In the early days of FM radio, there was psychedelic rock, folk rock, hard rock, blues rock and then over on a stylistic shelf all their own, there was Steely Dan.
They burst on the scene with the album Can’t Buy a Thrill which featured those two unforgettable hits: “Reelin’ in the Years” and “Do It Again,” which meant we had to share this ambitious new band with AM radio. For those of us doing college radio, Steely Dan (with their jokey beat poet moniker) belonged on FM radio. They covered Duke Ellington. They appealed to the comparative religion nerds with “Bodhisattva.” Bodhi was a reference to the tree the Buddha sat under when he achieved total consciousness. Sattva was Sanskrit for wisdom. And yes, on college radio, you could lay that rap on stoners before slip-cuing the opening drum beats of “Bodhisattva.”
With the collegiate memoir of “My Old School” we could explain how Annandale-on-Hudson was the small village that claimed Bard College, a small liberal arts college by the Hudson River where Becker met Fagen. Where they learned that they were musically so in tune with each other that they had a facility for completing each other’s musical impulses. It was at Bard where a campus drug bust led some students to believe the college administration was complicit in the bust. “And I’m never going back to my old school.”
I was working at a record store in Albany just an hour north of their “old school” just before the release of Aja. Expectations had been so high for Steely Dan after their blockbuster debut that the record label pressed too many copies of the follow up albums. So in 1977, their entire catalog could be found in the cut-out bargain bins for 1.99 each. Some were overstocks. Some were in quadraphonic which had not caught on. Tabbed as a thinking man’s top 40 band, they had retreated into the embrace of early FM radio, a medium that found a lot to love in their album cuts.
Aja was released and everything changed. At the record store we did not bother to put the album in the bins. We kept Aja in a box by the cash register because it seemed that everyone who walked into that store would say, “Hey, do you have the new Steely…oh, it’s right here.”
Meanwhile, on the radio, Aja would become one of those rare albums where every single song received airplay. Even the long ones.
For guitar fans, few bands in history have ever boasted more world class guitarists. Jeff Baxter, Denny Dias, Elliot Randall, Larry Carlton, Lee Ritenour, Rick Derringer and others all took turns as session guitarists or band members. But when I think of all the sweet or ferocious guitar solos thru the history of Steely Dan, the one that always come to mind is the solo on Black Friday. And that, my friends, is the work of the late Walter Becker.