I have spent a lot of time dissing certain types of music in these blog posts. I have complained
about the poverty of talent and the insipidness of lyrics in popular music. I think the popular
song as a medium is a wonderful thing. It has been for a century now. And in that time there
have been wonderful variations on the traditional forms. I don't expect that listeners should all
like the same thing. I love literature, but even in my dotage I still dislike Emily Bronte's classic
That doesn't mean I don't respect it.
I just find that there is a higher degree of laziness in song construction now than ever before. Oh,
I know--there have always been silly, badly-written pop tunes. "Sugar, Sugar" by The Archies
reached #1 on the charts when I was in high school. Enough said. But I'd rather focus on what
some serious musicians can do with a pop tune and examine more closely what can make a
three-minute song a work of sublimity. Let's pick Steely Dan's tune "Peg" from their 1977
People who know me understand that this album would be one of my desert-island
disks, and for good reason. I don't think there has been a more sophisticated
expression of pop/rock music in my life. I'm not saying there weren't more successful
works or better works or more popular works (though they must be few), but I
chose the word sophisticated as in "developed to a high degree of complexity".
Nobody worked harder than Steely Dan at tinkering with their work until it was as
close to perfection as they could get.
Steely Dan, the group, stopped being a group in 1974 after a few successful albums of
great promise. By 1975, founding members Walter Becker (guitarist, bassist, composer)
and Donald Fagen (keyboardist, lead vocalist, composer), who had met back in their Bard
College days, decided that touring was not for them. They wanted to work from home
and they wanted to bring in the best side musicians to help them bring their musical
visions to fruition. They were ruthless in that pursuit, bringing in a drummer for a gig,
let's say, deciding that he couldn't quite achieve the sound they were looking for, and then
immediately replacing him with another drummer. They did this constantly until they had
all the right musicians for a particular recording. If the next song required an extraordinary
saxophone solo, they went through the best session players in New York or Los Angeles
until they got the one who could do the job. By 1977, they reached the apotheosis of
this strategy with the release of Aja, arguably their greatest sonic achievement.
Almost all the songs on Aja qualify as masterpieces. "Peg" isn't my favorite, but it's a
beloved pop tune of great depth and therefore worthy of exploration. It was the
first of three singles released from the album and climbed as high as #11 on the pop
charts. Let's listen to it:
Becker and Fagen were heavily jazz-influenced musicians, so they embraced the possibilities
of variation and free form within tightly-knitted musical structures. They gave their side
musicians the opportunity to show what they "could bring to the table". Nevertheless, Becker
and Fagen had final say. If you were included on the final recording, you could be proud that
you had passed muster.
Here's a video taken from the Classic Albums video devoted to Aja that I always found amusing
because you could hear how difficult working with Becker and Fagen could be from the
musicians themselves. As the clip opens, we hear the reflections of : drummer Rick Marotta;
bassist Chuck Rainey; Donald Fagen on the left and Walter Becker on the right; and then backup
vocalist--the king of Blue-Eyed Soul-- Michael McDonald. Most people wouldn't think twice about
the contributions of a back-up singer, but you can hear the difficulty they provided Mike, the
dominant back-up vocalist of the period.
I only expect guitar aficionados to watch the next clip, but when I was young guitar players were
gods of sorts, with Clapton and Hendrix in the Holy Trinity somewhere. This clip has studio genius
Jay Graydon discussing the "Peg" guitar solo that he nailed first try for his audition.
We also have two clips below in which Donald Fagen explicates the creation of the melody. You
can see the jazz and blues and gospel underpinnings of the tune in his explanation. These go on at
some length. You don't have to be a piano player or versed in music theory to understand this...but
it helps. One of the things that is obvious about both Becker and Fagen is their encyclopedic
knowledge of a variety of musical forms. You will be rewarded if you are patient. You'll be amazed too.
The duet at the end is sweet.
I realize the "meta" nature of this discussion. It's not that I think this kind of knowledge is required
to compose a quality song. It's that the song rewards thinking about what makes it work. The greater
the knowledge, the more satisfying and rewarding the experience of listening to a good song.
If you want to learn how to play the piano contribution, here's a free lesson!
Well, I'd be remiss if I didn't discuss the lyrics of the song. Like most Steely Dan tunes, the lyrics are abstruse. They are open to multiple readings. You can find evidence to support varied interpretations.
Wikipedia says: "The song could be a reference to Broadway star and one-time Hollywood actress Peg Entwistle, who became famous in 1932 by jumping to her death off the Hollywoodland sign before her first film was ever released." Many interpretations suggest that the eponymous title character is
compelled to appear in Triple X movies in order to get her shot at stardom--something that seems
relevant given the burgeoning "Me Too" movement of our day. At any rate, what most listeners feel
is a high-spirited pop paean to a lovable girl named Peg may, in fact, have a dark side. That would
come as no surprise to Steely Dan aficionados, who have appreciated them as supreme ironists.
Below is a link analyzing the obscure lyrics that you may or may not agree with:
Steely Dan never toured when Aja was released. They felt that they couldn't accurately replicate
their studio sophistication. With the advent of improved technology, they began to tour in the
Nineties. I have seen them many times, and heard "Peg" played each time. It's always a crowd pleaser.
We recently lost Walter Becker. Steely Dan, as a concept, continues, but I'll miss Walter. Here is a
live version of "Peg" with the late musician on guitar. A tribute.