In the 1970s my social contemporaries we largely tied to the music of Led Zeppelin, the Moody Blues, Rush, Pink Floyd, and the like. Not that I didn’t have an ear for it too, I did. Listening to the rock & roll of the day was among my primary hobbies. It was an era when vinyl was king, and the thematic or the complete album was central to FM radio. Though this was also the era of disco and the early stages of punk rock, the FM radio of the day was all about dirty hippies making well-orchestrated masterpieces.
Counter to most of my friends at that time, one band I focused on more than Frank Zappa, Uriah Heap, or Deep Purple was Steely Dan. This was a band most of my friends couldn’t connect with, yet they were my obsession. With those who did though, it did seemed like we spoke another language. Being a Steely Dan fan at the age of 15 landed one a very good seat at the rock & roll nerd table at school – just behind the kids from the short bus.
The Scope and The Band…
Steely Dan’s heyday was from 1972-1977, though they are still active today. Starting with their first album, Can’t Buy A Thrill, the primary players were producer Gary Katz and musicians Donald Fagan and Walter Becker. Many musicians showed up on Steely Dan albums through the years. In the early years, the same dozen or so players were granted parts on most of their first five albums.
As the band evolved, the varying players were depended on to raise their game with each successive album. If they did not, they would be used less or not at all. Notwithstanding that as their music style changed, there might be less of a need for a flugelhorn, and thus less of a need for flugelhorn player Snooky young. By the time their 5th album, The Royal Scam was released, the hierarchy of Fagan, Becker, and Katz was firmly in place, but also beginning to strain. Though it would be a year before the world would hear their 6th album, that year took forever – at least for me.
We all know what it’s like to anticipate an album release. In the pre-internet, non-digital music days of my teens, this was the first album I remember truly waiting for. All we had in 1977 was teasers from Rolling Stone magazine, word of mouth from friends, and hints from DJs to tell us when a new album might be out. The buildup for Steely Dan’s 6th album was overwhelming – by design. When Aja was finally released in 1977, I was at Peaches Records & Tapes before anyone that day. I took my fresh copy directly home and listened to both sides over and over for a couple of days on the Marantz stereo of my teens.
From the first track, Black Cow, I realized this album was distinct from any of their previous albums. It was large. Though they had always been a jazz influenced project, I never considered Steely Dan anything other than rock & roll. In hindsight so many years later, I consider Aja the first jazz album I ever owned.
This was Steely Dan’s best album – period. Aja was made when producer Katz still had some say and control over the rotating players of the project that Fagan and Becker abused in process. Aja was Fagan’s vision, but it was to be was Katz’ finest work as producer. From beginning to end, there’s not a single bad track:
Peg Home at Last
I Got the News
No matter where my tastes in music have drifted through the years; punk rock, country, Americana, the paisley underground, blues, and jazz, Aja has been a constant, and has never been out of my rotation. I have owned Aja on vinyl 3 times, on cassette, on CD, and now I stream it digitally on a regular basis. Though the delivery system has changed through the years, the effect has not.
Listening to the song Deacon Blues frames my mind in the same way sitting on a jetty and staring the ocean’s vague horizon does. Time slows down. I relax. I breathe more deeply, and forget all things but the moment. Listening to the song Aja after a long day is like the first glass of wine before dinner; it subdues the monkeys perpetrating lesser thoughts in my head.
All these years later when I think of the 70s as a collective, I don’t default the image of a powder blue Volkswagen Bug with bold flower stickers all over it, Richard Nixon, The Godfather, images of Vietnam, hot pants, women’s lib, or even the Rolling Stones. When I think of the 70s, I think first of Aja, its album cover, the arrangements and the artistry it contains. I think of driving my Ford Fairlane to the edge of town alone on a Friday night, turning my Pioneer Super Tuner to 11, and laying on the hood — transporting my soul to a place I can’t fully define.
If the fingerprints of my past are responsible for the all marks that have made my soul so scuffed and leathered through the years, being touched by Aja gives that soul a smooth feel and a golden tone – if only for an hour. Be well… rc
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Please check back in a few weeks to see what happens when I hit the STOP button on the blender in my head. Oh, and there’s this from Steely Dan’s album Pretzel Logic. Enjoy!