Calling Wordman, Ministre, other musicos [Steely Dan/Beatles]

So I’m watching and listening to a recent live performance of Kid Charlemagne on Youtube and scrolling through the comments while I listen (or more accurately, when I can pull my eyes away from Carolyn Leonhart/Escoffery :D). Anyway, as I’m listening to this song for the tenth or twelfth time I find myself thinking, “Man, as much as I love the Beatles, Lennon and McCartney just aren’t in these guys’ league.” Then sure enough, someone comments that Fagen/Becker make Lennon/McCartney look like junior college kids.

So, being totally ignorant as to how musicians regard music as opposed to my layman’s view, I’d be interested in your take on the relative quality of musicianship between Fagen/Becker and Lennon/McCartney. This isn’t to denigrate Lennon/McCartney at all, I’ve loved their music for decades. I’m mostly just wanting to test my ability to correctly recognize quality of musicianship.

Thanks in advance for any comments.

I should probably add that even if you’re not a “musico” and just want to add your .02, I’d be interested in hearing your opinion as well.

Don’t have time for a long essay just now, so I’ll just say that in my Steely Dan sheet music they’ve handily put in chord diagrams for all the guitar chords used in each song. In some cases this takes up half the page. On the other hand all the Beatles songs I know I’ve learned by ear and they’d average about eight chords nearly always unaltered.

It’s not a measure of quality, more of sophistication.

Maybe back tommorow with some more considered comment.

It’s hard to assign levels of “quality of musicianship” when comparing the ability to play your instrument well and the ability to generate really excellent original material. They’re really two different things.

I mean, hotshot guitarists who can can play the opening to Johnny B. Goode are a dime a dozen but it took Chuck Berry to make it what it is.

Clear as mud. I could circle around the issue ad nauseum but I gotta go to a meeting.:smiley:

The short version for me, since I have to go teach: yes, Steely Dan are great musicians. But I’d still rather listen to Lennon/McCartney’s sewer pipes than Steely Dan’s anything. SD are just so…cold. Intellectual. Proficient, yes, but they don’t DO anything for me.

Steely Dan are more jazz oriented, where Lennon / McCartney are more pop oriented.

Big fan of both the Dan and Beatles, and also a musician. What you seem to be referring to–quite correctly, I believe–is that Steely Dan songs (both the version of Kid Charlemagne you referenced, and their albums) tend to exhibit considerably more advanced musicianship in the individual instruments, the arrangements and in some ways, even the songwriting. Becker and Fagan have a tendency to draw more from Jazz than the Beatles ever did, and the added complexity of Jazz harmony is reflected in the songs they write. They also have had some of the best studio and touring musicians in the business backing them up in recordings and on the road; the more complicated songs require extremely talented backing bands to pull off successfully.

This does not, mind you, make Becker/Fagan “better musicians” than Lennon/McCartney/Harrison/Starr–there’s much more to it than complexity of material and talent of performers. The Beatles covered a much wider range of styles successfully, contributed more to the advancement of rock and pop music, and (IMO) wrote far more truly great songs. Their style of playing and level of instrumental technique was also extremely well-suited to the music they wrote (it’s rare to hear a Beatles song covered anywhere near as effectively as the original), and it’s certainly debatable as to whether their recordings would have been any better if they had been more proficient at their instruments.

It’s also notable that Becker and Fagan–while pretty good at the guitar and keyboard themselves–also tend to be outmatched by the rest of their band as performers. But they know that their songs require top-notch professionals, and they can certainly find talented people to join them.

Ultimately, I find both bands to be really successful at what they are/were trying to accomplish. And I like the results quite a bit. Not much need for me to analyze it more than that (or even as much as I just did, I suppose!).

Steely Dan’s music is generally more complex, which has to do with their roots in jazz.

The Beatles are simple, since they’re roots are in rock and roll.

I think most people would agree that the Beatles are far better songwriters. And I also think Becker and Fagin would agree. They’re good, but they’re not the Beatles.

Very good (and very prescient) responses. Now that I think about it a little, I do believe I’d give the edge to the Beatles in terms of melody. They did write some beautifully melodic songs. I’m aware that while Fagen/Becker are generally not as good with their instruments as the musicians they hire, they know exactly what they want each musician to deliver and can be quite demanding taskmasters. To me, this indicates a deep understanding of the songs’ demands and complexity and what they need to get in order to communicate the feeling that they’re trying to communicate.

Though of course sometimes a musican’s work is so brilliant (Steve Gadd on Aja and Larry Carlton on Kid Charlemagne, for example) that it needs no adjustment, still it’s the fact that Fagen/Becker know so thoroughly what they want every step of the way in creating their recordings that cause me to regard them more highly as musicans than their technical skill with their own instruments would merit.

I’ve been surprised at what a good and intuitive job you guys have done in analyzing and anwering what I’m trying to get at. Thanks again for your posts, and here’s hoping for more to come.

That, and some other stuff.

I love both groups. The Dan had a great ability to make a song both complex and catchy, intellectual and physical. I’m very sorry that Fagan has “outgrown” rock and roll.

That said, musicianship doesn’t make a song. It can only improve a song. Fagan was an excellent songwriter, but Lennon-McCartney had a greater gift in that area.

And although Lennon-McCartney couldn’t read music (much) I’ve taken as much pleasure from their arrangements as from the Dan’s.

The Dan definitely hired some good guitarists, though.

Lennon and McCartney could both sing rings around Fagen.

The rest is somewhat subjective.

As the OP has already said, lots of good comments here. I love both bands. A thing that separates them, for me, is a quality that the Beatles’ songs have and which Dan’s lack, I guess I’d call it adaptability or universality. Beatles songs, while many were very nicely arranged and produced, are not dependent on arrangement and production for their appeal. There have been countless covers of most of the catalog. With the Steely Dan stuff, as well-written as it is, it is less open to reuse, it seems to me. The basic bones of the songs are not great, they become great only when fleshed out by Fagin’s and Becker’s vision and the efforts of all those hired guns.

On a more personal level, I played guitar and sang in bars for many years. I did lots of Beatles song over the years, but only one Steely Dan tune ever made it into my solo song list, the somewhat uncharacteristic Dirty Work, from the Can’t Buy A Thrill album. Their other tunes just don’t, to my ears, have enough inherent beauty or tunefulness to be sung with basic accompaniment. But they sound great as recorded!

I’ve got a friend whose musically ear I respect (although he’s a mite too cool for my tastes.) About 20 years ago I asked him who his favorite vocalist was.

Donald Fagan, says he. That croggled me somewhat, because I’d never given Fagan’s singing much thought at all, it was just sort of there.

But, you know, he sings some very intellectually complex lyrics without ever sounding stilted And David Palmer’s vocals on Dirty Work have always seemed not quite right, although I imagine he has a “better voice” than Fagan.

Is Fagan an underrated singer that would be very hard to replace? I really don’t know.

Hmm, I am just seeing this thread and need to ponder it a bit, but what is interesting at first blush is where they overlap and then diverge. They overlap in their melodic sensibility - both bands live for the hummable hook - and their basic songcraft - both take an old-school art-is-the-mastery-of-craft approach to song structure and chord progressions, but add their own twist.

But that is about the extent of their Venn diagram overlap - oh, I mean, yeah there is common instrumentation and bluesy-rocky influence, sure - but not a lot else. The Beatles are pop artists looking to take the hook and shove it forward, wrapped in harmonic pop thickness and sensibility - hook after hook after hook. Steely Dan are prog rock/jazz heads who happen to have great, commercial melodies. But the crossword-puzzle satisfaction we feel when we listen to the Dan when all of their myriad song parts lock in just so is simply a different objective than what the Beatles were trying to achieve. And the fact that Steely Dan could package it with arch, hipper-than-thou lyrics to make the poppy melodies a bit more cynical going down? Gold, Jerry.

My initial $.02

I’ve heard a lot of praise heaped on the Beatles over the years (deservedly so), but I’ve never heard it said that any member of that band could sing circles around anyone.

Give a listen to Lennon singing Twist and Shout, and for my favorite (but post-Beatles) example of how good McCartney was, listen to his live version of Maybe I’m Amazed, where he goes from a Bon Scott raw scream to a sweet ooooo in seconds. Awesome!

Just another thought and, please shoot me down, if I’m wrong. As others have said, Becker and Fagan were very “progressive” in their music. I’m a huge fan, but many of their songs take a couple of listens before you really get it.

Lennon and McCartney were much more melodic, from the perspective of simplicity. They knew how to write catchy tunes.

As far as musicianship goes, I read somewhere, and again, correct me if I’m wrong, that Becker and Fagan brought in accomplished studio musicians, such as Skunk Baxter, because they didn’t believe their technical skills were up to snuff.

Twist and Shout? Are you serious? They both had good voices. That wasn’t what made them special.

Very, very different styles of music. Very hard to compare the two.

I would say as musicians, Steely Dan are equal to Lennon/McCartney. Just a very, VERY different kind of music.

I think the Beatles had a far more varied body of work.

As a solo artist, I think Emitt Rhodes is superior to Paul McCartney (see here.)

I think Lennon’s solo work was so/so, and McCartney’s solo work was ultra-lame. George’s post-Beatles work was better than either.

Fagan’s solo work is so/so.

Yep, I’m serious about Twist and Shout. I think Lennon laid down a definitive rock vocal on that track.