25 years ago, the late Steely Dan guitar great stepped out of the shadows with his solo debut
Walter Becker always seemed like a reticent sort of frontman. One of two ongoing mainstays in Steely Dan, he tended to relegate himself to the shadows, allowing group co-founder, singer and keyboardist Donald Fagen to take center stage throughout the band’s collective career, one that saw a lineage of musicians drift in and out of their ranks.
Becker’s willingness to cede the spotlight to others is evidenced by the fact that it took him some 14 years after the initial break-up of Steely Dan to reemerge on his own with 1994’s 11 Tracks of Whack. Although he was a prolific producer and contributor to the efforts of others — most notably, Rickie Lee Jones, Michael Franks, the British band China Crisis and his Steely bro, with whom he collaborated on Fagen’s own sophomore solo excursion Kamakiriad the year before — the album marked his first individual outing. A follow-up, the all but ignored Circus Money, wouldn’t appear until 2008 and it would mark his final individual effort prior to his death from esophageal cancer some nine years later.
Considering the fact that Becker and Fagen still maintained their working relationship well after Steely Dan disbanded, it was little surprise that 11 Tracks of Whack is, at times, virtually indistinguishable from an actual album by the band itself. Likewise, the group had been revived the previous year for touring purposes, making that common bond all the more inevitable. Songs such as “Down in the Bottom,” “Lucky Henry,” “Book of Liars,” “Girlfriend,” and “Cringemaker” would have all found an ideal fit on any the group’s ‘70s records, Becker’s voice, rarely used as a lead instrument, is still effective enough to convey the relaxed yet whimsical style so common to the band’s repertoire, even though he generally doesn’t seem to have the range, personality or nuance that Fagen conveyed in his role as lead vocalist. Yet, given the catchy grooves and meandering melodies, his voice still accommodated the music regardless.
Naturally, as a first solo outing from a member of one of the most popular, hit-making bands of the ‘70s and early ‘80s, the album did attract its fair share of attention and intrigue. It received generally good reviews, but sales were unspectacular, especially by comparison to the chart triumphs achieved by the Dan earlier on. The clever wordplay — especially as evidenced on a song like “My Waterloo” — didn’t necessarily enhance the accessibility factor, although when Becker aligns himself with a mellow mood, as he does on the ironically titled “This Moody Bastard” and the album closer “Little Kawai” (the latter, a tender tune named for his son by his wife Elinor from whom he would later divorce), he effectively conveys the sentiment. Along with the easy pace of these two tracks in particular, he manages to convey a charm and distinction which warrants repeated listens all these years later.
It ought to be noted at this juncture that 11 Tracks of Whack is actually a full twelve tracks in duration. That in itself is a bit of a whack job indeed.
Although it’s clear that Becker was most comfortable in the confines of Steely Dan and his role behind the scenes in the producer chair, 11 Tracks of Whack remains a notable addendum to the Steely Dan trajectory as well as something of a curio in retrospect.
AUDIO: Walter Becker 11 Tracks of Whack (full album)