Classics: Donald Fagen – I.G.Y. (What A Beautiful World) (Warner Bros.)
For those who’ve ever wondered about its meaning, ‘I.G.Y.’ is the abbreviation to “International Geophysical Year”.
As a matter of fact, Fagen‘s lyrics come in such a way that one might consider them has havin’ a double meaning. From, at first sight, a pretty much optimistic vision of futuristic concepts as the time. Although let’s not forget we managed to have the Eurotunnel a few years after. Meanwhile ‘I.G.Y.’ can also be perceived ironically. As like a reaction in retrospect facing the credulity of the Western society.
‘I.G.Y.’ happened to be Fagen‘s only solo Top 40 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Meanwhile it stands among the highlights of his 1981 debut-album, ‘The Nightfly’, which he released back in 1982. This along with ‘New Frontier’ from the same package. With a bunch of artists givin’ it their own interpretations along with time. From Howard Jones to Take 6 and Marcia Hines among others.
Also interesting to know is the presence of luminaries such as Valerie Simpson (backing vocals) on ‘I.G.Y.’ But also the Brecker brothers (Michael and Randy). Not to mention Greg Phillinganes on piano…
A native of Passaic, NJ, Donald Fagen first opened himself to Rock and Rhythm and Blues by the end of the 50’s. This until a cousin recommended Jazz and got him to come to the Newport Jazz Festival at the age of eleven. The year after, he went to the Village Vanguard, checking cats such as Bille Evans and Earl Hines. Eventually takin’ the bus to Manhattan and see performing luminaries such as Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk and Charlie Mingus among others. And from then, he learned to play the piano. And he also played baritone horn in the High School marching band. Then soon after found extra interest in Soul and Funk.
In 1965, Fagen enrolled at the Bard College to study litterature. There he met Walter Becker with whom he formed various college bands. And, however none of them lasted at the end, his partnership did. With the twosome working as songwriters for ABC/Dunhill Records. But also givin’ birth to Steely Dan during the Summer of 1970. With Becker playing bass and guitar. Meanwhile Fagen would deal with the keyboards and most of the lead vocals on their recordings. This in addition to Dennis Dias, David Palmer, Jeff Baxter and Jim Hodder at the time.
Steely Dan came straight to fame. This with the release of their ‘Can’t Buy A Thrill’ debut-album back in 1972. Itself spanning the influential ‘Do It Again’. Their second album – ‘Countdown To Ecstasy’ – failed from engendering the same following the year after though. And this despite the presence of quality material. Beginning with ‘Bodhisattva’.
1974 saw them scoring their biggest success in the charts. This with ‘Rikki Don’t Lose That Number’ as a part of their ‘Pretzel Logic’ album. A period that saw them integrating people in their line-up such as Michael McDonald. But also Jeff Porcaro who was to soon after give birth to Toto along with David Paich. Meanwhile, one could feel a growing tension between Becker and Fagen on one side, and Jeff Baxter and Jim Hodder on the other. This after Becker and Fagen expressed their will to focus on recording from then on and cease their touring activities.
Unsurprisingly the other founding members of the band progressively left. Including Dennis Dias who departed after the release of the ‘Gaucho’ album in 1980. Meanwhile Jeff Baxter and Michael McDonald eventually joined The Doobie Brothers. And simultaneously other musicians would add their contribution to the Steely Dan edifice. Such as Wilton Felder and Larry Carlton among other movements.
Another quite significant release would be the one of the 1977 ‘Aja’ album. With its title track, but also the groovy ‘Josie’ in addition to ‘Peg’ with Michael McDonald takin’ the lead. A release which they followed with the unmissable ‘FM (No Static At All)’ for the ‘FM’ OST. We still remember this outstanding composition as of now, meanwhile the film happened to be a flop.
‘Gaucho’, Steely Dan‘s 7th album, happened to be pretty much synonymous with labor pain during its recording process. Coming to light after more than a year of unceasing studio sessions and the use of more than 40 session musicians. This at a time when Steely Dan and their new label, MCA, had gone thru legal battle over the rights to release the album. But also with Becker being sued by the family of his girlfriend after she’d died from drug overdose in their appartment. Then soon after, he got struck by a cab while crossing a Manhattan street, broke his right leg in several places, thus forcing him to use crutches for quite some time.
In addition to this, an assistant engineer accidentally erased most of a track by the likes of ‘The Second Arrangement’ which never got recovered. Then, if it wasn’t already enough, Jazz composer Keith Jarrett sued Steely Dan for copyright infringement over the title track of the album. Claiming it plagiarized ‘Long As You Know You’re Living Yours’ from his 1974 ‘Belonging’. With this leading him to be credited as the co-author of the cut.
‘Gaucho’ finally hit the shelves in November 1980. It received more or less mixed reviews along with time, but it happened to be another major effrot for the band. Thus bringin’ extra goodies such as ‘Hey Nineteen’, but also ‘Time Out Of Mind’ featuring Mark Knopfler of the Dire Straits fame on guitar. Not to mention the ultra atmospheric although sadly underrated ‘Glamour Profession’ along with Valerie Simpson on backing vocals and Michael Brecker on sax.
With Steely Dan disbanding seven months after (in June 1981), Becker and his family moved to Maui. With this getting him to cease using drugs and Fagen to start a so to say sporadic solo career. Thus droppin’ four albums on his own. The first of them – ‘The Nightfly’ – which he released the year after, featuring his bigest successes ever. In other words ‘I.G.Y. (What A Beautiful World)’, featuring Valerie Simpson on backing vocals and its follow-up, ‘New Frontier’…
Strangely enough, it would take more than ten 10 to see Fagen releasing its follow up – ‘Kamakiriad’ – in 1993. This with production work by his former partner. And another seven years before seeing Steely Dan back together again with the 2000 ‘Two Against Nature’ album, their first studio effort in 20 years. Spanning extra singles such as ‘Cousin Dupree’, ‘Jack Of Speed’ and other ‘Janie Runaway’, it generated the kind of impression as if we’d left them yesterday. Eventually winning the group four Grammy Awards.
In 2003, Steely Dan released their very last album by the likes of ‘Everything Must Go’. An effort synonymous with extra goodies such as its title cut. But also ‘Things I Miss The Most’ and ‘Godwhacker’. Then three years after, Donald Fagen released his third album (‘Morph The Cat’). With his last to date – ‘Sunken Condos’ – comin’ up back in 2012.
Walter Becker released two solo albums, beginning with ’11 Tracks Of Whack’ which Donald Fagen happened to co-produce back in 1993. Its follow-up – ‘Circus Money’ – seeing the light some 14 years later. And he managed to produce an impressive amount of projects. Thus collaborating with artists such as China Crisis, Ricky Lee Jones, Fra Lippo Lippi and Michael Franks.
Steely Dan founding member Jim Hodder sadly drowned in the swimming pool of his home in Point Arena, CA on June O5, 1990. He was 42.
Jeff Porcaro, who remained with Steely Dan between 1974 and 1980, sadly died on Aug. 05, 1992, at the age of 38. This after spraying insecticide in the year of his Hidden Hills home, CA. With the cause of his death officially listed as a heart attack from atherosclerosis.
Walter Becker sadly died from complications of esophageal cancer on Sept. 03, 2017 at his home in Manhattan, New York City.