Remembering Steely Dan’s ‘Aja’ 40 Years Later

“These people are too fancy, they’re too sophisticated,” William S. Burroughs said of Steely Dan in 1977. “They’re doing too many things at once in a song.” Burroughs, who had no personal connection to the band, had been asked to comment on Aja, Steely Dan’s new record, because co-founder Walter Becker and Donald Fagen had named themselves after “Steely Dan III from Yokohama,” the surreal dildo featured in Burroughs’ most notorious novel Naked Lunch. His comment embodied a common-man criticism made about Steely Dan by their detractors: The unit, who stated their claim in the pop sphere with clean, blues-steeped singles like 1972’s “Reelin’ in the Years” and “Do It Again,” had gradually but consistently ceased to resemble a meat-and-potatoes rock band, instead spiraling off into groovier, jazz-inspired pop experimentalism.

The effect heightened as Fagen and Becker systematically fired all of their band’s other members, and replaced them with industry-standard jazz, soul, and blues musicians. They stopped touring; the songs’ narratives and jokes became more acidic and obscure. Rolling Stone’s review of 1976’s sprawling, sinister The Royal Scam summarized the feelings of the band’s skeptics and newfound admirers alike, that they would “eventually produce the Finnegan’s Wake of rock.” On the day Aja came out, Walter Becker told Cameron Crowe that he was empathetic toward the concerns, but also uninterested in compromise: “These days most pop critics, you know, are mainly interested in the amount of energy that is…obvious on the record. People who are mainly Rolling Stones fans and people who like punk rock, stuff like that… a lot of them aren’t interested at all in what we have to do.”

Instead of the Rolling Stones or punk rock, Aja was deliberately intellectualist pop music that appealed easily to music-school types and jazz fans–chops-y rock music that helped “legitimize” the genre. Becker and Fagen’s songs, charted out across six or seven sheets normally, prized and necessitated technical musicianship. They used horns as expressive, exalted instruments in rock songs, not just padding or blunt, skronking deus ex machinas. But the record’s appeal extended well beyond the ranks of any subgenre of snobs. Standard-issue rock listeners, after all, indulged in elaborate, preciously-conceived, and strange things in the 1970s, a decade which yielded four Top 10 albums for Emerson, Lake, and Palmer.

40 years later, Aja is still as Steely Dan’s commercial triumph. It was their only record to sell over a million copies, spawned three Top 40 singles—”Peg” hit No. 11—and stayed on the charts for well over a year, peaking at No. 3. In 1977, the music industry was at the apex of LP sales and mammoth recording budgets. In the year-and-a-half Fagen and Becker spent making Aja, the Dan would push their studio expenses into the hundreds of thousands, all while not playing live. On its 20th anniversary, Becker would chalk Aja’s success over past Steely Dan ventures up to the right-place-right-time factor: “That was a particular time when people were just selling lots of records.” They assumed, he said, that “‘we’re gonna sell three times as many records as we would have two years before.’”

To just chalk it up to a general market uptick, though, would be to sell the unique, subversive appeal of the re-minted Dan of Aja way short. Today, Aja still stands as the crucial microcosm of Becker and Fagen’s artistry, and as one of the most inventive blockbuster rock albums of its decade.

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During the making of Aja, the Dan were well-settled into retirement from live performance. Fans had gotten used to the band’s new, faceless new image. Over the months they spent fashioning the album, a suite of 7 songs about lust, wanderlust, delusions, and the destructive effects of American Dream, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker methodically reimagined the sound of their studio-assembled ensemble. It was not a dramatic repositioning. Steely Dan had been mostly made up of session musicians since 1974’s Katy Lied, and their songs had already featured plenty of weird chords and prodigious horn solos. But there was nothing like a big, rollicking rock’n’roll single on Aja: no “Kid Charlemagne,” no “My Old School,” and certainly no fucking “Reelin’ in the Years.” Guitars provided auxiliary punctuation and effects-less solos rather than the brunt of the song; a stew of acoustic piano and electric keyboards, reminiscent of Miles Davis’ In a Silent Way, were at the warm center of the mix. Aja’s sound was a direct offshoot from jazz and fusion, steeped in its harmonic language, as well as that of turn-of-the-century modernist classical music (Debussy and Stravinsky, especially).

The particular musical syntax on Aja was in many ways uniquely Dan’s, however, the misbegotten result of Becker and Fagen’s own self-taught musical education. Their chordal sense was central to the issue: The complex changes left the average rock listeners’ ear out in the cold, pointing toward whole new keys for choruses and away from easy resolution. Moments like “I run to you” on Aja’s title track leave one totally adrift for clues as to where the song will move; elsewhere, there are deceptive instrumental flourishes, like the mystical Rhodes-and-guitar fanfare that introduces “Deacon Blues.” Fagen and Becker voiced chords so unusually that theory-heads refer to a specific “Steely Dan chord” (or “mu major chord”): a substitution for the typical primary (or tonic) chord featuring an added 9th rubbing up against the major 3rd. Harmonies like these pop up everywhere on Aja, imbuing its songs with sophisticated, decidedly un-rock’n’roll atmosphere.

But Becker and Fagen also borrowed plenty from contemporary pop music, despite their general dismissiveness of it. Plenty of why Aja was so successful–and spawned actual hit singles–came from its emulation of the backbone of American R&B and soul of the time. They hired players that had defined the sound of records by James Brown, Aretha Franklin, and Quincy Jones, as well as virtuoso jazz soloists (Larry Carlton, Victor Feldman, saxophone luminary and Miles/Weather Report alum Wayne Shorter). The most time-consuming sessions would be devoted to the lock-groove-based tunes, the ones that wouldn’t be too out-of-place next to disco on a playlist: “Peg,” the warped blues of “Josie,” the lascivious “I Got the News.” Fagen and Becker’s obsession with precision backbeats would become a more empirically insane compulsion during the more troubled sessions for 1980’s Gaucho, with some interference from a custom-designed drum machine called “Wendel.”

Decades later, Becker admitted just how much of this had to do with disco. “They had all these records that were just whack-whack, so perfect, the beat never fluctuated, and we didn’t see why we couldn’t have that too, except playing this incredibly complicated music, and the drummer would go and play a great fill or something and come exactly back at the perfect beat at the same tempo, you know?” he told GQ UK in 2014. “It seemed like a good idea.”

Much gets made of how obsessively Fagen and Becker would plot parts for musicians, but many of Aja’s best and most famous were defined by their players’ independent innovations. As bass player Chuck Rainey recalled in the Steely Dan biography Reelin’ in the Years, Fagen and Becker had specifically told him not to slap his bass during the sessions for “Peg.” Rainey responded by turning his back to the control room and slapping away. Fagen and Becker liked the sound, despite their prejudices, and Rainey went on to slap again on “Josie.”

Then there was Bernard Purdie, one of soul music’s most inimitable drum stylists, who told the story of taking control of the direction of the recording of “Home at Last” himself in the Classic Albums episode on Aja. “They already told me that they didn’t want a shuffle. They didn’t want the Motown, they didn’t want the Chicago,” Purdie explained. “But they weren’t sure how and what they wanted, but they did want halftime. And I said ‘Fine, let me do the Purdie Shuffle.’” It was precisely what Fagen and Becker hadn’t asked for, until they heard it. Purdie would go on to use the same beat on one of the Dan’s greatest singles, Gaucho’s “Babylon Sisters.”

Meanwhile, drum prodigy Steve Gadd foiled the duo’s plans for the day by running down the intricate title track of Aja in just one take. For the most muso-focused listener, his epic, virtuosic solo in the instrumental middle of the song is the beating heart of the album, layered over with chunky horn charts from arranger Tom Scott and alien synthesizer atmosphere (an anomaly for a Becker/Fagen recording at the time.)

Like their hero Duke Ellington, Fagen and Becker needed the identity of individual soloists to create their finished canvas, but within quite specific and refined structural limits. The duo was not as good with people as Ellington, but they didn’t have to be. From the safety of the studio booth, they could just say “try it again” as much as they needed, and scrap the solos they didn’t like after the fact. According to Reelin’ in the Years, the band’s career-long producer Gary Katz would break the disappointment to the players by talking to them about baseball, before dropping the news that their solo—which the person had spent hours trying to hammer out—would not make the record. When it came to the prospect planning a live tour behind Aja, they got as far as rehearsals, but ultimately backed down.

“We had 4,000 dollars worth of musicians in the room, guys who wouldn’t go out on the road for Miles Davis, literally, and they were committed to doing this,” Fagen explained. “And we both left the room together and said, ‘What do you say, you wanna can it?’ And we both said ‘Yeah’ without thinking twice.”

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.

They’d implanted the seeds before, of course. Darker than anything on Aja was the child molester singing to his abducted love on Katy Lied’s “Everyone’s Gone to the Movies,” the jealous and abusive husband of The Royal Scam’s “Everything You Did,” or the blues narration on “Pretzel Logic,” which may or may not be delivered by Adolf Hitler, aspiring to a career in show business. But these were the bleakest moments of the Dan compendium. Fagen and Becker generally favored depressing scenes that they also thought were funny, starring perverts, junkies, pretentious little snits, dilettantes, and macho-man nightmares tripping over themselves to justify their compulsions. 

“The sensibility of [our] lyrics, which seemed to fall somewhere between Tom Lehrer and Pale Fire, really cracked us up,” Fagen would write in his 2013 memoir Eminent Hipsters. Unlike similarly cynical lyricists of the time who loved unpacking Hollywood’s heart of darkness–Joni Mitchell on The Hissing of Summer Lawns, Warren Zevon on Excitable Boy, Randy Newman on Little Criminals–the stories of Fagen and Becker’s narrators were always wryly vague. It’s possible that “Home at Last” is just an extended Odyssey metaphor, and that “Aja” is a romantic fantasy in the mind of a patient in some Magic-Mountain-like mental hospital. The abstract verses leave lots of room for speculation: “Up on the hill, they’ve got time to burn/There’s no return/Double helix in the sky tonight/Throw out the hardware, let’s do it right.” Is the double helix a constellation–a hallucination of floating DNA? Does “hardware” mean the needle, spoon, and flame? A gun?

“We’re just trying to use what fits. It’s the exact opposite of the New York Times, where it’s ‘All The News That’s Fit To Print,’” Becker said in a 1981 interview with Musician Magazine. “Here, we print what will fit. Like you say, it’s not even a short story, hardly a paragraph, so the story doesn’t always fit. If you get – as opposed to the Kernel of the thought—the husk of the thought, maybe you can figure out what kind of story is there.”

There was plenty of love and passion in Aja’s songs, but it was usually expressed by the wrong people about the wrong things. That impression would only be magnified on the record’s sleazier sequel, which shoved the listener’s face up into the libido and cravings of “Josie” and “I Got the News.” On Gaucho, it was coke, heroin, good tequila, dirty dancers from some American Babylon (Southern California or anywhere), girls that were too young for them–anything bad. To make that record, Becker and Walter left Malibu for New York, where the even-longer process of stringing together Gaucho took place in the midst of intermittent creative dry spells and Becker’s mounting drug problems.

Becker and Fagen would always express their partiality to NYC culture, as a relief to the crooked, deviant-and-phony-filled L.A. (“Planet Stupid,” they called it) they lit into on The Royal Scam“New York is the depository for misfit Americans,” Fagen told Musician. “There’s a reason that we’re here. And why we don’t live in Cincinnati.” But adjusting to the atmosphere, and assuming the move would fix their problems (among them, Walter Becker’s serious drug addiction) rather than start new ones, was a miscalculation. After the album was finished, Fagen mocked the notion of any “perfect place” for an artist to write or be inspired.

[It] reminds me of The Shining,” he continued, “where ole’ Jack Nicholson goes into the mountains, to a big empty hotel to write his novel, to write in peace. And he ends up typing the same sentence over and over. He’s removed himself.” A few months later, Steely Dan wouldn’t exist anymore.

Aja was one of the only records Becker and Fagen ever made that they would speak about with real pride. (Less than a year after Gaucho’s release, they would characterize it as a “sideways” move; Fagen admitted, “It’s possible that we took a few steps backward with this album.”) Today, Aja remains the extreme of their modernistic progress, a place they could not effectively move forward from or visit again, except when running down its songs on reunion tours two decades later.

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The Village Voice’s Robert Christgau called certain moments of Aja “too fucking tasty” for his liking, in what was a largely positive review. Future generations would grapple with the same problem. The slickness of the record, deemed too high-faluting and sterile, became grounds for a lasting aesthetic grudge against the Dan and the rest of their broader “soft rock” ilk. When Fagen and Becker resurfaced at the turn-of-the-millennium with Two Against Nature, their first album of new material since Gaucho, the reception was certainly mixed. Recalling the moment when fellow ‘70s-famous anomaly Jethro Tull beat out Metallica for Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance in 1989, the 2001 Grammys made “Steely Dan” into a punchline among hipper music fans. Angry young men, like Walter and Donald themselves once were, derided them for being deemed superior to Kid A, Midnite Vultures, and The Marshall Mathers LP by the old farts at the Academy.

If you’re a regular Pitchfork reader… why are you even curious about Steely Dan in 2000?!” that site’s review of the album read, before building to a fiery conclusion: “People fought and died so our generation could listen to something better than Steely Dan.” A little over five years later, one of the most offensive cultural jokes in a Hollywood comedy was put to screen: In Knocked Up, Seth Rogen, positioned loosely as the hero of the moment, defies the music-snobbish Paul Rudd character by declaring that Steely Dan’s music “gargles [his] balls.”

The anti-Dan chorus is losing voices as indie-rock and pop alike become increasingly redolent of music of their time period. (Fellow controversial figures Phil Collins and Michael McDonald have also seen warmer reappraisals.) When Walter Becker passed away just a few weeks ago, the accolades about his songwriting and guitar stylings came from all corners of the music industry, from hard-rock stylists (Slash) to the producers of the disco records at which Becker once quietly marveled (Nile Rodgers) to the kind of strummy, over-earnest singer-songwriters Fagen and Becker would despise (Ryan Adams).

In a recent Rolling Stone interview about former Dan collaborator and Becker’s good friend Michael McDonald’s new album, bassist and singer-songwriter Thundercat summarized a few decades of skeptical reception of Dan-esque music: “People in general are corny, and the way they process stuff is as such. Screw that: There’s trolling, and then there’s making art. In reality, what was happening with the music [during the period when McDonald’s music was popular] was that it was progressing.” Marcus Miller, jazz and R&B bass virtuoso and one of Thundercat’s clear forefathers, echoed the sentiment. “I would hear people react weirdly to Steely Dan and groups like that,” he said. “As long as it feels good, what do you care if there’s a lot of chords in there that you don’t understand? But some people need to prove how down they are with how raw the music is.”

Eventually, the challenge for the burgeoning, young Steely Dan listener becomes getting past the central question of “How was this ever popular?” to “Why isn’t there more music like this?” More people are making that leap, and more musicians are attempting to sound a little more like Aja. You can now expect Dan shoutouts from many indie bands espousing their favorite music: Mac DeMarco’s Soundtrack of My Life playlist on Spotify closes with “Peg”; Unknown Mortal Orchestra once made a listicle of his favorite Dan tunes. Walter Becker, when forced to listen by a Milwaukee reporter, once said Grizzly Bear was “horrible” and said he should “drop science” on them, but that didn’t stop Dan Rossen from admitting to a pronounced Dan influence on his songwriting for his band’s most recent album. Mark Ronson is a fan too, and hears a bit of Fagen and Becker in Daft Punk and Ariel Pink.

Fagen himself, now the sole face of Steely Dan, seems to be having none of it. “After hearing a few different bands through the open door, I noticed that many of them sounded a lot like the folk rock bands of the Sixties that were born in the wake of Bob Dylan’s electric switchover, only louder and dumber,” he wrote in one of his Coachella diary entries for Rolling Stone, in an apparent kiss-off to contemporary indie rock. In another section, he allowed that “at least hip-hop, which is tough for me to listen to, has got a few genuine eccentrics with street energy and something to say.

The line seems, finally, like a conditional acceptance of one of the genres that has most consistently paid tribute to his band’s trademark sound. De La Soul made Aja cool again in the 1980s, when no one else was, with the prominent “Peg” sample in “Eye Know” (how Ronson found the Dan, apparently). A decade later, Lord Tariq and Peter Gunz would hit the upper echelon of the pop charts with an unadorned “Black Cow” flip. Fagen and Becker completely misunderstood the whole enterprise, claiming full publishing rights on Tariq and Gunz’s track (Gunz would call it a “stick up”) and snarkily rapping “Uptown, baby/uptown, baby” in interviews for years. The two had softened a bit by 2006, offering their gruff blessing to Kanye’s repurposing of The Royal Scam’s “Kid Charlemagne.”

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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