“Polished so slickly it denies the friction which draws your ears in… once that fine film of funk is discerned, it can’t be undiscerned”: Steely Dan’s Aja remastered

1977 album’s new vinyl version illustrates duo’s obsessive perfectionism - and producer Gary Katz’s patience

Steely Dan - Aja
(Image: © UMC / Polydor)

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In 1977, as half the planet spiked up its hair and the other half honed its disco moves, Steely Dan decided to redefine the relationship between jazz and rock. They succeeded to the extent that while Aja is usually, for convenience, labelled jazz rock, or even as a key player in launching yacht rock, it remains completely unique.

Its warm, smooth sound and impeccably clean production veil slightly less cynical lyrics than its creators’ usual, but still they seem allergic to sentiment, to emoting. Deacon Blues may romanticise the loner, but as soon as it feigns to admit it with ‘I cried when I wrote this song,’ it swiftly follows that with, ‘Sue me if I play too long.’

Most of the tracks are lengthy (for the era), yet for all their musical prowess they glide and cruise rather than opt for flash. The album’s also an expansive exploration of Californian funk which is so high-brow that you can hear it for years before realising how damn funky it is.

Now remastered for the first time in decades as part of an ongoing vinyl reissue series, it’s another chance to marvel at Fagen and Becker’s obsessive perfectionism and producer Gary Katz’s patience. Audiophiles will swoon.

Musicians from saxophonist Wayne Shorter to guitarist Lee Ritenour understand the assignment, and while the much-sampled Peg and Josie (‘She’s the raw flame, the live wire’) share some DNA with the grooves which guide The Royal Scam and Gaucho, the title song sets a new benchmark for sophistication. Its shifts, in context, are somehow both subtle and seismic.

It’s easy to understand why the band to this day leave some music fans cold, as on the surface Aja is polished so slickly it denies the friction which draws your ears in. Once that fine film of funk is discerned, however, it can’t be undiscerned. Aja sold by the truckload, and its reputation as a rare masterpiece is now indestructible. Pristine yet quietly perverse, this reissue quasi-rocks.

The remastered Aja is available now via UMC / Polydor.

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts has written about music, films, and art for innumerable outlets. His new book The Velvet Underground is out April 4. He has also published books on Lou Reed, Elton John, the Gothic arts, Talk Talk, Kate Moss, Scarlett Johansson, Abba, Tom Jones and others. Among his interviewees over the years have been David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Patti Smith, Debbie Harry, Bryan Ferry, Al Green, Tom Waits & Lou Reed. Born in North Wales, he lives in London.