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Steely Dan - The Royal Scam CD (album) cover

THE ROYAL SCAM

Steely Dan

 

Jazz Rock/Fusion

3.75 | 177 ratings

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cfergmusic1
4 stars Not content with the bright, moccasin-comfortable sounds of their previous album, Katy Lied (which Becker and Fagen considered a failure because of technical gremlins), Steely Dan decided to once again change their sound radically; The Royal Scam, released in 1976, has a grittier, funkier and yes, darker sound than the Dan had explored previously. With this album, they resumed the practice of having a different cast of session players on every track (which began with Pretzel Logic). Gone are the days of the "Katy Lied band" as I call it (bass guitarist extraordinaire Chuck Rainey being one of the only holdovers from that record), giving way to a conglomeration of studio stars featuring no less than 27 musicians and around ten completely new names (including a new guitar hero in Larry Carlton, who was with the Crusaders at the time).

It is interesting to see the criticism levied at this record. A lot of people in my experience don't really like this album so much, and although I love it dearly, I can understand why. Much of the music is rather repetitive, built around four-, two- and even one-chord vamps ("Sign in Stranger," "Green Earrings") although this is not the case for the entirety of the songs in question. But the repetition doesn't bother me, as Becker and Fagen were always trying to do different things with their music (they even admitted they were trying for a disco hit with "The Fez"). They wouldn't have done it in the first place if they didn't find some musical merit in it (especially not at that time, when each successive album took longer to complete due to their studio perfectionism).

"Kid Charlemagne" is the leadoff track here, and incidentally, the inspiration for an old online handle of mine. Lyrically, the song is essentially a Cliffs Notes bio of 60s-70s LSD guru Stanley Owsley (or was that Owsley Stanley?). This track also serves as the official SD introduction to legendary studio drummer Bernard "Pretty" Purdie, who had played on several hits by Aretha Franklin and countless other artists (his grooves here are instantly recognizable), and as the unofficial introduction to Larry Carlton (unofficial because he did play rhythm parts on Katy Lied), who has two amazing solos which, reportedly, were done in only two or three takes! A definitive Dan track.

"The Caves of Altamira" is another holdover from the demo tapes, revised and updated for 1976. The original version was piano-voice demo with simplified chord movement and an extra verse; here it's a slick, hip studio production with an added horn section. The sax solo in the middle and end sections I believe is by smooth-jazz cat John Klemmer (if so, it's one of the only times I ever liked his playing).

"Don't Take Me Alive" is considerably nastier then the previous two tracks from the outset, starting off with a loud, arpeggiated G7+9 chord by Carlton who will come to dominate this track (more or less). The lyrics paint one of Becker and Fagen's most dystopian future visions yet, backed up by Carlton, Rainey and drummer Rick Marotta (another newbie to the Dan). I think Paul Griffin may be playing keyboards here. Another great one.

"Sign in Stranger" continues the theme of the previous track (an outlaw on the run from society at large), this time with a science-fiction bent. This is the beginning of three tracks built on rather minimalistic vamps (which are of course expounded upon between the verse lines). The end-of-verse turnaround and bridge add interest, and Paul Griffin has one of the all-time great Dan piano solos. Dig the out-of-left-field horn outro, with Carlton working his magic again.

Speaking of Griffin, "The Fez" is the only SD piece credited to Becker, Fagen and another writer (not after the fact like "Gaucho"). Paul Griffin is the third writer here, possibly because he played a keyboard line in rehearsals that Becker and Fagen decided to use in the song. The lyrics are about as simple as you can get ("I'm never gonna do it without the fez on/Oh, no" repeated six times), although some would view it as a safe sex PSA wherein "the fez" represents... well, never mind. Carlton soars over the bridge once again, which has some of the best harmonic changes the band ever put together.

"Green Earrings" is the last of the vamp-based tunes for now, again with a killer instrumental bridge section (I'm starting to think that Becker and Fagen saved their best stuff for the bridges on this album). Lyrically, it describes a con artist who only loves a woman for the jewelry she wears. This track is notable for having two guitar solos by different players, something not done since "Bodhisattva." Denny Dias is up first, and Elliot Randall returns once more to blow over the instrumental verse, and in the out-vamp where he employs a ring modulator during the fade-out. Serious Dan fans should check out the instrumental version of this tune, where the out-vamp is retained in full, running three minutes longer than the album version; the rhythm section really lets loose there.

"Haitian Divorce" was, surprisingly, a runaway hit in the UK where reggae was riding a wave of popularity thanks to the likes of Bob Marley and Peter Tosh. The lyrics are based on then-recent experiences by co-engineer Elliot Scheiner (who wanted a quickie divorce at the time), and the running commentary throughout the track is provided by talk-box guitar, played by Dean Parks and manipulated by Walter Becker. This is the only potential downside of the record, as the talk-box tends to make this track rather sleepy (although, having said that, it's a hell of a lot more tolerable than Peter Frampton).

"Everything You Did" is, I feel, one of the Dan's more underrated tracks. Maybe people don't like it because of the subject matter (about a jealous husband discovering his wife has been cheating on him)? Not sure, but I always loved it, especially the 5/4 bars in the guitar solo (Carlton yet again). Have I mentioned yet that Larry Carlton is all over this record? Well, he is, although his studio tenure would only really last until the next album, but more on that in a future review.

By the way, I've mentioned the Eagles quite a bit in my Steely Dan reviews, and it's mostly because of this line in the song: "Turn up the Eagles/the neighbors are listening." This was Becker and Fagen's "poke in the eye" to the LA country-rock titans whose "Greatest Hits" album was on its way to becoming one of the best-selling albums ever. SD evidently saw the Eagles (aka the White Drifters) as rivals because they both started in LA at the same time (but, refreshingly, bore no ill will towards them). Don Henley and Glenn Frey were flattered by the reference in this song, so they returned the favor in their huge hit of the same year, "Hotel California," with the line "they stab it with their steely knives/but they just can't kill the beast." Steely Dan and the Eagles are two of my favorite bands, so it's nice to know that they had a mutual admiration society of sorts.

Back to the album at hand, which ends with the title track. When people comment on the "dark" sound of this album, they're mostly talking about this song, which is about Puerto Rican immigrants in New York City (although Becker and Fagen changed the name of the city "San Juan" to "St. John," which is actually in Newfoundland, Canada). This is another vamp tune, based on six-bar phrases; in the key of C minor, the cycle unusually starts with the turnaround in the first two bars, then is followed by four bars of Cm7. Starting in the second verse, the fill-in solos between verse lines are played by Chuck Findley on trumpet and Dick "Slyde" Hyde on trombone. There is also occasional backing from the horn section, at one point featuring a low pedal C which I believe is played by contrabass trombone (???). At 6 1/2 minutes, it is the longest and best track on the album; I've always gotten off on the dark, brooding atmosphere it creates throughout its duration.

Even though some people don't regard Scam highly, I have a soft spot for it because it was one of the first Dan albums I had as a kid. (I actually started off with this, Aja and Gaucho, and somehow proceeded to work my way backwards through the catalog.) I refer to those three albums as the definitive period of Steely Dan, where their concept was realized more fully than any other album. If you're the slightest bit curious about this band, you probably already have this album anyway, but be sure to check it out if you don't; at least one song here will be familiar to you to begin with. 4.5 stars out of 5.

cfergmusic1 | 4/5 |

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