I enjoy and admire Steely Dan’s Aja, but I don’t quite love it to pieces like Gaucho. Then an afternoon watching drummers on YouTube (Jo Jo Mayer’s stickwork, Buddy Rich’s impossible drum solo) took me to Bernard Purdie and two revelatory videos about the side 2 opener “Peg.”
First off Donald Fagen walks through the chord changes to “Peg.” Sadly I don’t fully understand musical theory, but hearing the chords compressed from the full studio group onto a single piano makes you hear them anew.
At 6:00–6:23 there’s a phenomenal bridge from 4ths to blues to a “bebop turnaround.” It’s fifty years of 20th century musical development restated in twenty seconds. Gershwin and Ellington could not do better. In the second part of the video Fagen and his interviewer Warren Bernhardt play through and it’s lovely.
Then you can geek out on the making of the album track, from the Classic Albums series on DVD. Rick Marotta’s hi-hat, Chuck Rainey sneaking in slap bass, the insane time and money it took to bring in “three or four, five players, six or seven, eight [guitar] players” before Jay Graydon nailed it, and Michael McDonald (Doobie Brothers frontman and surely one of the best harmony vocalists in the world) triple-tracking those close background harmonies. After hearing the song for an hour straight, his unearthly background vocals are locked into my head, just beyond comprehension of how they add to the song.
The discussion of making the other songs is great too, especially “Deacon Blues.” Dean Parks plays a beautiful hidden acoustic part at 4:36, there’s a subtle F.A.O. Schwartz department-store synth part at 6:30 to perfect the horn line, the swooping complex harmony vocals at 8:38…
Dean Parks sums it up best. “It was like a two-step process. One was to get to perfection and then the other is to get beyond it, and to loosen it up a little bit.” Most bands forget that first part :-). Steely Dan are not godlike, it’s not rocket science, it’s just a huge amount of work by masters. (And Roger Nichols who was a rocket scientist.)