Was shocked and shaken this morning to hear of the passing of Walter Becker, bassist/guitarist and co-founder of Steely Dan. Apparently he'd been ill for some time with an unspecified ailment. I didn't know that either, but that's not surprising; the man was an artist, not a celebrity.
If you came of age during the '70s, the Dan were the soundtrack to your wayward youth, literate misanthropes in soft-rock clothes whose obscurantist musings somehow crept into the Top 40. When some hipster tells me '70s music was dreck until The Ramones, Sex Pistols et. al. righted the ship, I point them toward Steely Dan. In the words of songstress Rickie Lee Jones, they're "the beginning of college rock."
As a kid, I bought the singles: "Do It Again," "Reelin' in the Years," "Rikki Don't Lose That Number." These slivers of wax sounded like nothing I'd ever heard, and listening to them now, they still do. Becker and collaborator Donald Fagen were originals. Jazz-rock was in vogue then, yet Steely Dan steered well clear of the pack, whether on the rock (Chicago, BS&T) or jazz side (Mahavishnu Orchestra, Weather Report). I can tell you what they weren't, but I'd need a musicology degree to tell you what they were. As I understand it their influences are mostly jazz greats like Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus, with dashes of R&B—yet without exception, their oeuvre consists of pop songs, albeit with a jazzy sophistication underpinning those great hooks.
I've long envied their songwriting, but their style is hard to emulate without serious chops and a knowledge of jazz harmony, both of which I lack. Why, for a few seconds today I entertained the thought of working up a Steely Dan song in tribute to Becker and quietly nixed the idea. In the past I've tried three or four of their "easier" numbers (the ones with fewer tricky jazz modulations), and they simply don't come off with one guy and an acoustic guitar, at least not this guy. The Steely Dan influence has, however, shown up once in my music—fittingly in an obscure way that only a pedant would appreciate. "After You," one of the songs on my forthcoming album, features a pedal steel part in the bridge—actually a sample that I plied, twisted and manipulated in a week-long bout of studio obsessiveness that would make Walter Becker proud—that I think gets the official Steely Dan Award for Best Use of Pedal Steel in a Non-Country Song. (Check out Jeff Baxter's gorgeous steel work on Can't Buy a Thrill or Countdown to Ecstasy, their first two albums, to hear what I mean.)
In any case, you will be missed, Mr. B. May the afterlife treat you well. Won't you sign in, stranger?
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As a songwriter, I often find myself hunting for that one stellar chord sequence or melodic line that really makes a song shine. I'd like to think I've come up with a few on my own but sometimes, one needs a little help.
If done skilfully, what I'm about to outline for you truly is recycling, not outright theft. Case in point: a song I've just written called "Love's Twin Flames." I'd initially set out to write something in the vein of Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd, which I'm happy to say the finished product sounds nothing like. (You know you're on the right track when you try to ape somebody and it still comes out sounding like you.) I did, however, end up borrowing half the chorus of "Arnold Layne" for my bridge, and therein lies the difference between recycling and stealing. If it's their chorus, make it your bridge or verse. Alter the melody, a little or a lot. Change the last chord or three. Put it in a different key or tempo. And obviously, write a new set of lyrics.
Not done yet, I began tinkering with the chorus of Guided By Voices' "Liquid Indian." It's an absolutely killer chorus paired with the most hideous, abstruse verse ever written (I think Robert Pollard, gifted though he is, sometimes takes perverse pleasure in being demented). Ever since I first heard the song I wondered how that lovely chorus—or something like it—would sit in more genteel surroundings. It's been in the back of my mind for some time as a reclamation project, if you will. Again: I changed the melody, put it in a different key, took out a chord and added two new ones, wrote new words, and it's found a new home as the pre-chorus of "Love's Twin Flames."
Recycling can also happen unconsciously. My song "After You" has a pre-chorus sequence that I knew I'd heard before. I couldn't place it for the longest time but eventually found it in a Fairport Convention tune called "Wandering Man." As it turns out, they (unconsciously?) borrowed it too, from Rod Stewart's 1972 hit "You Wear It Well." And despite Rod, the Fairports and I all using this chord sequence, our songs sound nothing alike. That's how you know you're recycling, not stealing.
A variation on the process is deliberately starting to write by playing a snippet of a well-known song, then going off in a new direction. Another new one of mine called "Puis-Je T'Aimer" began life as "Uncle Vern's Band," a thinly veiled reference to the Grateful Dead chestnut "Uncle John's Band." And for about six seconds, my song and the Dead's sound alike (same intro chords, though I changed the key and tempo). After that, I veer off into a universe that's as unlike Garcia/Hunter as chalk and cheese.
One of my favourite recycled songs is The Jam's "In the Crowd," a stellar track from All Mod Cons. Give that a listen, then try The Kinks' "Johnny Thunder" from their 1968 classic The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society. Something sound familiar? Not casting aspersions on Paul Weller, but this really borders on theft: same chords, melody, tempo and even key, I believe. Yet! Both are classic songs, and that one part aside they sound nothing alike. If anything, it's a testament to Weller's genius that he borrowed so literally (and liberally) to create a new and equally brilliant piece of music.
Have you recycled others' material in your writing? What's your favourite recycled bit or song? Comments are welcome.