On Steely Dan and lab management

As a scientist and a music lover, I see parallels in the process of doing science and in making music. They’re both creative endeavours after all.

The lab’s latest paper is like an album release. The authors of the paper are like the players in the band. See, the analogy works quite well.

So what is the role of the PI? Arguably they are the equivalent of the band’s manager, cutting deals to get more studio time (i.e. writing funding proposals). When I think about the role of the PI, Steely Dan spring to mind.

Donald Fagen and Walter Becker in the studio (from: http://walterbecker.com/img/gallery/galleryB.jpg)

For those that don’t know, Steely Dan were essentially a two-person team supported by a revolving cast of the finest session musicians. Songwriters Donald Fagen and Walter Becker masterminded the operation, and could be considered collectively to have the PI role. They played on the records (in the way that some PIs still actively contribute to their lab’s papers) but everything else was done by session players. Steely Dan’s ever-changing personnel is similar to running a research group. OK, the players on Steely Dan records just dropped in for a day or two to record specific parts, while a typical scientist joins the lab for months or years. But it’s the same principle.

The interesting question is: how do you get the best out of these talented people that you’ve assembled?

I realised that – as fantastic as those Steely Dan albums are – Don and Walt would be terrible PIs.

“On that session, Donald and Walter hardly said a word to me,” says the former Brecker Brothers and Weather Update member. “Almost nothing! I just played what I felt was right for the tune. I thought for certain that they were going to tell me to do something else. After a while, I asked Elliot Scheiner, ‘Am I playing anything usable?’ He answered, ‘Yes, of course, they love what you’re doing. Otherwise, you would have heard something.”

Guitarist Steve Khan quoted in Don Breithaupt’s 33 1/3 book on Steely Dan’s Aja (Bloomsbury)

Evidently communication wasn’t their strongest suit. Becker and Fagen were by all accounts shy and reclusive.

Most lab members need some feedback on how they are doing. How much varies from person to person, but without feedback, how else are they supposed to know how they are getting on?

Contrast the Becker and Fagen approach with that of Brian Wilson, who had a similar songwriter/performer/PI role in The Beach Boys. Wilson would go on to the studio floor and tell Carole Kaye exactly how to pluck the bass or whatever. Somewhere in-between is probably best, giving the personnel space to develop, with some periodic intervention.

The “Peg” guitar solo

The apocryphal Steely Dan studio tale concerns the guitar solo on Peg, from their Aja LP. Guitarist after guitarist was brought in to record what should have been a straightforward solo. Becker and Fagen were not happy. They literally lost track of how many people tried out for just four bars of this track (Wikipedia says seven). Eventually Jay Graydon saved the day with an incendiary piece of guitarwork that not only saved the track but made his career as a session legend. Again, this would be no way to run a research group. With only one person’s contributions making it into the paper, and everyone else’s ending up in the wastebin.

Both the lack of communication and the willingness to burn through people to get results is a kind of “old school” approach to running a group, musical or scientific. And in the past, such poor person-management was tolerated.

No-one cares whether the manager is riding his bench players too hard when the team is winning.

Don Breithaupt, Steely Dan’s Aja (Bloomsbury)

So is that it then? To get the best out of creative people we must treat them badly? Of course the answer is no.


The answer was no even for Steely Dan back in the 1970s. You see Becker and Fagen had a producer, Gary Katz. In Breithaupt’s book about Aja, he describes how Katz could “talk sports” and play a “rummy betting game called Tonk” which was popular with many of the session musicians. It was Katz that did much of the communication and person-management with the players. This role of conduit between talented musicians and standoffish genius songwriters was likely essential to Steely Dan’s success.

In our analogy then, the producer probably has the closest role to that of PI. Especially if they do songwriting and performing as well. The best all-rounder that I can think of is Stephen Street’s role while producing Morrissey’s Viva Hate LP. He wrote the music (Morrissey, of course, wrote the words) and he played on many of the tracks. The results were simply outstanding. Listen to “Sister, I’m a Poet”, B-side of Everyday is Like Sunday and marvel at Street’s bass playing.

In a recent interview with the BBC, Street said of the role of producer

It’s as much about managing egos as recording sounds

Stephen Street

The egos in a typical research group are not (typically) huge or fragile, but it’s clear that good person-management is essential to harness the full creativity of any group, whether it is musical or scientific.

No song title/post title confluence this time, since the post was about both music and science.