DEACON DAN

Over the past two-and-a-half years, Vinyl Connection has avoided writing about many of its long-term favourite albums. How to put the love into words? Can something fresh be discovered? Steely Dan’s sixth album is a case in point. It has long been a favourite —as seen in those troublesome ‘Best’ lists— yet I have baulked at the prospect of trying to share something of its enduring magic. Well, the baulking is over, friends. I offer you (Steve Gadd drumroll, please)… Aja.

Sue me if I play too long.

Steely Dan - aja

From its striking cover —timeless in its enigmatic simplicity— to the fadeout of the final song, this record resides comfortably in classic album territory despite sharing few similarities with other 1977 commercial monsters such as Fleetwood Mac Rumours or The Eagles Hotel California. Where Fleetwood Mac simply fizzed with positive energy when they thought about tomorrow (‘Don’t Stop’), one of Steely Dan’s protagonists dreamed of dying behind the wheel (‘Deacon blues’). While the Eagles’ Jesus people sought salvation at ‘The Last Resort’, the Dan’s pagan Josie ‘prays like a Roman with her eyes on fire’. Recorded primarily in sunny California, it set Raymond Carver-esque stories of wanderers and misfits in a heartless Gotham city that seems shadowy, no matter how bright the sun. But then, the fire in her eyes is most clearly seen at night.

IMG_5869

BLACK COW [A1]

The first song and already I’ve hit an impasse. Which copy of Aja should I listen to for this article? Perhaps the vinyl re-issue by Back on Black. It is a nice job and the record is new. Somehow the red vinyl Canadian pressing I picked up in suburban Melbourne years ago must also be included. The re-mastered CD was pretty good —better, anyway, than the muddy sound of the disappointing Citizen Steely Dan CD box set. Or that Original Masters copy purchased only last year —bloody expensive for ‘not great’ condition but outstanding clarity. Better audition them all with ‘Black Cow’, Aja’s opening song of alcoholic dissipation and relationship disintegration.

Five spins later, here is the assessment of each version in descending order.

  1. Mobile Fidelity Original Master vinyl (1977). Warmth, detail, immediacy. The way the cymbal splashes hang in the air. A fully three-dimensional soundstage. Worth every penny, despite the surface noise.
  2. CD Re-master (1999). Great detail, open sound. Horns sound great; full and rich. Perhaps a smidgen less presence than MFOM.
  3. Vinyl Re-issue (2008). Excellent sound. Vocals seem slightly more forward, for some reason. The ‘Black Cow’ Fender Rhodes solo sparkles like groovy tinsel.
  4. Box set CD (1993). Soundstage quite two-dimensional; less detail than 1–3, though surprisingly warm sound, especially the backing vocals.
  5. Coloured vinyl (1977). Least detail; a bit flat all round. Looks great though.

AJA [A2]

The March 2000 edition of Mojo magazine boasted a cover photo of the Sex Pistols: ‘Nauseating, filthy, obscene’. Inside, as well as an entirely un-erotic full-page photo of Sid Vicious licking Nancy Spungen’s nipple, was a substantial feature on Steely Dan. It is easy to imagine that Messrs Fagen and Becker found the irony delicious. Much more tasty than Sid’s snack, anyway. But I digress. A side-bar article chose six of the band’s ‘most succulent cuts’ and Aja’s title track was among them.

Their masterpiece. Eight minutes of densely arrange fusion-pop with vivid and exotic themes, a pervading sense of oriental yearning and a breathtaking instrumental passage featuring a multi-climactic duet between drummer Steve Gadd and saxophone legend, Wayne Shorter.

Fagen: ‘We went for the whole eight minutes in one take. It was the only sensible way to do it. We played the musicians some kind of piano demo —piano and guitar and us stamping our foot— and we had long charts made up. Steve Gadd taped it up on his drum kit, we did a couple of takes and that was it.’ [MOJO, p.89]

If you say so, Donald. I love the cool, spare guitar solo of long-time collaborator Denny Dias and the 50s sci-fi synth under the closing drum solo.

DEACON BLUES [A3]

An unlikely single (US #19), the song completing Aja’s first side is a tale of yearning not for love, but for some kind of artistic transcendence. The protagonist sees himself living out the dream of the doomed jazz musician. There is a sense of sincerity, of vulnerability, when he sings,

I cried when I wrote this song

Sue me if I play too long

This brother is free

I’ll be what I want to be

But wait on, throughout most of the song he is observing, ‘I gazed through the glass’, or looking towards a future, ‘I’ll learn to work the saxophone’, not living the present. Perhaps it’s all a delusion, ‘a world of my own’. This is the enigmatic story-telling of Steely Dan at its absolute best, enriched by the jazz chops of saxophonist Pete Christlieb.

‘We wanted a hard bop player who could just come in and burn through a bunch of unfamiliar changes without having to screw around,’ says Fagen. Christlieb navigated the song’s harmonically intricate landscape in a single take… and true to the songwriters’ plan, he brought an authenticity to the track. [Breithaupt, p. 51]

1001 Albums finds the song ‘as tender as it is bleakly humorous’ [p. 380]. While ‘Aja’ is the spiritual core of the album, ‘Deacon Blues’ is its bruised heart.

Aja Red vinyl

PEG [B1]

A ‘solid party tune’ according to 1001 Albums, ‘Peg’ is also ‘irresistibly funky’, largely due to Chuck Rainey’s bass joyously shagging Rick Marotta’s drums. They are one sexy coupling. Perhaps that was part of the problem when it came to the guitar solo.

Many of the hottest guitar players in Los Angeles tried to play the legendary guitar solo in ‘Peg’ to Becker and Fagen’s satisfaction. In all about eight different guitarists attempted it in what Becker and Fagen described as a ‘pantonal 12-bar blues with chorus’. Larry Carlton tried it, Robben Ford tried it, Walter Becker tried it himself twice, but in the end it was Jay Graydon who nailed what they were looking for. [Sweet, p. 146]

Not that employing different players concerned Donald and Walter. Over thirty were used during the Aja recording sessions, a continuation of the practice they had developed over past albums. You might think that this annoyed the session musicians, but not so.

‘Amongst players in LA, working on their stuff was a very big deal,’ confirms Lee Ritenour. ‘You’d see guys at other sessions, and they’d be asking, “Did your solo make it?”’ Chuck Rainey says his ‘presence on the recording of Aja has done more for my career than all the other projects put together.’ [Breithaupt, p. 55]

Frustration? Maybe. Dissatisfaction? Nup. Peg, it will come back to you.

HOME AT LAST [B2]

Perhaps an update of Homer’s odyssey, or maybe an observation on wandering geographically while being immobilized emotionally, the wistful quality of ‘Home at last’ makes it my favourite moment on Aja. Even Michael Phalen, who provided acerbic liner notes to the original release, liked this one; ‘Beneath the attractive, effortless flow of words and music, one discovers a lyric presence and finesse of perception that is a rare thing on disc nowadays.’

Well the danger on the rocks is surely past

Still I remain tied to the mast

Could it be that I have found my home at last

Home at last

Is that repeat of the final phrase an echo or a sigh? Or perhaps the fantasy of the eternal exile? Meticulous attention to detail in the lyrics contributes much to the timelessness of the songs; Cole Porter is both hero and model. Alliteration, assonance and metaphor are deployed extensively. By polishing the language but not nailing down meaning, Fagen and Becker leave inviting portals in their stories for the listener to move in and out of at will.

I GOT THE NEWS [B3]

The liner notes to the original release became infamous due to writer Michael Phalen complaining about this song’s ‘pointlessly obscene lyric’. If you are curious (and who wouldn’t be), look up ‘Spanish kissing’ in the Urban Dictionary. Becker and Fagen remained sufficiently pissed off twenty years later to use much of their 1999 CD booklet essay to poke fun at the hapless journalist. Written originally for The Royal Scam sessions [Sweet, p.150], the song itself jumps and bounces with wicked energy. Doobie Brothers fans will enjoy Michael MacDonald’s contribution to the backing vocals.

JOSIE [B4]

The other danceable and sing-along-able song on Aja closes out the album. It seems like a fast-ish R&B groover but, as Breithaupt [p.48] observes, ‘why use three chords when eight will do?’ Interesting structures were never the goal of Steely Dan songs, they just emerged from the composers desire to create something different that would entertain them (and hopefully others too). Here is Breithaupt’s breakdown of the structure of ‘Josie’.

INTRO [8 bars]

VAMP [8 bars]

VERSE [16 bars]

CHORUS [8 bars]

VAMP [4 bars]

VERSE 2 [16 bars]

CHORUS [8 bars]

INTERLUDE [8 bars]

GUITAR SOLO [16 bars]

CHORUS [8 bars]

RE-INTRO —3 extra beats [8 bars]

TAG W/ GUITAR FILLS [approx. 27 bars]

Knock yourself out following this chart as you listen. Or just bop along to a great minor key blues song energised by R&B groove and jazz stylings. Because the point is this: Becker and Fagen made rock albums filled with songs they found interesting to write and play. The criticisms of coldness, intellectualism, elitism or contrariness were (and are) empty carping. Lee Ritenour said, ‘They were the singer-songwriters who loved jazz’. Some may have a problem with that, but I do not.

Let’s give the last word on Aja to an unlikely fan:

“Up-full and heartwarming… it’s a record that sends my spirits up” — Ian Dury [1999]

Aja sources

REFERENCES / SOURCES

Breithaupt, Don [2007] Aja. 331/3 Series, Continuum, NY/London.

Dickson, Jamie. “Steely Dan – Aja”, in 1001 Albums You Must Here Before You Die [ABC Books, 2001]

Ingham, Chris. “Joined at the hip”, in MOJO – The Music Magazine [#76, March 2000]

Sweet, Brian [2008] Steely Dan. Omnibus, London UK.

Classic Albums: Steely Dan – Aja. Eagle Vision DVD, 1999

Aja Mobile Fidelity

Cover photo of model/actress Sayoko Yamaguchi by photographer Hideki Fujii

27 comments

  1. douglasharr · · Reply

    wonderful expose on one of the best albums of the 70’s or of any time…classic

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Doug. I don’t often tackle the classics – takes a lot of work to find something fresh! – but this was a labour of love. Very glad you enjoyed the piece.

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  2. Hey VC, I really enjoyed this. I saw you had written on Aja and so used it to accompany some time on the exercise machine this morning before actually reading your post. With the songs fresh in my mind, I was able to get much from your comments on each. I did have to stop at “Peg” to go back and re-listen to the guitar solo after that song’s entry; funny how many times I’ve heard the solo but not focused on its intricacies. I learned a lot about a great album, thanks! I do look forward to a possible “Part 2” in which you share more about why you personally hold the album so dear now that we’re all much better informed on it and therefore hopefully better able to understand the personal (vinyl) connection…

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Aja as workout music. Did the grooves infect your movements, I wonder?
      After posting, I watched the remainder of the Classic Albums dvd; Walter referred to Graydon’s ‘Peg’ solo as ‘polynesian’ flavoured, which was sort of helpful. They played a few of the rejected attempts too; all fine but Jay’s was the most distinctive.

      As for the personal, it is probable that if there had been a strong story of my encounter with Aja, I would not have resorted to (attempted) scholarly (but hopefully engaging) research. As it was, all I really recall was that I encountered Aja after I’d been listening to jazz for a couple of years and found the harmonies and structures such a refreshing change from the boogie rock and prog I mostly listened to. Not that I identified any direct jazz tropes, I think it was more the feel in the music and the highly polished yet stubbornly enigmatic lyrics.

      Thanks for joining in, Vic.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Cracking piece. You’re right up my street here. Loved the analysis of the album in its different formats. I’ve got the original vinyl (via my dad…), once had the Citizen Steely and now swear by the 1999 remaster, but must check out the vinyl again… By the way, I always assumed Michael Phalen was Becker/Fagen in disguise, doing their pisstake of a clueless music scribe. Will have to look into that. One last thing: have you checked out the fever dreams website? Very funny/interesting/strange fans’ takes on the lyrics, album by album. The analysis of ‘Peg’ was a revelation to me! http://feverdreams.whatsmykarma.com/

    Liked by 1 person

    1. In terms of ‘editions’, Matt, you could do much worse than the Back on Black re-issue if it’s vinyl you’re after. The Mob Fid discs tend to go for silly money in my experience.

      I believe Mr Phalen does exist, though I take your point. That his caustic liner notes were (a) submitted, and (b) approved (presumably by the ultra-controlling Fagen and Becker) is almost inconceivable. But it does say something about their ‘up yours’ attitude to The Biz.

      Thanks for the link. Though I’ve read about it, I’ve not checked it out yet. Something for the weekend…

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  4. It’s nearly impossible for me to pick my favorite Steely Dan album, but if I was forced to or suffer a tragic and painful fate, then Aja would be it. Ironically their most New York sounding record that they recorded in LA(which Gaucho is their most LA sounding record that was recorded in New York), you really got a sense of their longing for home on this album. While “Home At Last” was a take on Homer’s odyssey, it was really more a love song to Becker and Fagen’s home, the Big Apple. And I can only imagine how blown away those two were to have Mr. Wayne Shorter playing on the title track(his solo is undeniably genius I might add.) “Peg” still gets me, “Done up in blueprint blue, It sure looks good on you”. These guys were subversive without most even knowing it. I could just see mom and dad driving the kids around head bopping to “Peg” or “Babylon Sisters” and having no idea what was really being said in those songs. Genius.

    I’ve since gone back and bought original pressings of their albums, Aja being in the best shape(NM by my standards), but I started out with a cassette mix my best friend gave me back in the early 90s. Wasn’t a fan really up until that point. I got hooked with songs like “Through With Buzz”, “Kid Charlemagne”, and “Monkey In Your Soul”, but became obsessed because of “Haitian Divorce”, “Josie”, and “Everything You Did”. Bought a used copy of Steely Dan ‘Gold’, then in 1997 I received Citizen Steely Dan for my birthday. The rest is history, or so they say.

    Excellent write up of one of my favorite albums from one of my favorite bands.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Cheers, JH. Yes, I loved that East/West coast shuffle aspect to the music of Aja and Gaucho too.

      And thanks for highlighting the subversive nature of the lyrics. I think you could say that of the songs or even the entire album… that something this thoughtful and sophisticated could penetrate the upper regions of the album charts is both astounding and marvellous.

      Enjoyed reading of your Dan transition too. Sometimes gift cassettes and ‘Best of’ albums are indeed a gateway to a better life.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’ve been swayed by many gift mix tapes over the years. The gift that keeps on giving. At least until it wears out.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. You’ll get no argument from me. Such a great album, especially on vinyl, for Dan fans to get lost in. Wonderful examination. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks very much Michael. Glad to have you drop by.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Really great post, Bruce – really thorough and I reckon you sold this one to me (have I mentioned that I’m not familiar with any Steely Dan st all?)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well, I guess starting here would be a bit like opening one’s Beatles campaign with Revolver. Setting the bar high!
      For folk who like their rock a little less burnished, going chronologically with the Dan works well too.
      As always, thanks for joining in James.

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      1. I’ll get to checking out the Dan on the internets. I’ve added this one to the list, though; really like the sound of it.

        As for the Beatles … mnah.

        Liked by 2 people

  7. I have a copy I have never really listened to. I guess it is up next. Great write up it has intrigued me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Cheers. Hope you enjoy the spin!

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  8. Terry Fallis had a good line, why use 7 words when 35 will do – I like that why use 3 chords when 8..!
    Nice post – I enjoyed the Ian Dury closer. When George Harrison died, I remember one of my favourite tributes that I read was from Motorhead’s Lemmy – you never know how far the influence will reach!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That is so true. And a worthwhile reminder that musicians make music. It’s journalists and marketers who add categories and divisions.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Time to admit my lacking: I haven’t ever heard this record all the way through. Your excellent, insightful and entertaining write-up tells me I really oughta correct that. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I guess that for me variety is the musical spice of life. If that concept appeals, you’ll surely get something out of Steely Dan. Thanks for stopping by Aaron.

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      1. Oh it absolutely does appeal to me – it’s Deke that calls me the melting pot when it comes to music! Looks like I can make up most of the album on the tunes of you. I’m on it! Thanks!

        Liked by 1 person

  10. I really enjoyed your piece, more than I enjoy the album if I’m being honest. I have a downloaded copy and I have listened to it a few times now, but without it clicking for me yet. I am happy to keep trying from time to time.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Joe, I sort of knew this isn’t really your bag. If I was trying to turn you on to Steely Dan, however, I’d strongly recommend the second album, ‘Countdown to Ecstacy’. I think the greater immediacy might connect better. Or I might be wrong.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Okay, I’ll check it out – Aja is the only one I have.

        Liked by 1 person

  11. Great piece on a great album. CB was just listening to ‘Countdown’ the other day. ( Probably coming up in CB’s takes in near future. He listened to them a lot back then. Big part of his musical experience) They had so many good ones and then hit it out of the park with Aja

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hard to pick a bad album in the whole Dan catalogue, I reckon!

      Liked by 1 person

  12. […] To read more on this classic album I recommend the following: Geoff Stephens’ succinct review at 1001albumsin10years and Bruce Jenkins’ characteristically thorough overview at Vinyl Connection […]

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