Steely Dan - The Royal Scam

2009-05-13 10:03
 
 The Royal Scam album cover
 
I didn't always like Steely Dan. I used to hate them back when I was jobless in London, living off a bad boyfriend's dole and trapped in a room with him and his vinyl collection all day, forced to choose between Steely Dan and many much worse things from his California art school days. 

"They're 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.

Well, 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.

My 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.

But 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 called.

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'.   

Sadly, 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. 


Super-anal mega-selling nerds of 70s jazz-rock Steely Dan made many hit albums and still coolly dominate the 70s-inspired airwaves, but the album that continues to mean the most to me is this guitar-led, cynical take on drugs, corporate greed, and outsiders of all kinds.

Keith 2009/05/13 7:45 AM
This is real music,played by real people on real instruments,not this crap that passes for music these days.Have got all their albums,on vinyl from the 70's,the days when you where young and nothing was impossible.
goda 2009/05/13 9:54 AM
And yet the manage to make it sound inhumanly good. Dunno, there's a lot of good music out there these days, and real instruments aren't THAT important to me. Not a lot of the good music is rock these days though.
Cynic 2009/05/13 11:39 AM
Your mix tape song: Hey Nineteen from Gaucho?
Cappy 2009/05/13 12:20 PM
Deacon Blues did it for me when I was 17. Heard it on the radio, found a second hand copy of Aja and changed my life. Don't play Aja much anymore, find it a bit cold. Ain't it strange how utter familiarity plays tricks with you? Picked up a biography of the boys a few years ago and became intrigued about the studio shenanigans around Katy Lied, particularly the deal around the yamaha piano that became the album's core. Now, after years of being told that Katy Lied was their weakest album, it's number one with me. I don't play Scam as much as I should, but if nailed to a cross and told I could only have one track to take to my grave it would be Haitian Divorce, one of those songs and performances that separates them from just about everybody before or since. As for Larry Carlton, try Mr 335 or Strikes Twice for some upliftment.
Stephen 2009/05/13 3:06 PM
I secretly owned one Steely dan record Aja. have it on CD now and sometimes listen, still love it. Was living in the UK a teenager and into Punk Rock. So it's a bit liberating to admit that I hid Aja amongst my collection of Pistols, stranglers, Ian Drury et al !!
CASSIM 2009/05/13 6:34 PM
I WAS LISTENING TO A LATE NIGHT RADIO SHOW IN 1978 WHEN DO IT AGAIN WAS PLAYING. IT WAS AN ABSOLUTE CLASSIC. I BOUGHT THE CASSETTE GREATEST HITS. THE DAN BECAME A PART OF ME.NOBODY IN MY COMMUNITY GOT INTO THE DAN.IM OG INDIAN DESCENT LIVING IN SOUTH AFRICA. BUT WHEN I LISTEN TO HATIAN DIVORCE OR MY OLD SCHOOL OR BAD SNEAKERS I GO WEAK AS ALLISON MOYET SAYS. STEELY DAN AND I GO A LONG WAY BACK.THEY ARE TRULY AMAZING
jean barker 2009/05/14 11:14 AM
@cynic: I guess that could work. Another i've thought of is Deacon Blue... but they still seem out of place, no matter how "pop". Which my mix tapes aren't usually. Amazing. I can mix genres, languages, but still struggle to blend in the Dan.
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