"Black Cow" has a number of lyrical interpretations: a troubled relationship, an ode to self-doubt, a commentary on nightlife, a reference to Hindu culture (cows are sacred). Or it could be about Thelonious Monk, the American jazz composer who is often regarded as the father of bebop.
In the Classic Albums episode on the album Aja, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, perhaps showing their wry sense of humor, described the lyric as "self explanatory," but did offer some insight as to what they had in mind.
"It starts out with this guy talking about this girl he used to be involved with," Fagan said. "She's sitting at a counter, and he describes her behavior and habits, and out of that you begin to see her character and their relationship."
He added that the "black cow" is a beverage - depending on where you live, it can be a milkshake or a coke float (like a root beer float, but with coke). But it's something you would get at a soda fountain, where the song takes place. In the '50s, Fagen and Becker spent a lot of time at these soda fountains.
This was never released as a single, but it earned lots of airplay on FM radio and became a Steely Dan favorite, with the band often playing it in concert. It was released as the B-side of "Josie
Note the deceptively simple disco-era instrumental starting out with a bass line and drums, then sneaking in layers of complexity with saxophone accompaniment and the electric piano solo. Steely Dan made a name for themselves with highly polished productions using a wide array of session musicians. Becker and Fagan would sometimes record a song with one group of musicians, decide it wasn't working, and try it again with an entirely new set of players - rinse and repeat until it was right. Aja was their sixth album; by this time Fagen and Becker had refined their system and developed an uncommon rapport where they could almost read each other's musical minds.
Aja's perfectionism was rewarded with the 1978 Grammy for Best Engineered Non-Classical Recording. It is the best-selling Steely Dan album, with over 2 million copies sold in America.
Tom Scott, who did the horn arrangements on the Aja album, also played tenor sax on this track, and Victor Feldman did the Fender Rhodes solo. Here are the other credits on the track - note that Walter Becker sat this one out:
Lead Vocals, Synthesizer: Donald Fagen
Guitar: Larry Carlton
Bass: Chuck Rainey
Drums: Paul Humphrey
Clavinet: Joe Sample
Backing Vocals: Clydie King, Rebecca Louis, Sherlie Matthews, Venetta Fields
The multitrack masters for "Black Cow" and "Aja
" have gone missing, which makes it impossible to do surround-sound versions of these tracks. In the liner notes to the stereo remaster of the Aja
album, the band offered a $600 reward for information leading to their return.
The 1998 hip-hop hit "Deja Vu (Uptown Baby)" by Lord Tariq & Peter Gunz samples significant portions of "Black Cow." So much that Walter Becker and Donald Fagen are listed as the writers on the track.