Best Walter Becker Songs: Steely Dan Sunday

*** STEELY DAN SUNDAY INDEX ***

Walter Becker’s solo career has been much less prolific than that of his erstwhile Steely Dan partner Donald Fagen, but whenever he’s decided to make a record, he’s gone all in. 11 Tracks of Whack (1994) is one of the great, overlooked outlier rock albums of the 90s. His only other release Circus Money (2008) was a symbiotic collaboration with producer and co-composer Larry Klein, where soul-jazz grooves are gracefully accentuated with slick reggae stylings. It, too, deserves wider notice.

Last week we took turns picking out our most treasured Fagen cuts, but for this list we’ve asked Becker aficionado Preston Frazier alone to offer up his ranking of the five best tracks by the “quiet” half of the Steely Dan brain trust. Weigh in with your own list in the comments section below.

Want to get our full lowdown on these songs? Just click on the nested links in the song titles.


5. “Hard Up Case”: Indisputable proof that Walter Becker gave Steely Dan its lyrical wallop. The song kicks hard with its drum machine turned up to 10. Becker provides a meat and potatoes bass track which perfectly complements the stark drumming. The track also contains Becker spitting out acerbic lyrics while coolly backed by the vocal duo of Catherine Russell and Brenda White-King . Add all this up plus a bluesy guitar solo by Becker and a tasty horn chart arranged by coproducer Donald Fagen and you have a sure fire winner. “Hard Up Case” came across even better when performed live during the Steely Dan 1994 tour.

4. “Three Picture Deal”: The song gives you lyrics which are descriptive, funny and, well lyrical. Sublime rhythm guitar from Jon Herington, perfectly arranged chorus vocals from a quintet of sassy vocalists. Just when you think it could not get better, add to it stellar Hammond organ and keyboard touches that producer Larry Klein perfectly places to complement sly Walter Becker’s voice. “Three Picture Deal” also contains the best saxophone solo since, well, since Aja. Roger Rosenberg’s baritone sax initially seems like a miscast for this song yet as the song builds, it bolsters the theme brilliantly.

3. “Upside Looking Down”: Cowriters Becker and Larry Klein pen a gem which tackles many of Becker’s — or for that matter, Steely Dan’s — favorite subjects. The down at the bottom, losers in the world cast in “Upside Looking Down” are not supported by contrasting music, but by subtle and supportive keyboard playing by Henry Hey and a rhythm section consisting of Becker on bass, Jon Herington on guitars and Keith Carlock on drums. Carlock in particular stands out with his inventive rim work played in a reggae-funk hybrid. Producer Klein coax an effectively strained falsetto vocal on the chorus which is gently supported by a bed of female voices. Dean Parks provides the only guitar solo on the album not played by Becker. It’s all too short, yet perfect.

2. “Book Of Liars”: Behind door number two we find the Walter Becker composition “Book Of Liars.” Anguished and exposed, the song is another tale of down and out lovers. This time, Becker carries the vocal load totally on his own and acquits himself well, by matter of factly spilling out his lyrics and effective conveying his hurt. The drum machine is more subdued here than other tracks on Whack, however, the piano solo (probably played on a synthesizer) is in jarring contrast the song’s subtle nature. Of course, like a Fagen or Steely Dan album, nothing happens by error. Bob Sheppard’s tenor sax solo adds a grace and dignity that the ‘whack’ of the song threatens to destroy. What could be better? How about the live Steely Dan version on Alive in America, or my number one choice…

1.”Downtown Canon”: Five and a half minutes of audio perfection with Ted Becker’s keyboards setting the pace followed by an explosive reggae beat by the clearly inspired Keith Carlock on drums. Jon Herington and Dean Parks work in tandem on guitar with their nuanced fills and licks, and Becker provides one of his best and slinkiest bass performances. Becker also provides vividly tragic lyrics which cover the arc of a failed relationship with gusto and graphic insight. “Downtown Canon” even forgoes the expected guitar or tenor saxophone solo instead providing a heart wrenching female vocal interlude by Carmen Carter, Carolyn Leonhart-Escoffery, Kate Markowitz, Cindy Mizelle, and Windy Wagner. The song, released as a single in Europe on June 15, 2009, stands next to any Donald Fagen or Steely Dan track in greatness.

Preston Frazier

Preston Frazier

Preston Frazier is a bass-playing lawyer living in Atlanta. His first Steely Dan exposure was with an eight-track cassette of 'Pretzel Logic.' He can be reached at slangofages@icloud.com; follow him on Twitter: @slangofages. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Preston Frazier
  • Marsha

    Okay, I’ve given “Hard Up Case” another listen, and does have a pretty kickin’ beat. “Downtown Canon” is also very good. I love that smooth, low-key rythm. Becker’s vocals are much smoother in this song. (Why do some of his songs sound like something written for Boz Scaggs, except without the nasal?). “Upside Looking Down” has a nice, slow, steady rythm.

    Personally, I think that many of the demos that didn’t make the cut are better than the final selections in terms of creativity, originality and variety, namely, “Junkie Girl” (Nice rythm, nice synth), “Medical Science” (sweet beat, cool vibe and I love Becker’s raw, R&B vocals), “Cringemaker” (get rock n’ roll beat and lyrics), “Ghost of Hipness Past” (nice urban beat and cool synths) and – my all-time favorite – “Sanpaiku” (love the trippy intro and the jazzy interlude – should have been a full song).

    I’m glad “Book of Liars” made the cut, it has a great melody (and was that nice horn in the demo?)

    • Preston Frazier

      It’s confounding how some songs made the cut and others didn’t. Fall of ’92 is a classic and Fagen helped write it! Perhaps one day we’ll get Becker, Fagen and Steely Dan demos of rerecorded versions of older songs.