Steely Dan – Aja

Remember when Chevy Chase was funny?  It seems like an age has gone by since it was true…and before his train wreck of a talk show sort of sealed his fate.

Not that I blame him, at the time they were giving out late night talk shows to just about anyone and only Conan survived the carnage. And it seems like he was only real funny when he was coked up, which is a shame. The man was Fletch for God’s sake!  And Clark Griswold, Dusty Bottoms and Ty Webb! He was like the Harrison Ford of smarmy comedy.  And man, did he do it well.  And aside from all that he used to be the drummer for Steely Dan.

True story.

Well, kind of…since they really weren’t called Steely Dan at the time. But I’m getting ahead of myself, and I don’t think you can blame Chevy for not staying with the band since the only two constants have always been Don Fagen and Walter Becker.  Everyone else has been pretty liquid.

Fagen and Becker met in 1967 at Bard College in New York and quickly formed a bond over their shared love of music…especially jazz. They began writing together and playing in local groups like The Bad Rock Group (AKA Leather Canary) where Chevy had a brief stint as their drummer.  I wonder what Chevy’s life would have been like had he just been Steely Dan’s drummer, but any attempt to imagine someone else playing Fletch makes me shiver with horror.

After a while playing cover songs and living like filthy beatniks, Fagen and Becker slowly drifted away from their friends…moving to Brooklyn to try and sell their songs.  Kenny Vance, who had an office in the same building and worked with his own group: Jay and the Americans, liked their material enough that he got them work doing the soundtrack to the overly long named Richard Pryor film “You’ve Got to Walk It Like You Talk It or You’ll Lose That Beat.”

Yeah, I’ver never heard of that one either.

Apparently Becker and Fagen weren’t to thrilled by it either, but it was a paid gig.  The created a series of demos between 1968 and 1971, all of which don’t exist except in bootleg form (yay bootlegs!)  They had no success, and were soon touring with Jay and the Americans, where they built a reputation for their anti-social behavior.  They might have vanished into obscurity until a friend, Gary Katz, dragged them to LA to become staff writers for ABC Records.

The only problem was that Fagen and Becker’s stuff was too complex for the ABC roster, being that so much of it was built on jazz scales. Katz suggested they form a band, which they did and named it Steely Dan after a strap-on dildo from William Burroughs novel “Naked Lunch.”  They released “Can’t Buy A Thrill” in 1972 and their stock began rising.  With a knack for working with nothing but top notch studio musicians and a reputation for perfectionism beyond what anyone could believe, Steely Dan released an album a year until 1977, when “Aja” dropped.

What sets ‘Aja’ apart from the other works was it’s return to the thing Fagen and Becker loved most…jazz.  They brought in top names like Lee Ritenour and Wayne Shorter, and even Michael McDonald as backing vocals on the chart topping ‘Peg.’  But the album also includes such transcendent hits like ‘Black Cow,’ ‘Josie’ and ‘Deacon Blues.’  But what makes Steely Dan and “Aja” so great aren’t just the hits, but the sound. They sound like a seventies band, but at the same time not so much.  In a time when everything fit nicely into a particular genre, Steely Dan didn’t.  They made their own noise, and that’s what keeps them relevant today.

Unlike Chevy Chase.


2 Responses to “Steely Dan – Aja”

  1. 1 Louis
    October 8, 2008 at 8:16 pm

    Aja would definitely be on my “desert island list.”

  2. 2 tgoodloe
    July 25, 2010 at 7:40 am

    It amazes me how few of the players in Steely Dan were actually members of the band. Don’t get me wrong, I love Steely Dan’s work for the first eight years of their career. But this group was dependent on outside talent to give flavor to their best songs.


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