“Aja” is generally considered Steely Dan’s most celebrated work. Seven tracks of studio-engineered perfection. Each track is brilliantly orchestrated and executed by a cast of musician’s musicians. The lyrics were “languid and bittersweet.” And, if you didn’t like them, “drink your big black cow and get out of here.”
Great Steely Dan Moments
“Aja” is chock full of moments. Bernard Purdie’s shuffle on “Home at Last.” Jay Graydon’s guitar solo on “Peg.” Michael McDonald’s one-word three-part self-harmonized background vocals also on “Peg.” And Steve Gadd’s most glorious moment as a studio drummer on the title track “Aja.”
If you can get past the stock footage, the DVD “Classic Albums – Aja” gives the whole story of this great collection of songs in rich detail. Complete with snarky comments by creators Walter Becker and Donald Fagen.
Then there is “Katy Lied.” That sweet beauty of an album with the insect on the cover creates a lousy joke (Katy Lied? Katydid… get it?). In Rolling Stone, Cameron Crowe’s writing said it best, describing Dan’s fourth album as “Anonymous, absolutely impeccable swing-pop. No cheap displays of human emotion.”
Amongst the Dan Illuminati, well-documented DBX problems aside, Lied may be their most excellent effort. Katy was the precursor of what was to come with “Royal Scam,” “Aja,” and “Gaucho.” It also was a significant step forward from their earlier “Pretzel Logic.” No clunkers like “Charlie Freak” or “With a Gun” on Lied. All the songs were great, delivered in various tempos and feels. There was also a better strategic placement of session musicians. Finally, there was the emergence of Walter Becker on “Black Friday” and “Bad Sneakers” as a lead guitarist and a peer with the greats that came before him (Randall, Dias, and Baxter).
There is just so much to this album.
Nineteen-year-old not-yet-legendary drummer Jeff Porcaro provides a clinic in setting a rhythmic foundation through many song styles. Jeff swings through odd time signatures in “Gold Teeth,” unveils his soon-to-be-signature shuffle on “Black Friday,” does his best Jim Gordon on “Chain Lightning,” and adds John Guerin flourishes on the fade-out of Dr. Wu. Anyone wondering why “the groove-master” is remembered with such awe after his untimely death can see why on Katy Lied. It wasn’t until the new millennium that Becker and Fagen relied so much on just one drummer again.
Grammy-winning producer-pianist Michael Omartian provides restrained and always-perfect melodic flourishes throughout the album. He is all over that record. Omartian perfectly compliments the song, never drawing attention to himself or his instrument. His contribution to the overall tone of Katy is significant. His playing is beautiful throughout the record.
Nor can the contributions of guitarist Dean Parks be overlooked. Listen to “Rose Darling” and pay attention to his passing tones. He swings, keeps the song harmonically centered, and provides a tasty solo. It’s understated and brilliant at the same time. Park’s resume has thousands of gigs, literally. His support is all over that record. Yet Parks is often overlooked by fans in favor of the flashier axemen on Lied. Scream “Injustice!” as you go back and listen to the guitar in the background throughout the album.
Hang on Sloopy’s Rick Derringer provides a jaw-dropping blues solo on “Chain Lightning,” begging the question, “Rock and Roll and Hoochie Koo? Same Guy?” With his solo, Elliot Randall saves the weakest song, Throw Back the Little Ones. Denny Dias bebops through an impressive bridge of changes, all with swing and melody, on “Gold Teeth part 2.” Walter Becker astonishes with the range shown on his Blues-based shredding on Black Friday (what a tone!). Becker gets tasty with the lyrical every-note-counts break on “Bad Sneakers.” We also see the first appearance of soon-to-be critical (think 5th Beatle) Larry Carlton. Carlton lays down some Crusaders scratch and funk on “Daddy Don’t Live in that New York City No More.” People like to call Royal Scam “the guitar album.” Not so sure about that; this album is full of excellent guitar playing.
Micheal McDonald and Hal Blaine
Unknown-at-the-time Michael McDonald makes his first appearance on vinyl, providing distinctive backup vocals that would become ubiquitous in ten years. His remarkable multi-tracked in-tune-with-himself work on Bad Sneakers, Black Friday, and Any World That I’m Welcome is still fantastic listening. McDonald was a very talented find for the Dan and “Rick Jarred Productions” (whoever they were). I suppose someone profiled in the book Hit Men. I still wonder why that producer had to be included in the credits. Get your face smashed otherwise?
Hal Blaine, the world’s most recorded drummer, sits on “Any World I’m Welcome To.” Blaine shows how rim taps are done—concluding with a tour of his toms on the fade-out. Chuck Rainey is also on board, although I suppose the low bass mix might be frustrating from the DBX, it is hard to hear. Check out the bass on Black Friday if you can; it’s fantastic.
Fagen sounds excellent in all his double-tracked glory. He proves once again to be perhaps the only person who can deliver Dan’s very idiosyncratic lyrics (are you crazy, are you high, or just an ordinary guy?). Crazy lyrics are everywhere on the record. So too, is the humor (I’ll bet she’s in Detroit with lots of money in the bank, although I could be wrong), and so is that most frustrating of Dan’s adjectives, irony (everyone’s gone to the movies, now we’re alone at last). It’s all there in very tight, primarily under-four-minute packages.
So are the weirdest liner notes I have ever read. These notes seem like an inside joke for Becker, Fagen, producer Gary Katz, and engineer Roger Nichols to understand and get. Payback for the DBX problems, I guess. A record is as good as this one is entitled to a few jokes.
While this 1975 release went Gold, it had no singles that charted higher than #37. Dan went on to giant glory and eventually to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Katy Lied, however, becomes what it is today: the hidden gem of Steely Dan.