By the time Walter Becker released his solo debut 11 Tracks of Whack in 1994, he had already spent a number of years in the limelight as one half of Steely Dan. Despite the substantial commercial success of the group throughout the 1970s, Walter Becker always remained an enigma of sorts by comparison to longtime writing partner, Donald Fagen.
Even Donald Fagen, the sarcastic, curmudgeonly introverted mouthpiece of the act has always been exposed to an extent due to the open and connective nature of fronting a group. Walter Becker on the other hand, could only be observed staring intently at the neck of his bass or electric guitar, and contributing the occasional backing vocal before the Dan decided to call it quits as a touring act in 1974. Once the pair holed up in the studio full-time, it became even less apparent what Walter Becker was up to. Steely Dan have always been nebulous about their writing process, with the only certainty being that most every album track is a Becker/Fagen composition.
Walter Becker himself has stated that the process varies, and that each member contributes to different degrees for each song. It would likely be a fool’s errand to even attempt the process of determining which lyrics and chords were whose across the span of the group’s nine studio albums. Contributing further to the mystery was Becker’s decision to step down as the group’s bass player once they realized that Chuck Rainey would be all they’d need in the studio. While Walter Becker would continue to contribute the occasional bass track, he became more of a fixture on guitar for the band, sporting the six-string alongside esteemed soloists like Dean Parks and Larry Carlton.
Once Steely Dan called it quits following the release of 1980’s Gaucho, Walter Becker departed for Maui. Meanwhile, Donald Fagen more or less continued the band under his own name. Naturally, this left many to assume it had been Donald Fagen doing the heavy lifting in Steely Dan all along. It would be over a decade before listeners would get a clearer picture of exactly what it was that Walt brought to the table.
Walter Becker emerged from seclusion in 1993 to produce his old pal Fagen’s second solo LP, Kamakiriad, on which he contributed bass and lead guitar. Donald Fagen would return the favor for Becker’s 11 Tracks of Whack, the following year. Aside from a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it pass on vocals for Steely Dan’s debut album, 11 Tracks of Whack would be the first instance of Walter Becker inhabiting the role of lead singer.
Indeed, it is Becker’s voice that jumps out at the listener before anything else. It is worth noting that Walter Becker was just entering middle age at the time of 11 Tracks of Whack’s recording, so it is quite possible he sounded much different as a younger man.
In any case, early 90s Walter Becker presents with an affable, well-worn timbre that connects exceptionally well, despite (or perhaps due to) not being pitch-perfect 100% of the time.
One thing that 11 Tracks of Whack makes readily apparent is the well-established identity and values of the man behind its tunes. Again, Walter Becker was in his 40s when these tracks were recorded. What we’re hearing is not necessarily a man searching for his place or looking to determine what it is he believes in, but a writer with a fairly well-established view of the world.
Unlike that of most debut albums, the narrative voice driving 11 Tracks of Whack is one that is fully formed and uninterested in pandering to convention. This is abundantly clear from the commencement of the album with “Down in the Bottom,” a drum machine-driven showcase for tales of tortured angels, evil omens, and Becker’s brazenly unironic application of the word “dope” as a descriptive adjective.
The track authoritatively sets the tone of the album, not only sonically, but conceptually. A key difference in the storytelling present throughout classic Steely Dan records and that of 11 Tracks of Whack is that the former always felt more character driven, while the latter feels indubitably personal.
“I waited so long, girl, and came so far to find out you’re not always who you say you are,” Walter Becker croons on “Book of Liars.” The track, a slow-burn, second-person dialogue on domestic perfidy, is a far cry from the disengaged renderings of illicit activities of questionable characters’ as heard in standbys like “Kid Charlemagne” and “Do It Again.”
Not only does Walter Becker feel comfortable in stating his position throughout the LP, he practically asserts it throughout, seemingly taking solace in what he understands to be reality’s own partiality to his stance. This mordant assurance peppers cuts like “Hard Up Case” and “Cringemaker,” and makes for great fun in unraveling a narrative perspective utterly unprecedented in the scheme of popular music.
There’s an underlying pessimism in 11 Tracks of Whack which, when paired with an unwavering commitment to flippancy, maintains a precise sense of order throughout the album’s runtime. It is through this approach Walter Becker is able to succeed on multiple levels when tackling dark subject matter.
In less capable hands, the themes that constitute tracks like “Junkie Girl” and “Surf And Or Die” would likely be molded into heavy-handed atrocities devoid of any humor or humanity.
It is Becker’s jadedness and sharp, yet world-weary intellect which endow 11 Tracks of Whack with its personality. The contradictions of the album are not contrived, rather, they are derived directly from the man himself.
Even in “Hat Too Flat,” an inherently preposterous account of visitors from space struggling to convincingly infiltrate Earth’s communities, listeners are granted a friendly reminder of how grim a situation having the good fortune of slogging one’s life away in pursuit of the elusive American dream truly can be.
Musically, the album more or less retains Steely Dan’s primary aesthetic, that being rock-tinged jazz with r&b and traditional pop characteristics, and – in the case of 11 Tracks of Whack – an electronic sheen which, in retrospect, does more to illuminate the more primitive characteristics of the production techniques associated with the time of its recording than not.
Along with Walter Becker himself who takes on electric and bass guitar, and Donald Fagen who handles production, horn and rhythm arrangements, and keyboards, contributing musicians include (among others) Steely Dan studio vet Dean Parks on guitar and drummer Ben Perowsky who swings within an inch of his life, see “Lucky Henry.”
Walter Becker proves that he hasn’t lost a step on the six-string, taking a number of solos with his quintessential approach. His bebop informed phrasing could come off as mere noodling to those with a limited appreciation for jazz. But a quick transcription to saxophone could reveal a Walter Becker improvisation to be not all that dissimilar to a Charlie Parker improvisation.
Walter Becker even breaks out the ukulele for the Hawaiian-tinged tribute to his son – and the sole track exempt from the “whack” designation – “Little Kawai.”
Elsewhere, splashes of sonic color adorn tracks like “Girlfriend” and “My Waterloo” with a cartoon quality that deftly offset the weightiness of the album’s more solemn numbers. One such cut, “This Moody Bastard,” sees Walter Becker looking inward and airing out personal hang-ups with a tongue-in-cheek awareness that one could only expect from a member of the Steely Dan camp. Along with Fagen’s Kamakiriad released the year prior, 11 Tracks of Whack spearheaded a highly anticipated Steely Dan reunion.
Converging in the studio beginning in 1997, the two would emerge in 2000 with their acclaimed comeback album Two Against Nature, which secured several late-career Grammy Awards for the duo, including Album of the Year, Best Engineered Album – Non-Classical, Best Pop Vocal Album, and Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals for the album’s single “Cousin Dupree.”
It wouldn’t be until 2008’s Circus Money that Walter Becker would step out on his own again. But his individual musical voice had already long-since been established at this time through 11 Tracks of Whack nearly a decade and a half prior.
While casual listeners may never move past the more popular Steely Dan output, Walter Becker’s debut solo outing is a compelling exploration of one of the most unique minds popular music has yet to produce.
Walter Becker – 11 Tracks of Whack Album Review article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2022
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