Classic Rewind: Steely Dan’s Aja

Kevin Alexander

A look at the seminal record as it turns 45

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Steely Dan's Aja record. The classic album recently turned 45.Hideki Fujii

1989: A kid picks up a copy of De La Soul’s “3 Feet High And Rising.” He comes for “Me Myself and I” but stays for “Eye Know,” in love with the samples used. The kid rarely gets past this track after that. It’s the first of countless play/rewind/play cycles until the tape wears out.

1998: That same kid is now in his 20s and has a car whose most reliable feature is its stereo. He decides to test drive some new speakers by playing Lord Tariq & Peter Gunz’s Deja Vu (Uptown Baby).” It, too, has a killer sample and has him singing “Uptown Baby” (a love letter to New York) as he winds his way towards downtown on the opposite coast.

It sounds exquisite.

The sample De La Soul’s Maseo used on “Eye Know” was taken from Steely Dan’s “Peg.” The latter was lifted from the band’s “Black Cow.”

Both are on the band’s 1977 Aja album. It, too, sounds exquisite.

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Steely Dan's Walter Becker and Donald FagenWall Street Journal

Forty-five years after its release, Aja rarely needs much introduction anymore.

Even if the title escapes a listener, the sounds do not. “Peg” is still a staple on AOR radio. Tracks like “Deacon Blues” and “Josie” are less so, but they still hold their own.

We might not know what blueprint blue is, but we know it looks good on her, and we know the song when we hear it.

Aja is a record that has sold millions of copies and is often held up as the gold standard for production. It’s the end product of two alchemists/obsessive tinkers (“We overdubbed a lot of the overdubs over”) and a murderers row of session players. Players so in the pocket that Walter Becker even took himself out of the mix on both “Black Cow” & “Peg.”

A sprinkling of fairy dust across the top of “Peg” and “I Got The News” in the form of national treasure Michael McDonald makes it all the sweeter.

Reception

Look up the phrase “critic’s darling” in the dictionary, and there’s (probably) just a picture of the album cover. It auto-fills on just about every “best of” list typed up, including holding Rolling Stones’ Top 500 albums list.

Writing for Rolling Stone, Barry Walters noted in his review that “the album’s surreal sonic perfection, its melodic and harmonic complexity — music so technically demanding its creators had to call in A-list session players to realize the sounds they heard in their heads but could not play, even on the instruments they had mastered.”

Even mean-girl Pitchfork rated it a 10; a rare feat for a publication whose stock in trade is reveling in hot takes. Not here, though. In a look back, the record is described as …expert — whole stretches are perfect, impenetrable, like the first 31 seconds of “Black Cow,” when that creeping bass line cedes passage to guitar and electric piano, and the backing vocals pipe up for “You were high!” — it’s easy to ignore the sophistication of its architecture.

The musicianship is beyond reproach, but there are all sorts of high-quality records that never see the light of day, let alone sell millions of copies. What made Aja different?

Right time right place. At last?

Perhaps some of it was fortuitous timing. By the late 70s, radio listeners were ready for something new. And Aja is as much a rock album as it is a jazz one — “I Got The News” is there to remind anyone that might forget — giving fans of both genres an on-ramp to the record (and hip hop fans later, of course).

It was smooth enough to warrant air time in your parent’s car, yet poppy enough that you didn’t begrudge that.

And to Pitchfork’s earlier point, the music is so easily accessible that the massive architecture underpinning it is often overlooked or, at best, an afterthought.

2022: that same kid still drives cars that are sketchy at best. But the stereo’s always working. He’s a lot older and only a little wiser. Aja sounds like it hasn’t aged a day.

Despite being prickly and standoffish, it’s hard not to like Donald Fagen and Walter Becker — two music nerds who, despite their best efforts, somehow “made it.”

They’re fussy enough to obsess over a particular set of notes in “Deacon Blues” but playful enough that it reminds them of FAO Schwartz. Fagen calls it “pheromones for tots.” A pair hip enough to have their music sampled by DJs but savvy enough to demand publishing rights.

At best, a duo that tolerated success even when it looked good on them.

And in Aja, they made a beautiful record. One that’s hard not to love.

Have a favorite track or memory from this record? Share it below!

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