Fandom can be a lonely place. If you love a band, truly love a band with that slightly teenage desperation you hope never to grow out of (until they make a substandard record and you abandon them forever), it’s a love affair like no other. Other fans may love the same band, but they love them differently. My favourite band, as I may have mentioned in this space once or twice, are Steely Dan, a pair of jazzy old perversities now in their fourth active decade. My friend Mitch is also a fan, and every time the group release a new album we have roughly the same conversation on the phone: me enthusing ridiculously and saying it’s the best album they’ve made in years, and him saying he’s not so sure and really it’s not a patch on The Royal Scam (1976). What’s particularly infuriating is that he always turns out to be right. At the same time he is an evangelist for Neil Young and is always trying to coerce me to buy some of the old fool’s millions and millions of albums, which I have done, without feeling that they have enhanced my existence to any significant degree. It’s all ridiculously subjective, of course. We are all locked into our own enthusiasms, and as unable to persuade others to share them as we are to sprout wings and fly.
So the other day Mitch rang up for a chat and I asked him whether he had bought the new Walter Becker album yet. I should probably mention that, as well as occasionally releasing group albums, the two members of Steely Dan even more occasionally infest the world with solo albums. Donald Fagen had one out a couple of years ago, and now it’s Becker’s turn. But Mitch wasn’t having any of it. He hadn’t played the Fagen one for a while and had made the mistake of buying Becker’s only previous solo album 14 years ago, which now languished in a box somewhere. As does mine, I have to admit. While the Dan’s albums are notorious for the magnificence of their playing and the almost unearthly precision of their arrangements, Becker’s first was strangely shambolic, and not in a good way. Even if you could get past the voice, which is not a thing of beauty, there was the grave shortage of tunes, and a modish mid-Nineties reliance on programmed drums that now seems more dated than Vera Lynn. But not to buy the new one, even though it was probably rubbish? Mitch audibly shrugged his shoulders. ‘What does Walter Becker do anyway?’ he said. ‘Donald Fagen seems to be the talented one.’ It’s true. He does. Donald is the singer, the frontman, always an advantage. His solo albums sound exactly like Steely Dan albums. He also seems to be possessed by a work ethic, or maybe a compulsion to work, that makes him record solo albums when the group is in recess. Walter Becker, by contrast, prefers to sit around at home on the Hawaiian island of Maui and do nothing very much. Public perception can be cruel, but even dedicated Danoraks have come to suspect that Donald is indeed the talented one.
I think it’s the way people assess creative partnerships. We can never let them be a marriage of equals, and we struggle with the idea that the whole could ever exceed the sum of its parts. Jagger and Richards? Page and Plant? Cannon and Ball? One must be the presiding genius, so the other must be the Andrew Ridgeley. But what seems to keep all such partnerships going, as well as creative compatibility, is a certain rivalry. Walter Becker’s Circus Money wouldn’t exist otherwise. Somehow he has managed to overcome his habitual idleness to record an album that sounds, well, exactly like Steely Dan, but in a different way to Donald’s. Donald has the wonderful chord structures, the amazing production sheen, the tendency to blandness that has sometimes characterised their recent records. Walter has the musical adventurousness — the nasty sax solos, a new taste for reggae — the barbed lyrics and a real need to prove himself. His record has all the stuff I hadn’t previously noticed was missing from Donald’s releases. It’s fascinating, if and only if you happen to like Steely Dan. Go on, Mitch, order it today. You know you want to really.