Upon its September 1977 release, Steely Dan’s Aja simply stood apart, from the sleek limousine-black cover, to its mysterious title, to its impeccable sound and its musical cast of the best jazz and rock musicians extant. And over the four and a half decades since, time has done nothing to diminish its impact and stature as one of the greatest albums of the last half of the 20th century. Donald Fagen is my guest along with my archival interview with the late guitarist/composer Walter Becker for the inside story of “Black Cow”,”Josie”,”Peg”,”Deacon Blues”,”Home at Last”, and the sublime “Aja”.“When you’re out on the stage performing, you’re in ‘show business’,” the late Steely Dan co-founding guitarist Walter Becker reminded us in this classic rock interview, “and Donald (Fagen) and I never wanted to be in ‘show business’. We wanted to be musicians and play music.” Fagen asserts that, by the time of Steely Dan’s Aja release in Fall 1977, their intentions were much more high-minded than subversive. “We wanted to expand the vocabulary of Pop music.”
The record certainly supports the conclusion of mission accomplished in support of that goal, beginning with Steely Dan’s initial Can’t Buy a Thrill in 1972 (criminally omitted from Best Debut Album lists); the tasty Countdown to Ecstasy; the uneven Pretzel Logic; the musical bridge to future glory, Katy Lied in 1975, arguably the equal to Aja in almost every way, and possibly the strongest set of songs since the debut; the dark shadowy return to their native Big Apple in decay, The Royal Scam in 1976; and the timeless jewel at the intersection of Rock and Jazz Fusion on Aja the following year. But don’t expect our heroes to take a bow, not then and not since.
“Self-loathing is really our specialty,” deadpanned Donald Fagen with a verbal rimshot. Those two purveyors of progressive pop, rock, and jazz in Steely Dan, singer/piano player Fagen and the late guitarist Walter Becker, discussed Aja, such a high water mark in latter day 20th century music that Rolling Stone magazine ranks Aja at #145 on their Top 500 Albums of All Time because of such perennials as “Black Cow”,”Deacon Blues”,”Peg”,”Home at Last” ( inspired by Homer’s The Odyssey), the great groove on “Josie”, and the dizzying title song nailed in one take! –Redbeard