Oftentimes, rock music is best when it’s simple – typically, three chords, a good groove and at least average vocals is all you need. But like with most things, there are exceptions to the rule. When it comes to rock music, to me Steely Dan undoubtedly is one of them.
Steely Dan’s music, which oftentimes blends rock with other genres, particularly jazz, tends to be pretty complex: rich instrumentation, many chords, complicated breaks, you name it – frankly, music like this is a recipe for disaster, unless it’s perfectly executed. But perfect execution is exactly where Steely Dan excels!
Originally, Steely Dan was a five-piece band. But since 1975’s Katy Lied, their fourth studio album, Steely Dan first and foremost has been the ingenious songwriting partnership of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker. While both are also great keyboard and guitar/bass players, respectively, they have always hired top-notch session musicians for any studio work and concert tours.
Released in September 1977, Aja is Steely Dan’s sixth studio album. In my opinion, this record is the crown jewel of Fagen’s and Becker’s amazing music catalog. I was reminded about this just the other evening when I saw an excellent Steely Dan tribute band called The Royal Scam – named after Steely Dan’s 1976 studio album, the predecessor to Aja.
Aja kicks off with Black Cow. Like all songs on the album, the tune was written by Fagen and Becker. Black Cow was also released as the B-side to Josie, the record’s third single. Notably, Becker did not play on the recording. The guitar and bass parts, which he oftentimes takes over in the studio, were played by session musicians Larry Carlton and Chuck Rainey, respectively
Next up is the album’s title song, which is pronounced “Asia” and has an association with the continent. In fact, according to Songfacts, “Steely Dan have several songs with a Far East influence, since Donald Fagan believes it is a symbol of sensuality” – oh, well! At just under eight minutes, Aja is also the record’s longest track. The song is perhaps the best example of how complex Steely Dan’s music can get with a million chords, frequent changes in tempo, breaks, etc. Yet it all works out and the result is outstanding!
The next tune, Deacon Blues, is one of my favorites on the album and from Steely Dan overall. It was also released as the record’s second single. Like with many songs written by Fagen and Becker, people have wondered about the meaning of the lyrics. When asked during a Rolling Stone interview in 2006 about the line, “They call Alabama the Crimson Tide/Call me Deacon Blues,” Fagan explained: “Walter and I had been working on that song at a house in Malibu. I played him that line, and he said. “You mean it’s like, ‘They call these cracker assholes this grandiose name like the Crimson Tide, and I’m this loser, so they call me this other grandiose name, Deacon Blues?”‘ And I said, “Yeah!” He said, “Cool! Let’s finish it!” Well, I suppose whether or not that’s how the lyrics came about matters less than the outcome, which is a brilliant tune!
While I could easily call out each of Aja’s seven tracks, I’d like to highlight two additional ones: Peg and Josie. Peg was the album’s lead single. It peaked at no. 11 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100, making it the highest charting of the three singles released from the record. The tune features Michael McDonald, then the lead vocalist of The Doobie Brothers, on background vocals and Jay Graydon on lead guitar. I just love the groove of this tune – no need to over-analyze it!
Last but not least, there is Josie, the record’s closer and another highlight. As previously noted, it was also released separately as Aja’s third and last single. There are three features I like about this song in particular: the funky rhythm guitar, the very cool bass line and Becker’s guitar solo, one of only three solos he played on the album.
Aja became Steely Dan’s most commercially successful record, selling more than five million copies. It climbed all the way up to no. 3 on the U.S. Billboard 200 and to no. 5 in the U.K. I’m also glad Aja otherwise gained well-deserved recognition. It won a Grammy for Best Engineered Recording, Non-Classical, at the 20th Annual Grammy Awards in February 1978. Moreover, it was ranked at no. 145 in Rolling Stone’s 2012 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. In fact, if anything, I wonder why it didn’t come in higher, though the ranking probably matters less than being included in the list. Plus, there is of course a high degree of subjectivity in the first place when it comes to lists and rankings.
Sources: Wikipedia, Songfacts, Rolling Stone, YouTube