I’m a big fan of Steely Dan’s music – I own all of the albums, I really liked bits of 2003’s Everything Must Go and their 2000 “comeback” album, Two Against Nature felt like two or three years had passed since Gaucho, not twenty. And that is part of Steely Dan’s charm really; the bubble the band exists in – the fact that there’s not a lot separating the ideas from their album in 2003 and their sophomore release from exactly 30 years earlier.
It is almost certainly something that works against the band too.
Dan fans will have their own favourites – and some have no interest in the post-seventies late return of Steely Dan, now touring the world to play the hits (as bands of that era do).
But theirs is a discography that sits, again in a bubble, there for discovery – ready for people to either dip in to, take one or two albums, sample a greatest hits, or work through it to understand the rewards in context of the career.
For me it’s Aja that shines the brightest – it’s also the band’s biggest seller. It’s a brave album, fearless, difficult – the sort that would never be made in today’s climate.
Donald Fagen and Walter Becker decided that they would be Steely Dan – three
albums in to the band’s career they reduced the other roles down to interchangeable session spots. Former band members continued to line up to record, but they needed to be good enough. Session greats of the era were told they weren’t good enough – Becker and Fagen might have seemed as vague as some of their lyrics in this approach, deciding almost on a whim who played and what stayed – but they had the confidence to back themselves. They had an arrogance to back the product – to concentrate on shaping the songs. A duty of care to create the best music they could make – choosing to use the best people to help them blend and bend the ingredients.
By the time of Aja the Dan sound was so significantly defined that most of its fans had no idea that almost every track on an album would feature a different guitarist, different bass player and different drummer. The task for those bassists, drummers and guitarists would be to selflessly play for the tune, ironically they would need to put across their distinct musical personality – selling themselves for the tune and for the band – and then make sure that as part of the deal their sound could be replicated, in surface feel (in terms of continuity) by whoever stepped up to play on the other tunes.
It was no issue getting a band together to play the songs live – Becker and Fagen abandoned live playing – making the album the artwork, making the versions of the songs from the record the definitive takes.
Steely Dan songs still flooded the radio – the band’s FM sound was sincerely in step with what worked – even if the lyrics were subversive to the point of being insincere, certainly ironic – the narrator detached from the story in a way that only Randy Newman could rival.
The band’s intricate compositions, so very tongue-in-chic, began to really stretch out with Aja – a seven-track LP with most songs reaching over five minutes in length. The band’s sound taking far more from jazz and pre-rock’n’roll but still including the catchy pop hooks of the earliest Steely Dan hits.
Aja opens with Black Cow, a slinky groove and dinner-jazz melody masking the dark tale. From there it’s to the eight-minute title track – famous for its drum solo, allegedly Steve Gadd sight-read it, second take. Drum solos were (and still are) very rare on pop and rock albums – in the 1970s they were reserved for half a side (or even one whole side) of a live album. They were indulgent, gratuitous, unnecessary. Listening to Aja, even now, over 30 years on, the drum solo is crucial to the song – it’s as if the smirk written in to this particular tune is the drum solo; as if Fagen and Becker wanted to subvert the norm by making a drum solo crucial, by making it part of the hook of the song. Of course Gadd played superbly, offering so many of his trademark “Gaddisms” but he still did so because Becker and Fagen said so, following their requests to the letter, note for note.
Side one concludes with Deacon Blues, again with the slinky, soft but slick groove, the wafting sax and clipped-funk guitars. I love the line, “they’ve got a name for the winners in the world/I want a name when I lose”.
Side two starts with Peg, the distinctive vocals of Michael McDonald from The Doobie Brothers blend with Fagen’s. Jay Graydon, a session guitarist, was one of seven players called in to attempt the solo for this tune. Graydon’s was the one that stuck but he was put through his paces to get the right take. To this day he says it’s the best business card he ever had, people take note if you played the right notes for Steely Dan. Many of the best players in the game, at the time, were turned away. Becker and Fagen were probably second only to Frank Zappa in the ruthless-but-rewarding bandleader stakes.
Home At Last begins with a snatch of the sort of piano intro that might have been on an Elton John album but adds in one of many great Bernard Purdie shuffles. The song is inspired by the epic poem, The Odyssey.
I Got The News is one of the more upbeat tunes but again it’s still a feeling that comes from outside of rock, filled with bounce, shuffle and soul that all come from jazz.
The record closes with Josie, it’s more a case of R’n’B than jazz – an upbeat way to go out, but again the tune masks the sardonic lyrics.
The album is filled with lyrics about theft, drugs, alcohol, infidelity and debauchery. The lyrics present flawed characters but don’t judge them (again, that was part of Randy Newman’s craft). The lyrics also tell bizarre, quirky stories; high school losers and outcasts, bored people and boring people become the stars of the songs. There’s a wry level of narration – you might occasionally get the feeling the singer is judging the motley cast and crew of his stories but you never really get the confirmation.
Aja was released when punk was breaking. It’s a million miles from The Sex Pistols and The Ramones. But it’s also a million miles from the Pink Floyd of Animals and other prog-rock indulgences. It’s also offering little in the way of nods to disco – apart from faithful renditions of some of the shuffle grooves and clipped funk beats that disco also built itself on.
It’s an album that sits out of step with many of the things that were made around it – and still sounds out of step today. Brilliantly, evocatively so. I think one of the few things released around its time that it does marry up with is Joni Mitchell’s Hejira album; another brave, soulful, literate album from a writer using gifted musicians from the jazz genre, under strict instruction to perfectly dress the tunes.
It was nice to think about Aja again after revisiting Don Breithaupt’s essay/book. Nice to go through the songs on YouTube after; to think of it as being an album that paid no attention to what was happening at the time, but could only have come from that time. And now it sounds both of that era and completely removed from it at the same time.
So, do you like Aja? Are you a Steely Dan fan? What’s your favourite song from the album? Or if you have another favourite Dan album what is it? And if you never liked them – what is it that you couldn’t dig about the sound of Steely Dan?