so cold", I'd moan, lying on the
carpet trying to roll a cigarette. "Everything about them is so accurate. No, no, no please don't switch
over to Yes. I'll listen to this. It's ok." I hated Steely Dan.
I said I hated Steely Dan, but an odd feeling began to come over me a few weeks
after he and I finally broke up. Something… something…
was missing. And I didn't know what it was (because it certainly wasn't the boy)
until I found myself standing in a shopping mall examining cans of fish, while unwittingly
singing along to "Peg", a track the family values instore-playlist
compilers clearly didn't realise was about porno. "… it's your favourite
foreign movie". That track's off another classic album of theirs, Aja.
realisation that I missed Steely Dan (and not the boyfriend) was followed by an
intense binge of Steely Dan purchasing, and obsessive listening, because Steely
Dan really is one of those bands that's hard to follow. After one side, every
other rock band sounds sloppy and obvious by comparison. Try putting one of their songs on a mix tape?
It's not easy.
being a Steely Dan fan is often a lonely affair. You get desperate. The person
I most recently met who was prepared to speak to me about them was selling junk
at the Milnerton Flea Market and had a lot of facial hair, but we still hit it
off. And that's exactly why I love The
Royal Scam as much as I do - it's the easiest album to play to
non-Dan-fans, without losing them as friends for life.
This accessibility is related to a few factors. Like the more guitar-led,
straighter rock 'n roll style of axeman Larry Carlton, which helps focus a listener's attention
on key points in the songs, or "melodies" as they're occasionally
It's also made easier to fall for by lyrics that, unlike many written by Donald
Fagan and Walter Becker, don't require a PHD in Obscure Facts of the Century to decipher, and instead tackles a few
coherent themes mostly related to the underworld. There's immigration,
capitalism (the cover says it all) and sexual jealousy on the classic
jealousy-song "Everything You Did", with the sexually obsessive and
hilarious lines "I never
knew you / You were a roller skater / You gonna show me later /Turn up the Eagles the neighbours are listening." And the rousing opener "Kid Charlemagne" is a
praise-song celebrating Doors-era rock 'n roll trailer-chemist/drug chef to the stars Owsley Stanley that turns deep dark
towards the end. Fans will know the line "Is
there gas in the car / yes there's gas in the car / I think the people down the
hall know who you are."
It's still got its share of distinctive Dan traits, like Fagan's impeccable
vocals with their slight husk, his coolly showy roulades, the flawless but
daring harmonic arrangements, the band whose bits gel like moving parts of an
organic machine and those obscure references that have fascinated their fans to
the point of musical geekdom for years. This stuff makes the famously
perfectionist Talking Heads look like they're just jammin'.
my favourite Dan album doesn't have the fanbase of many others. And even top critic Robert
Christgau - whose assessment of the band I couldn't agree with less even though
he gives no album less than a B-minus rating - marks almost every other Steely
Dan album higher than this one.
But I suspect that only makes me love it more. So although choosing
between this one, Aja, Gaucho, and Katy Lied wouldn't be easy for any real rock music lover, I'd love to know
which album turns you into a gibbering musical evangelist. Or if you just think
I need to be locked up - and fast. Yeah, whatever, you Eagles fan you. But first, a few fast facts
1. Kanye West sampled Kid Charlemagne on his most recent album. He didn't use the same title or really credit Steely Dan.
2. The cover design is actually second hand. It was originally done for Van Morrison, but nobody really wanted to release his album. Sorry dude. The gothic scene is designed by Larry Zox, whose work was usually abstact expressionist / colorist.3. Fagen and Becker hate the album cover, calling it "the most hideous album cover of the seventies,
bar none (excepting perhaps Can't Buy a Thrill)". Can't Buy a Thrill is one of their earlier albums. 4. A "roulade" is not a dish you eat (in this context), but a series of notes sung over one syllable of a word. It's not easy to do. Steely Dan have a lyric about it in their song "Your Gold Teeth": "Even Cathy Berberian knows / there's one roulade she can't sing". Off Katy Lied. 5. The Royal Scam has sold more than 5 Million Copies worldwide.
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