When it came time for Steely Dan to record the band's sixth studio effort, Aja, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker set about doing what they always did: embedding themselves deep inside a plush recording studio, and dialing up some of the world's best session musicians to come in and realize their musical dream of perfection.
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“Most of our time is spent on the Working Process,” Fagen told Rolling Stone back in 1977. “We spent most of the year recording. But I don’t know what we were actually doing.”
As for Walter Becker's assessment of the recording process: “It wouldn’t bother me at all not to play on my own album.” When asked about the band's ongoing relationship with producer Gary Katz continuing, Becker was equally sardonic: “Why shouldn’t it? He has a moustache.”
Katz seemed totally comfortable in his role as the unofficial third member of Steely Dan: “I am a fan first. It takes a long time to make an album that all three of us are really happy with. It’s a three-way effort. One review like…the sterling production of Gary Katz, and I will take a good two, three days of abuse from those guys.”
Released on September 23, 1977, Aja was an instant hit. Lead single, "Peg," cruised up the charts to peak at #11 for the week of March 11, 1978. The #1 song in America that week: Andy Gibb's "(Love Is) Thicker Than Water."
Second single, "Deacon Blues," cracked the top 20 to reach #19 for the week of June 10, 1978. The #1 song in America that week: "You're the One That I Want" by Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta from the movie Grease.
The third and final single, "Josie," topped out at #26 for the week of October 14, 1978. The #1 song across the country at the time: Exile's "Kiss You All Over."
“We actually think most of these songs are pretty funny,” Donald Fagen shrugged to Rolling Stone back in 1977. “We don’t construct them as puzzles. We try to tell a big story in a very short period of time. Naturally we have to exclude some information. We don’t discourage any speculation.”
Aja went on to become Steely Dan's most commercially successful LP, peaking at #3 on the Billboard 200 for the week of October 22, 1977. The two albums ahead of Aja: Fleetwood Mac's Rumours at #1, and Linda Ronstadt's Simple Dreams at #2. The album was nominated for a handful of Grammys, including Album of the Year. It took home only one: Best Engineered Recording – Non-Classical.
"We’re proud that we don’t have any bad cuts or at least ones that we think are inferior. These days most pop critics, you know, are mainly interested in the amount of energy that is… obvious on record," Fagen said back in '77. "This is primitive rock & roll energy. People who are mainly Rolling Stones fans and people who like punk rock, stuff like that…a lot of them aren’t interested at all in what we have to do. “I don’t care. Doesn’t mean that much to me. We have no idea who’s out there buying our records.”
FUN FACT: The Aja album arrived with a TV commercial featuring voice-over work by none other than the legend, Eartha Kitt. Watch it below.
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