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Music

The 'Aja' reject that became a major Steely Dan hit

@TylerGolsen

Steely Dan had solidified their singular working habits by 1977. Having discarded the formalities of a traditional rock band a few years earlier, Walter Becker and Donald Fagan were now free to bring in any studio musicians they liked to flesh out their complex jazz-inspired arrangements. The pinnacle of this style came with 1977’s Aja, with some of the top musicians in the world vying for mere seconds of playing time on the album. Steely Dan were at the height of their powers, and they could do whatever they wanted.

That’s when a strange request came in: a movie theme song. Becker and Fagan actually had some previous experience writing film music, although the production of 1971’s You’ve Got to Walk It Like You Talk It or You’ll Lose That Beat wasn’t exactly a pleasant experience. Steely Dan were, by this point, above the easy paycheques of theme song-writing, but they took on the challenge anyway and wrote the song ‘FM’ in less than a week.

Although they had the genius musicians from Aja at their disposal, having both projects occur simultaneously, Becker and Fagan fleshed out most of the instrumental work themselves. The opening piano and keyboard work throughout the song came from Fagan, while Becker returned to the bass after having given over most of the four-string duties to session musician Chuck Rainey over the previous few years. Becker also contributed the song’s guitar parts, overlaying the complex solo that plays over the song’s fade out.

Toto’s Jeff Porcaro, who had played most of the drums on 1975’s Katy Lied, laid down the songs percussion part. The song’s saxophone came from Pete Christlieb, who had also contributed to ‘Deacon Blues’ during the same sessions. For the song’s cascading backing vocals, Steely Dan asked Timothy B. Schmidt, the Poco singer who had experience as a studio musician, to come in. In turn, he brought his new bandmates in the Eagles, Glenn Frey and Don Henley, to add to the layers of harmony. Frey and Henley would make a call back to the band in the lyrics to ‘Hotel California’.

Despite being recorded during the sessions for Aja, Becker and Fagan never seriously considered putting ‘FM’ on the album. For one, the song was being produced by MCA Records instead of the band’s contracted label ABC Records (MCA would alter acquire ABC, and Steely Dan’s final album of their initial run, Gaucho, would be released on MCA), meaning that a crossover would come with quite a bit of bureaucratic red tape. But beyond that, the two had whittled off the song in less than a week, and it wasn’t representative of the epic scale that Aja was turning into. It was a contract job and nothing more, so the band held off and simply let it be associated with the film exclusively.

For Steely Dan, the song represented the third Top 40 hit in a row, after the success of Aja singles ‘Peg’ and ‘Deacon Blues’. When the album’s final single, ‘Josie’, also reached the Top 40, Steely Dan were one of the most successful bands in America. The film FM went on to be panned, but the album’s soundtrack went platinum shortly after release. That was thanks to contributions from Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Bob Seger, Foreigner, the Eagles, Linda Ronstadt. Also propelling the soundtrack was the song’s title track, an afterthought that nevertheless became one of Steely Dan’s signature songs.