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Playing in the Pocket: The Drummers of Steely Dan

Published: 2012-02-22
Steely Dan Between 1972 and 1980, Steely Dan produced some of the most searing and bitter pop music ever recorded. With scathing lyrics delivered by Donald Fagen's pungent vocals, he and partner Walter Becker's music chronicled the feelings of many who passed through young adulthood during the 1970s.

At times cynical and oddly nostalgic, Steely Dan made music borne of calculated musical precision aided by high-tech studio wizardry.

The army of musicians Becker and Fagen used were eager and willing to come under the Dan's exacting standards, knowing that time spent under their demanding ears could produce a legendary recording. Indeed, the term “studio musician" may have been coined as a result of the teeming lists of credits shown on any post-1974 Steely album.

The life of the hired gun now seemed even more glamorous and lucrative to young players, what with talk of making double, even triple scale. Musicians like Larry Carlton, Chuck Rainey, Victor Feldmen, Rick Derringer, Jeff “Skunk" Baxter Denny bias, Michael Omartian, Tom Scott, Wayne Shorter; Steve Khan, Randy Brecker, Anthony Jackson, Joe Sample, Hiram Bullock, Michael Brecker, Pete Christlieb, Don Grolnick, and others all made contributions to Steely Dan recordings.

And the drummers? Jim Hodder; Jim Gordon, Jeff Porcaro, Hal Blaine, Bernard “Pretty" Purdie, Steve Gadd, Paul Humphrey, Rick Marotta, Jim Keltner, Ed Greene-some of the most influential drummers of the last twenty-five years. Songs like 'Peg' with Marotta or 'Aja' with Gadd are etched into the collective consciousness of millions of drummers.

Named after a home appliance in a William Burroughs novel, Steely Dan began as a touring rock 'n' roll band that eventually disbanded after two albums. Fortified by two Top-l0 hits, “Do It Again" and “Reelin' In The Years," and the sale of millions or albums, Becker (bass and guitar) and Fagen (keyboards) abandoned the road but continued to write and record pop gems of sardonic wit and lush musical sophistication. They pulled amazing performances out of their musicians, and the hits continued.

Through the years their music became even more technically streamlined as Becker and Fagen, with guidance from engineer Roger Nichols and producer Gary Katz, mastered the studio control board. Thirty or forty takes of a single song—with entirely different rhythm sections—were the norm, not the exception. Bits and pieces of different instrumentalsts' work would be lifted and spliced together, forming the ultimate solo or rhythm track. And most of this was done before the predominance of the click. WENDEL, the group's equally revered and despised electronic sequencing genie, further enhanced their control of the music. The dazzling audio quality of their finished products was second to none.

It's been twelve years since the last Steely Dan album, Gaucho , and many drummers probably don't know what the fuss is all about, as Jeff Porcaro can attest to. “I did a clinic a couple or years ago at the Dick Grove School," Porcaro says in his groggy baritone. “The students brought CD of my stuff to play and ask me questions about. I knew what would happen; they'd ask about the 'Rosanna' beat, which is probably the most unoriginal thing I've ever done, yet I got all this credit for it. Stupid.

So I brought along the CDs of the records I stole the beat from—"Fool In The Rain" from Led Zeppelin's In Through The Out Door, and Bernard Purdie's 'Home At Last' and 'Babylon Sisters' with Steely. Without saying anything, I put on the CD and played 'Babylon Sisters.' Half the class knew the song, but none of them knew who the drummer was. This is a class of 18 to 33-year-olds. Then I played 'Home At Last,' which I copped all the shit for 'Rosanna' from. Once again, no one knew the drummer. I said, 'Guys, it's Bernard Purdie. Who in this room has heard of Steve Gadd?' All the hands went up. 'Aja?' All hands up. 'I'm sure you all know Steve won Performance Of The Year for that in Modern Drummer. Well. you're all fucked up! I just played you 'Home At Last' with Bernard Purdie, and that's on the same record. What do you do, listen to 'Aja' and then take the needle off? As musicians you should know everything I just played for you. Some of the best drum shit ever is on that record. Each track has subtleties."

The same can be said about all of the Steely Dan releases. Let's go back and explore each of those records, from the beginning.

1974: Pretzel Logic

This album featured the hit “Rikki Don't Lose That Number" a bluesy bossa nova that borrowed from Horace Silver's “Song For My Father." The writing on this album is more expansive, with nods to country music ("With A Gun") and jazz (a surprising, note-for-note rendition of Ellington's “East St. Louis Toodle-oo"). With Pretzel Logic, the studio became an instrument, the sound was richer; and they used full orchestration with horns and strings.

The drummer for the bulk of the album was studio musician Jim Gordon
Jim Gordon
Jim Gordon
b.1945
drums
. Tall and good-looking with curly blond hair, Gordon was technically gifted and possessed a golden sense of feel and rhythm. During the '60s and early '70s, his trademark right-hand-driven 16th-note groove was in constant demand among artists like John Lennon, George Harrison, Traffic, Joe Cocker, Carly Simon, Delaney & Bonnie, and Eric Clapton. He was the drummer on Derek & the Dominos' Layla & Other Love Songs and the early Clapton solo albums. He wrote the beautiful second half of “Layla," all lush piano chords and trembling guitars. Unfortunately, Gordon's remarkable talent was mired by mental disease that tracked him from the age of seven and eventually ended his career. He heavily influenced two other drummers, though: Jeff Porcaro and Jim Keltner.

According to Keltner, “When he was on, he exuded confidence of the highest level-incredible time, great feel, and a good sound. He had everything." “On Pretzel, “ says Porcaro, I played on 'Night by Night' and Gordon and I played double drums on 'Parker's Band.' Gordon was my idol. Playing with him was like going to school. Keltner was the bandito in town. Gordon was the heir to Hale Blaine. His playing was the textbook for me. No one ever had finer-sounding cymbals or drums, or played his kit so beautifully and balanced. And nobody had that particular groove. Plus his physical appearance—the dream size for a drummer—he lurched over his set of Camcos."

1977: Aja

Aja is the most popular of all the Steely Dan recordings. Four of its seven tracks were radio hits with a broad spectrum of appeal. Musicians had a field day with the title track, which had powerful solos from Wayne Shorter and Steve Gadd
Steve Gadd
Steve Gadd
b.1945
drums
. Gadd, it seems, was the ultimate foil for the Dan's demanding assault on a musician's psyche. For 'Aja' he sightread the entire seven-minute chart perfectly, solo and all, by the second take. An article at the time quoted Fagan as saying, “I was stunned. No one had ever done anything like that before. I couldn't believe it."

Once again, the new record surpassed the expectations of their legion of fans, each song a fully realized world unto itself. 'Black Cow,' with its silly chocolate bar subject, was gently nudged along by former Lawrence Welk drummer Paul Humphrey. (Humphrey's group, the Cool Aid Chemists, had a soul hit in I97l) The laid-back Southern aroma of “Deacon Blues" featured Purdie. The incredibly catchy “Peg" featured a fiery, sassy drum track from Marotta. “Home At Last" showcased the classic Purdie shuffle, supporting a sad tale of remorse and fear. “I Got The News," a dotted-l6th-note bounce-fest that sounds like early hip-hop, was Ed Greene's only track for the Dan. And “Josie," the story of the welcome shown returned a town prostitute, is Jim Keltner's minimalist tour de force of taste and style. With it's perfect balance of memorable songs, outrageously superb performances, and immaculate production, Aja is Steely Dan's masterpiece.

“When I first heard 'Josie' back I didn't like it," said the ever-sunglassed bandito. “It was a funny groove. It was such an odd song, especially for that time. In retrospect, I love the sound of it, the feel. Fagen had been through full sessions with other drummers for the same song. He was such a commanding musical figure, you knew that when he told you to play a little figure, you'd better play exactly what he wanted. That was a lot of pressure on me at the time, but I relished the musicality of it. I concentrated heavily. It was a five page chart with no repeat signs.

“As for that fill near the end, it was a bar of 7/8. That's definitely not something that I would've played. That figure was written on the paper, it was totally Fagen's thing: I wish I could get a copy of that chart. I've had more drummers ask me about that lick. I was playing a 5x14 Ludwig Vistalite snare drum, a Super Sensitive—-weird instrument.

“Later, they wanted me to overdub something over the breakdown, but they didn't know what. The beauty of those guys is that they truly wanted something weird. So I played this garbage can lid with rivets in it that I'd been given for Christmas. They liked the way it sounded, so it became a part of the song."

Though Keltner cut “Peg," his track didn't make the final pick. “You do have an advantage in a way, if you come in behind someone else. The writers have already been through the song, and they have a better handle on what they want. I didn't do a good job on 'Peg,' it just didn't work."

Consequently, Rick Marotta's take on “Peg" was the one Becker and Fagen went with. “Chuck Rainey and I got into this groove that was really unstoppable," Marotta recalls. “We had this groove for the verses, and then the chorus came and everything just lifted. It just went that way every time. Everything was just working—my hands, my feet—it was just one of those days. On 'Peg,' I could hear every single nuance that I had played, as well as what everyone else had played. What amazed me was how they could mix those records like that. You could hear everything perfectly. The snare on that song is an old wooden Ludwig with Canasonic heads. It used to be Buddy Rich's drum."


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