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‘Aja’ at 40: Why Steely Dan’s Audiophile Masterpiece Is Also Kind of Punk

Issued 40 years ago this week, Steely Dan’s sixth studio album “Aja” is still a demarcation point for a great divide among rock listeners.

The main bone of contention was picked at in Rolling Stone’s original review of the album, which was released Sept. 23, 1977.

Critic Michael Duffy wrote, “‘Aja’ will continue to fuel the argument by rock purists that Steely Dan’s music is soulless, and by its calculated nature antithetical to what rock should be.”

The rap against Steely Dan had been in play since its beginnings as a working rock group, which dated back to its debut album “Can’t Buy a Thrill” in 1972, and persisted through co-founders Donald Fagen and the late Walter Becker’s abandonment of the band format for a studio-based configuration employing a host of top studio musicians.

“Aja,” Fagen and Becker’s sixth LP, only amplified the carping. It was a work of gleaming surfaces, buffed to a high gloss by the band’s longtime producer Gary Katz and an ultimately Grammy-winning team of engineers. Its reflected light blinded the eye to what lay beneath.

Its seven songs burst with sophisticated changes, exquisitely played by such jazz luminaries as saxophonist Wayne Shorter and keyboardist-vibraphonist Victor Feldman (both graduates of Miles Davis’ ‘60s bands) and session pros like bassist Chuck Rainey, drummers Steve Gadd, Jim Keltner and Bernard Purdie, saxophonists Jim Horn and Plas Johnson, pianist Paul Griffin and guitarists Larry Carlton and Lee Ritenour.

“It was a work of gleaming surfaces, buffed to a high gloss by the band’s longtime producer Gary Katz and an ultimately Grammy-winning team of engineers. Its reflected light blinded the eye to what lay beneath.”

To be sure, Fagen and Becker were being true to their studio-obsessive, perfectionist natures as they sculpted their bestselling and most widely admired record. In a 2000 video about the making of the album, the pair can be seen offering tart commentary as they audition the rejected guitar solos cut for “Peg,” finally performed with angular precision by Jay Graydon. They knew what they wanted, and they labored hard to find the sweet spot.

Simply by itself, the sound of “Aja” – frequently used in its day by electronics chains to demonstrate the capabilities of high-end component audio systems – was a gauntlet thrown at the feet of contemporaneous punk bands, whose loud, spontaneous music arrived as a direct reaction to the toney, carefully calculated, expensively fabricated pop made by Steely Dan and such other big chart acts of the day as Fleetwood Mac, whose mega-hit “Rumours” was the sales champion of ’77.

Certainly, “Aja” gives up many of its pleasures easily; it is still among the most voluptuous-sounding recordings ever committed to tape. Nowhere is it more seductive than on the expansive, gear-shifting eight-minute title track (the longest ever cut by the band), which sports a compact, eruptive tenor solo by Shorter and a dense, thrilling drum excursion by Gadd.

The creamy sound of “Aja” made the song an album-radio cornerstone in 1977, while the album’s other six tracks were issued on three perky 45 rpm singles, with both “Peg” and “Deacon Blues” reaching the U.S. top 20.

Aja was released 40 years ago this week.

The album, which went on to sell 2 million copies, was (at least initially) anathema to a new generation of listeners who rejected the calculation of its expensive studiocraft. Which is in a way highly ironic, since Fagen and Becker’s gnomic lyrics spun stories as sharp-fanged and perverse as any found in the punk canon of the day.

Beyond their obvious allegiance to “Chinese music” (the term applied by Louis Armstrong to bebop), the art-schooled Dan maestros drew on a wealth of literary inspirations for their lyrics, which dealt heavily in subterfuge and misdirection, in the manner of a Times Square three-card monte game.

The influence of Beat forefather William S. Burroughs, whose scabrous experimental novel “Naked Lunch” spawned the band’s name, is always lurking behind the rocks, as are the dark comedians Bruce Jay Friedman and Terry Southern.

No high-lit precursor made as abiding an impact on Steely Dan’s music as did the Russia-born novelist Vladimir Nabokov, for whom Fagen and Becker shared a mutual love. The author of such satiric, game-playing books as “Lolita” and “Pale Fire” contributed his cloaked scenarios, unreliable narrators and caustic observations of human madness to their songs.

The hypnotic suavity of the musical concepts on “Aja” and Fagen and Becker’s propensity for writing brainy, elliptical lyrics manage to obscure the sometimes Stygian stories at the album’s core.

“The hypnotic suavity of the musical concepts on “Aja” and Fagen and Becker’s propensity for writing brainy, elliptical lyrics manage to obscure the sometimes Stygian stories at the album’s core.”

Take the record’s lead-off track “Black Cow.” The song’s silken, soul-derived groove (propelled by Rainey’s fat bass lines), Feldman’s pristine electric piano solo and Tom Scott’s tenor sax outburst all cloak the tale of a man at odds with his drug-addicted, promiscuous girlfriend, whom he may or may not be clandestinely stalking.

Likewise, the ingratiating No. 19 hit “Deacon Blues” sports one of Fagen and Becker’s many unreliable protagonists: a delusional suburbanite who has decided to reinvent himself as a saxophone-playing creature of the nighttime demimonde. The jittery “I Got the News” — which incredibly made it to the B side of the single “Josie” — is nothing more or less than a description of an especially sweaty all-night sex bout.

Is the unnamed actress of “Peg,” as some believe, actually starlet Peg Entwistle, who leaped to her death from the Hollywood sign in 1932? It’s not outside the realm of possibility. Is “Josie,” as writer Brian Sweet has suggested, about an oceanside orgy celebrating the jail release of a female convict? Again, not an unreasonable conclusion.

For Fagen and Becker, the beautifully tooled music they made with their studio cohorts served as the ultimate alienation effect. The true import of their work, which addressed forbidden impulses that moved to the edge of crime and frequently beyond, was always garbed in satiny elegance; its sardonic and horrific essence was marketed as the purest ear candy.

To this day, “Aja” is a thing of musical beauty with a hard-edged heart, and a consummate act of creative sleight-of-hand.

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