Forty years after its release, Steely Dan’s Aja remains the defining work of 1970s America. Donald Fagen and Walter Becker’s sixth album under the Steely Dan moniker is a self-indulgent and delightfully overproduced magnum opus.
New York City. September 16, 1977. Three months after a citywide blackout halted a matchup between the Chicago Cubs and New York Mets at Queens’ Shea Stadium, the Cubs finally win, 5-2, and The City That Never Sleeps does.
In Manhattan, a four-piece band of weirdos called the Talking Heads releases its debut LP. Talking Heads: 77 is a wildly danceable convergence of art rock and punk, fresh out of the CBGB scene of the Lower East Side, that presages the over-consumption of the 1980s. With Ronald Reagan and MTV on the horizon, Talking Heads take up a more clean-cut look and retire the sleazeball attitude associated with the American 1970s. New York City had become a theater of immorality, harnessing blue and white collar crimes alike.
And so Steely Dan co-founders Donald Fagen and Walter Becker travel between Los Angeles and New York City to record the last three albums of the group’s initial run. New York’s studio musicians hit the tones in Fagen and Becker’s heads when LA’s couldn’t. But Steely Dan also called the City home. The crooks, cheats and creeps at the center of many of their tunes are influenced by the people they knew and saw in the City.
Alums of Bard College in New York state’s Hudson River Valley, Fagen and Becker moved to New York City in 1969. Following their friend and eventual long-time collaborator Gary Katz to California in 1971, Steely Dan recorded their first four albums entirely in Los Angeles between 1972 and 1975. Their next three, dubbed their “guitar albums”, were recorded over many months in both Los Angeles and New York City.
The middle of this trio, Aja was released on September 23, 1977, a mere seven days after Talking Heads: 77. If 77 introduced the world to the 80s, then Aja marked the end of the 70s. The Bee Gees’ iconic Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, which epitomized and caricatured urban America in the 1970s, would deal the decade its final blow upon its release in December of ‘77. But Aja gave the last rites to that sinking ship.
The characters central to Steely Dan’s tunes are misfits, has-beens, and wannabes. “Peg,” the album’s danceable centerpiece, is a low-level actress who succumbs to the sleazy world of adult entertainment. The neighborhood boys anticipate the resulting debauchery when the titular “Josie” comes home. A suburbanite has dreams of being the famous saxophonist-bandleader “Deacon Blues.”
These characters would be meaningless without the dreamy New York City backdrops Fagen and Becker construct. “Black Cow” drops us in a moody 1940s greasy spoon where we could enjoy the titular sugary concoction. “I Got The News” puts us in a passionless and secret love-making session in the backseat of a Studebaker Lark. Deacon Blues, Peg, and Josie only exist on the damp street corners, in the dimly-lit apartment hallways, and the hazy barrooms Fagen and Becker have constructed. Aja is the stage for the theater of immorality.
But Aja’s showstopper is “Home At Last,” a retelling of Odysseus’ ten-year journey back home to Ithaca. Steely Dan made it known they wanted to be in New York City. They wanted the grimy, cold streets of Manhattan beneath their feet.
But so do we. It is after all, The City That Never Sleeps.
Ethan A. Copeland is the host of The Marina, which airs Tuesdays from 10 to 11 pm.