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People and Planet: 45 years of Steely Dan’s legendary ‘Aja’ album

There remains a cult following around the jazz-rock duo Steely Dan after all these years for a reason. It is an ingenious group that fused jazz and rock in a way many have attempted. Still, few have been as successful; the band remains unpretentious (Google the meaning behind their name, for God's sake) and unafraid to explore the seedy underbelly of the 1970s.

The vast majority of Steely Dan songs are narratives, chronicling the fast-paced misadventures of the '70s underground scene: running toward mistakes ("Hey Nineteen"), running from the law ("Don't Take Me Alive"), running to get high ("Aja") and even running to find a condom ("The Fez"). 

Although '70s artists were no strangers to raunchier topics, keyboardist and vocalist Donald Fagen's obscure poetic delivery completely changed the game. Compositionally, guitarist, bassist, and backing vocalist Walter Becker mastered subtlety in excess, exemplified by the nearly 40 musicians who played on "Aja" and the group's notorious reputation as perfectionists.

On Sept. 23, 1977, the jazz-rock band released its sixth studio album, "Aja," composed of only seven songs that would become monumental in the history of rock music. "Aja" peaked at number three on the U.S. charts, number five in the U.K., won a Grammy in 1978 and continues to be widely streamed 45 years later. It took the group's already complex chord progressions and seedy adventures to new and brilliant heights as it fused the gap between New York jazz and L.A. rock, this time throwing in aspects of funk and soul along the way. 

Here are a few of the album's highlights:

The opening track, "Black Cow," begins with a funky bass riff, lining up a heavily funk and jazz-influenced song complete with hazy harmonies lamenting that "I can't cry anymore, while you run around," as the narrator gazes at an obviously high ex-lover from across the bar, caught somewhere between longing and disgust.

Following "Black Cow" is the title track, "Aja," an eight minute song heavily implied to be about smoking marijuana, accented with an almost calypso-esque rhythm and a three-minute instrumental break to fully capture the experience "up on the hill." The track takes its time and meanders through the dreamy instrumental fields, leaving listeners in a trance-like state.

"Deacon Blues," a personal favorite, comes next, bringing the most purely Steely Dan sound and narrative track on the album. "Drink Scotch whiskey, all night long and die behind the wheel," is one of the chorus's clearest lines, capturing the essence of brooding that lingers beneath the easy-going instrumental sound.

Fagen explained that this song is likely the most autobiographical that Steely Dan had ever released, saying that it was about himself and Becker growing up in the ‘50s, searching for some sort of alternative culture. The overall meaning is expertly conveyed in the line, “I crawl like a viper, through these suburban streets.” “Deacon Blues” narrates the experience of the true underground before the underground existed.

"Aja" is an homage to both what Steely Dan was prior to its release and where the band was to go next ("Gaucho," released in 1980). "Aja" remains as groundbreaking as it was when it first came out even today, and no one has ever done it quite as Steely Dan did all those years ago.

Megan Diehl is a sophomore studying Journalism at Ohio University. Please note that the views and opinions of the columnists do not reflect those of The Post. Want to talk more about it? Let Megan know by tweeting her @megandiehl02.

Megan Diehl

Assistant Opinion Editor

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