The “Classic Album” series is a boon to music fans — and particularly technical music nerds — as it goes underneath the surface of beloved rock albums to reveal how they were made. The pinnacle of this series, then, would have to be its deconstruction of the greatest album by the world’s most self-conscious and meticulously put-together band, Steely Dan.
Steely Dan recorded Aja at the high point of 1970s commercial rock — just a year before the clanging accusation of punk would start to make a popular impact in New York. Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, the composers and masterminds of The Dan, had moved from New York to Los Angeles, where the slick studio musicians were plentiful and sunny sonic textures were more-than-available. The band had long ago ceased to be an actual “rock band”, and Becker and Fagen were about to perfect the art of painstakingly building their pop masterpieces — track by track, lick by lick, harmony by harmony. Indeed, if you don’t much like Steely Dan, then Aja is likely the reason why — it is devoid of any ragged rock edge. That is, it was made for precisely the kind of clinical musical autopsy it gets here.
This documentary finds Fagen and Becker — decades after the fact — playing and discussing the album while sitting at the mixing board with the master tapes as well as playing you the songs anew in the studio with a crackerjack band (but no vocals). It is really a valentine to The Dan’s renowned studio perfectionism — a celebration of how a couple of rocking wiseacres who grew up listening to NY-area jazz radio could become the paragon’s of complex pop perfection.
There is some standard Music Documentary Stuff in here — old footage of the band in the early ’70s, carefully panned stills of the guys when they had goofy moustaches, obligatory photos of The Boys from grade school before they had dreamed of Chinese music under banyan tree. But it is kept to a blissful minimum. This series does a great job of avoiding cliché by focusing mostly on discussion of the music itself.
So, Classic Albums: Aja proceeds, tune by sophisticated tune, through the album itself. Becker and Fagen are interviewed separately, but the filet mignon of the piece is watching them sit together behind the mixing board and finish each other’s sentences as they talk about how they created Aja. There are plenty of technical elements — such as an explanation of how the doubling of the bass line by the guitar on “Peg” is an example of the “Hollywood arrangers” style exhibited by Henry Mancini. But more of the discussion is a self-mocking acknowledgment by Becker and Fagen that their obsessive work style is slightly — but ingeniously — nuts.
They not only explain that they brought in as many as eight or nine different guitar players to try to nail an improvised solo on “Peg”, but they even play you several of the solos that were rejected. Here’s the thing: they absolutely chose the right one, and when they say of the first rejected solo, “It speaks for itself,” it is hilarious. We hear from drummer Rick Marotta about how Becker and Fagen would bring in a band to play a track, tell the musicians how great it sounded, then replace all the cats the very next day with a wholly new band. The impression left by this film, however, is less the picture of a pair of asshole control freaks than the picture of two guys who are searching for a special sound they hear in their heads. They search long and hard, but they seem to do it with a yearning affection for the music they love.
When deconstructing “Aja”, for example, Becker and Fagen talk about the contributions of guitarist Denny Dias and saxophonist Wayne Shorter with a sense of awe. Dias was one of the original members of Steely Dan (from the days when it was actually a band), and he recreates his “Aja” solo live on camera with graceful precision. Wayne Shorter is briefly interviewed about his in-and-out dubbing of the “Aja” tenor solo — maybe the best sax solo in rock history — and Becker and Fagen recall with wide-eyed chuckles how Shorter told them he was worried the solo would sound too much like his work with Miles Davis. “That was just fine with us,” the guys say, still pleased a quarter-century later that such a player graced their tune.
Another myth that is partly dispelled by this film is the impenetrable mystery of Steely Dan lyrics. Well, partly dispelled. In discussing “Black Cow” — a staple of FM radio for a long stretch of 1977 — Fagen proceeds line-by-line through the lyrics, demonstrating that they are “self-explanatory”. What is a “black cow”? An ice cream soda, one explains. Or a kind of milk shake maybe. At which point they disagree, citing “regional differences”, never discussing the fact that the narrative of “Black Cow” seems to take place in a bar (a famous NY bar, in fact — Rudy’s). So, the simple tale of betrayal and abandoned forgiveness turns out not to be so simple after all.
In a few cases, musicians other than Becker and Fagen steal the show. Bassist Chuck Rainey is a charismatic interview, demonstrating on his five-string bass how he chose to slap — explicitly against the songwriters’ instructions — by hiding his fingers behind a barrier. His mini-lesson in how Steely Dan diverges from clichés in its arranging is priceless.
Even better is the interview with drum legend Bernard “Pretty” Purdie. Purdie describes how he laid down his “Purdie Shuffle” for “Home at Last”, solving the problem of getting a half-time groove to pulse like a shuffle. They guys love him, of course. Guitarist Larry Carlton explains how Becker and Fagen let him be their captain, instructing the session players in the studio, and singer Michael McDonald still cringes as he describes recording four or five background tracks of close harmony — harmony so tricky that struggling to keep it in tune was only one of the problems.
By cutting these interviews and demonstrations together with Steely Dan at the mixing board — able to isolate individual tracks to let us hear how all these separate ingredients sounded in isolation — we get a rich picture of pop orchestration at its sophisticated best. They were perfectionists, sure, but what a result! Engineer Roger Nichols betrays a hint of the exasperation that everyone must have felt as the duo demanded yet another day or week of recording for songs that were already 98% completed, but as fans we come away plain-old-happy that anyone bothered to care so much.
If you are a Dan-fan, little could be more interested than a peek under the cap of what must be an all-time favorite record. This is a generous, funny, telling peek — a long view of how jazz, pop, rock, and a kind mania came together in 1977 to make a career in music. Glossy with beauty but seriously weird too, Aja should stand as a classic for a while to come.