Gaucho: The near implosion of Steely Dan’s Yacht Rock masterpiece
By Michael Sarno
By 1993, enough time had passed for Steely Dan front man Donald Fagen to digest and put into perspective what had happened over his career. He headed Steely Dan in collaboration with guitarist Walter Becker from 1972-1981. They had watched their band evolve from a rock band in search of an identity to a refined jazz group that would help create and innovate the jazz-rock mix we now know today as an important foundation of Yacht Rock.
On the verge of reuniting with his former partner Walter Becker for the first time since 1981, Fagen was reflecting on his career and asked about Gaucho, the last Steely Dan album released less than a year before he and Becker had parted ways.
"It's an album of despair" he said, and understandably so.
Gaucho was riddled with problems from the start. What began as a promising follow-up to their highly successful and critically acclaimed album Aja, soon seemed destined to implode. Everything from lawsuits, recording issues, disputes, health issues, and even death had tormented the band throughout the recording process.
Aja, released a year earlier, had The Dan riding a wave of success and prominence. They had successfully fused jazz and rock to a mainstream audience, the likes of which nobody had done before, and became one of the first cornerstones in the Yacht Rock movement, with staples like “Peg” and "Black Cow.” It was only a matter of time before Steely Dan would go back into the studio and record their highly anticipated follow up album.
But the Dan saw the cards start to stack against them before recording had even commenced. They were contractually obligated to release one more album on their label, ABC Records. However, things became complicated once ABC was bought out by MCA Records. As the transfer procedure had gotten underway, ABC went back to review and audit Steely Dan's finances. After some number crunching, they had found that the Dan were owed several million dollars in royalties. ABC proceeded to bring the issue to MCA.
Not only did MCA feel that they were not responsible for the previously owed royalties, but also felt that the next album to be released was now theirs. Becker and Fagen did not share the same sentiments. They wanted to leave their new label for Warner Brothers and felt the remaining album on the contract was void. Soon the argument developed into a full blown court case over the rights to the new album and the royalties. It found its way straight to the supreme court of California.
After a rigorous court battle, it was decided that Steely Dan were to be awarded their royalties from MCA in the merger, but were to go and record the new album under MCA Records. Although the court case was over, the legal issues were not final and subject to negotiation between the two sides, which would proceed to loom over Steely Dan during the entire recording process until the Goucho's release.
Becker and Fagen, living in LA, felt they had needed a change of pace after reaching the conclusion that the lavish west coast lifestyle was not for them. They had decided to move to New York City on Central Park West in 1979 where they would record the new record.
Recording had proceeded under typical Steely Dan conditions; a revolving door of studio musicians, endless takes, and countless hours in the studio in a pursuit to achieve nothing short of absolute perfection. It wasn't uncommon for the hired studio musicians to become increasingly unhappy with Becker and Fagen as time went by. Dire Straits guitarist Mark Knopfler, who was recruited to play guitar on "Time Out of Mind", likened the recording experience to "getting in a swimming pool with lead weights tied to your boots." After assembling an ensemble of studio musicians from the local New York scene, along with Steely Dan favorites such as Michael McDonald and Larry Carlton, recording was underway.
However, the recording process got off to a rocky start. One of the first recorded songs for the new album, “The Second Arrangement”, was to pick up right where Aja had left off. Preparing for playback, an assistant engineer to Roger Nichols had accidentally deleted 3/4ths of the tape while transferring it to master tape. When Fagen was given the news, not a word was spoken. To Fagen, there were no words to speak. What should have been a great start to the momentum of the recording process, Fagen saw, instead, a multitude of valuable time, money, and, above all, music - wiped away in a matter of minutes. All he could do was stand up and leave the studio. After days of reconciling with the unfortunate news, Fagen eventually returned to the studio. They had attempted to recreate the sound they had lost on the recording, but ultimately were never satisfied and shelved the song entirely never to be released.
Trying to put the incident behind them, they had moved on to recording new songs. It was only a matter of weeks before tragedy would strike again. In January of '80, Walter Becker had arrived to his Manhattan apartment to find his girlfriend, Karen Stanley, dead of a drug overdose. Becker was extremely shaken by the incident and resorted to increased drug use as a coping mechanism, which would not bode well for the recording process and the increasing divide between he and Fagen. To deepen the wound, Stanley's family then sued Becker for a whopping $17.5 million claiming he was the reason for her death on the grounds that he had introduced to heroin and cocaine and encouraged her to live his exuberant lifestyle with him. Eventually the two sides had settled out of court for an undisclosed amount, but those around Becker have said he never truly had gotten over it.
Things only went from bad to worse three months later when Becker was struck by a taxi cab stepping off a curb. The result was a fractured right leg which had rendered him immobile. For weeks, the only way that Becker could communicate with Fagen and the engineers was through telephone, which proved less than efficient as it only served as one more reason the record would inevitably be delayed. Becker was in extreme pain and had to finish out the record at the mercy of his fractured leg. Eventually, Becker would push through the pain and the recording of the would come to an end. Finally.
And yet The Dan still couldn't escape trouble. This time the troubles came from a familiar adversary, MCA Records. At the time, records had sold for $8.98 retail, but MCA had different plans for Gaucho. Upon release, Gaucho sold at $9.98 retail, which was a rather sharp increase in price at the time given that minimum wage was $3.10. Fagen and Becker couldn't help resent the price increase and feared that their fans would lay the blame on them. MCA's defense for the price increase was how the recording process had exceeded its initial budget and schedule.
Through all of its turbulent turns, setbacks, and tragedy, Gaucho would see its release on November 21st 1980. In the end, it had taken a staggering 42 studio musicians, 11 engineers, and a near million dollars to complete. It had followed the Aja formula of a seven song format, although not initially intended to do so. The initial reception had mainly consisted of positive reviews and commercial success. It had found its way to Platinum status, selling over a million records. The production on the album had proven to be second to none as, yet again, Steely Dan had won the Grammy for best non classical engineered recording (previously winning in 1978 and 1979 for Aja and "FM (No Static At All)".
However, when the afterglow of Gaucho's release had worn off, it was apparent it overall failed to live up to the expectations of its predecessor Aja. "Hey Nineteen", the first single released, peaked at #10 on the US charts, followed by "Time Out of Mind" peaking at #21. The third single, "Babylon Sisters", completely failed to chart in either the US or UK charts.
In addition to the internal tensions and setbacks, Fagen had blamed the result of Gaucho on a string of bad luck mixed with the combination of their extremely high standards and a creative dry spell. Initially, Donald Fagen had planned that he and Becker could push through the making of Gaucho and then have the troubles between them work themselves out afterwards. But when that bridge was to be crossed, things didn’t work out as such.
The stresses of Gaucho proved to be the final nail in the coffin of Steely Dan's heyday. It was officially announced in June of 1981 that Becker and Fagen were to split. Fagen eventually would get his Warner Brothers record deal and release his first solo album, The Nightfly, in 1982. Becker,, on the other hand, wanted to get away from it all and became an avocado farmer in Maui. Both would drift in and out of various musical circles until reuniting in 1993. The Dan would see a return to touring in addition to two more studio albums until Walter Becker's untimely death in 2017.
The story of Gaucho is unprecedented. It seemed that fate would stop at nothing to prevent its release. Nevertheless, Steely Dan persisted, but at a high cost: the end of Steely Dan. Although we were gifted an album of consistent and valued Yacht Rock songs, we are left to wonder what could have been if not for all the setbacks, tragedy, and turbulence. Once knowing its story, we should accept all its imperfections and struggles in its failure to live up to its predecessor. We should embrace Gaucho for what it is: Yacht Rock masterpiece we might have never gotten to hear.