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Steely Dan - Aja
THERE are few things I like more…
IN THIS PHOTO: Walter Becker and Donald Fagen in 1975/PHOTO CREDIT: Ed Caraeff/Getty Images
than sitting down and spinning a record. There are those albums that sound best when they are played on their vinyl format. I feel Steely Dan are the personification of the record and what it encompasses. Given their perfectionism and incredible musicianship; it is always worth picking up a Steely Dan L.P. and letting it do its work. I think any Steely Dan album is worth playing on vinyl - but Aja seems to be the best place to start. The mid/late-1970s was quite a productive time for Donald Fagen and Walter Becker. The songwriting geniuses released Katy Lied in 1975 and the album scored some big reviews. Some critics felt the album lacked dimensions and was a bit simple – from Steely Dan’s viewpoint anyway. I like the album and cuts such as Bad Sneakers are among their finest efforts. 1976’s The Royal Scam had Kid Charlemagne and Haitian Divorce and it was clear, four years after their debut album, Can’t Buy a Thrill, Becker and Fagen were hitting a new creative period. I feel their first couple of albums were quite loose and experimental. There was a mixture of styles and the songwriting, whilst unique and strong, was not at the peak that would arrive. I love the earliest stuff they put out and am a little ho-hum when it comes to the 1975/1976 period. The guys were transitioning their music and trying out new sounds but, to me, everything came together by 1977’s Aja.
The record was one of the last Becker and Fagen made before they took a hiatus – 1980’s Gaucho was the last – and could not be seen as one-dimensional and forgettable. A lot of journalists felt Steely Dan were great but the albums didn’t necessarily resonate long-term. I feel there is a distinction between records like Pretzel Logic and Katy Lied. At every stage of their career, Steely Dan were crafting these immaculate songs and you could feel how much effort was being put in. Maybe albums like Katy Lied and The Royal Scam had a couple of well-known hits but Aja was that moment of genius arrived. If previous records had some loose edges and some of the songs could be seen as simple; Steely Dan ensured Aja would not pass anyone by. This was the moment they truly shifted that rather loose and eclectic debut. Aja is a complex and intricate album where every song is honed, crafted and shows sweat. Becker and Fagen were spending so much time in the studio and worked with a rotation of musicians. Auditions were held and the songwriters were not happy until they had the sound exactly as they wanted. The reason I wanted to focus on Aja is because it is that mix of simple and complex.
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By that, I mean the songs all have that Jazz-Rock sound and it has a distinct template. The songs, however, are so rich and dripping with workmanship. You cannot listen to the songs and feel uninvolved and detached. Every single track tells part of a story and you immerse yourself in every note. Released through ABC Records; Aja became the best-selling album from Steely Dan and there are around forty musicians involved. Becker and Fagen wanted to push their art more and experimented with a combination of different session players. Aja has sold over five-million copies and many critics have put it in their all-time favourite albums category. It is easy to see why the album was popular at the time and sold so well. Jazz-Rock was a staple of the 1970s and Steely Dan perfectly bridged Rock/Pop chisel with the more casual and slumming Jazz. Those who followed Steely Dan from the start would have noticed, by Aja, the change from the multi-genre style to a more calculated blend of Jazz and Rock textures. The sarcastic, cynical and witty lyrics of their previous albums remained by the music was the biggest shift. Those who wanted something easy on the mind and free-flowing would have been frustrated by the sheer intellect, musicianship and passion injected in their sixth studio record.
I remember watching the Classic Albums series that focused on Aja. To see its creators dissect songs and explain their process brings you closer to the production. One gets a song-by-song investigation and people who appeared on the album, including Michael McDonald, talked about their experiences. Rather than put out an album with a dozen songs that are comparatively sharp and there is a broad range of sounds; Aja is a seven-track album that takes its time to unfold and has so many layers. To be fair; not all of the tracks on the album are long – two of the tracks are under five minutes and none of the cuts are as long as eight minutes. Look at each of the sides and you get interesting stories and narratives. I stated how there was a consistency but I prefer the second-side and its tales. Peg is a perfect opener that features those creamy and stunning vocals from Michael McDonald. You get layers of harmonies and expressions from the singer and it adds another aspect to the more caustic and distinct vocals of Donald Fagen. Peg, which looks at a movie heroine and her break, is a fantastic song that gets you moving, kicking your feet and singing along. The music here is perhaps at its loosest and least fireworks-like. I mean it has complexities and contours but it is more akin to the breezier and more hip-swaying numbers we would have heard on Pretzel Logic (1974).
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Josie closes the album and seems like a perfect bookmark to Peg. Both look at central heroines but both are very different beasts. The former is that try-hard and hopeful movie queen whereas the latter is a more rebellious and 1970s-set icon that is back in the neighbourhood. The music, too, has a similarity in terms of its playfulness. Although Josie does not have Michael McDonald lend his croon; the story and images are incredible. The “pride of the neighbourhood” is getting scooters rolling and people flocking to the beach. It is a fantastic number that shows, even at their finest and more ambitious; Donald Fagen and Walter Becker could write something catchy and accessible. In fact, the second-side is a more open and ‘punchy’ than the more multi-part and epic tracks on the opening half. We often look at the closing songs of Aja and forget Home at Last and I Got the News. Neither track was released as a single and, by many, they are viewed as lesser numbers. I feel this is wrong. Home at Last is deceptively simple in sound. You listen to it and notice how much is working away. I love the interplay of the guitar and horns. There is a distinct groove and it plays on the cooler style of Jazz. Those who know Jazz better than me can differentiate between the songs on Aja.
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Whereas songs such as Aja and Deacon Blues are more experimental and suite-like; you can hear that assimilation of Rock and Jazz in Home at Last as it creates a taut and sexy blend. I Got the News is, perhaps, one of the most addictive and sassy songs Steely Dan have written. Among all the serious study and brilliantly honed songs; I Got the News, again, has a freedom and looseness. Even when they are relaxed and a bit more cool-flowing, you can still hear all that incredible music and colours bursting forth. I feel these songs get overlooked and should be ranked among the best of Aja. To me, Home at Last and I Got the News are stronger than songs like Black Cow and Aja. Conventional wisdom and reviews would disagree but that is the way I feel! Both are very different tracks but Aja’s title offering is the definition of the experimental and fastidious nature that would define the record. It is largely free of vocals – there are some but it is more about music – and it is almost spiritual. You are caught in this big production and story that seems to focus on the Asian heroine.
I think Steel Dan said the album was named for a Korean woman who married the brother of one of their high-school friends. Even through the cover is of a Japanese model (Sayoko Yamaguchi); you picture this anonymous Korean heroine and her life. It is an odd thing. You feel like you know this woman but the song sort of takes you in a new direction. I like how the song moves through phases but, in my view, I would like to have heard more of Donald Fagen and his voice – it is busy with sounds and moves but needs more verbal input to give it a proper hit. Maybe I am wrong but I still really like the song. Los Angeles played a big role in Aja and it was definitely handy when it came to having musicians close-by. GQ, when looking at the album back in 2014, talked about Fagen and Becker being New Yorkers relocated to Los Angeles:
“At the time of Aja, Fagen and Becker were New Yorkers on location in LA, and although they revelled in the recording facilities and the abundance of great musicians, seemingly on tap - they spent their days getting studio tans as opposed to any other kind - they found the city faintly ridiculous. "LA was certainly a lot of laughs," says Fagen. "Neither of us really liked it, because we just weren't LA-type people. We called it Planet Stupid. Nobody seemed to understand us there." "Becker and Fagen are interesting characters, sort of isolationists by nature," said one of their session musicians at the time. "They live in these houses in Malibu, not near anybody, and I have a feeling LA helps them keep their music going on a certain level - they're almost laughing at the people in their songs”.
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I will end the piece by looking at the standout song from Aja – and my favourite song ever – and but it is interesting seeing how the record has endured and the effect it has had on people. Variety investigated Aja last year (to celebrate its fortieth anniversary) and concentrated on its sophistication, polish and work-rate;
“Aja,” Fagen and Becker’s sixth LP, only amplified the carping. It was a work of gleaming surfaces, buffed to a high gloss by the band’s longtime producer Gary Katz and an ultimately Grammy-winning team of engineers. Its reflected light blinded the eye to what lay beneath.
Its seven songs burst with sophisticated changes, exquisitely played by such jazz luminaries as saxophonist Wayne Shorter and keyboardist-vibraphonist Victor Feldman (both graduates of Miles Davis’ ‘60s bands) and session pros like bassist Chuck Rainey, drummers Steve Gadd, Jim Keltner and Bernard Purdie, saxophonists Jim Horn and Plas Johnson, pianist Paul Griffin and guitarists Larry Carlton and Lee Ritenour.
For Fagen and Becker, the beautifully tooled music they made with their studio cohorts served as the ultimate alienation effect. The true import of their work, which addressed forbidden impulses that moved to the edge of crime and frequently beyond, was always garbed in satiny elegance; its sardonic and horrific essence was marketed as the purest ear candy.
To this day, “Aja” is a thing of musical beauty with a hard-edged heart, and a consummate act of creative sleight-of-hand”.
Many have tried to capture the essence of Aja and what defined Steely Dan. So much life and literature goes into their work; the studio perfectionism made the songs impossible to top and fault; the songs, by and large, concentrated on those a little alienated and unusual – not your conventional heroes and attractive leads. This article talked about Steely Dan’s progression and ethos and how, by Aja, they had reached the apex of what made them them:
“The ambition of the music and their (Crowe’s words) “heinous” studio antics were not the sole, or perhaps even the main reason, for Steely Dan’s lasting reputation as curmudgeons. The narrators of their songs were creeps. On early Dan albums, Fagen and Becker spun autobiographical yarns about intellectually overzealous young men who were bitter beyond their years, both sending up and romanticizing their youthful steady diet of Beat literature, low-grade weed, and worn-out Sonny Rollins LPs. On Aja, those bad and sad men were grown up into shadowy, morose personalities, their faces averted like the lonely guy at the counter in Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks. The album solidified Steely Dan’s obsession with what Fagen would call a “culture of losers” in earnest, with Deacon as the self-appointed superhero of the bunch.
It’s easy to scoff at the notion of Steely Dan becoming a hip-or-hipster phenomenon, in addition to the band your dad, one of his brothers, or your high-school jazz band teacher staunchly defended to you throughout your less-diplomatic childhood. But their music was always designed for the self-consciously cool. Walter and Donald practically defined the term “hipster” in its original usage: bored, precocious suburban kids who scoured the dial for good NYC jazz radio, subscribed to Downbeat, then went on to read Kerouac, high as hell, at college upstate. Their music was steeped in the obsessions of their early life, yet their holier-than-thou-ness manifested in their music in a way that somehow connected to people. The public hung on even when it seemed like the two of them were deliberately trying to shake them: with Aja, the stakes were highest, the chords were strangest, and their heads were buried deepest in the sand”.
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If Gaucho (1980) was their last album by a bit of a rest; Donald Fagen and Walter Becker left their greatest song until very near the end. Deacon Blues ends the first-side of Aja and is Steely Dan’s defining statement. It is the tale of a helpless and hopeful loser who plays the saxophone as he feels; coming out at night and crawling like a suburban lizard. He has hope that things are going to be great and, perhaps, has too much self-confidence. So many of Steely Dan’s greatest songs assess losers and those who unlike what you will hear in most Pop songs. I identify the song in many different ways. Maybe it is the way the unnamed hero hopes things will turn and he doesn’t care about conventional and what he is supposed to do. This loveable protagonist is not an expert Jazz saxophonist but it doesn’t matter – he is someone you can pine for and let him go about his way. Unlike Aja’s title-track; Deacon Blues has enough story and narrative but also boasts a terrific score. I am fascinated by the song from the very first notes! The teasing percussion and intriguing notes welcome you in before you follow this story. In this article; it explores the song and what it is inspired by:
“Many people have assumed the song is about a guy in the suburbs who ditches his life to become a musician. In truth, I’m not sure the guy actually achieves his dream. He might not even play the horn. It’s the fantasy life of a suburban guy from a certain subculture. Many of our songs are journalistic. But this one was more autobiographical, about our own dreams when we were growing up in different suburban communities—me in New Jersey and Walter in Westchester County…”
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“Mr. Becker: The protagonist in “Deacon Blues” is a triple-L loser—an L-L-L Loser. It’s not so much about a guy who achieves his dream but about a broken dream of a broken man living a broken life.
Mr. Fagen: The concept of the “expanding man” that opens the song [“This is the day of the expanding man / That shape is my shade there where I used to stand”] may have been inspired by Alfred Bester’s “The Demolished Man.” Walter and I were major sci-fi fans. The guy in the song imagines himself ascending the levels of evolution, “expanding” his mind, his spiritual possibilities and his options in life.
Mr. Becker: His personal history didn’t look like much so we allowed him to explode and provided him with a map for some kind of future.
Mr. Fagen: Say a guy is living at home at his parents’ house in suburbia. One day, when he’s 31, he wakes up and decides he wants to change the way he struts his stuff”.
It is a wondrous song where all these magnificent musicians come together and deliver something unbeatable! I know Becker and Fagen went to great lengths to get the sounds correct and ensure what they conceived sounded perfect. It is a biblical and profound song from a band/duo who were hitting their peak. Whilst it is the clear standout from Aja, I do not think it overshadows everything and, in fact, there are plenty more treats on the record to get you fascinated. Listen to an incredible album that is over forty years old but sounds fresh and reveals new layers. I am going to return to it now and, if you are new, ensure you involve yourself in an album that is unique and…
IN THIS PHOTO: Walter Becker and Donald Fagen in 1977/PHOTO CREDIT: Henry Diltz