Major Dudes Barney Hoskyns delivers a 300-page block of solid evidence of the musical and lyrical brilliance that Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, the originators of Steely Dan, unleashed on the world beginning in the 1970s ... The book — featuring essays, reviews and interviews about and with Fagen and Becker — covers the duo’s pre-Dan years through their solo careers and ends with Walter Becker’s death in 2017 ... Unlike a straight biography about the band — or even a memoir — Major Dudes filters the group’s rise through its interaction with journalists. As such, it offers a more critical take. The interviews are compelling and revealing, showcasing Fagen and Becker’s secluding habits and snarky put-ons ... Readers expecting opinionated writing from rock journalists won’t be disappointed ... Unfortunately, the book, which unfolds chronologically, loses momentum (and possibly the reader’s patience) by needlessly repeating already-stated facts throughout the text ... That said, Major Dudes does effectively show how Fagen and Becker soaked up, skewed, and reformatted American images, habits and mismanaged dreams and made a groove out of them...Although some readers might fault Major Dudes for its dearth of longer essays that place Fagen and Becker in a wider cultural context, the book does give us plenty to read and think about. I have no doubt we’ll be thinking about and listening to Steely Dan until California tumbles into sea.
Steely Dan played the Paramount Theatre in Seattle on the first of July, 1974—there's a live recording—and the MC introduced the band thus: 'Ladies and gentlemen, here by popular demand and at great expense to the management, you may like them—personally I don’t—from Los Angeles, California, Steely Dan!' ... Chris Welch describes the Dan in Melody Maker as: 'Really orchestra, designed to present the songs on stage and record in the best way possible'. The two were jazz fans though not quite jazz musicians, and as professional songwriters before starting the band, they reached back to popular song forms from before the 1950s for their values and models ... There are essentially two different things collected within the book: contemporaneous record reviews and interviews/profiles. Major Dudes covers Donald Fagen’s solo albums and ends with David Cavanagh’s obituary of Walter Becker, published in Uncut in November of last year. For a Dan fan, it’s fascinating to read about what the critics were hearing, which was a combination of baffled satisfaction, baffled ambivalence, and baffled displeasure. One thing that is consistent, especially from the British writers, is how different the Dan sounded from everything and everyone else they were hearing.
The book is structured by each album’s epoch, kicking off first with a review, followed by an essay and/or interview. After the band’s extended hiatus began in 1981, the solo albums from Fagen and Becker become the touchstones. Major Dudes finishes with a musical obit — one that is fittingly unemotional — for Becker, who died in 2017 at the age of 67 ... Perhaps the best parts of the compilation are the interview pieces. Becker and Fagen were notoriously tough interview subjects, and didn’t grant audiences often, so Hoskyns has managed to corral the best of the best. The pair’s biting humor comes across in the finest moments, and fortunately none of the journalists comes across as clueless victims ... As a bonus, this book is also a treat for students of music writing — as you go reelin’ through Steely Dan’s years, Major Dudes is also a study in how music writing has changed over the years. You get some of the self-conscious, 'aren’t I hip?' style popular in the 1970s, as music writers fancied themselves the Grade-B spawn of Lester Bangs. If I was teaching a class in writing about popular music, this would be one of the required textbooks.