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Music

How Steely Dan turned a mistake into magic on 'Aja'

There can be no doubt of the legendary status of ‘Aja’ by Steely Dan. It’s a jazz fusion masterpiece containing the hues of prog that the band increasingly flirted with over their career. Released in 1977, ‘Aja’ ranks among their very finest moments. Across its near eight-minute duration, the track sees the band finally hit the musical heights they had teased since the release of their debut album, Can’t Buy a Thrill, in 1972.

For Steely Dan creative directors Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, it is perhaps the most tonally sophisticated and structurally complex they ever created. There’s a reason the track and band are still so revered today. 

Lyrically, the song centres around an internal monologue of a fictional man who runs towards the title character wanting to escape the stresses of his life “up on the hill”. Fagen revealed that the song was inspired by a relative of someone he knew, who married a Korean woman by the name of Aja (Asia). He explained that the song was about the “tranquillity that can come of a quiet relationship with a beautiful woman”.

Surprisingly, despite its complexities, the song took a very short time to record, an accomplishment with which Becker and Fagen credited the song’s session musician’s. They learnt it quickly without rehearsals, a genuinely mind-blowing feat when you listen to how on point they were.

The most iconic fact about the song has to be that it was the first piece by the band to feature their new drummer, Steve Gadd. He took his opportunity resoundingly, and due to takes such as ‘Aja’, he is now one of the most lauded drummers in the music industry. It’s his solo on the track that endures in common memory, and the fact that he laid it down in one take has added to the song’s hallowed mythos. 

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However, one part of Gadd’s take has really cemented it as iconic. Back in the days before digital recording technology, when analogue reigned supreme, a prerequisite of studio time would be that mistakes were made and would sometimes find themselves in classic songs. Due to the tape running, you could not simply press ‘delete’ as you can today.

The recording was a process that required unflinching concentration and skill, whereas today, anybody can do it, the buttons do all the work. There are many stories of when an accident made it onto a final product, such as at the end of Neil Young’s ‘Cortez the Killer‘ when the electric circuit of the console blew. 

Another classic example of an accident making it onto the final recording is part of Gadd’s take on ‘Aja’. For years since its release, drummers have strived to replicate the off-beat click he makes at 4:57 as the solo starts to phase out. It turns out that it was Gadd’s stick that slipped, but fortuitously, it was a well-timed one, and, ironically, is now one of the most revered pieces of drumming skill in music history.

A classic song by an incredible band, even the usually precise Steely Dan couldn’t escape mistakes. Luckily for them, it worked out in their favour. 

Listen to ‘Aja’ below.