Aja: Steely Dan’s Crown Jewel, 40 years on

This week, Steely Dan’s Aja author Don Breithaupt joins us to speak more about Aja, Steely Dan, and the legacy Walter Becker left behind, just weeks before the seminal album’s 40th anniversary.

By Don Breithaupt

Walter Becker, the younger, more enigmatic half of Steely Dan, died September 3rd, 2017 of an undisclosed illness. That left him just three weeks shy of making the scene for the recent 40th anniversary of Aja, the most popular, most acclaimed, and, let’s just say it, best of the Dan’s nine meticulously crafted studio albums. Becker might well have balked at the milestone. This is a man who kept his platinum award for Aja in the outhouse of his studio in Hawaii. And a man who said, on the occasion of Steely Dan’s long-awaited induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, “We’re persuaded it’s a great honor to be here tonight.”

Like his similarly quick-witted partner Donald Fagen, Becker was convinced anything that smacked of showbiz was utter nonsense, and while that may not qualify as Nobel-level insight, not many million-selling guitarists have the stones to stop touring mid-career — during the heyday of the double live LP, yet — and lay low for fifteen years waiting for inspiration to strike again. (Or was he waiting for the world to prove itself worthy of more of his subversive pop miniatures?).

As sometime Steely Dan sideman Steve Khan observed when I spoke to him for my 33⅓ book (Aja, Vol. 46, 2007), “It’s some deep psychological shit. [Becker and Fagen] could never finish anything, never let go of anything, never just say, that’s enough, let’s put it out. Donald and Walter threw out better tracks than most artists ever end up with.” Their standards were their own, and they would abide multiple sessions with A-list studio musicians until they heard what they were looking for, budgets and A&R departments be damned.

“The main thing was that they would let us keep making records,” Fagen told me. “We were mainly concerned with quality. While we were making the records, we thought they were all good. Then, after a while, we didn’t like them anymore for various reasons, and we’d say, ‘Well, we have to make a better one now.’ We weren’t worried about sales; we were just worried that if we didn’t have sales that equaled the first one, they wouldn’t give us a budget.”

The two songwriters had turned in their rock star credentials after retiring from the road in 1974, and, like the Beatles after Revolver, had retreated to the studio and locked the insulated door behind them. As the accolades rolled in — Newsweek dubbed them “the best American rock group of the seventies” — Steely Dan laid low. They remained a band in the public consciousness, but functioned behind the scenes more like a countercultural Bacharach/David. They were clearly in love with late-fifties jazz, whose hallmark was spontaneity, but tinkered endlessly with their celebrated soloists’ performances. Their heroes were improvisers, beat poets and hard-grooving soul stars, but their work was possessed of a high-tech spit polish that sometimes belied their tastes.

Still, for those in its spell, Steely Dan’s music has a freewheeling rush to it, a sense of exhilaration that comes at least in part from the sense that rules of pop conduct are being subverted — not subverted punk-style, where reverse-engineered simplicity trumps craft, but subverted by craft itself.  When the cultural bar has been lowered to the point of absurdity, the only revenge worthy of the name comes from reestablishing standards lost to laziness and expediency. It’s what Beatlemania was after Frankie Avalon.  An album like Aja matters not just because it contributes to civilization a handful of date-stamped audio treasures, but because it puts into sharp relief the dreck that surrounds it.

The notion of giving a heroes’ welcome to two bookwormish jazz aficionados utterly unconcerned with getting their live ya-ya’s out may not appeal to critics who subscribe to the “noble savage” theory of rock and roll, but inspiration isn’t bestowed on the basis of methodology, locale or educational background. To the muses, Manhattan is as good as Memphis, and Bard College, Becker and Fagen’s liberal-arts alma mater, is as good as the school of hard knocks. If we’re lucky, the 20th century’s best popular art will outlive that hackneyed (if not racist) debate. Authenticity comes from the darnedest places. Happy birthday, Aja!

To purchase or read more about Steely Dan’s Aja, visit our website, here.

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