KamerTunesBlog

Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time

Forty Year Friday – STEELY DAN “AJA”

Artist: STEELY DAN
Album: AJA

[Welcome to Forty Year Friday, the weekly series on my favorite albums of 1977]

steely-dan-ajaBy the time Steely Dan recorded their sixth album they were reduced to the core duo of singer/keyboardist Donald Fagen and guitarist/bassist Walter Becker, who surrounded themselves with the best studio musicians of that era, each hand-picked for particular tracks. With five Gold or Platinum albums under their belts, and success with both mainstream pop audiences & more discriminating FM radio listeners, they were primed for the album of their career and they delivered in a big way with Aja. This 7-song collection, their only multi-platinum release, is a sophisticated blend of rock, pop & jazz that defies categorization, but what makes it truly special is the songwriting talents of Fagen & Becker. They always had a knack for killer melodies, incredible musicianship & incisive lyrics, all of which are in full force on an album that’s as close to perfect as an artist can get. Two 7+ minute tracks form the beating heart of the record: “Aja” and “Deacon Blues.” The former is a musical journey that features immense solos from drummer Steve Gadd and saxophonist Wayne Shorter, while the latter is a smooth midtempo gem dedicated to the “losers” of the world (“They got a name for the winners in the world, I want a name when I lose. They call Alabama ‘The Crimson Tide,’ call me ‘Deacon Blues’”). Album opener “Black Cow” has another slinky midtempo groove, slick horns, female backing vocals and a lovely electric piano solo.

steely-dan-photo-1977

Original Steely Dan touring vocalist Michael McDonald, who by then was spearheading the Mach II incarnation of The Doobie Brothers, adds his inimitable voice to two funky tracks, “I Got The News” and hit single “Peg.” Both of these show off the group’s playful side while still being smooth enough for them to be part of “Yacht Rock” (with McDonald the common denominator), a tongue-in-cheek classification of mellow ‘70s artists created a decade ago. I previously discussed “The Purdie Shuffle” in the 2nd part of my Toto series, a drumming groove played by Jeff Porcaro on “Rosanna” in honor of its originator, Bernard Purdie. Mr. Purdie shows how it’s done on “Home At Last” with his subtle rhythm driving the song forward. Becker’s guitar solo is another highlight, and it’s a shame this song didn’t receive the kind of airplay that most of the others did. The album closes with the funky “Josie,” a Top 40 hit that’s become one of their signature songs. I could write multiple paragraphs about the specific performances that make Aja so special, but I’m trying to keep these summaries as concise as possible. I suggest you look up the musicians as you play each song and marvel at the artistry on display. I enjoy the fact that a band named after a fictional sexual device created one of the most sonically stunning records of all time. Although I love most of their prior releases just as much, Aja is a special record that’s as fresh & inspiring today as it was four decades ago.

To read more on this classic album I recommend the following:
Geoff Stephen’s succinct review at 1001albumsin10years
and
Bruce Jenkins’ characteristically thorough overview at Vinyl Connection

 

 

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69 comments on “Forty Year Friday – STEELY DAN “AJA”

  1. le0pard13
    January 20, 2017

    Reblogged this on It Rains… You Get Wet and commented:
    Given how often I play this album, shouldn’t surprise I’d seek out those who also enjoy it. Check out what KamerTunesBlog has to say about a seminal album turning 40 this year.

    Like

  2. Jeff Kempin
    January 20, 2017

    Absolutely agree. Aja is my favorite Dan album, hands down. Perfectly crafted songs and perfectly engineered. Aja is a good test record to use when trying out different audio equipment. There is an episode of Classic Albums dedicated to this album and is very enlightening and entertaining.

    Slam dunk pick, Rich.

    Like

    • Thanks, Jeff. I think I have about 3 or 4 favorite Dan albums but Aja is probably their definitive album and the one that should go in a time capsule for future generations. I saw that Classic Albums episode. Being a drummer I especially enjoyed the segment with Bernard Purdie (which I just re-watched on YouTube yesterday).

      Like

  3. Kevin
    January 20, 2017

    Steely Dan’s 70’s albums are so good, I can’t even rate them. Each one is better than the other one. Whichever one I am listening to at the time is my favorite. Aja was my first, so I have that special relationship with it (you never forget your “first”).
    “Peg” is one of those songs that I never get tired of, and impossible for me to only listen to once. That chorus – McDonald’s stacked harmonies, the unpredictable chord changes – just pure euphoric bliss. Of course the rest of the album is stellar, too, and easily one of the best sounding albums ever recorded. The title track is a friggin masterpiece.

    Like

    • As is often the case, we are on the same page here, Kevin. On any given day I could claim that Pretzel Logic, Katy Lied, The Royal Scam, etc. is my favorite Dan album. I also rate Fagen’s The Nightfly up there with Dan’s best. But there is something special about Aja, much of which you touched upon in your comment. I also completely agree with your thought on “musical firsts.”

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      • Kevin
        January 24, 2017

        I forgot to ask; what did you think of their last two albums? I was pleasantly surprised with Two Against Nature, and I think “Jack Of Speed” is a classic. However, Everything Must Go did nothing for me. I listened to it recently to see if I missed out but it still didn’t move me.

        Like

      • I really like both of the post-reunion albums. I definitely prefer “Two Against Nature” but I think both of them are excellent. It helps that I don’t compare them to the rest of their discography. The songwriting isn’t quite in the same league as their classics (with a handful of exceptions like the one you mentioned) but the performances are stellar and their wicked sense of humor comes through after several listens.

        Like

  4. Josh
    January 20, 2017

    Rumor has it Gadd did that solo on the first take!

    Like

    • Hi Josh. Leave it to a fellow drummer to share this tidbit. I had read that Gadd played it a couple of times but I wouldn’t be surprised if Take 1 was the keeper. The man is a genius behind the kit.

      Like

      • Phillip Helbig
        January 20, 2017

        I read somewhere that Rush’s “Xanadu” on A Farewell to Kings was essentially the first live-in-the-studio take. They had to be careful to keep the thud of the engineer’s jaw dropping onto the floor from being heard on the track. 🙂

        And Iron Maiden’s A Matter of Life and Death is essentially live in the studio straight off the desk. Some pundit pointed out that it is an album which can never be remastered, because it was never mastered.

        Whatever you think of Rush and Iron Maiden, their music is some of the most technically complicated and intricately orchestrated in all of rock.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Interesting anecdotes about those Rush & Maiden songs. I’m not surprised that they could nail them in a single take because of their level of musicianship. As you know I’m a big fan of both and I completely agree with your assessment.

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  5. stephen1001
    January 20, 2017

    Cheers for the recommend Rich!
    I’d like to check out Aja again – when I reviewed it, I think I was still in my ‘appreciating’ Steely Dan phase. After Countdown To Ecstasy, I’ve reached Steely Dan enjoyment, and it would be fun to revisit Aja.
    Especially since in the two books I’ve read this year (Chuck Klosterman’s Downtown Owl & Marc Myers’ Anatomy of a Song), each had parts devoted to Deacon Blues.
    This time instead of just focusing on the songs, I’ll be mindful of the sound too.
    Enjoy the weekend!

    Like

    • I’m happy to point people in the direction of your excellent blog, Geoff. I just realized that I added an “s” at the end of your last name. I will correct that shortly. Nice to know that “Deacon Blues” was featured in those two books. It’s a deceptively simple song, or possibly deceptively complicated, but the bottom line is that it’s a masterpiece. I guess that could be said of the whole album. Hope you have a great weekend too.

      Liked by 1 person

      • stephen1001
        January 20, 2017

        No worries about the bonus ‘S’ Rich – I’m impressed you got the Geoff with a ‘G’ and Stephen with a ‘ph’!

        Like

      • The “s” has already been edited out. Accuracy is very important to me.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. DanicaPiche
    January 20, 2017

    Thanks for another great post, Rich! I used to have this album and will have to get it again.

    Like

    • Thanks, Danica. Sorry to hear that “Aja” slipped out of your record collection. Even if it doesn’t get played frequently, there should always be a copy waiting for you when you’re ready. 😀

      Liked by 1 person

      • DanicaPiche
        January 20, 2017

        Absolutely right, Rich! It’s those impossibly excellent albums that should be on hand.
        Curious about your succinct article…I’d guess there’s a lot more you could say about this one…is it due to time constraints?

        Like

      • My goal when I started Thirty Year Thursday last year was to make these posts as succinct as possible, partly due to time constraints but also because my regular posts had become a little too verbose. I was hoping to limit them to one paragraph each but I tend to write two: one to discuss my history with the album and the other to highlight my favorite songs. There are many albums I’ll cover this year that could be dissected a lot further but I’ll go with the “always leave ’em wanting more” approach. If/when I cover one of these artist’s discographies I can go into a lot more detail.

        Liked by 1 person

      • DanicaPiche
        January 20, 2017

        I like your regular posts but I understand your approach here. “Always leave ’em wanting more” can be very effective.

        Like

      • Thanks, Danica. After years of long-form writing (which I didn’t originally intend to do), these shorter posts are more liberating. I also think they’re better conversation starters, which is one of the main purposes of this blog. Have a great weekend.

        Liked by 1 person

      • DanicaPiche
        January 20, 2017

        Thanks, Rich, and you too! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Alyson (WIAA,A?)
    January 20, 2017

    I knew it wouldn’t take long! Yes the female teenagers of Scotland were very keen on Steely Dan in 1977 and I should know as I was one of them. They weren’t as popular over in Britain in terms of chart placings and it wasn’t until Haitian Divorce that I really took notice of them but their albums were always played at parties around that time. I must admit however that I didn’t find out about the whole “fictional sexual device” reference until much, much later. (I was a very naive teenager.)

    As for the shorter posts, quite a good plan and I’m going to try and get back to that myself once I’m blogging again – The long ones are very time consuming and sometimes just get too verbose as you say. Curious now as to what next week will bring.

    Like

    • Hi Alyson. I had a feeling based on our previous conversations that this would be one of the ’77 albums we have in common. Glad I was right. It sounds like Steely Dan was somewhat of a cult band in the UK back then, but clearly you had good taste & found your way to their incredible music. Do have a favorite album among their discography?

      For the first 4 years of blogging, I revisited the complete albums of the lesser-played artists in my collection, playing them each numerous times & reading about them before writing my posts over a month or two. It was fun to immerse myself like that but it was also exhausting, and since I’m not a trained writer (and don’t always enjoy the process of writing) I knew I needed a change. Couple that with a long-distance move & various family obligations I had to update my approach if I was going to stay connected with other music lovers. Hence these shorter weekly posts highlighting one album a week. I’m hoping that life will be a lot more settled by the end of 2017 & then I’ll get back to the original plan…hopefully carrying over the brevity from these posts.

      As for next week’s choice, I already wrote about half of it. I’m curious to see if you’re a fan. All will be revealed in 7 days. 😀

      Have a great weekend.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Alyson (WIAA,A?)
        January 20, 2017

        I’ll try to be quick here but as you’ve been over to my place you’ll know that I write about individual songs rather than albums and to be honest I would be lying if I said I was an avid collector back then – I was more a geek about chart listings (notebooks full of it) and recordings on cassette tape. If I really liked something the greatest hits album would be on my Christmas list which is what happened with Steely Dan – Maybe we had less pocket money in the ’70s in the UK but albums were a real treat.

        Again I don’t want to self-promote and this is more of an anecdote but here is the post I did about a pop quiz where I took it upon myself to memorise the entire Guiness Book of hit singles 1952-84 – Yes it is possible for a short time, and then you promptly forget everything again, but perhaps lets you know where I’m coming from when I write about songs!

        https://jukeboxtimemachine.com/2016/08/23/george-michael-freedom-and-pop-quizzes/

        Like

      • Whether you were a geek about chart info or an obsessive record collector, you have that gene that brings us music nerds together. I started out as a singles buyer when I was young, but converted to album buying before I was 10. To this date that’s the only way I play music, even when it’s digital. No playlists or compilations for me (except under very specific circumstances). I look forward to checking out the post you linked. I stopped by briefly but something distracted me. Will come back to it soon. No worries about self-promotion. I hope others will check out your excellent blog.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Alyson (WIAA,A?)
        January 21, 2017

        No need to read it all as more a story that one – just the paragraph in the middle about the memorising of an entire volume of listings! As for albums, you were lucky Rich – for the average U.K. teen they were still a real luxury item for birthdays and Christmas (although much swapping and taping went on – naughty) – Lets see what next week brings.

        Like

      • I think albums were around $3-$4 when I was a pre-teen & starting to build my collection, while singles were about $.79. Somehow I saved up enough money from my newspaper delivery job to buy at least an album a week. I still occasionally bought singles but albums were “it” for me. Sorry you couldn’t do the same until you were a little older. Seems like you survived that childhood relatively unscathed. 😛

        Liked by 1 person

  8. 80smetalman
    January 20, 2017

    Now this brings back memories. I remember Aja well. “Peg” seemed to be playing every time I turned on the radio, though that wasn’t a bad thing.

    Like

  9. mikeladano
    January 20, 2017

    Jeez. I guess I need to check out Steely Dan too.

    So much music so little time.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Daddydinorawk
      January 20, 2017

      No Mike. You need to immerse yourself in Steely Dan. The quintessential 70’s band.

      Liked by 1 person

      • mikeladano
        January 20, 2017

        SOLD

        Liked by 2 people

      • Another endorsement for Steely Dan. Mike, I know you’re listening. There’s so much to like on every album in their discography. Also, Donald Fagen’s first solo album The Nightfly is one of my all-time favorite albums by anyone. I featured it in my debut albums series.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Daddydinorawk
        January 21, 2017

        I like the Nightfly but the one I love is Kamakiriad. Its basically a Dan album in all but name.

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      • I love Kamakiriad but the production is a bit sterile and the songwriting isn’t quite as diverse as it was on The Nightfly. If I used a numerical scale, the former is a 9/10 while the latter is 10/10. I love it that much.

        Like

    • You absolutely MUST hear Steely Dan. You don’t have to worry about deluxe editions. Just find any copies of their first several albums (through Gaucho) and you’ll be in musical nirvana.

      Liked by 1 person

      • mikeladano
        January 21, 2017

        Strong words Rich! I think Steely Dan has made our Sausagefest countdown at least once.

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      • Steely Dan is definitely an album experience, so I’m not sure if the Sausagefest exposure would be sufficient.

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      • Daddydinorawk
        January 21, 2017

        Are there actually Deluxe Editions , Rich?

        I love Gaucho btw. Maybe one day we will get an offical Second Arrangement demo.

        Like

      • I don’t believe there are any deluxe versions of Steely Dan albums, just several rounds of remasters. I have my original CD pressings from the ’80s plus the Citizen Dan box set. Those have been sufficient for me.

        I might have heard about The Second Arrangement years ago, prior to the internet age, but I’ve never heard anything from it. Thanks for bringing it up. I’m sure I should easily be able to find those recordings online now.

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      • Daddydinorawk
        January 21, 2017

        Yeah the 15 year old remasters work great for me. Plus I love the liner notes.

        Like

      • I never saw the liner notes since I didn’t get those remasters. There’s a good essay in the box set, though, so those are my go-to versions of those albums. Even though they squeeze them onto 4 CDs, I tend to listen from beginning to end anyway.

        Like

      • Craig
        January 26, 2017

        The first 7 Steely Dan CDs go for $4-6 each new on Amazon. No deluxe reissues. So, on a good day $35 gets you the entire 1970s output through Gaucho. Aja and Pretzel Logic are $3.99 for prime members (and probably $4.99 for non-prime).

        I don’t often post but I read your blog all the time! Keep up the good work. In college in the early 90s my music teacher turned me on to Steely Dan. He was a young guy, master oboe player, and rock wasn’t his thing but the musicianship in Steely Dan, was for him, a difference maker in appreciating rock music.

        Like

      • Hi Craig. Thanks so much for stopping by. I really appreciate the kind words. That’s a very good point about the relative affordability for people to get their hands on the bulk of the Steely Dan discography. I realize a compilation might be sufficient for some listeners but there are too many great album tracks that you would miss that way. I’m not surprised to hear that their music appealed to a non-rock guy like your music teacher. They’re hard to categorize, and maybe that’s what makes them so special.

        Have a great weekend.

        Best…
        Rich

        Like

  10. Bill Van Orden
    January 20, 2017

    Steely Dan is one of my cornerstone bands….when I was younger, I felt that they were a band for an older crowd, but I LOVED their sound….honestly, as a kid, the first time I had enough money to buy records, Reelin’ in the Years, and Creedence were in the stack….AJA is one of my DESERT ISLAND DISCS… never get tired of it, (also love THE NIGHTFLY) and yes… it was my FIRST compact disc purchase, because I HAD to hear what I missed in vinyl. My wife thinks that it’s ‘OLD PEOPLE MUSIC” …..well, I guess I’m old. 40 years of reelin’ in my ears…. No apologies THANK YOU RICH!!!

    Like

    • Hi Bill. I agree that The Dan always seemed like sophisticated “older people” music but it still appealed to my young ears, probably because the songs were so catchy and the musicianship was incredible. There are several other albums in their catalog I enjoy just as much, but Aja is probably the ideal entry point for the uninitiated. It’s so consistent, without a single wasted note.

      Like

  11. J.
    January 21, 2017

    I really need to make more of an effort to check this one out – it’s been on my list for a while now.

    Like

    • You can’t go wrong with any Steely Dan album, even the two post-reunion albums, but the catalog through Aja is pretty stunning. I don’t think I’m over-selling the magnificence of their music.

      Liked by 1 person

      • J.
        January 24, 2017

        I’ve bumped Aja up the list a bit and next time I see it I’ll pick it up.

        Like

      • I’m sure you’ll be able to find it for a reasonable price, even though the album itself is priceless. Hope it lives up to the hype.

        Like

  12. Victim of the Fury
    January 21, 2017

    In my early teens I wasn’t ready to appreciate Steely Dan. It neither spurred me to rock out like KISS nor to travel the cosmos like Pink Floyd. I didn’t get it, seemed like it was for older fondue-party folk. I still remember clearly however the day when, at 18, I started up my stepdad’s truck out behind Winchell’s Donuts after having gotten my hair cut at Ed’s Barber Shop and heard a Steely Dan song coming out of the AM-FM radio. Just like that I finally got it. Unfortunately, what specific song that was is lost to me but as I listen to the Aja album while typing this, I realize it could have been any of these seven. Marvel indeed.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I can see why certain music lovers, especially rockers, would take some time to warm up to Steely Dan, but anyone with an open mind (and ears) would find a lot to love in their discography. I’m glad that happened to you. I think some of their earlier songs, like “Reelin’ In The Years,” “Bodhisattva” and “My Old School” are probably the best entry point for many listeners. Aja might be a little too jazzy & smooth for some folks.

      Like

  13. Murphy's Law
    January 21, 2017

    Sometimes you get the right one first off. I picked up this album out of a discount bin a few years ago. I had heard them on the radio but I was a little young for them when they were in their heyday. Loved it. I immediately went back and bought the others from the bin – Gaucho, Katy Lied and The Royal Scam.

    Like

    • Wow, not only did you pick a winner to start with, but you got it at a nice price. Well done. And even more impressive that you went back and got those other three. Did you ever get Pretzel Logic &/or Countdown To Ecstasy? On any given day either of those could be my favorite.

      Like

  14. Murphy's Law
    January 22, 2017

    I haven’t gotten around to those two yet. Those 4 and Gold are where I’m at at the moment.

    Like

    • Well, you’ve already got a nice Steely Dan collection working for you, and you have a few other great albums waiting to be discovered. Not a bad predicament to find yourself in.

      Like

  15. Uncle Meat
    January 22, 2017

    Great review of a great album. Well done.

    Peg will always be one of my favorite songs. Listening to that song with earphones really fuels my obsession with Michael McDonalds voice. The Classic Albums Aja episode …. is a musician’s dream to watch

    Like

    • Thanks, Uncle Meat. Happy to know you also love Aja. Michael McDonald’s voice is truly one-of-a-kind, and I completely agree about that “Classic Albums” episode. I just re-watched the segment about “Home At Last” just to see the uber-confident Bernard Purdie showing off his groove.

      Like

      • Uncle Meat
        January 24, 2017

        The Purdie Shuffle …..He is a monster.

        Like

      • Agreed. We might appreciate him but his biggest fan is…Bernard Purdie. I guess when you’re that good you can be cocky (er, confident).

        Like

  16. Musicizm by GlennVU
    March 5, 2017

    Time to pick up those classic Steely Dan records again. Gotta lov’em!

    Like

  17. Mary P
    April 11, 2017

    . Well, you’ve already got a nice Steely Dan collection working for you, and you have a few other great albums waiting to be discovered.

    Like

    • Thanks, Mary. Which to-be-discovered albums are you referring to? I’ve got the whole Steely Dan catalog and everything Becker & Fagen have released outside the group.

      Like

  18. artisticgold
    April 17, 2017

    Time goes out the window when I’m painting and listening to Steely Dan.

    Like

  19. Pingback: Forty Year Friday – CROSBY, STILLS & NASH “CSN” | KamerTunesBlog

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