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 Wuthering Heights.
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 recording Aja.
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.