Written By: Caitlin Vaughn Carlos
The story of Steely Dan is one of consummate musicianship, cerebral writing and audio polish. Their first big hit – “Reelin’ in the Years” showcased these values. Fusing together their deep love of jazz’s complex harmonies and rhythms, alongside blues and rock songwriting, Steely Dan’s intellectual approach to music is a hallmark of their long career.
The band’s founding members, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, met at Bard college where Fagen was bouncing between the music and English departments; Becker was also a student, a couple years younger. An accomplished pianist, Fagen was looking for other musicians to play jazz and rock with, but struggled to find anyone who could play in the style he was looking for.
Passing by a local campus cafe – The Red Balloon – he heard the young Becker practicing his guitar and immediately asked him to start a band together. Fagen remembered: “(He had) a little amplifier turned up all the way, bending notes and getting sustain.He’d been listening to all these Howlin’ Wolf and B.B. King records. Well, I’d never really heard anything like that.” Almost immediately the pair began writing music together. They were thrilled to find that they had grown up listening to the same records since childhood – not just the rock ‘n roll and popular music they shared with their peers, but also a deep knowledge of jazz. Becker explained: “We had a lot of common musical background…Donald and I had listened to the same jazz radio stations, we had all the same records, and there weren’t that many jazz fans around at that time in our particular age group. Making rock & roll that was more sophisticated harmonically and more jazzlike was something that we had a common interest in.”
Merging together diverse influences and bringing together the most talented musicians they could find, Fagen and Becker created musically complex songs that were also immensely popular. But before making the first Steely Dan record – the duo refined their skills playing in local bands and venues. They even performed with future comedian Chevy Chase on drums – in a band called the Leather Canary. They started picking up professional gigs as session players and in live back-up bands. Soon after they began touring as part of the backup band for Jay and the Americans. It was here where they met guitarist Elliott Randall. Randall would go on to play the iconic guitar solo on “Reelin’ in the Years”
For a few years, Becker and Fagen scraped together a living as studio musicians in New York, before moving to Los Angeles in 1971. Producer Gary Katz – who they had worked with in New York – had also relocated to California and he got the duo a job as staff songwriters for ABC/Dunhill Records, where Katz was then working as an A&R man. By 1972, Becker and Fagen had teamed up with guitarists Denny Dias and Jeff Baxter, as well as Jim Hodder on drums and had begun rehearsing in an unfinished wing of the ABC building. In this early iteration of Steely Dan, Becker was primarily playing bass, while Fagen focused on keyboard. The group pulled their name from a 1959 William S. Burroughs book, Naked Lunch – connecting back to Fagen’s history as a beatnik English major at Bard reading works by Burroughs, Kerouac and Ginsberg. Within a few weeks the band was in the recording studio working on their debut album and their hit single “Reelin’ in the Years”
While Steely Dan has had many hits in their long career – “Reelin’ in the Years” is undoubtedly one of their greatest. It brings together Fagen and Becker’s talent for clever lyrics and cerebral composition, alongside consummate popular songwriting. They had honed their craft writing songs for other musicians, but in creating Steely Dan, they were able to expand their creative palate to embrace the complex musical influences that inspired them.
“Reelin’ in the Years” is structurally a clear pop song with catchy hooks and a memorable, singable chorus. But it’s also quite thoughtfully constructed. This is especially clear in the song’s lyrics which follow a beautiful parallel structure in each verse. Working on the classic theme of a romantic breakup – each verse starts with a description of the ex-girlfriend or the couple’s relationship and ends with the same frustrated bewilderment – “I can’t understand”
“Reelin’ in the Years” and the rest of Steely Dan’s debut album – Can’t Buy a Thrill – was recorded in August of 1972 at the iconic Village Recorder in West Los Angeles. The album features Steely Dan’s original band of Jeff “Skunk” Baxter on guitar, and pedal steel guitar, and Denny Dias on guitar and electric sitar. Becker plays electric bass guitar and sings background vocals.
The lead vocal role is shared between three members, as Donald Fagan was feeling increasingly uncomfortable singing lead. At first, drummer Jim Hodder tried his hand at lead, singing the vocals for the band’s first single “Dallas.” For the album, he took on the role of lead vocals for one track – “Midnight Cruiser.” But as those surrounding the band continued to try to convince Fagen to sing his own songs. David Palmer was brought in to sing lead vocals. His voice appears as lead on “Dirty Work” and “Brooklyn.” But Katz was still convinced Fagen should be singing. Fagen recalls the struggle:
“I think they had a conflict about it on the one hand, because Walter and I wrote them, we knew what they were about and understood the best attitude that was best to convey them – they realized I could do that….On the other hand, I had a very small range and really hardly any experience and they sort of looked at it two ways — on the one hand they wanted somebody with a bigger voice, a kind of thrilling, rock and roll vocalist, but I think we knew we weren’t gonna find anybody who could convey the attitude, which was really the most important thing, so they wanted me to do it.”
Fagen’s vocal limitations required them to adjust some of the songs’ melodies, but ultimately it is his phenomenal attitude in the performance that carries the lead vocals of “Reelin’ in the Years.”
In addition to the band’s 6-piece original line-up, the group brought in several experienced session musicians to record on the Can’t Buy a Thrill album, including Victor Feldman on percussion, Jerome Richardson on Tenor Saxophone, and Snooky Young on Fluegelhorn. The songs “Brooklyn” and “Kings” feature the backing vocals of Clydie King, Shirley Mathews and Venetta Fields.
On “Reelin’ in the Years” one session musician really takes the shining role – guitarist Elliott Randall, who Fagen and Becker had played with in Jay and the Americans a few years before. Randall recalled being brought in to energize the almost-finished “Reelin’ in the Years”:
“They were having trouble finding the right ‘flavor’ solo for ‘Reelin,’ and asked me to give it a go…Most of the song was already complete, so I had the good fortune of having a very clear picture of what the solo was laying on top of. They played it for me without much dialog about what I should play….It just wasn’t necessary because we did it in one take and nothing was written. Jeff Baxter played the harmony parts, but my entire lead – intro/answers/solo/end solo – was one continuous take played through a very simple setup: my old Strat, the same one I’ve been using since 1965, plugged directly into an Ampeg SVT amp and miked with a single AKG 414. The whole solo just came to me, and I feel very fortunate to have been given the opportunity to play it.”
Despite it having been recorded in only the second take, Randall’s guitar part has received well-deserved acclaim. Jimmy Page even told Classic Rock Magazine in 1999, that it was his favorite guitar solo of all time.
The song and album were produced by Gary Katz who would go on to work with the band for all of their albums between 1972 and 1980. Roger Nichols was the engineer for the album. Nichols was a Northern California native who had developed his interest in engineering the old fashion way. He explained: “I just tore apart all these old radios, which was great ‘cause I learned a lot that way.”
Like Fagen and Becker, Nichols was an intellectual thinker – earning a degree in nuclear engineering from Oregon State University and working at the San Onofre nuclear power station during its construction between 1965-1968. But while he was doing that, he would also spend his days off working in recording studios. He eventually built his own recording studio with friends in his garage and continued to refine his skills recording local bands and commercial advertisements. After building another, larger studio in Los Angeles, and developing a side gig supplying hi-fi and audio equipment to other studios, he was picked up by ABC.
In their pursuit of musical excellence, Fagen and Becker also wanted the best sound quality they could achieve. Nichols was the man for that job. He remembers: “I thought they were great because they cared about what stuff sounded like and wanted to take time to get things happening right. The other artists I was working with never wanted to do that. They were both hi-fi nuts, especially Walter with his quad electrostatic speakers at home and the latest cartridge and tone arm.” The result was an album of impeccable sound quality and audiences and critics alike took notice. After its release, Penny Valentine of Sounds aptly wrote: “A really superb album… polished up like a diamond. More please.”
Can’t Buy a Thrill was released in November of 1972. “Reelin’ in the Years” was released as the album’s second single on February 27, 1973. It just barely missed the 10 Ten, reaching number 11 on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart. It’s legacy has held strong – becoming a favorite of classic rock radio. The song showcases Fagen and Becker’s dry, sarcastic tongue, amid great songwriting, stellar musicianship and audio and production polish. Almost 50 years later, “Reelin’ in the Years” remains one of Steely Dan’s most popular and beloved tracks.
Watch the video below to learn more about the Steely Dan’s “Reelin’ In The Years”!