From the title song of 1978’s FM to an uncredited appearance of “Babylon Sisters” in last year’s The Simpsons‘ annual “Treehouse of Horror” Halloween episode, the Steely Dan music used in films and TV can stand as its own as a legacy to the late, great guitarist, bassist, co-writer and band co-founder Walter Becker, who died today at 67.
His death was announced on his personal website with a simple “Walter Becker feb. 20 1950 – sept. 3 2017” accompanying a two-shot photo of Becker as a boy and a man.
“Walter Becker was my friend, my writing partner and my bandmate since we met as students at Bard College in 1967,” Donald Fagen said in a statement released today. “He was smart as a whip, an excellent guitarist and a great songwriter. He was cynical about human nature, including his own, and hysterically funny.”
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While “the Dan,” as the band was known to its legion of fans, dominated radio – particularly, yes, FM – in the 1970s, the band – unflashy and lacking the rock-god looks and stage poses of contemporaries like Led Zeppelin or The Who or Aerosmith – made infrequent appearances on TV. Safe to say, relatively few of the band’s legions of record buyers could have picked Becker out of a line-up.
Yet Steely Dan’s songs found their way into a lengthy roster of soundtracks that no doubt spread the group’s jazzy rock and intricate musicality to fans who’d never so much as touched a radio dial.
As far back as 1971, the year Becker and Fagen moved to L.A., the city that would work itself into their music as surely as did Annandale-on-Hudson, the duo contributed a raft of songs to the quirky counterculture film You’ve Got to Walk It Like You Talk It or You’ll Lose That Beat, starring Zalman King and featuring Richard Pryor and Robert Downey Sr.
A few Steely Dan hits – “Show Biz Kids,” “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” “Do It Again” – made uncredited appearances in low-profile, now-forgotten productions, but it was band’s “FM (No Static at All)” that cemented its soundtrack bona fides. The track from 1978’s FM was a Top 40 hit, a far greater success than the song-heavy movie that gave it a home and a first-among-equals spot on a soundtrack that included Bob Seger’s “Night Moves,” Steve Miller’s “Fly Like An Eagle,” Foreigner’s “Cold As Ice,” Tom Petty’s “Breakdown,” The Eagles’ “Life In The Fast Lane,” Linda Ronstadt’s cover of “Tumbling Dice” and the Dan’s own “Do It Again,” to name a very few.
“Peg” and “Deacon Blues” popped up on WKRP in Cincinnati, “Rikki” rode onto Knight Rider, and Steely Dan were well-represented in movies from Mask and Say Anything to Air America, Me, Myself & Irene and Almost Famous.
“Do It Again” in particular seemed a favorite of music supervisors and soundtrack compilers, gracing films and TV episodes as diverse as 2002 doc The Kid Stays in the Picture, the same year’s Laurel Canyon, and TV’s The Dead Zone. Jerry Seinfeld used both “Jack of Speed” and “Deacon Blues” in his 2002 doc Comedian.
The practice continued well into the new century: Nip/Tuck, Entourage, David Fincher’s Zodiac, Cold Case, Ugly Betty, Parenthood, True Blood and Royal Pains are just a sampling of the episodes and films that put the band’s work to fine use, a testament to both the musical genius and era-capturing vision that Becker and Fagen gave the world.
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