Friday, April 1, 2016

Steely Dan - Aja (Dave Dexter, Jr. Mix, 1977)

One of the lesser-known chapters in Steely Dan's history involves band member Walter Becker's disgust with the group's "kitchen clean" sound. Becker's annoyance at the perfectionist soundscapes pioneered by co-leader Donald Fagen and producer Gary Katz came to a head during the sessions for Aja, when Becker almost pulled off a coup that could have wrecked the album's famous sonic sheen.

First a bit of background. Becker has made a lot of noise over the years about being a jazz fanatic, but from all accounts, the music he really loved growing up was early Beatles. Specifically, he took to the massive, blurry, reverberated sound of their American albums. He wanted this for Steely Dan, yet time and again he was rebuffed by Fagen and Katz.

Then one day Becker hit upon a great idea. He couldn't get Fagen or Katz to accept any of his mixes, but what if he could get the man behind the Beatles American sound, Dave Dexter, Jr. himself, to remix the Dan's tracks? Dexter's forte was morphing the crisp, clear sound of the Beatles' British recordings into a muddy makeover for American audiences. According to sources, such audiences rejected clear sound as being "too elitist."

A few phone calls later and Becker had Dexter at the recording console rubbing his hands together, mad-scientist style. Becker felt that Dan had become "too prissy" and Dexter was just the ticket back to "rock cred," according to his younger brother, Billy Becker. "Walt liked it that when 'She's a Woman' went from its British release to its American one, it went from state-of-the-art Abbey Road sonics to coming off like it was recorded in a dank, filthy basement in suburban New Jersey. Or possibly even upstate New York."

At this point, Dexter was "living large," according to Donald Fagen's younger brother Billy Fagen: "He'd worked with Sinatra. He'd had authority over the Fabs. By the 1970s, he could call his own shots. I'll never forget that he had a sound lab staffed by former models who wore lingerie under their lab coats. He called them 'The Dexterinos.'" (See image at right.)

(Editor's note: Several Steely Dan scholars claim that Dexter's bevy of babes were not, in fact, called "The Dexterinos" but instead known as "The Sexy Dexys.")

In keeping with a tradition he'd established at Capitol Records, Dexter also altered the track lineup. In this case, he removed the song "Home at Last," which he said "went nowhere." In its place he substituted the rare Dan cut "Sail the Waterway."

Dexter "worked like a pig" on the tapes, say sources. According to a restaurant critic in charge of serving Dexter's dinners, he "doused them with echo, splashed them in reverb, and drizzled them with delay." It was, according to some, a true labor of love.

But when Donald Fagen heard the finished product, he was consumed with hate. As the Dexter mix came reverberating (heh) over the studio monitors, an enraged Fagen took the knife he was using to butter a blueberry bagel and lunged at Dexter. Luckily, it was only a plastic butter knife. It broke into two when the notoriously un-athletic Fagen missed his target, hitting the studio's mixing board instead. Nevertheless, this fateful day would find its way into rock lore.

"That's where the Eagles got that 'steely knives' line from," admits Billy Henley, younger brother of the Eagles' Don. "They changed it from 'plastic knives' because, well, who uses plastic knives anyway? Kids in the school cafeteria?"

(Editor's note: Several Steely Dan scholars have actually attributed this quote to Billy Frey, younger brother of the Eagles' late guitarist Glenn.)

Still, wheels were in motion and some copies of the "Dexterized Aja" were pressed. These had a red cover -- as opposed to a black one -- and sported a sticker that advertised the Dexter remix. According to sources, the cover's color was altered to "keep in line with other Dexter-inspired graphic design changes, like the botched semaphore lettering on the U.S. edition of the Beatles' Help! and the unsightly color used on the Rubber Soul logo on the U.S. version."

This edition of Aja has become hard to find since a furious Fagen ordered all copies of it destroyed. Workers at ABC Records were called in to do weekend overtime to press up more copies of the record in its black sleeve. But some workers were lazy and simply pasted the black sleeves over the red ones. In the ensuing years, rabid Dan fans have been steaming the covers off the regular black edition of the cover to see if they have a rare red jacket underneath. According to the Center for Disease Control, this is why Steely Dan fans are twenty times more likely to suffer third-degree burns than fans of groups like Uriah Heep, the Four Tops, or the Go-Go's.

Even though Aja was a runaway hit, Becker's "betrayal of the standards of sound quality" was not forgotten. In fact, it was referenced in the lyrics of the title track of Steely Dan's next album, Gaucho, which is thought by Dan scholars to be a message from Fagen to Becker: "Just when I say 'Boy we can't miss, You are golden' Then you do this," the song began.

Soon after, the duo parted ways. A few weeks after the Dexterized Aja hit stores, Walter Becker's girlfriend turned up dead. Coincidence? Some think not. In the audiophile community, "horror" is the word most commonly used about the whole affair. "Dexter committed an act so unspeakable that no one has spoken about it since," says a moderator at the Steve Hoffman Forums who wished to remain anonymous.

Still, in recent years critics specializing in vintage rock have begun to revise their opinions about the mix. "The Dexterized Aja is the only real Aja," says Billy Unterberger, younger brother of famed rock historian Richie. "It's got a live feel the original mix lacks," opines William Thomas John Bob Dave Biff "Billy" Erlewine, younger brother of AllMusic Guide senior citizen editor Stephen Thomas Robert John Jeff Mutt "Tom" Erlewine.

This rare rip of the rare mix comes courtesy of Dave Dexter, Jr.'s son, Billy Dexter, Jr., and should restore Aja to all its true Dexterized glory. According to rock critic Billy Loder (younger brother of rock critic Kurt): "The pleasure, dear listener, is all yours."

Track list:
1. Black Cow (Dexterized)
2. Aja (Dexterized)
3. Deacon Blues (Dexterized)
4. Peg (Dexterized)
5. Sail the Waterway (Dexterized)
6. I Got the News (Dexterized)
7. Josie (Dexterized)



  2. Days of Broken Arrows, thank you for this opportunity...appreciated.

  3. Why so many brother quotes? Where were the real participants? But I'm all for a muddled filthy basement sound. To me that's what rock and roll is all about. Thanks for the share.

    1. They're all named Billy -- a legal requirement for all younger brothers whenever I'm writing anything.

    2. hilarious,man. a pleasure to read

  4. Clinky Slinky

    Beautifully done...

  5. Ye all know its April 1st..........

  6. Ha Ha Ha... Almost wet myself - NOT !!!

  7. My son texted me that the Red Sox had traded Jackie Bradley, Jr., Travis Shaw, Blake Swihart, and Chris Young to the Mets for Matt Harvey. I nearly had a heart attack! My Sox just traded away their future? Then the Dexterized version of Aja. Am I a gullible twit or what?

  8. Ha ha ha! Well done, and I can't wait to hear it.

    1. It's a unlistenable as you might imagine. Enjoy!

  9. <--- Yet another goofball who fell for it, (wonderingly) until I read the comments.. ! Thanks for the Tunz. Peace