I was already in the process of writing a piece celebrating a major milestone for one of music’s greatest albums when ‘I got the news’ that one of its two principal creators, guitarist and songwriter Walter Becker – one half of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame duo Steely Dan – died Sunday, September 3. He was 67.
The news of Becker’s passing confirmed fans’ worst fears after he didn’t show for either of Steely Dan’s two stints this past July as part of the Classic West and Classic East concerts in Los Angeles and New York, respectively. Donald Fagen – Becker’s longtime partner and cofounder of the band – attributed the absence to illness. The worst news would come less than six weeks later.
The irony of Steely Dan – a one-time quintet-turned-duo formed in Los Angeles but with New York roots – playing just those two concerts, one in New York and the other in L.A., was not lost on me. That same bi-coastal connection embodied their greatest album, Aja (pronounced Asia), which the band traveled to Los Angeles to record in 1977 before its release on September 23 that year.
It’s the kind of irony that Steely Dan – the group named for a sex toy, not a person – had always embraced.
This month, that legendary album celebrates its 40th anniversary – an occasion that Becker sadly would not live to see.
Aja, the album, was no ordinary rock long-player (as albums were once called). It wasn’t even an ordinary jazz-rock LP, the kind of brass-filled fare that had been popularized earlier by bands like Chicago and Blood Sweat & Tears – to whom Steely Dan was sometimes unreasonably compared.
In fact, with just seven songs and a total run time of 39:58, Aja could barely be called an album. By today’s standards, it’s just a couple of tracks and about 15 minutes removed from being an EP.
Yet even with just those seven tracks, Aja packed more punch than most albums of its day or from any era since – rock or otherwise.
Musically, few albums came loaded with the credentials that Aja did. For the recording sessions, Fagen and Becker wanted the cream of the crop when it came to its studio musicians and background singers…and, by most accounts, they got it. No fewer than three dozen musicians were used to create Aja, many of whom were actually handpicked to play specific tracks, with several big names among those.
For instance, Michael McDonald – who had just joined the Doobie Brothers the year before – contributed harmonizing backing vocals on two of the songs – “Peg” and “I Got The News.” He had also contributed to their previous two albums.
Timothy B. Schmidt – who would join the Eagles a year later – provided backing vocals on “Aja,” “Home At Last” and “Josie,” and, like McDonald, was a regular contributor.
Joe Sample, the late jazz pianist and a founding member of the Crusaders, played electric piano on “Aja” and the clavinet on “Black Cow.”
Lee Ritenour contributed his famous jazz guitar to “Deacon Blues,” while Larry Carlton – who played the recent “Classic” concerts mentioned earlier – provided his guitar on all songs except “Peg.” Both Ritenour and Carlton later became members of the smooth-jazz fusion group Fourplay.
And those were just the more recognizable names. Several other talented musicians helped give Aja its intricate, layered, sophisticated sound, complete with the type of musical nuance that made it so much more than your average jazz – or even pop – album.
The female backing vocals were provided by former members of the Ike-ettes and the Raelettes (Ike Turner’s and Ray Charles’ backing groups, respectively), who lent their voices to “Black Cow,” “Deacon Blues” and “I Got The News.”
Accounting for the different rhythmic signatures on Aja’s tracks, six different drummers were used for the album’s seven songs, including, notably, funk drummer Bernard Purdie, whose distinctive “Purdie Shuffle” beat was used for “Home At Last,” (as well as “Babylon Sisters” from the next album, Gaucho). If you don’t have a sense for how that sounds, think about the famous drum riff used in Led Zeppelin’s “Fool In The Rain” or Toto’s “Rosanna,” which use variations of the Purdie Shuffle.
Indeed, it’s hard to imagine Becker and Fagan, two beatnik, outsider kids who grew up in the New York suburbs in the 1950s and 60s before meeting at New York’s Bard College, coming up with all of this on their own. They would be the first to tell you they weren’t true jazz musicians – they were rock through and through – although the jazz influence was clearly there.
In fact, as they both have said in interviews, Fagan and Becker “loved black music of all types” – jazz, R&B, funk and gospel among them. All of those styles – more so than rock – were in play for Aja, which may be the best “non-jazz” jazz album of all time.
Take “Black Cow,” the opening track named for a root-bear float (or maybe the stronger, Kahlua-based drink of similar makeup). That song used a mid-tempo funk groove to keep its time. (Becker interestingly did not play on that one by the way.)
The jazzier tunes got it more honestly. “Home At Last” was funk/jazz-fusion at best. “I Got The News” was more jazz-improvisational in its arrangements. “Aja” and “Deacon Blues” were both seven-minute-plus epics that incorporated long instrumental breaks which leaned more jazz than pop.
And for a complete left turn, the chorus for “Deacon Blues” even had a tinge of gospel á la the vocals of singers Clydie King, Shirley Matthews, and Venetta Fields – the women who’d performed and recorded with Ike & Tina Turner, Ray Charles and The Rolling Stones among many others (think “got to roll me!” on the Stones’ “Tumbling Dice,” or Barbra Streisand’s backup singers “The Oreos” in the motion picture “A Star Is Born”).
In fact, the two least jazz-sounding, pop-oriented songs on this album were “Peg” and “Josie,” both tunes that – along with “Deacon Blues” – reached the Top-30 of the Billboard pop charts.
Regarding Aja’s recording sessions, it’s been said that Fagen and Becker knew precisely the sounds they were aiming for and they auditioned, selected and practiced musicians until they perfected the tracks – not unlike many great pop recordings.
Then, after the musicians got those sounds down-pat, the duo asked them to “go beyond perfect” to give the songs a looser, more improvisational feeling.
Weaving all of that together was a collection of nearly two-dozen sound engineers, producers and arrangers whose work resulted in a Grammy win for Best Engineered Album the following year. To the present day, Aja continues to be recognized by audiophiles as one of the best sounding, most well-produced albums in history.
Yet, for an album featuring all those heavyweights and the complexity with which it was recorded, Aja was rather simple in its concept, despite the cleverly crafted – and somewhat cynical – lyrics that might suggest otherwise.
In fact, as far as classic rock albums go, there really was no overriding concept or theme.
Aja – the title – was inspired by the name of the Korean wife of a friend’s brother, although Fagen wasn’t sure how she spelled her name, so he wrote it this way.
And it is the only album I know which features not one or two, but three one-word song titles named for women (“Josie,” “Peg” and the title track), with each painting a unique and literal narrative about their protagonists or the men intrigued with them. In “Josie,” for instance, the story’s heroine was the object of all the neighborhood guys’ desires when she came back to her hometown, with guys breaking out hats, hooters and motor scooters in their gleeful – and slightly exaggerated – celebration of her homecoming.
In “Peg,” the album’s biggest chart hit, the song’s character is an aspiring movie star, and the protagonist – her photographer – promises to deliver. In “Aja,” the lyrics seem more focused on Asian imagery than the woman who bears the song’s name, with their mention of dime dancing, Chinese music and banyan trees.
In fact it was that kind of detailed, often cerebral imagery that characterized much of Steely Dan’s music in the 1970s, whether it be geographical, historical or cultural. As an example of the latter, Aja’s most famous track, the loosely autobiographical “Deacon Blues,” used American football references to illustrate its point about that fine line between perpetually losing and being on the cusp of finally winning (whether just in music or in life).
As the story goes, for the hook “they call Alabama the Crimson Tide, call me Deacon Blues,” both Becker and Fagen had been amused by the University of Alabama’s “grandiose” nickname and wanted to incorporate it in the song’s lyrics. The Alabama Crimson Tide, similar to today, was a football powerhouse at the time who represented the “winners of the world.”
In the not-so-apparent corollary, the name “Deacon Blues” was inspired by Deacon Jones, the famous ’70s NFL football player who wasn’t a loser by any means, but whose first name matched sonically with “Crimson,” according to Fagen.
It was yet another trademark Steely Dan irony, or bit of sarcasm, as only Becker and Fagen could craft it.
Stories like those were what gave Aja its character. The album’s near flawless production, intricate harmonies and timeless melodies are why it still stands up today as one of rock’s all-time best.
In the four decades since its release, Aja has been recognized by the Grammy Hall of Fame and is listed in Rolling Stone magazine’s “500 Greatest Albums of All Time.” It is also included in author and critic Tom Moon’s book, “1000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die.”
I, for one, considered it a privilege to have had this album as part of my musical experience growing up and was even more blessed to be able to see Steely Dan in concert at the Classic East concert in NYC this July, despite Becker’s absence.
Little did I know then that I’d be writing an article just six weeks later that both celebrates their greatest accomplishment and mourns one of the band’s two principal creators simultaneously.
May you now RIP Walter Becker.
Ps. Some Other Fast Facts about Aja and Becker:
1. The album’s famous cover art featured the photo of an Asian model taken by artist Hideki Fujii. It was designed by the late actor Phil Hartman, whom you might remember best as the SNL comedian who famously portrayed Bill Clinton and who voiced several Simpsons cartoon characters.
2. The album’s first single, “Peg,” wasn’t released until almost two months after the album – something not that uncommon at the time. It eventually peaked at No. 11 on the Hot 100.
3. The album made a gigantic leap up the chart in its second week – moving 26-3 and looking like a sure-fire No. 1. But it remained in place for the next seven weeks, stuck behind the same two albums the whole time – Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours and Linda Ronstadt’s Simple Dreams – before beginning its descent down the chart.
4. The album’s second and third singles, “Deacon Blues” and “Josie,” were interrupted by a non-Aja Steely Dan song – “FM (No Static At All)” – from the soundtrack of the 1978 film “FM.” Like the others, it reached the Top-30 that year.
5. Walter Becker, who yielded to Fagen’s nasally toned lead-singing on all their vocal tracks as a duo, made his lead-vocal début on their last studio album, 2003’s Everything Must Go and the track “Slang of Ages.”