Do It Again... and Again

Newsweek International - - CONTENT - ZACH SCHONFELD @zzzza­aaac­c­c­chhh

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

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