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Steely Dan’s Aja

1,222 words

Steely Dan is a band composed of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen. Their biggest hits have a kind of eternal life, anthems that grace barbecues, bars, and band jams for their simultaneously irreverent, yet wholesome outlook on American culture. This is perhaps best expressed in the group’s own name — a reference to the steam-powered dildo in Burroughs’ Naked Lunch — and curious lyricism that runs the gamut from odes to festivals or tales of drunk driving.

Steely Dan, I would argue, is less of a “band” in the sense that we think of one in the West. Steely Dan was actually surprisingly non “band-like” for their time period, in which the trappings of fame increasingly began to focus on the personalities of band members and their stage presence as a kind of celebrity unto itself. No, Steely Dan as Becker and Fagen is more of a compositional outlet, an idea. Criticism has been leveled against the two for their habit of hiring small armies of session musicians to perform their work in the studio and enrolling a similarly motley crew of touring musicians to recreate their work on the stage, a supposed sign of being ingenuine in the heyday of band culture. Their studio antics, slick experimentation, and refusal to be rockstars made them anti-heroes of their day, a rebel status that lends them sustained appeal.

But is this really inauthentic? If anything, such a situation reminds me more of famous composers of yesteryear, who were never expected to perform their own pieces, nor were those who recreated them considered original artists. Becker and Fagen are men of ideas and great musical talent who played the studio and their session musicians like instruments themselves. Their ability to organize men and produce music in-studio shines with equal radiance as their musical talent does.

Aja, released in 1977, is another entry in this Dan tradition. Take the list of personnel they enlisted for the album:

  • Victor Feldman — Fender Rhodes (1, 3, 7), vibraphone (5, 6), piano (5, 6), percussion (2, 4)
  • Joe Sample — Fender Rhodes (2), clavinet (1)
  • Paul Griffin — Fender Rhodes (4), backing vocals (4)
  • Michael Omartian — piano (2)
  • Don Grolnick — clavinet (4)
  • Larry Carlton — guitar (1, 2, 3, 5, 7), guitar solo (6)
  • Lee Ritenour — guitar (3)
  • Dean Parks — guitar (3, 6, 7)
  • Steve Khan — guitar (4)
  • Denny Dias — guitar (2)
  • Paul Humphrey — drums (1)
  • Rick Marotta — drums (4)
  • Ed Greene — drums (6)
  • Steve Gadd — drums (2)
  • Bernard Purdie — drums (3, 5)
  • Jay Graydon — guitar solo (4)
  • Chuck Rainey — bass guitar (all but track 3)
  • Jim Keltner — drums, percussion (7)
  • Gary Coleman — percussion (4)
  • Tom Scott — tenor saxophone (1), Lyricon (4), horn arrangements
  • Wayne Shorter — tenor saxophone (2)
  • Pete Christlieb — tenor saxophone (3)
  • Jim Horn, Bill Perkins, Plas Johnson, Jackie Kelso — saxophone, flute
  • Chuck Findley, Lou McCreary, Dick Hyde — brass
  • Michael McDonald (4, 6), Timothy B. Schmit (2, 5, 7), Clydie King (1, 3, 6), Sherlie Matthews (1, 3, 6), Venetta Fields (1, 3, 6), Rebecca Louis (1, 6) — backing vocals

You could sack a town with a crew that big!

You can buy The World in Flames: The Shorter Writings of Francis Parker Yockey here.

Aside from the creative advantages that such an arrangement affords, the band’s studio prowess is unmatched from any other rock-forward group of the era. Aja makes for a fantastic test recording; its production is positively immaculate. One can get an immediate sense for how well your headphones are working with the first bass slides that open up “Black Cow.” Aja’s crystalline master quality and demanding studio trickery landed it the award for Best Engineered Recording at the 1977 Grammys.

Aside from the band’s anti-band status, Steely Dan incorporates another sizeable element into their repertoire: their wealth of cultural touchstones and historical references wrapped in a kind of sincere Americana that could only be accomplished by the band’s healthy wink of irony. The Oddysean open road of “Home at Last” fits perfectly alongside the content loserdom of “Deacon Blues,” a track that acknowledges the sillier and darker sides of American life, but decides that they’re just as worthy of celebration as anything else. The patchwork of songs on this album are all about very personal experiences, a slice-of-life perspective that sends a compelling, and heartwarming message: all of these vignettes fit as parts into a fantastic whole.

Despite the great deal of influences and sentiments that went into making Aja whole, the album never overwhelms, as is frequently a risk for jazz-influenced albums. At times, in fact, Aja feels remarkably sparse, such as in the clean plucks of the aforementioned “Black Cow,” in the simple, yet energetic backbone of “Peg,” or in the tender interludes that break up more complex tracks, like “Josie.” What may be Aja’s greatest strength is its chameleon-like ability to avoid interrupting the listener when they are hearing the album passively, as its arrangements are never overly daring nor necessarily unconventional. But when one gives Aja your full attention, you can be pleasantly surprised by just how much variety and intrigue can be packed into such a trim album, all without interrupting its infectious groove and logical track order.

It would be dishonest, of course, not to mention “The Jew” Fagen. It is not improbable that a great part of the band’s irony and witticisms come from Fagen, in line with the attitudes and outlooks of his people. But Fagen also serves as an interesting example of what Jews are capable of doing when they’re not set out to do harm. As musicians, they often rank among the best, even in our circles. I won’t waste time trying to explain why, as that’s not really relevant — what is more important is what we can learn from these observations. Not all Jews are bad, sure, but Fagen is an obvious example of a person doing what he’s good at in a context in which he won’t cause much damage. As a musical puppet master of sorts, he is exceptionally talented. But the key word is exception. Fagen’s contribution to our music is a happy accident, one that can be explained with our dialectic with a massive disclaimer looming over the top: but what if he wasn’t making music?

The Right isn’t in the business of writing off people, necessarily, but deciding that observable behavior among groups is a useful tool for determining whom we associate with and whom we let into our societies. Those who build straw men could cite Fagen as an example of a Jew we like, or a Jew who does good, and believe they have blown a hole in our worldview. But they haven’t, because Fagen still behaves Jewishly, just in ways palatable to us; the missing piece of this “not all X are like that” argument is the fact that non-subversive Jews still behave in predictable ways. We can’t have every Jew be a Donald Fagen, or a Geddy Lee, or an Itzhak Perlman. There’s no reason to hate them, sure — but I would prefer we not have to think about it at all.

For the time being, however, we do have to think about it, and Donald Fagen was a member of Steely Dan.

You would be silly to let that ruin your yacht rock party, though.

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  1. Alex
    Posted August 21, 2020 at 4:37 am | Permalink

    Definitely in my top 20 albums of all time and doesn’t even have either of my two favorite Steely Dan songs: Do It Again and Kid Charlemagne

  2. Trevor Goodchild
    Posted August 21, 2020 at 6:29 am | Permalink

    Hmm, our musical tastes really overlap here! I could really care less who is actually playing the instruments. Nor whether the guy in the video is lip syncing or not. I still like Milli Vanilli, for instance.

    I’ve tried to analyze the lyrics for Kid Charlemagne as to whether they are pro white:

    “So you were’re obsolete; look at all the white men on the street…the man is wise, you’re still an outlaw in his eyes”

    It sounds like he might be singing to a Weatherman or somelike. It’s probably simply about one of these “people” they are after, I suppose, but which. Hard to find anything but that in art.

    Fagen is one of the great lyricists, in any case. There is a really good solo song by him on the Heavy Metal movie soundtrack. Very evocative. That whole record is good, with a lot of songs heard nowhere else. It’s more in the bracket of hard rock than metal by the standards of today. Great animation too for younger people, or any age worshiper of Oola-tec!

    • Alex
      Posted August 21, 2020 at 9:41 am | Permalink

      The song is actually about an LSD chemist and dealer from San Francisco in the 60’s. I forget his name but the song is based on a real person . I believe ” Look at all the white men on the street” refers to his former clients who have left the 60’s lifestyle behind to enter the white collar workforce.

      • Trevor Goodchild
        Posted August 21, 2020 at 10:32 am | Permalink

        Ah thank you. Did you know that reeling in the years is to his daughter?

        • Alex
          Posted August 21, 2020 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

          No I didn’t know that, thanks, I’m going to listen to it again now.

          • Trevor Goodchild
            Posted August 21, 2020 at 7:15 pm | Permalink

            Yeah, it’s tongue in cheek to his daughter. When you realize that, some of the lyrics fit better.

      • maxsnafu
        Posted August 21, 2020 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

        Owsley Stanley?

        • Alex
          Posted August 22, 2020 at 3:58 am | Permalink

          Yes, thank you

      • Right_On
        Posted August 21, 2020 at 6:12 pm | Permalink

        Owsley Stanley.
        He was the soundman for the Grateful Dead but is best known for making more than five million hits of LSD.
        He gets a mention in Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test (1968) where Owsley goes on an epic bad trip on his own wares. Though Tom Wolfe never himself took acid his description of the bummer is remarkably vivid and convincing.

  3. Trevor Goodchild
    Posted August 21, 2020 at 6:47 am | Permalink

    Ya know, fyi, rush’s drummer Neil Peart writes the lyrics, truly the unique and greatest lyricist which could be called poetry. We don’t know what Geddy lee’s politics might be. Peart seems clearly libertarian in outlook, cf. parable of the trees.

  4. Vegetius
    Posted August 21, 2020 at 9:46 am | Permalink

    Fagen’s ethnic sensibilities are probably best expressed on “Everyone’s Gone to the Movies.”

  5. Rudys
    Posted August 21, 2020 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

    Does anyone know what the cover art shows or means?

    • Scott Weisswald
      Posted August 25, 2020 at 3:50 am | Permalink

      The cover is a photo of the Japanese model and actress Yamaguchi Sayoko, taken by Fujii Hideki. Yamaguchi was one of the first Asians to appear on magazine covers; I’m at a loss as to the significance of her appearance or the costume she is wearing, though, which appears to be a very simple dress made partly invisible by low-lighting, revealing only the stripes and her face.

  6. Trevor
    Posted August 24, 2020 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

    Regarding Trevor Goodchild’s notion that Reelin’ In The Years was about “his” daughter, does he mean Fagan’s daughter? I don’t think Fagan had a daughter. If he did, she would not have been old enough to be the subject in the early 1970’s. Also, the original article here, by Weisswald, very oddly only mentions Walter Becker as part of Steely Dan at the beginning of the article, and then leaves Becker out of the picture entirely. Weisswald is correct to harp on Fagan as the main composer of the music itself, or at least that is the impression I get from his article, but I promise everyone that Weisswald is wrong to exclude Becker when it comes to the lyrics. There is quite a good chance that the recurring, almost pseudo-cerebral lewdness and subtle seediness that the attentive Dan listener hears were written more by Becker than Fagan. If you listen to Fagan’s solo album from 1982, solely composed by him, you hear some of the same sardonic qualities yet almost none of the glorified seediness of Steely Dan, 1972-1980. Funny enough, much of Weisswald’s review here is not essentially very different from the original review contained in the liner notes that came with the album release in 1977, written by Steve Diner. But Weisswald also does a good job. Thanks for the article.

  7. Posted August 24, 2020 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

    I love every album by this band, but this is their absolute pinnacle.

    “Aja” has long been on my Top 10 Desert Island Discs list.

    Now, how to go about getting that desert island…

    • Tad
      Posted August 25, 2020 at 8:34 pm | Permalink

      When I listen to Aja in the dark, it’s like listening to a space craft doc with a station in orbit to deliver something Important then by the end of the song it builds and builds until they takes off into hyper drive across the galaxy. There was a documentary about the making of the album that is fantastic where they sit down with the master tapes and single out and talk about individual instrument tracks. Very cool.

  8. Tad
    Posted August 25, 2020 at 8:27 pm | Permalink

    Steele’s Dan is basically a ivan reitman movie mixed with a sprinkle of Ralph Bakshi if it was a band. Fagen is an outsider looking in on American life and seeing stuff he likes.Even when he tries to be socially conscience it feels forced but the music is oh so smooth and enjoyable none the less in that post 70’s ghetto way. Part three’s company, part rocky. I would classify their sound as optimistic….ps) I Have a deacon blues tattoo.

  9. Posted August 31, 2020 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

    Well balanced approach here. Thanks for not falling into an Internet meme level of analysis.
    I was listening to Countdown to Ecstasy earlier. Something particularly cool about that one, smooth yet somehow a little rougher. “King of the World” is a hidden gem.

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