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I guess we’re achieving the success we so richly deserve,” was the tart remark given by Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen to Rolling Stone interviewer (and later movie director) Cameron Crowe, when his group’s sixth album, Aja, began its unlikely climb up the US charts in 1977.
It was a strange time. Both the British and American rock scenes were increasingly dominated by the inexpert thrashings of punk and new wave. But Aja propelled itself in the opposite direction. No album up to that point had been so meticulously rehearsed, and so finely crafted.
Recording sessions were long and serious. Musicians came and went. “It wasn’t musical chairs, they played musical bands,” drummer Rick Marotta said, recalling the stubborn perfectionism of Fagen and his partner Walter Becker. “A whole band would go, and a whole other, incredible, band would come in.”
Amid the control-freakery, a single from the album emerged: “Peg”, a jaunty, upbeat number with a devilishly funky backbeat and unusually catchy horn part. The lyrics, addressed to a wannabe movie star, are snarky and ironic. But the song ripples with good humour. Bassist Chuck Rainey, ordered not to “slap” his instrument, later confessed that he turned his chair around in the studio and did so all the same, creating a bubbling undercurrent to the song that was impossible to resist. Numerous guitarists were auditioned for the solo. The “winner” — Jay Graydon — produced a Hawaiian-inflected mini-masterpiece.
The song was a modest success, reaching Number 11 in the US. And then Steely Dan all but left the building. They produced another troubled album, Gaucho, three years later, before disbanding altogether to work, as the saying goes, on solo projects.
And we flash forward to the beginning of 1989, when the American hip-hop trio De La Soul revived the irrepressible groove of “Peg” in “Eye Know”, taken from their joyous debut album 3 Feet High and Rising. De La Soul gave hip-hop a summery lightness, and there was no room for snark here: the song became instead a dopey love letter (“It’s a Daisy Age and you’re about to walk top-stage”). Such was the feel-good factor, that the song was used to accompany goal compilations on Match of the Day.
“Peg” ’s backbeat, in the meantime, was living a life of its own. Next stop was Joe Public’s “Live and Learn” in 1992, a stompier hip-hop rendition, which also quoted Parliament, Sly & the Family Stone, James Brown and The Soul Children. Sampling from the past was now in full swing, playful bricolage replacing the earnest musicianship of the great 1970s bands.
In Sleeve’s “Get It On” from 2004, the rhythm track from “Peg” is all but intact for the first half-minute of the song before the seductive vocal comes in: “This is how we like to get it on.” What, listening to your parents’ record collection?
The British singer-songwriter Nerina Pallot performed a more straightforward cover of the song in 2007, but her breathy, more soulful approach was at odds with the air of sarcasm that gave the original its peppery tone. But by now, there was no such thing as the song “Peg”: it had been more or less replaced by its constituent parts. The tune had been sliced open, taken apart and reassembled, to be used as fad and fashion dictated.
Steely Dan, in the meantime, reformed and made some more great albums. Their immaculately engineered riffs and refrains remain in demand. Some may see this as an imaginative recycling of rock’s heritage. Others, myself included, lament the day when appropriation became a more worthwhile venture than the painstaking drive for originality. The control freaks knew that one day this would all get out of control.
For more in the series, as well as podcasts with clips from the songs, visit ft.com/life-of-a-song
Photograph: Chris Walter/Getty Images