Donald Fagen likes to make fun of the aging hippies who attend Steely Dan concerts. “Tonight the crowd looked so geriatric I was tempted to start calling out bingo numbers. By the end of the set, they were all on their feet, albeit shakily, rocking. … So this, now, is what I do: assisted living.”
During most of 1977, Steely Dan worked on their best and most ambitious album, Aja. Released in the fall of 1977, it became their first platinum album. Like several prior releases, it won a Grammy for best-engineered album, an award for Album of the Year continuing to elude them. “This is the first album,” per Fagen, “to include the elusive combination of the soak, the salta, the awn and the alder.” Which, in the mind of the Dan, I’m sure is fraught with meaning.
British musician Ian Dury said, “Aja‘s got a sound that lifts your heart up.. and it’s the most consistent up-full, heart-warming [album].. even though, it is a classic LA kinda sound. They’ve got a skill that can make images that aren’t puerile and don’t make you think you’ve heard it before… very Hollywood filmic in a way, the imagery is very imaginable, in a visual sense.”
The title song, with a full-on guitar/sax/drum break starting at 4:13 may well be their jazziest song ever. Jazz great Wayne Shorter (Miles Davis, Weather Report) plays the sax and apparently drummer Steve Gadd nailed his part in one or two takes. (Gadd famously played drums on “Fifty Ways To Leave Your Lover.”) Is there anything even remotely played on the radio today that sounds anything like this and attains this level of popularity?
Double helix in the sky tonight
Throw out the hardware let’s do it right
When all my dime dancing is through
I run to you
Even though only Becker and Fagen were Steely Dan, they’d by now been working with the session players enough that those guys not only knew what they wanted but had developed tighter playing relationships. The bass player and drummer had laid down a tight groove for the song “Peg,” and all that was needed was a hot guitar solo.
Every session guitarist gave it a shot but it wasn’t until Jay Graydon tried it that the guys heard what they wanted. Say what you will about perfection, the one-take improvised solo gets nailed here. (Michael McDonald’s backing solo is pretty prominent here too):
And after this, things started to happen, not all of them good. Personally, I think the guys’ perfectionism caught up with them on the 1980 album Gaucho. Previous to this, they had always been able to make the music swing, make it exciting.
But on Gaucho, hmm, well, I don’t know. I can still remember a DJ introducing it as “Steely Dan’s boring new album.” Listen, it’s not a bad album. But without playing it, the only songs I can remember off the top of my head are “Time out of Mind,” and “Hey Nineteen.” The latter, about a middle-aged guy trying to get to know a young girl, still holds up and is always on classic rock radio.
The Cuervo Gold
The fine Columbian
Make tonight a wonderful thing
But more importantly, the guys were not only running out of steam creatively but Walter Becker had a real pile-on of bad shit. In short order, he got addicted to drugs, his girlfriend died of an overdose and her mother sued him (acquitted), he got hit by a car and broke his leg. (He ultimately wound up moving to Maui and got his act together.)
But this was effectively the end of Steely Dan. For a long while. The guys still got along but they were no longer a creative unit. Fagen went on to record a terrific concept album called The Nightfly, and a less successful one called Kamakiriad.
His girlfriend, later wife, got him to start playing in clubs around town which evolved eventually into various revues culminating in the Dukes of September Rhythm Revue, which included Michael McDonald and Boz Scaggs. (Fagen’s book Eminent Hipsters includes an insightful look at the drudgery of touring, especially when you’re not Steely Dan and you don’t stay at the Four Seasons.)
Becker did some solo stuff but wound up producing albums for others, most notably a terrific Rickie Lee Jones album called Flying Cowboys. (When I eventually gave up on vinyl, this was the first CD I ever bought.) He actually started to enjoy not over-producing stuff. Gradually, even though he was in Hawaii and Fagen in New York, he got back into that NYC orbit (and produced Kamakiriad.)
And by 1993, against all odds and defying all logic, the guys started touring together again as Steely Dan. Why, I don’t know since their CD sales alone prevent them from being – in Fagen’s words – lounge singers. I guess in their “old age” they started to enjoy it.
I had heard a live album, thought it was fairly lifeless and didn’t think they could reproduce their studio sound live. But, despite that, we went to see them 5 – 6 years ago and it was a blast from beginning to end. Happy to admit I was wrong on that one.
Revitalized, Steely Dan released an album called Two Against Nature in 2000. Nominated for a Grammy, they finally won one. However, some rapper – I think it was Eminem – expected to win it and people were clearly not happy that some old ’70’s dinosaur band had won. I think it was actually given to them for their body of work. Their last album, Everything Must Go, came out in 2003. The guys are still touring (right now in fact as I write this) but I somehow doubt there’ll be much new product.
As to those last two albums, there’s a couple of good cuts and nothing is badly played of course. But I listened to them again while I was working on this series and for me, too much of it plays like watered-down jazz lite. I was looking at their recent set lists and with one or two exceptions, they pretty much stick to their classic era.
Coda: In addition to the Grammy, in 2010 the Library of Congress selected Aja for inclusion in the United States National Recording Registry based on its cultural, artistic or historical significance. It is number 145 on Rolling Stone magazine’s Top 500 album list.
Based on what Becker/Fagen said on their box set Citizen, I had thought there were no other songs out there. Well, there are no other songs they like. Their first single, “Dallas/Sail the Waterway,” is up on YouTube. An album called Old Regime, has a bunch of their early stuff, also much of which is on YouTube as well. (For the completist). Some of this stuff isn’t bad, just not up to their exacting standards.
The Dan also did a really good song called “FM” for a lousy movie of the same name. On October 29, 2015, for the 50th anniversary of the installation of a Master FM Antenna on the top of the Empire State Building, the global landmark synchronized its tower lights to this song. (Another great Becker solo at the end).
And way back in the early days, they scored a Richard Pryor movie called You’ve Got to Walk it Like You Talk it Or You’ll Lose That Beat. So there’s your weekend shot to hell if you need to hear this stuff.
In 2001, Becker and Fagen received Honorary Doctor of Music degrees from Berklee College of Music in Boston. (Fagen studied there one summer back in the Sixties.) They have sold more than 40 million albums worldwide and were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in March 2001.
Walter Becker was unable to tour in 2017. Following an undisclosed illness, he died on September 3, 2017.
In the night you hide from the madman
You’re longing to be
But it all comes out on the inside
—-Here at the Western World