Don Breithaupt’s book on Aja has just hit stores. It’s a very smart dissection of Steely Dan – one of those interesting pop acts where there’s almost no consensus as to what might be their finest achievement. The book includes some fascinating comments from Donald Fagen, as well as Breithaupt’s incisive analysis. Here’s an extract from the chapter called “This Is the Day”…
Conventional wisdom tells us the artists that made up the California scene of the seventies were of a piece, as though Warren Zevon’s methods were Ry Cooder’s, as though it could be anything but geographical accident that Lowell George and Al Jarreau were making records in the same city. Reductionist malarkey! California pop was as varied and finally précis-proof as the era-shattering commotion that followed it. Shared colleagues (Rick Marotta, Don Grolnick, Sherlie Matthews) aside, Steely Dan had about as much in common with Linda Ronstadt as Elvis Costello had with Bananarama.
West coast music was commonly associated with the earnest, first-person folk rock of Jackson Browne, but the airing out of emotional laundry interested Steely Dan not at all: Donald Fagen approvingly cited a New York Times interview in which Randy Newman had decried the then-current mania for “personal” songs. Neither Becker nor Fagen was the implied “I” in their lyrics, and their penchant for irony meant nothing could be taken at face value. When Steely Dan told you to how to have fun, fun, fun (see “Everyone’s Gone to the Movies”), they weren’t driving you to the beach in Brian Wilson’s 409 — they were setting you up with the neighborhood whack job for an unchaperoned afternoon watching Super-8 porn. Los Angeles, the “dude ranch above the sea,” was all about everlasting summer; Steely Dan, the palest troubadours in the San Fernando Valley, were all about how it feels when it’s fading fast.
If Becker and Fagen were philosophically out of step with their fellow Los Angelenos, they were hardly immune to the culture at large. “We liked Stevie Wonder, of course,” says Fagen. “You know who I thought were going to do something really nice? Those two guys called Seals & Crofts. They had a very nice way of integrating jazz into their tunes. And I really liked Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks, and Stuff [Steve Gadd, Eric Gale, Richard Tee and company] in New York. John Sebastian was a great musician. I was influenced by the Lovin’ Spoonful a lot, especially as far as singing goes. I really dig John’s phrasing and the way he used to work his way around rhythmically. I liked Herbie Hancock’s stuff. I thought Head Hunters was kind of repetitive — those grooves would just go on — but he really knew how to get a nice sound. And I loved the drummers: Harvey Mason, all those guys who played with Herbie. I liked his guitarists, too, guys out in L.A. like Wah Wah Watson.” When Fagen was tapped as a guest for the BBC’s long-running Desert Island Discs radio show in 1990, he delineated his seventies tastes with a decade’s perspective, spinning tracks obviously Dan-compatible (Rickie Lee Jones’s “Chuck E’s in Love,” the Grateful Dead’s “Shakedown Street,” War’s “Low Rider”) and not (Elton John’s “Bennie and the Jets,” Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold,” John Lennon’s “Instant Karma”).
Even when something recognizably current infiltrated one of their records — Aja had the occasional Crusaders-like stretch — Steely Dan were finally a set of one. They were often said to represent some kind of fusion of jazz and rock, but were not a fusion group in the sense that, say, Return to Forever was. “I didn’t follow that debate, to tell you the truth,” says Fagen. “Most of the things that were called jazz rock that I was familiar with were pretty boring. I remember Jeremy [Steig] and the Satyrs, a jammy kind of group that was really boring. And Bitches Brew was essentially just a big trash-out for Miles. I haven’t really changed my mind about that. I liked In a Silent Way, but Bitches Brew just sounded kind of funny. It would have made a good soundtrack for a Fat Albert cartoon — but not as good as the Herbie Hancock one they actually had! To me it was just silly, and out of tune, and bad. I couldn’t listen to it. It sounded like [Davis] was shooting for a funk record, and just picked the wrong guys. They didn’t understand how to play funk. They weren’t steady enough. You know what I kind of liked? The Don Ellis big band. It was popular in New York. He had a quarter-tone trumpet, and there was this nice boogaloo-y big band chart they used to play on the jazz stations. But there wasn’t that much happening.” The jazz-rock tag, like other classifications, was used by journalists because it was convenient. Steely Dan were part of the California scene, but only because they happened to be there, not because they shared any particular left-coaster’s artistic aims (with the possible exception of Randy Newman). As future New York Times critic Jon Pareles observed in Crawdaddy! at the time, they were “so far removed from any competition that perhaps their only amusement [came] from outdoing themselves.”
The Village Voice’s 1977 “Pazz & Jop” poll found Aja (#5) surrounded by numerous punk and punk-related albums: the Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, Elvis Costello’s My Aim Is True, Graham Parker & the Rumour’s Stick to Me and the Jam’s In the City from London; Television’s Marquee Moon, Talking Heads’ Talking Heads: 77, Mink DeVille’s eponymous debut and the Ramones’ Rocket to Russia from New York. This served not to so much to contextualize Aja as to isolate it. Rock stringers of the day were falling all over themselves to reward dyspeptic do-it-yourself record makers for whom slickness was the cardinal sin; surely Becker and Fagen were the only auteurs in radioland scoring critical points with major ninth chords and hired sidemen.