prasa > Modern Drummer, listopad 1992
Modern Drummer, November 1992
The Drummers of Steely Dan
By Ken Micallef
[This issue reached the newsstands shortly after Jeff died. This note
appears on the first page: As we were going to press with this issue,
we learned of the passing of Jeff Porcaro, who is featured prominently
in this article. Look for a special tribute to Jeff in the December
issue of MD.]
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
chronicles the feelings of many who passed through young adulthood
during the 1970s. At time cynical and oddly nostalgic, Steely Dan made
music borne of calculated musical precision aided by high-tech studio
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 an 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 Feldman, Rick Derringer, Jeff
"Skunk" Baxter, Denny Dias, Michael Omartian, Tom Scott, Wayne Shorter,
Steve Khan, Randy Brecker, Anthony Jackson, Joe Sample, Hiram Bullock,
Michael Brecker, Pete Christleib, 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-10 hits, "Do It Again" and "Reelin' In
The Years," and the sale of millions of 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
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
instrumentalists' 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, Gauche, and many
drummers probably don't know what the fuss is about, as Jeff Porcaro can
attest to. "I did a clinic a couple of years ago at the Dick Grove
School," Porcaro says in his groggy baritone. "The students brought CDs
of my stuff to play and ask me questions about. I know what would
happen; they'd ask about the 'Rosanna' beat, which is probably the most
unoriginal thing I've ever done. yet I get 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.
1972-'73 Can't Buy A Thrill & Countdown To Ecstasy --
When Steely Dan arrived on the scene in 197x2, "progressive rock" was in
vogue, with bands like Yes, ELP, and Genesis catching the fancy of many
listeners. Steely surprised the rock audience because not only did they
write radio-ready rock hits, but they had intelligent lyrics and used
quasi-jazz forms (complex changes, harmonies, and structures) and jazz
musicians like Victor Feldman and Snooky Young--and even then they had
band members who could handle all the idiomatic changes Becker and Fagen
delighted in. Check out Baxter and Dias's blistering solos on "Do It
Again" or Fagen's neo-ragtime on "Fire In The Hole."
Jim Hodder, "percussionist, bronze gold, pulse of the rhythm section,"
was the original drummer for Steely. Burly, with large hands, Hodder
brought a syncopated, pert style to the music. He exemplified "tasty,"
a common term then used among musicians to describe one who was creative
but not overly flashy. His drumming seemed part BJ Wilson from Procol
Harum, part Bobby Colomby from Blood, Sweat & Tears, and part Ringo. He
wed lots of straight 8th notes on the hi-hat with snappy tom fills. An
attention to detail is apparent form his articulate press rolls on
"Dirty Work" to the raga-style bossa groove he played on "Do It Again."
"Bodhisattva," the first song on Countdown To Ecstasy, kicks off with
snare drum/hi-hat blasts from Hodder. Along with the rest of the band,
Hodder's playing reflects a new looseness and confidence. Instead of
striking a closed hi-hat with the tip, more of a swinging pash is
employed, using the shank. He's more aggressive, playing Richie
Hayward-ish fusion on the sci-fi "King Of The World."
Like Idris Muhammad or Herbie Lovelle from the 1960s Prestige-era jazz
recordings, Hodder maintained a snakey, slinky touch. He's still
playing rock, but with a jazzer's approach. His drums are tuned a bit
lower, and the cymbals seem to ring more, matching the Indian flare of
"Your Gold Teeth" or the country twang of "Pearl Of The Quarter."
However, this was it for Hodder as far as Steely Dan was concerned.
Though a strong drummer and timekeeper, he lacked the definitive
personality that might have kept him on Becker and Fagen's first-call
Nonetheless, Countdown is the album that set the course for Steely Dan.
They continued to refine and redefine their music with each successive
album, becoming more exacting and demanding with the performances and
the overall sound, while writing more stunning compositions.
1974 -- Pretzel Logic
This album featured the hit "Rikki Don't Lose That Number," a bluesy
bossa nova that borrowed form 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 instruments, 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.
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
form 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 Hal 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."
1975 -- Katy Lied
In retrospect, it's stunning to realize that Jeff Porcaro was only
nineteen years old when he recorded Katy Lied. The album is a tone
poem, a surreal view into the minds of Becker and Fagen. The grooves
are varied, from the pumping shuffle of "Black Friday," to the 3/4 jazz
waltz of "Your Gold Teeth II." to the slow blues of "Chain Lightning,"
to the perfect time of "Dr. Wu." Porcaro enjoys the distinction of
being the only drummer Steely Dan used whose final product was always
kept without being overdubbed by another player. The versions he
recorded always made it to the final master tapes.
"On Kay Lied," Jeff recalls, "all that went through my mind was Kilter
and Gordon. It was do or die for me. All my stuff was copying them.
For instance, on 'Chain Lightning,' all I thought about was the song
'Pretzel Logic,' which is Gordon playing a slow shuffle. On 'Doctor
Wu,' I was thinking of John Guerin, especially those fills going out
between the bass drum and the toms. He'd do it in a bebop style.
Guerin was on Joni Mitchell's Court & Spark, which was in that same
Steely style. Things were getting cool and bent.
"'Your gold Teeth II' is a song with lots of bars of 3/8, 6/8, and 9/8.
And it's bebop! I could swing the cymbal beat and fake it, but that
always bothered me. After recording it, Fagen gave me a Charles Mingus
record with Dannie Richmond on drums. It had a tune that was full of
6/8 and 9/8 bars. I listened to that for a couple of days, and we tried
it again and it worked. What a cool thing! The ride cymbal on that,
and on the whole record, is an old K Zildjian my dad gave me.
Unfortunately, all the cymbals are clipped and phased on the album
because the DBX didn't work. That was real heart-breaking for those
"On 'Black Friday' I was again thinking of Jim Gordon, my shuffle
champion. I got real frustrated trying to play this, and I just threw a
big tantrum. 'I'm the wrong guy! You should get Jim Gordon,' I told
Gary Katz. After walking around the block three times, cursing myself,
I came back in and cut it. That guitar solo is Walter on an old Fender
Mustang guitar with rusty strings. That's a bad-ass solo, man."
And what about those multitudinous takes? "Oh yes!" laughs Porcaro.
"Although their charts were meticulously written out for ensemble
figures and general drum feel, there were no click tracks or sequencers,
so you're going through the track hoping for the magic take--up to
thirty takes some days.
"When Steely Dan's first album came out, I flipped," recalls Porcaro.
"I thought they were the Beatles of California. I was always scared
shitless playing for them. They were very demanding--not in a malicious
way--but everyone respected them so much. You felt you were playing on
something really special. When they were happy, it was great to see.
it meant you'd accomplished something."
1976 -- The Royal Scam
Once again, Becker and Fagen continued to raise the stakes. On The
Royal Scam, they took rock 'n' roll arrangements to a new level of
craftsmanship. Dealing with the most highly skilled musicians
available, including the Pharoah of Funk, Bernard "Pretty" Purdie, the
record had a sense of risk-taking and new ground being broken.
"Green Earrings", for example, sounds like a big band arrangement played
with rock 'n' roll instrumentation. There's a lot of depth to the
music, and every listening reveals yet another nuance, another layer of
sound. Purdie's slam-dunk, slippery funk is pure joy. The grooves
float and sting effortlessly above, below, and through the music. His
drumming on songs like "Kid Charlemagne" and "The Fez' is the stuff of
"With me, they wanted something very specific," says Purdie with a quiet
tone of voice that makes him sound like a riverboat gambler. "They had
already recorded The Royal Scam with other drummers, so I had to
overdub. I stuck to the original patterns, but they wanted what I could
do. It was a heavy situation. I wasn't uptight about trying to impress
them, I was just doing my job. They knew my earlier work, so they
wanted to hear my take on their music.
"They were very strict to the point of super precision," Purdie recalls.
"really picky. They wouldn't take no for an answer and they wouldn't
accept mistakes--period. It was truly frustrating in the beginning. I
come from the school that when you feel good about what you've done,
it's hard to do better. It only goes downhill from there. I learned to
curtail my own feelings and just wait. They wanted it their way, so you
had to do many takes."
Drummer Rick Marotta, who already had had super-session duties at that
time with Linda Ronstadt, Paul Simon, John Lennon, Jackson Browne, James
Taylor, and Tom Scott, didn't know who Steely Dan were when he sat down
to record "Don't Take Me Alive." "I remember I wanted to get in and out
as soon as possible. Larry Carlton and Chuck Rainey were there, pretty
much business as usual. Then they counted off this tune...the first
thing I heard was the lyrics 'agents of the law/luckless pedestrian,'
and I almost stopped playing. I thought, 'I'm listening in my phones to
this guy who can really sing, and the tune sounds amazing, and the band
is amazing,' it was just...different. You have to kiss a lot of frogs
when you're a studio player. After that I had to stop and collect
myself. 'This is real.' Every time I went in with them I knew it was
going to be something really historic.
"They were the most demanding of anybody I've ever worked with,' Marotta
says. "Donald was like the Prince of Doom. For instance, I'd walk in
the control room and it would sound unbelievably great, and he'd just
sit there, looking at the floor, saying, 'Yeah, I guess it's okay.'
"On 'Don't Take Me Alive,' there's one backbeat in the 16th or 17th bar
that was a little softer than the others. I'd say, 'Donald, show me
where.' He'd wait for the tape to come around and he'd point it out.
'Right...there.' He'd pick the same spot out each time. He wasn't
crazy, he was just so microscopic. Walter was as well. It was beyond
my imagination how anybody could be so focused for so long."
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 tack, which had powerful solos from Wayne
Shorter and Steve Gadd. 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 1971.) The laid-back Southern aroma of
"Deacon Blues" featured Purdie. The incredibly catchy "Peg" featured a
fiery, sassy drum track form Marotta. "Home At Last" showcased the
classic Purdie shuffle, supporting a sad tale of remorse and fear. "I
Got The News," adotted-16th-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 its 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,' says 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
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 his 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 cold hear
everything perfectly. The snare on that song is an old wooden Ludwig
with Canasonic heads. It used to be Buddy Rich's drum."
1980 -- Gaucho
After a long wait, Gaucho was released to an eager audience. While the
music was of the usual high level, it should be noted that, drum-wise,
this album is much simpler than previous ones. Except for a Purdie
shuffle on "Babylon Sisters" and Porcaro's odd-meter forays on "Gaucho,"
the rhythms are all 8th-note grooves. no cranking shuffles like "Black
Friday" or jungle grooves like "I Got The News." Part of this might
have been Becker and Fagen's desire to fully explore their WENDEL, a
sequencing tool that could quantize, sanitize, and generally sterilized
a drum track.
"That was Roger Nichols and the computers," says Marotta, who played on
"Hey Nineteen" and "Time Out Of Mind." "WENDEL wasn't perfected then,
so occasionally it was a little stilted. They were experimenting,
taking little snippets of what we played and looping it."
According to Porcaro, "That's at a point when drum machine technology
was just rearing its ugly head. There was a lot of talk about the
future of quantizing and sequencing in real time. To a perfectionist,
that was all really cool stuff. The title track was done to a Urei
click. In fact it as all Urei except 'Hey Nineteen,' which is WENDEL."
The title track, which Porcaro played on, is an epic bit of Mexican-
inspired music, full of enigmatic lyrics and romantic female choruses.
The Dan had perfected their recording approach by this time. "From noon
till six we'd play the tune over and over and over again," says Porcaro,
"nailing each part. We'd go to dinner and come back and start
recording. They made everybody play like their life depended on it.
But they weren't gonna keep anything anyone else played that night, no
matter how tight it was. All they were going for was the drum track."
(The final product was a combination of 46 edits.)
"Hey Nineteen," the albums big hit, is a yearning for young love.
"everyone talks about that song, but it was a complete departure," says
Marotta, "totally different form any recording we'd one. It's a great
song--a classic groove, a definitive pocket. There are also other songs
from those session that will never come out. I played on one song
called 'Cooly Baba' that was really unbelievable. On the first batch I
did with them in New York, there were some classic ballads, but they
were never released.
"They were using up to six different rhythm sections for the same song,"
Marotta continues, "so I would beg them to just do it with me. So
Donald and I did 'Hey Nineteen' and 'Time Out Of Mind,' just the three
of us--the click track, Donald, and me. He sang and played piano, and I
played the drum track. It took no time. That's what's on the record."
Bernard Purdie sheds some light on how Becker and Fagen worked when
things got difficult. Laughing his sinister laugh, "I'll put it to you
this way. Walter was the more vocal one, while Fagen might be having a
fit inside. If he didn't like something, he would jump on Walter and
Gary Katz. Walter would try to explain. He was good at taking the heat
and being the heavy. We could tell who liked the song the most, who had
the most influence on a particular track. People can say what they
want, but Walter was the heavy and Katz was the compromiser. He was
able to hold the two of them together in getting things they both
In the years that have passed since the last Steely Dan release, Becker
and Fagen have kept busy. Becker produces West Coast jazz, while Fagen
relives his childhood on his Rhythm And Soul Revue shows. Fagen even
issued a live recording of "Pretzel Logic." Talk of an impending Steely
Dan record continues to float around, with both Dan-sters participating
this time out. And there's a Steely Dan box set in the works, complete
with outtakes. But if you haven't heard those first seven albums and
all that wonderful music, what are you waiting for? You've got a lot of
catching up to do.
This article is dedicated to Jim Gordon.