This frontier is out of bounds in the winter, as the record deck is in the conservatory. That’s why the old vinyl borderland hasn’t been been visited in a while.
Thanks to Katy Puckrik and her two-part BBC4 documentary I Can Go For That: The Smooth World of Yacht Rock for taking me back to this classic from 1977 (also available in cassette, as it says on the back cover).
First, let’s prod that suspect phrase with a sharp stick, or possibly a stylus needle. Yacht rock – what’s that? Turns out to be a retrospective label slapped impertinently onto the sophisticated melancholy of blue-eyed Seventies R&B. A dismissive tag for Steely Dan, surely, although Puckrik counts herself as a huge fan.
The first programme was great, a breezy reel of a show, with explorations of Steely Dan, the Doobie Brothers (Michael McDonald era – What A Fool Believes), and Hall & Oates (She’s Gone). The second part less so, as the whole concept seemed stretched by then.
Still, those two guys from Toto were a hoot. And that prompts a confession: I had no idea Toto played on Michael Jackson’s Thriller album.
In that first film, Katy Puckrik listed Aja (pronounced Asia) as one of the soundtracks of her youth, marvelling at how pristine and perfect the album seemed.
Finding the old vinyl copy was a treat: this album from 42 years ago (count them and irrigate the eyes) is still thrillingly new and exciting, a mix of melodic rock and jazz that lifts out of those old grooves.
Steely Dan, basically Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, quit being a band in the full sense in 1974. After that they concentrated on LA studio work, calling on the best rock and jazz session musicians around to perfect their immaculate music.
Not everyone liked that distinctive sound, then or now, some dismissing it as cold and hard. If that’s what you think, take your ears back to this marvel of an album, a thrilling mix of be-bop, swing and rock – truly soulful, even if detractors, then and now again, see this as soulless music.
Fantastic brass playing, crisp and brittle guitar riffs to leave your mouth gaping, surging synths, lush yet edgy arrangements, cool singing, mystifying lyrics (“downer surrealism”, according to Frank Zappa) – oh, Aja has the lot.
All the tracks survive the journey from 1977 (second-year student days at Goldsmiths College for this listener), although two stand out: Peg and Josie. As Rolling Stone wrote at the time, these are “tight, modal tunes with good hooks in the choruses, solid beats with intricate counter-rhythms and brilliantly concise guitar solos”.
Two of the jazz players are Miles Davis alumni, Wayne Shorter and Victor Feldman. Session guitarists include Larry Carlton, with Becker wearing out the fretboards, too.
The full running list is (side 1) Black Crow, Aja, Deacon Blues; (side 2): Peg, Home At Last, I Got The News, Josie.
There isn’t a wasted note, a misplaced breath on any of them. This music may be cool and seriously studied, unmistakably Californian (even though the main men were from New York) – yet even layered with such cleverness, it’s uplifting, immediate and a decade-hopping gem.