As Michael Phalen famously comments in the liner notes of Steely Dan’s sixth studio album, “Aja signals the onset of a new maturity and a kind of solid professionalism that is the hallmark of an artist that has arrived.” Phalen, of course, was simply another illusion crafted by the ironic and somewhat bitter imaginations of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, the two masterminds behind the enigmatic “non-band” who were gaining a reputation as some of the most difficult yet brilliant musicians of the 1970s. In late 1977 the pair had revealed Aja, an album which would come to define their legacy as a stubborn yet accomplished musical powerhouse, as they staked their territory in an increasingly fragmented and contradictory musical landscape. The album was a sumptuous and expansive collection of music; one that has rightly earned it’s reverence as an audiophile masterpiece.
Steely Dan had gotten off to a promising start with their debut album, 1972’s Can’t Buy A Thrill, from which the two hit singles “Do it Again” and “Reelin’ In The Years” Billboard charted at number six and eleven respectively. Guest vocalist David Palmer was often drafted into live performances to compensate for Fagen’s persistent stage fright, but the latter’s voice was clearly preferred by his band-mates, leading to Palmer’s exit during their first tour. This initial boom was followed by a notable downturn, as the group’s second album Countdown To Ecstasy, released a year later, failed to breakthrough commercially, with Becker and Fagen blaming a hectic touring schedule for its rushed and under-baked content.
Bouncing back with their most successful single “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number”, which peaked at Number 4 on the Billboard chart, Becker and Fagen found renewed energy in their eagerness to recruit new and exciting session players. Their 1974 album Pretzel Logic followed a period of touring with keyboard player/vocalist Michael McDonald, vocalist/percussionist Royce Jones and session drummer Jeff Porcaro (who would eventually go on to form Toto with Katy Lied Pianist David Paich.) Porcaro proved a reliable and consistent collaborator over the years, but joined the group as a creative fissure between Becker/Fagen and the rest of the band was widening. Echoing Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys, the pair were disillusioned by the obligations and restrictions of live performance, gravitating towards the creative reclusiveness enabled by the recording studio and it’s increasingly powerful tools. As the band’s creative directors they became harder and harder to please, often demanding that musicians perform around forty takes of the same recording.
Guitarist Jeff Baxter and drummer Jim Hodder, who remained particularly keen to tour, and felt insulted by their increasing redundancy for session players, eventually left the group along with the other core band-members, excluding Denny Dias who remained a member until 1980. Left to their own devices the pair revelled in their ability to assemble a rotating cast of musicians, each of whom they could draft in for minor or major contributions as they saw fit. As such, they began to decentralise the notion of Steely Dan as a solid group of musicians into something amorphous and indefinable, thus commencing the period of uninhibited creativity that birthed Aja.
Having cultivated a reputation as stubborn yet masterful songwriters, the pair now possessed a certain magnetism which allowed them to assemble a dream-team of jazz, r&b and rock virtuosos, who could actualise their sonic fantasies. Included on this list was legendary saxophonist and Miles Davis alumni Wayne Shorter (who rips through a solo on the album’s title track), drummer Bernard Perdie (responsible for the groove of “Home At Last”) and Steve Gadd, amongst many others. Far from assured by the proven talents of these musicians however, Becker and Fagen took their hairsplitting scrutiny to new and extreme levels, famously sifting through dozens of separate recordings of the same guitar solo for “Peg”, before landing on Jay Graydon’s pitch-perfect performance.
Considering the somewhat pressurised atmosphere surrounding these sessions, it’s easy to see how this ethos carried over into the album’s pristine sound quality. A truly lush and all encompassing audio experience, each instrument boasts a rich glossy veneer, penetrating and tessellating with an almost surgical precision. Far from clinical however, this exceptional clarity maintains the minuscule, if calculated, nuances of each musicians contribution, and ultimately serves as testament to their tight and disciplined performances.
Released in 1977, the year that both the lighting force of punk and the carefree abandon of disco were enjoying cultural hegemony, Aja found itself strangely out of time and place; an irregular jigsaw piece in an often polemic commercial environment. It was around this time that predominantly white rock fans where denouncing the perceived superficiality of repetitive black dance music. But Steely Dan had also been the subject of their ire. As Michael Duffy’s review in The Rolling Stone noted: “Aja will continue to fuel the argument by rock purists that Steely Dan’s music is soulless, and by its calculated nature antithetical to what rock should be.” Far from immune to this criticism, Becker and Fagen reportedly remixed the album around 13 times in the months prior to its release.
Listening to Aja, It’s hard not to see the album’s musical complexity as a riposte to the conservative rock sensibility. Becker and Fagen’s deeply intuitive use of chordal changes is central to the record’s shape-shifting character, as the pair eschew pleasantly resolved sequences and modulate to entirely new keys between sections. This imbues the album’s songs with a certain uneasiness which rubs against the polished surface of its smooth instrumentation – even music theory experts were left puzzled as to the direction a chord sequence was taking or why a specific harmony so strangely worked.
Rhythmically the pair had also dove deeper into the locked grooves of American r&b and soul. Their hiring of musicians who had worked with the likes of James Brown, Quincy Jones and Aretha Franklin provide some insight into their desires to maintain pop music’s infectious percussive drive. It was in-fact the most rhythmically focused songs, such as “Peg”, “Josie” and “I Got The News”, which proved most time-consuming in the recording process, as Becker and Fagen, of course, pursued the perfect backbeat with an almost maniacal attention to detail.
After a long year-and-a-half of production, Aja would become Steely Dan’s definitive commercial success-story, selling over a million copies (their only record to do so) and sustaining its presence in the charts for well over a year after peaking at number 3. It was perhaps a record that could only have existed in 1977 – one of the first platinum albums in a brief period of unbridled sales and incredibly generous recording budgets – which enabled the band’s expenses to run into the hundreds of thousands with no obligation to recoup the costs through live performance. As an audiophile masterpiece, it deservedly picked up a Grammy award for “Best Engineered Recording – Non-Classical.” The group’s subsequent disbandment after 1980’s troubled Gaucho is perhaps testament to the insurmountable heights Becker and Fagen had reached – how could they possibly push further?
Aja is the remarkable product of an uncompromising decade spent by a pair of musical masterminds forging a path both at odds and in love with the pop establishment of 1970s America. To this day, the album’s lasting appeal across cultural and musical barriers serves as the true legacy of a deeply complex yet ultimately irresistible record.
And despite the numerous advances in studio technology of the last forty years, it still stands as one of the finest commercial recordings ever made – a holy grail for audiophile’s around the world. Its inherent and infectious smoothness coupled with its remarkable intricacy transcends the boundaries of taste and trends, shining as an example of uncompromising creative ambition, which nevertheless remains thoroughly grounded in the pleasure principle. Aja is truly Steely Dan’s monument to the joy of listening.
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