Do It Again... and Again
steely dan was born at bard college in 1967, where co-founders Donald Fagen and Walter Becker met. The duo’s singular, sophisticated jazz-pop—with obscure, often cryptic lyrics—had fans poring over their albums the way religious scholars study Scripture, and, by the mid-’70s, Fagen and Becker were taking obsessive pains to achieve it. Their approach—odd, neurotic and involving a revolving door of session musicians—turned them into musical auteurs of sorts but made finishing a Steely Dan record challenging and very expensive. “What they might waste on two or three days—most artists like me could make an entire record for that,” says guitarist Steve Khan, who played on numerous Dan tracks.
With their sixth album, 1977’s Aja, that attention to detail resulted in a remarkable distillation of their anti-band vision (more than 35 mostly jazz musicians worked on the album), as well as a double-platinum Grammy winner and Steely Dan’s best-selling album. BY
Newsweek spoke to some of those who worked on the record’s biggest hit single,
“Peg,” a funky number meticulously built from the drums up. Fagen and Becker, who died in September at 67, were known for keeping the atmosphere in the studio light. “There were always a lot of laughs,” says guitarist Elliott Randall, a Dan regular. Still, “Peg” was particularly arduous; it would take a full week to record just the expressive, squealing guitar solo after the first chorus.
Steve Khan (rhythm guitar on “Peg”): Most of the in-the-studio direction came from Donald. He was out there with us while Walter and Gary [Katz, their producer] were in the control room. To get a track past all three of them was next to impossible. If two liked it, one would veto it just to exercise his authority.… For the entire session [for “Peg”], no one said a single word to me. Nothing! I was fully expecting to be erased, something they were famous for. At one point, I went into the control room and quietly said to the sound engineer, Elliot [Scheiner], “Is what I’m playing working? Do they like what I’m doing?” Elliot said, “Yes! They love it! They would have said something to you if it wasn’t.” I left the studio thinking they were going to erase everything.
Elliot Scheiner (sound engineer): When we did things like “Peg,” a band would come in and record. Two hours later, Walter and Don would look at Gary, their producer, and say, “Fire this band. Let’s go with somebody else tomorrow night.” It would be different bands every night to get the same song.
Khan: For the “Peg” intro they said to me, “Do you have anything you can do to spice it up—a sound, something?” When you’ve been recording long enough, you learn to just say yes to everything. So I pulled out an MXR Flanger [a gizmo that replicates sounds like jet planes or rocket ships] and turned the regeneration knob all the way up. I’d never done this before, and I never did it again— it’s such a tasteless sound. I totally expected them to say, “Are you crazy? Turn that shit off.” But for
some reason they liked it!
“Peg” called for a guitar solo after the first chorus. In Dan Breithaupt’s book
Steely Dan’s Aja, Fagen recalled that Becker took a stab at it. “I liked what he did, as I recall, but he didn’t.… So we started calling guys.” According to some accounts, as many as seven guitarists tried to nail it, among them producer and guitarist Rick Derringer and Randall, who was responsible for the masterful solo on Dan’s 1972 single “Reelin’ in the Years.”
Rick Derringer: I worked with them for a while. They were very happy with it.
Elliott Randall: I’m sure each of us walked out of the studio feeling really good about it. To be honest, I don’t think I could remember the content of [my] solo even under hypnosis.
Derringer: I was one of the first guys in line to get that single when it came out. I put it on, and it wasn’t me [on the solo]! For a couple years, I thought, Oh man, I guess it wasn’t what they wanted. I spoke to Gary later, and he told me, “No, nothing like that. What happened was the recording got degraded, and the solo was messed up. Something screwed up technically.” I was relieved to hear it was just a technical issue.
Scheiner: Rick was there for three or four hours. The minute he left, Walter looked at me and said, “Erase it.” I said, “OK.” You never questioned it. You didn’t say, “Come on, really?” It was over.
Fagen told Breithaupt, “We were embarrassed for [the musicians] and for us. We felt silly spending all this money for one brief blues solo.” Finally, the band recruited Los Angeles guitarist Jay Graydon, who jumped at the chance to play on a Dan record “because that’s the most musical you can get and still be commercial.”
Jay Graydon: I found out I was the seventh guy. For about an hour and a half, I’m playing my hip, melodic kind of jazz style. Then Donald says to me, “Nah, man. Try to play the blues.” I play bluesy for a while. I get melodic for a while. I get bluesy again. Then I get melodic and bluesy. I can’t explain it any further. I just did what my musical brain told me to do. And my fingers followed .... When I walked out of the studio at the end of the night, I didn’t know it was a keeper. I turned the radio on one day, and there it was. I thought, Hey, I made it!
graydon has since plated on hundreds of recordings and won two Grammys, but it’s those 30 seconds on “Peg,” recorded in 1977, that people still want to talk about.
Of the many tutorial videos on Youtube dedicated to replicating his “Peg” solo, Graydon says, “Every one that I’ve seen is wrong! Nobody plays it properly. I crack up when I see this stuff.” He will concede that he set a high bar. “It’s not easy to play the first couple of bars—a double stop bend.”
Graydon misses those earlier days of musicianship. “You can make anything perfect now, with [editing software]. Back then there was no help, man. Before Pro Tools, there were pros!”
Fagen, left, and Becker in 1978, a year after the release of their best-selling album Aja, which included “Peg.” MAJOR DUDES