1980. This is the first time the boys took more than a year to put out a new album. One could have sensed the beginning of the end. It was a moody piece called Gaucho. It did contain the radio hit, "Hey Nineteen," which told of the sordid romance with a guy (probably Becker) who was dating a girl who did not know who Aretha Franklin was. But the title song, about some sort of gay lovers' quarrel, and "Third World Man," about the end of the world as we know it, were standouts.
Here's the bottom line. If you want to know how good these two guys are in the studio, find a copy of their demos. It's easily done if you look hard enough. My copy is titled, "Sun Mountain." Then you'll hear what they would have sounded like had they not had the help of Gary Katz in the studio. Larry Carlton on guitar didn't hurt. Nor did Steven Gadd on drums. But the list of supremely talented folks who contributed to this effort would be a long one, indeed.