Written By Braddon S. Williams

Steely Dan: Aja

Music at its best can act as a time machine, transporting us to special moments and places in our past history. Music can link us to places, people and events with a vivid mix of nostalgia and reality.

Steely Dan’s Aja (1977) always delivers me to gatherings that one of my best friends in the world would have back in our high school years.

My friend (brother) would invariably choose music from “The Dan” (particularly Aja) as the soundtrack to his parties, and Aja was perfection for this purpose.

It is almost as if the music that Donald Fagan and Walter Becker created together simply demanded a civilized and elegant gathering of kindred spirits.

Class, elegance, beauty, and a pervasive cool permeated this entire album: every note was in the proper place, and every song was an instant classic.

All these years later, Aja, and indeed Steely Dan’s entire catalog, retains an aura of excellence. I’m not even going to single out any of the 7 glorious songs on this album.

It is a work that demands to be taken in as an entire unit, and whether on vinyl, cassette, compact disc, or streamed, Aja remains a modern masterpiece…a seamless blend of pop, rock, jazz, smooth soul, and dedication to a superior vision.

Aja is timeless, and it is a time machine that always takes me to lovely destinations.

Influences And Recollections of a Musical Mind

On this date in history, 6/24/2018, a dear friend and I attended The Summer Of Living Dangerously Tour featuring Steely Dan and The Doobie Brothers at Deer Creek (or Ruoff Music Center if you want to get technical)! In recent years, classic bands have been staging these package tours in the summer months featuring 2 or 3 co-headliners. This is great for the promoters, the fans, and the bands themselves. I was thrilled at this combination, having never seen either band before. One of my best friends would always play music by these two iconic groups at parties he would throw when his parents were away while we were in high school, so there was a high degree of nostalgia permeating this show for me. The Doobie Brothers kicked things off with a stellar set of predominantly hits and fan favorites. Long time members Patrick Simmons and Tom Johnston handled the majority of lead vocals and both played topnotch lead guitar, along with John McFee, who also added some violin work on a couple of tunes. Bill Payne (of Little Feat fame) played keyboards and there was a phenomenal sax player who earned a lot of solo spots and elevated every song he was featured on. Steely Dan took everything to the next level, providing excellence in every facet of their performance. Donald Fagan led his extraordinary live band through a treasure trove of Steely Dan highlights including Kid Charlemagne, Aja, Babylon Sisters, Reeling In The Years, Dirty Work, Black Cow, Peg, Hey Nineteen, Bodhisattva, Green Earrings, and My Old School. Every member of the band was hall of fame worthy on their chosen instrument, and the two women handling backing vocals added a lot of wonderful harmonizing and soulful feeling to the deliciously written songs. Of course, Walter Becker will always be missed, but Fagan seems dedicated to keeping Steely Dan alive and well as long as he can. This was a glorious night of blissful music…perfect weather and wonderful company made this a totally joyous occasion for me, one I will treasure always.

Written By The Concert Critic AKA Braddon S. Williams

On This Date in History

My first recollection of hearing Steely Dan was the song Reeling In The Years, and I remember being absolutely blown away by the sound and proficiency of the lead guitarist. This was several years before I actually started playing guitar, but the Dan’s music had made an early mark on my budding guitarist brain. Choosing an album to feature from them was a toss up, because their level of excellence was virtually unsurpassed in rock music. I decided to go with The Royal Scam from 1976 for no other reason than it was loaded with top shelf guitar work from Larry Carlton, Elliot Randall, Walter Becker, Dean Parks, and Denny Dias. The lead off song, Kid Charlemagne, remains one of my all time favorites, with some absolutely sublime soloing by Carlton. The title song and Don’t Take Me Alive are also standouts in an album with literally no weakness. In less than 3 weeks I will be seeing Steely Dan in concert for the very first time, and I am beyond excited to finally cross them off my musical bucket list!

Written By Braddon S. Williams

Influences And Recollections of a Musical Mind

The way the music we hear when we’re children infiltrates our psyche as we age is an infinitely intriguing thing. The relationships we build around those songs and records — the memories they cohabit with in the depths of our minds, the emotional factors that impact how we feel about those pieces of music as time goes on — is an unbelievably unique part of human conditioning.

I’m lucky to have parents with great taste in music, and while it might not have always been the edgiest nuggets providing the soundtrack to my youth, I was fortunate enough to be provided with an inadvertent primer on some of the good shit through my parents’ musical selections. One particular standout band that has jutted in and out of my life since I was a child is Steely Dan — perhaps the ultimate poster band for dad/mom-rock as a concept, undoubtedly the poster band for the laid-back, oft-maligned side of ‘70s rock ‘n’ roll, and in reality, one of the best bands the world has ever known.

Steely Dan’s music entered my life during a car ride with my parents. For me, the best part of riding around was listening to my parents music choices, and it was during these hours that I learned about music — usually guitar-based stuff as my father himself is a badass player that I learned about music.

One year while on vacation as we passed through D.C. as night fell, Steely Dan’s Alive in America found its way into the car’s stereo. A live joint from the ‘90s, the album opens with what I still believe to be the smoothest version of “Babylon Sisters” the band ever cut — languid and sparsely adorned, it was the chillest song we could possibly crack into the night drive with. At the time, the record merely provided pleasant sounds in the background while my dad and I made fart jokes, but the music would eventually seep into my blood. There was something about the character of Donald Fagen’s voice, even then, that had me hooked. While I now recognize Fagen as one of the most brilliant lyricists of all time, to my young ears, he was just an interesting-sounding guy. More important, for a budding saxophone nerd such as my young self, that album’s hooks were sunk in deep via the veritable buffet of badass guitar solos it’s laced with.

After that trip, Alive in America was one of the first of my parents’ CDs that I adopted into my own collection (read: stole). I slept to it. I read the liner notes over and over again. It was one of the albums that helped me on my way to becoming a true music fan. I didn’t get most of the shit they sung about, and I didn’t even much like anything else that sounded like Steely Dan, but there was a magic in that band’s sound that I couldn’t sort out or get past. Time went on, I got into punk-rock, I was indoctrinated into the world of metal, and I traveled the path of musical divergence from my parents. However, at some point, nostalgia for those road trips brought me back to Steely Dan, and it was then that I truly figured it out: Under the pretty daytime radio sonics, the sheen of jazz-infused guitar solos, and hidden within the story songs well out of the intellectual depth of the Everyone, Steely Dan is one of the most subversive bands on the planet, and represents everything that’s missing from popular music in 2018. Steely Dan is a band that filled its music with subversive lyrical content (pick any song off Aja and Google the lyrics), named itself after a dildo mentioned in a Burroughs novel, and wrung massive hits out of hyper-literate, truly thought-provoking content. And they play their asses off!

We’re missing intrigue, intellect, and subversion in our popular music these days more than ever, and while Steely Dan sets a high standard on all counts (and admittedly might not be everyone’s bag sonically), artists of their caliber simply don’t come around so often, and especially not in the music industry’s current climate.

Steely Dan Represents Everything Missing From Popular Music Today

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame-inducted bassist-guitarist’s partnership with Donald Fagen yielded classic LPs like ‘Aja,’ ‘Katy Lied’ and ‘Pretzel Logic’

Walter Becker, guitarist, bassist and co-founder of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame-inducted band Steely Dan, died Sunday at the age of 67.

Becker’s official site announced the death; no cause of death or other details were provided. 

“Walter Becker was my friend, my writing partner and my bandmate since we met as students at Bard College in 1967,” Donald Fagen wrote in a tribute to Becker. “He was smart as a whip, an excellent guitarist and a great songwriter. He was cynical about human nature, including his own, and hysterically funny.”

Becker missed Steely Dan’s Classic East and West concerts in July as he recovered from an unspecified ailment. “Walter’s recovering from a procedure and hopefully he’ll be fine very soon,” Fagen told Billboard at the time. Becker’s doctor advised the guitarist not to leave his Maui home for the performances.

Becker and Fagen first became collaborators when they were both students at New York’s Bard College. After working as songwriters (Barbra Streisand’s “I Mean to Shine”) and members of Jay and the Americans’ backing band, the duo moved to California in the early Seventies to form Steely Dan – named after a sex toy in William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch – alongside guitarists Jeff “Skunk” Baxter and Denny Dias, drummer Jim Hodder and singer David Palmer.

Following the release of their debut 1972 LP Can’t Buy a Thrill, the lineup would change again with Palmer’s exit; while Steely Dan would routinely rotate musicians, Becker and Fagen remained the group’s core members. Despite the ever-changing lineup, Steely Dan made their stamp on music with a string of pristine, sophisticated albums with “calculated and literary lyrics” that blurred the lines of jazz, pop, rock and soul.

“I’m not interested in a rock/jazz fusion,” Becker told Rolling Stone in 1974. “That kind of marriage has so far only come up with ponderous results. We play rock & roll, but we swing when we play. We want that ongoing flow, that lightness, that forward rush of jazz.”

He added, “I learned music from a book on piano theory. I was only interested in knowing about chords. From that, and from the Harvard Dictionary of Music, I learned everything I wanted to know.”

With Becker on bass, Can’t Buy a Thrill produced the hits “Reelin’ in the Years,” “Dirty Work” and “Do It Again.” Countdown to Ecstasy followed in 1973 with Fagen now entrenched as lead singer. Following 1974’s Pretzel Logic – which yielded the band’s biggest hit, “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” – the band experienced a major upheaval as in-demand touring musicians Dias, Baxter and Hodder all exited the quintet. “It was unfair of us to spend eight months writing and recording when Jeffrey Baxter and others in the group wanted to tour,” Becker told Rolling Stone in 1977. “We weren’t making very much money and everybody wanted to be out touring a lot. We didn’t. That was that.”

For 1975’s Katy Lied, the now-duo – with Becker also picking up guitar duties – surrounded themselves with a team of expert studio musicians that included Toto’s Jeff Porcaro, guitarist Hugh McCracken and Michael McDonald. “We don’t feel it’s something to be ashamed of,” Becker said of Steely Dan’s “enlarged-band concept.” “We had outside players on the first album. The Beatles did it quite a bit, by their own admission. A lot of things Eric Clapton played…everyone thought it was George Harrison.”

With that “supergroup” structure in place – the album features contributions from McDonald, the Eagles’ Timothy B. Schmit, drummer Jim Keltner and legendary saxophonist Wayne Shorter – Steely Dan released their masterpiece Aja in 1977. The album, one of Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, features classics like “Peg,” “Deacon Blues” and “Aja” and became the duo’s first platinum album, selling over 5 million copies and peaking at Number Three on the Billboard 200.

As their manager Irving Azoff told Rolling Stone in 1977, “Think of the biggest American supergroups. Fleetwood Mac. The Eagles, Chicago… And Steely Dan. Everybody knows Steely Dan. They belong in that list. All we had to do was make it official.” Despite the success, the duo would dissolve their partnership within three years, following the release of 1980’s Gaucho. 

It would be another 20 years – with the release of 2000’s Two Against Nature – that Becker and Fagen would record another Steely Dan album. That LP ultimately won four Grammy Awards, including Album of the Year. The band would record one more studio album, 2003’s Everything Must Go, with Becker making his Steely Dan lead vocal debut on the track “Slang of Ages.”

When asked by Time Out in 2008 about “Deacon Blues” sneaking onto classic rock radio, Becker said, “That’s sort of what we wanted to do, conquer from the margins, sort of find our place in the middle based on the fact that we were creatures of the margin and of alienation, and I think that a lot of kids our age were very alienated. To this day when I read some text that somebody writes about alienation, I always think to myself, ‘Gee, they make it sound like it’s a bad thing!’ So yeah, I think that’s great. Naturally that’s very satisfying to us to hear that something has slipped through the cracks.”

In 2001, Steely Dan were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. “The musical tradition that Steely Dan represent is certainly one that’s more cerebral and intellectual and beautiful as well,” Moby said in his induction speech for the duo. “Although they always seemed to approach popular culture with a certain sense of irony and distaste, they also clearly have a love for beauty and beautiful music.”

In keeping with the band’s legacy of going against the grain, Becker and Fagen used their Rock Hall acceptance speech to take questions from the crowd:

Walter Becker, Steely Dan Co-Founder, Dead at 67